By 1873, a number of significant artists had painted narrative works which didn’t resolve. They were by no means confined to Britain, but included some in Germany, France, and the USA. These coincided with the rise in popularity of more open-ended literary works, such as mystery and detective stories, which were serialised in newspapers in many countries, translated into the major languages of Europe, and occupied the minds of the middle and upper classes.
In this article I look at the further development of what were to become known as problem pictures twenty years later.
These modern narrative paintings often built on highly contemporary themes. The title of John Everett Millais’ The North-West Passage from 1874 tells you how closely it coincided with the departure of a British expedition in futile quest of the rumoured north-west passage round the north of Canada to the Pacific. Enterprises like that had brought a succession of failures since the famous total loss of Sir John Franklin’s expedition of 1845.
Rather than adopt the symbolic richness of the Pre-Raphaelite, Millais addresses this topical issue in another image which leaves the narrative unresolved and open to speculation by the viewer.
The old man is clearly an experienced mariner, who knows the risks and futility, which are expressed in his body-language. The young woman, probably his daughter, is presumably the wife of one of those on the expedition. The man stares hard and cold, the woman reads anxiously. Behind them a chart shows the limited knowledge of the area of the north-west passage at the time. Flags declare an affinity with the nation, and its Navy. A painting on the wall shows a ship negotiating ice in the far north.
The view through the window shows that this is set on the coast, and there is a sailing vessel in sight. A telescope rests on the table, by a glass presumably containing rum. Below the table are old ships’ logs and other papers.
That same year in what was then Prussia, Berthold Woltze moved away from his earlier letter-based narratives in one of the finest of these ‘problem pictures’.
Woltze’s Der lästige Kavalier (1874), best rendered into English as The Annoying Bloke, is thoroughly contemporary in its setting and theme.
The story takes place in a railway carriage, where there are two men and a young woman. She is dressed completely in black, and stares towards the viewer with tears in her eyes (detail below). Beside her is a carpet-bag, and opposite is a small wooden box and grey drapes.
Leaning over the back of her seat, and leering at her, is a middle-aged dandy with a brash moustache and mutton-chop whiskers, brandishing a lit cigar. He appears to be trying to chat her up, quite inappropriately, and very much against her wishes. Behind him, and almost cropped off the left edge of the canvas, is an older man with a dour, drawn face.
The young woman appears to have suffered a recent bereavement, and may even be travelling back after the funeral. She looks too young to have just buried a husband, so I think it more likely that she has just lost her last parent, and is now living alone, and prey to the likes of this annoying and abusive bloke. Here, Woltze’s painting tackles a modern theme which became very popular in ‘problem pictures’: relationships between men and women at a time when society was changing rapidly, and most particularly the changing roles of women.
Today, Woltze’s painting may appear just a curiosity from an unknown artist. At the time, though, he was well known, and many of his works were engraved for and published in the illustrated weekly newspaper Die Gartenlaube, where they probably reached a readership of two to five million, making it one of the most widely read publications in the world at the time. It was also one of the major periodicals which published serialised novels, including the writing of Goethe and Schiller.
Some of these unresolved narratives were historic rather than contemporary. These run the risk that, as at least part of their story is likely to be known to the viewer, that might provide clues which cut short speculation.
One of the most famous of these historical paintings is the only work for which William Frederick Yeames is now remembered, And when did you last see your Father?, painted in 1878.
For anyone familiar with costume at the time of the English Civil War, and the Puritan dress of conical hats and plain clothes, this immediately places the event shown at that time. Contrasting with those are the opulent silks of the mother and chidren, who are clearly Royalists, the other side. Yeames tells us what the young boy is being questioned about in the painting’s title, without which the narrative would be largely lost.
The only unresolved issue is whether the boy did reveal the whereabouts of his Cavalier father – an act which is clearly bringing great anguish to his sisters and mother.
At about this time, William Quiller Orchardson started to paint the first of his many problem pictures.
Orchardson’s Hard Hit from 1879 is more difficult to solve. The fashionably-dressed young man about to open the door on the left is walking away from a group of older villains, who have stopped at nothing (probably including cheating) to beat him repeatedly at cards, and have relieved him of his wealth. Although this may appear a carefully chosen narrative, it was apparently Orchardson’s model who provided the inspiration, when he arrived dejected at the studio one day and revealed that he had been ‘hard hit’ himself the previous night.
My last example from this period during which ‘problem pictures’ became more widespread and popular is another of my favourites, and one of Degas’ last narrative works.
Two women are sat side-by-side on a wooden bench in a corridor or similar area within the ballet of the Paris Opera. The woman on the left is a ballet dancer, who is in full dancing dress. She leans forward and down, grasping her left ankle with her left hand, although she is not looking at that ankle but ahead at the flagstones on the floor.
Sat immediately to the right of the dancer is a woman wearing black street clothing, holding an unrolled black umbrella, and with black walking or working shoes. She wears a black hat and a full length black coat, her wrists are crossed on her lap, and she looks slightly down from directly ahead.
The dancer’s face is completely obscured; the other woman’s eyes are obscured by the brim of her hat. The two women occupy only the left half of the wooden bench, leaving the other half free. Degas provides no other clues as to what the two women are waiting for, nor whether there is any relationship between them. Instead he invites us to speculate.
In the next article in this series, I reach the heyday of the problem picture, when they come thick and fast and speculation starts spilling over into the press.