The original focus of Naturalism was the plight of the rural poor, but as it evolved and gathered momentum in the 1880s, Naturalist painters also looked at the growing problems of cities and those who tried to survive in them. In terms of sheer numbers of paintings, depictions of city life were far fewer, but that is true across all styles of art in the late nineteenth century.
In the nineteenth century, large cities grew larger by drawing in migrants from the impoverished countryside. In Erik Henningsen’s Farmers in the Capital from 1887, a country family has just arrived in Copenhagen, complete with a large chest and their farm dog. Around them city-dwellers dress more fashionably, and stare at the outsiders with their rough clothing and filthy wooden clogs.
Many Naturalist artists were migrants themselves. Here, in his Young Girl Looking out of a Roof Window (1885), countryman LA Ring expresses some of their feelings when trapped in a garret amid the grey urban roofscape of Copenhagen.
The cities were already crowded and their streets packed with people, and increasing numbers of vehicles, as shown so well in Paul Hoeniger’s Spittelmarkt from 1912.
For those more accustomed to the relatively small and intimate markets in country towns, dense throngs in places such as Les Halles, the central market in Paris, must have been overwhelming and terrifying. As described by Émile Zola in his novel Le Ventre de Paris (1873), each day many growers from the region around Paris travelled through the night to bring their produce from their farms to the tables of those in the city.
Focal points such as The Gare de l’Est in Snow, painted here by Maximilien Luce in 1917, were just as crowded in peacetime.
Accommodation in cities was densely-packed too. Some of the most arresting depictions of these human landscapes were made by George Bellows and other artists working in the rapidly-growing cities on the east coast of the USA, here in his famous Cliff Dwellers from 1913.
With the advent of artificial lighting, cities never slept. People were out on their streets when those in the country were clustered around oil lamps, or asleep. George Hendrik Breitner’s oil sketch of An Evening on the Dam in Amsterdam from about 1890 shows the more affluent walking past the brightly-lit windows of shops.
Those who migrated to the cities did so for work, and the (too often false) prospect of making money and hauling their lives out of poverty.
The most visible work in cities was that expanding and servicing the city itself. Maximilien Luce’s Construction Site from 1911 shows the intense human involvement in the urban cycle of demolition and rebuilding.
Breitner captured this too, here in his undated watercolour sketch of Ground Porters with Carts. These were the jobs that immigrants from the country were often employed in, as physically-demanding and dirty as their previous work on the land.
Building Site in Amsterdam is another of Breitner’s sketches of construction work, this time painted in oils.
Manual labour was also required to service the city, delivering the coal that its occupants needed to heat their homes. Henri Gervex shows this well in his portrait of a collier at work on The Quai de la Villette, Paris, one of a pair which he painted in 1882.
In the Industrial Revolution, with more limited means to transport raw materials, heavy industry was more likely to be clustered around rural natural resources such as coalfields and mines. Those heavy industries became part of the nineteenth century city, where the workers in Thomas Pollock Anshutz’s The Ironworkers’ Noontime from 1880 are enjoying their brief lunch break. They’re taking turns to wash the grime of the morning off their arms and faces, and savouring the moment out in the sunshine.
For so many, the lure of earnings in the city was short-lived. With living expenses high, rent and food to be bought, anything which reduced or interrupted their income quickly brought destitution.
This family of four has just been Evicted, as shown by Erik Henningsen in 1892. With them in the snowy street are their meagre possessions, including a saw implying that the father is a carpenter. In the background he is still arguing with a policeman.
For others, it meant shacking up in a hovel, as this young mother and child have done in Arturo Michelena’s Charity from 1888. A pair of bourgeois ladies have arrived to do their bit for charity, without which the mother and child would have starved and died of disease.
When there was no building for shelter, whole families became Homeless, shown so vividly in Fernand Pelez’s painting of 1883. Ironically, those who flocked to view it at the Paris Salon that year would have passed by similar destitute people without noticing them.
Of course, most artists much preferred to paint in the countryside. One major exception to this was Camille Pissarro: in his late career, problems with his eyes prevented him from painting outdoors for most of the year, so instead of working en plein air he painted aerial views of crowded streets, particularly those in Paris.
Pissarro’s Boulevard Montmartre, Spring from 1897 shows a landscape composed primarily of buildings and streets, a plethora of figures, and countless carriages to move those people around.
Just a year before his death, Pissarro painted this amazing view of the crowds on The Pont-Neuf in Paris, in 1902.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Colin Campbell Cooper’s cityscapes focussed primarily on the enormity of the buildings, as in this painting of the Flatiron Building, Manhattan from about 1908.
But Pissarro and Cooper were exceptions. Most of the new and Post-Impressionist art was developing not in the cities, but in the countryside and coast far to the south. As Naturalism faded in the early twentieth century, few painters seem to have taken on its social responsibilities.
In the next article in this series, I will look at Naturalist painting, science and technology.