Painting Reality: 4 Art and the State

Robert Koehler (1850–1917), The Strike in the Region of Charleroi (detail) (1886), oil on canvas, 181.6 × 275.6 cm, Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Many Naturalist paintings depicted the plight of the rural poor during the early years of the French Third Republic, which was hailed for the reforms which its politicians promised. One of the major accounts of Naturalism in France at that time, by Richard Thomson, considers at length the relationship between art and the State. Here I will look briefly at some examples.

Léon Augustin Lhermitte (1844–1925), The Harvesters’ Pay (1882), oil on canvas, 215 x 272 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Following the formative social realism of Jean-François Millet, Léon Lhermitte’s masterpiece The Harvesters’ Pay (1882) takes a more objective look at the realities of rural farmworkers. This rapidly evolved through Bastien-Lepage’s paintings of poor waifs and strays, to the grim battle for survival shown below by Fernand Pelez’s Homeless (1883).

Fernand Pelez (1848-1913), Homeless (1883), oil on canvas, 77.5 x 136 cm, location not known. Image by Bastenbas, via Wikimedia Commons.

These were by no means confined to France, though. The Sicilian Antonino Gandolfo’s Evicted from 1880, below, raised similar concerns in a very different political regime.

Antonino Gandolfo (1841–1910), Evicted (Let he who is without sin cast the first stone) (1880), oil on canvas, 88 x 63 cm, location not known. Image by Luigi Gandolfo, via Wikimedia Commons.

It is always easy for contemporary politicians to point the finger of blame at their predecessors, and use such images to bolster their claims of reform. What wasn’t so comfortable for the State was the depiction of industrial unrest as it swept across Europe in the late nineteenth century.

Alfred Philippe Roll (1846–1919), Miners’ Strike (1880), original badly damaged, shown here as reproduction from ‘Le Petit Journal’, 1 October 1892, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

A good example of this is Alfred Roll’s painting of a Miners’ Strike in 1880. This was probably made from life when he visited the strike at Denain in the Nord-Pas de Calais coalfield that year. His large original painting seems to have been exhibited at the Salon in Paris, from where it was purchased by the State – although the artist had to sell at ‘cost price’ on the understanding that it would be hung in the capital, in the Ministry of Commerce, where it would have substantial impact.

Once the State got its hands on Roll’s painting, it was despatched to a local museum in Valenciennes, where it seems to have been largely forgotten. The original is now badly damaged, and the image shown above is reproduced from Le Petit Journal, where it didn’t appear until 1 October 1892.

By early 1884, Émile Zola had decided to write a novel in his Rougon-Macquart series about a miners’ strike, and in February 1884 Zola visited a strike near Valenciennes (where Roll’s painting was on display) for his research. He started writing Germinal on 2 April 1884, and the book was published in serial form from November of that year. Its story centres on a miners’ strike in the Nord-Pas de Calais coalfield very similar to that painted by Roll, and it remains Zola’s most successful work.

The State may have successfully suppressed the immediate impact of Roll’s painting by hiding it away in the provinces, but in this case it had not anticipated its influence on Zola.

Robert Koehler (1850–1917), The Strike in the Region of Charleroi (1886), oil on canvas, 181.6 × 275.6 cm, Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Industrial unrest in Belgium came to a head in 1886, with a succession of strikes across the country. These started in Liège as a commemoration of the fifteenth anniversary of the Paris Commune, but spread through industrialised zones to the region around Charleroi and Hainault.

Robert Koehler’s masterpiece of The Strike in the Region of Charleroi was painted that year, and shows a group of workers standing outside the smart entrance to offices. The top-hatted owner stands on the top step, one of his managers looking anxious beside him. The leader of the workers is at the foot of the steps telling the industrialist of the workers’ demands. The situation is looking increasingly nasty, although there are no signs yet of police or troops, or of violent confrontation.

The strikes of that year led to the formation of a parliamentary socialist party in Belgium, and increasing industrial strife. This came to a head again in 1893, when there was a general strike called by the Belgian Labour Party in a demand for universal male suffrage. It has been claimed that this was the first such general strike in Europe.

Following the national catastrophe of the Franco-Prussian War, the Third Republic was very keen to build France’s modern industries, and saw a way through apprenticeships. This opened up debate between those who wanted to improve and prolong education at school, and others who wanted to get the young out as early as possible to help strengthen the nation.

Jean-Eugène Buland (1852–1926), Un Patron, or The Apprentice’s Lesson (1888), oil on canvas, 102 x 82 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden. Image by Erik Cornelius, via Wikimedia Commons.

