By the early 1880s, many painters had made narrative paintings which didn’t resolve, and those works were starting to attract a following at exhibitions. This article looks at some examples which were shown to the public during the decade prior to the coining of the phrase ‘problem picture’, 1885-94.
Marie Spartali Stillman was one of the last of the Pre-Raphaelites, who continued to develop Pre-Raphaelite narrative painting long after the movement had ceased to exist, in her extensively worked watercolours. In 1885, she took a break from her favourite themes of Dante and the early Renaissance. In Love’s Messenger, the finest of her single-figure paintings and one of her most successful, she invites the viewer to speculate about a previously untold and open story.
The woman stands by her embroidery at an outside window. On her right hand is a messenger dove/pigeon, to which a letter is attached. She clutches that letter to her breast with her left hand, implying that its contents relate to matters of the heart. The dove is being fed corn, which could either be its reward for having reached its destination (thus the woman is the recipient of the message), or preparation for its departure (she is the sender).
On balance, the presence of corn on the windowsill implies that it is more likely that the dove has just arrived, and the woman is the recipient. These clues are accompanied by alternative interpretations of the other objects and symbols, such as the embroidery.
Another of the leading women painters of the day, Henrietta Rae, tested the water with some unresolved narrative about the same theme, relationships between men and women.
Rae’s Doubts from 1886 may additionally have been incisive social comment.
A young woman sits on a garden bench, clearly in a quandary. Behind her, forcing his attentions on her, is an older man who is dressed as a tasteless fop. Around her are the signs of his attempts to charm her, with baskets of flowers. The ring finger on his left hand is already occupied, suggesting that he may even be proposing an adulterous relationship, and perhaps referring to the ‘kept woman’, as depicted in William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience (1851-53).
William Quiller Orchardson painted a series of three works about unhappy marriage, a highly topical subject at the time. The last of these, The First Cloud from 1887, continues its thread of a young, pretty bride who marries an older man for his wealth. With their faces largely concealed, the narrative relies on their body language and physical distance. When it was first exhibited, the following lines from Tennyson were quoted:
It is the little rift within the lute
That by-and-by will make the music mute.
Unresolved narrative was also become prevalent in the Nordic countries. The first of two examples by Hans Andersen Brendekilde from Denmark tackles contemporary social issues which were common across Europe.
Like many of the very best of these unresolved narratives, Brendekilde’s Cowed from 1887 requires careful reading which would have been considerably easier for the viewers of the time. Superficially, it shows gleaners at work in a field after the harvest, but there’s much more to its story than that.
Being gleaners, the figures seen are among the poorest of the poor. The owner of the large farm in the left distance has gathered in their grain, and their harvesters have been paid off for their effort. Then out come the losers, to scavenge what they can from the barren fields.
The family group in front of us consists of three generations: mother is still bent over, hard at work gleaning her handful of corn. Her husband is taking a short break, sitting on the sack in his large blue wooden clogs. Stood looking at him is their daughter, engaged in a serious conversation with her father, as her young child plays on the ground.
The daughter is finely dressed under her coarse gleaning apron, and wears a hat more appropriate to someone ‘in service’ as a maid, or similar, in a rich household in the nearby town. She looks anxious and flushed. She is almost certainly an unmarried mother, abandoned by her young child’s father, and it is surely she who is oppressed or ‘cowed’. Their difficult family discussion is being watched by another young woman at the far left, who might be a younger sister, perhaps.
In 1892, Millais returned to the sub-genre with his Blow Blow Thou Winter Wind. It is a bitter day in the British winter, snow already on the ground and more snow on its way. An icy wind is blowing, and there is little shelter. In the foreground, a destitute mother sits, cradling her young baby inside an inadequate shawl, her few worldly possessions in a small bundle beside her. Behind a dog bays into the air, and a man walks into the distance.
The viewer is invited to speculate on the relationship, if any, between the man and the woman, and the circumstances by which she and her baby find themselves in such straits. At the time it would inevitably have evoked the theme of the ‘fallen woman’ in its variations.
My last painting in this installment is the second by Brendekilde, one of his road paintings which were his last social realist works. People by a Road, from 1893, shows a young carpenter (with references to Jesus Christ) preaching to a family of itinerant stone-breakers.
The group at the left are old road-workers, breaking larger rocks into coarse gravel. They may well have lived out under the wooden shelter behind them, as they slowly made their way along the road. Standing and apparently preaching to them is a cleanly-dressed carpenter, his saw held in his left hand. The building behind them, on the opposite side of the road, is a church, from which a large congregation has just emerged.
Now the ‘problem picture’ had fully emerged, and was ready to puzzle the masses, and spill over into the newspapers.