There have always been people who are poorer than poor, and have nothing more than they stand in and carry. They made occasional appearances in paintings, but most artists carefully ignored them, until the late nineteenth century. Like so many of the poor, they were drawn to the cities, where they tried to live on the streets, and in derelict buildings, moving on when forced.
By the late nineteenth century, major cities such as London and Paris had substantial populations of vagrants and the homeless, augmented by those rejected by the city, evicted when they were too poor to even live in squalor, cast out by an increasingly materialist society. Artists who had perhaps been introduced to the problems of the rural poor now started to paint the lowest of the low in the city, where their contrast with the increasingly obscene affluence of the rich was greatest.
Before looking at some paintings, the following photograph brings a cautionary tale.
Oscar Gustave Rejlander’s photo of Poor Jo from 1864 shows a young streetboy, in a pioneering collection of images showing homeless children in England. Being an early photo, it cannot of course lie, but it does. This photo, as with all Rejlander’s other images of poor and vagrant children, was a fiction created in his studio, using props and models, and heavily retouched. We tend to think of such trickery as a modern phenomenon enabled by the likes of Photoshop; although the techniques were different, visual deception is much older.
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo is one of the earliest artists to have paid particular attention to vagrants and the homeless. The Young Beggar, painted by him in about 1645, shows a young boy apparently squatting in a tiny bare nook in a building. By his filthy feet is a bag full of rotting fruit, and some sort of worms, which apparently form his diet.
Such social concerns in paintings then faded until the middle of the nineteenth century.
In 1862, Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables was published. Émile Bayard drew Young Cosette Sweeping (1862) for its first edition, and it has since become the best-known image associated with the original novel and the more recent popular musical. Cosette is the daughter of Fantine and Félix Tholomyès, who is used as forced labour for an inn owned by Thénardiers and his wife. She is rescued by the hero Jean Valjean. Bayard shows Cosette sweeping outside the Thénardiers’ inn.
It was an English writer, Charles Dickens, who was probably the greatest literary influence over Augustus Edwin Mulready, whose reputation was built on paintings of street sellers and vagrants in London, such as his Uncared For from 1871. Mulready’s approach was very different from either Dickens or Murillo, in being laden with sentimentalism. Here a young girl with exceptionally large brown eyes stares straight at the viewer as she proffers a tiny bunch of violets.
Both the girl and her brother are sparklingly clean, their hair well cared-for, and their clothes relatively smart. There is nothing to suggest that Mulready used real vagrants as his models.
More convincing, though, are the remains of posters on the brick wall behind them: at the top, The Triumph of Christianity is attributed to the French artist and illustrator Gustave Doré, who illustrated an edition of the Bible in 1866, visited London on several occasions afterwards, and in 1871 produced illustrations for London: A Pilgrimage, published the following year, which showed London’s down and outs.
Mulready’s Wandering Minstrels from 1876 shows a young boy and girl sleeping, exhausted, in one of London’s parks. Here at least they look as if they might be genuine, but his sentimentalism remains.
The same theme occurs in Mulready’s later paintings, such as Fatigued Minstrels from 1883, where his sentiment has perhaps grown into full-blown romanticism.
Léon Bazille Perrault adopted a similar approach in his undated Out in the Cold, as snowflakes are falling on these two remarkably clean children.
The Romanian Impressionst Nicolae Grigorescu is far more true to nature in his undated oil sketch of a Breton Beggar.
It was the development of Naturalism, or Social Realism, which brought a rush of apparently faithful paintings of vagrants.
In what turned out to be the final few years of his life, Jules Bastien-Lepage progressed from the rural poor to those in villages and more urban environments. Although undated, his The Blind Beggar was most probably painted in the early 1880s.
One of Bastien-Lepage’s last paintings, from 1883, The Little Chimneysweep (Damvillers) has the air of authenticity. A young chimneysweep is sitting in a tiny hovel, with the embers of a fire at its left edge. He doesn’t look at the viewer, but down at the kitten to the lower right. He is also the dirtiest of Bastien-Lepage’s waifs, his left hand still being black with soot from his work. This is perhaps the first painting to be a worthly successor to the work of Murillo.
The year after the death of Bastien-Lepage, Fernand Pelez painted A Martyr – The Violet Vendor (1885), showing another child of the street. We are left in doubt as to whether we are looking at the boy asleep, or dead. One of his small bunches of violets has fallen from his tray. His eyes are closed, and his mouth agape.
In tomorrow’s concluding article, I look at paintings of the homeless.