Revolutionary Dreams: Investigating French art
Amgueddfa Cymru has one of the most exceptional collections of nineteenth-century French Art in the United Kingdom. Engaging with the turbulence of nineteenth century France and the relationship between the revolutions of the people and revolutionary developments in art, we take a fresh look at the Museum's collection of pre-Impressionist French paintings, researched and interpreted by postgraduate students from the University of Bristol.
The Century of Revolution
The turbulent social and political history of France during the nineteenth century led many artists to document the shifting realities and expectations of life. The 1789 French Revolution, which established the First French Republic, sparked a century of uprisings and uncertainty for the population. While some artists sought to represent current events, others looked to recapture lost traditions.
Revolution and the rise of Realism
From the seventeenth century, the state-run Academy of Fine Arts and its official exhibition, the Salon, led the direction of French art. During the nineteenth century, many artists began to challenge its approach, and to examine how the lives of the people were altered by the dramatic changes of the nineteenth century. Increasingly artists abandoned the biblical figures and Roman heroes that had previously dominated the walls of the Salon.
In A Third Class Carriage Honoré Daumier refers to a key invention of the century, the steam train. In contrast, Jean-François Millet's The Peasant Family depicts rural farmers and idealises the French countryside. While these are very different paintings their common theme is that they are representations of real, contemporary, humble life.
It was during this period that French artists first began to paint like this; an approach sometimes known as 'Realist' painting. These changes in subject matter laid the groundwork for much of Modern Art as we understand it today.
The overthrow of King Charles X in the July Revolution of 1830 led to the July Monarchy of Louis-Phillippe, ousted in the Revolution of February 1848. The Second Republic gave all men a right to vote and promised democracy. However, a brutal suppression of the workers' rebellion demonstrated that frustration was still present. Daumier's Workmen on the Street indicates such tensions and his imagery criticised continuing class distinctions.
Millet's later The Sower highlights rural labour and peasant life. Agriculture was an ingrained part of the French national identity, however, Millet mourned the mass migration from rural areas into the cities.
During the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 many artists went into exile in safer rural locations. Millet fled from Barbizon to the Normandy coast. He painted The Gust of Wind on his return; the frightening strength and power of the storm representing both change and the violence of war.
The Second Empire collapsed with France's defeat in 1871, causing a group of French radicals to briefly seize control of Paris in the 'Commune' of the same year. Soon quashed, it was replaced by the Third Republic.
The distress and loneliness within these desolate landscapes may be read as a response to the turbulent events in France at this time. Most importantly they show how political events shaped national identity and, in turn, its art.
During the second half of the nineteenth century, changes in class structure in France led to a growth in the wealth of the middle classes, known as the bourgeoisie.
In particular, they enjoyed paintings that showed themselves in the pursuit of leisure and inferred their new status in society. Artists responded by creating paintings to suit the tastes of this growing audience.
1804 saw the invention of the steam powered locomotive and within 50 years, railway lines were being constructed across France. Daumier's Lunch in the Country and Boudin's Beach at Trouville are depictions of bourgeois tourist activities.
In addition to reflecting revolutionary developments in tourism and transport, artists employed bright colour and loose linear structure to create an air of entertainment and recreation. Such revolutionary light effects and loose brushstrokes had a strong influence on the emerging style of Impressionism.
Women and Domesticity
Paintings of women feature significantly in the Museum's collection of nineteenth-century French paintings. It is, however, interesting to note that all these women were painted by male artists, so viewers are observing women from the perspective of the nineteenth-century man.
With this in mind we can begin to understand the role of women in society. Daumier's The Heavy Burden presents us with the activities of working class women, while the other paintings depict fashionable and delicate beauties of a higher social ranking. This shows us that class and gender divisions were still intact following the Revolution.
Society's expectations for women to be demure and feminine run through several of the paintings. Whether they are active and working or seated and passive can be seen as an indication of their situation within society.
Research and Reveal
Here we present four essays, giving a fresh look at the Museum's collection of pre-Impressionist French paintings, researched and interpreted by postgraduate students from the University of Bristol:
- Personalities in Paintings, by Matthew Howles
- Landscape Fakes, by Jessica Hoare
- The Landscapes of Millet, by Jessica Hoare
- The Paintings of Charles Bargue, by Rhian Addison
Article Date: 22 March 2012