Eugène Buland’s Un Patron, or The Apprentice’s Lesson from 1888 provides an unemotional focus for such debate. A young boy is being trained by his foreman to make a cogwheel, when many might have preferred him still to be at school. Other Naturalist paintings depicted child labour less objectively.

Christian Krohg (1852–1925), Tired (1885), oil on canvas, 79.5 x 61.5 cm, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo, Norway. Wikimedia Commons.

Politics and art were mixing freely in the Nordic countries too. The Norwegian Christian Krohg explored the theme of fatigue and sleep, particularly among mothers. In Tired from 1885, the young woman seen here is no mother, but a seamstress, one of the many thousands who worked at home at that time, toiling for long hours by lamplight for a pittance.

Home work as a seamstress was seen as the beginning of the descent into prostitution – a major theme in Krohg’s painting and writing. The paltry income generated by sewing quickly proved insufficient, and women sought alternatives, which all too often led to prostitution.

Christian Krohg (1852–1925), Albertine in the Police Doctor’s Waiting Room (1885-87), oil on canvas, 211 x 326 cm, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo, Norway. Wikimedia Commons.

Just before Christmas 1886, Krohg’s first novel Albertine was published by a left-wing publisher. Its central theme is prostitution in Norway at the time, and the police quickly seized all the copies they could find, banning it on the grounds of violating the good morals of the people. Krohg was found guilty of the offence the following March and fined, although the police were only able to seize 439 of the first 1600 copies to go into circulation.

At the same time as he was writing that novel, Krohg had been working on his largest and most complex painting: Albertine in the Police Doctor’s Waiting Room (1885-87). He also painted several other scenes from the book.

In the novel, Albertine starts as a poor seamstress, who is mistaken for a prostitute by the police officer in charge of the section controlling prostitutes. He plies her with alcohol, then rapes her. She is summoned to be inspected by the police doctor, whose examination further violates her, making her think that she is destined to be a prostitute – and that is, of course, exactly what happens.

Curiously, Krohg’s campaigning writing and painting didn’t want prostitution made legal: quite the opposite, he and others wanted it banned.

Jean-Eugène Buland (1852–1926), Propaganda Campaign (1889), oil on canvas, 181.8 × 191.4 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Around 1890, Eugène Buland painted several overtly political works, including Propaganda Campaign in 1889. A travelling salesman is in the home of a poor family, selling books and coloured prints to the head of the household. That in his left hand shows the populist politician General Boulanger, and the salesman’s motives combine politics with business. His buttonhole rosette declares his role as a canvasser for the General.

Jean-Eugène Buland (1852–1926), Municipal Council and Commission of Pierrelaye Organizing a Festival (1891), oil on canvas, 140 × 200 cm, Town Hall, Pierrelaye, France. Wikimedia Commons.

A couple of years later, Buland provided artistic endorsement to the Municipal Council and Commission of Pierrelaye Organizing a Festival (1891). The provincial museums and galleries across Europe have many examples of this Naturalist municipal art, group portraits recording the deeds of local politicians and businessmen.

Naturalist paintings were also keen to help the new progressive regimes celebrate their advances in healthcare and education.

Henri Gervex (1852–1929), Before the Operation (1887), oil on canvas, 242 x 188 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Henri Gervex, who rose to fame with a ‘shocking’ painting of a nude courtesan on the morning after, found a little flesh at the Hôpital Saint-Louis, where an eminent doctor is teaching Before the Operation in 1887.

Jean Geoffroy (1853-1924), Primary School Class (1889), oil on canvas, 145 x 220 cm, Ministère de l’Education Nationale, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Jean Geoffroy’s Primary School Class from 1889 shows one of the Third Republic’s new lay teachers working diligently in the classroom with her pupils. This was clearly deemed sufficiently positive to the State as to be purchased by the French National Ministry of Education, where it still hangs.

Then, when the Third Republic was still selling its image of progress and reform, came the Dreyfus scandal in the 1890s, which divided the nation and brought back old conflicts with the church and establishment.

Édouard Debat-Ponsan (1847–1913), Nec mergitur, or Truth Leaving the Well (1898), media and dimensions not known, Hôtel de ville d’Amboise, Amboise, France. Wikimedia Commons.

One of the most overtly political statements – alongside Émile Zola’s notorious J’Accuse which forced him into brief exile in Britain – was Édouard Debat-Ponsan’s Nec mergitur, or Truth Leaving the Well from 1898. The artist was firmly convinced of the innocence of Dreyfus, and painted this work as his bold public statement in support, with archaic symbols of the Catholic clerical and military establishments trying to restrain Truth as she emerges from the well.

What a far cry from the beautiful but profoundly emollient art of the Impressionists.

In the next article in this series, I will look at how Naturalism reflected the growth of industry and cities.