Towns and cities seem to have been one of the first signs of civilisation, or maybe they’re the first warning of its end. As people were drawn from the surrounding countryside by the lure of a better life, towns grew into cities and became more densely populous.
Paintings of crowded cities seem a more recent phenomenon, though. They fall inconveniently between different genres: to a pure landscape painter, crowded streets in a city are unattractive and technically demanding; to the figurative painter, there are just too many bodies to do them any justice in the painting.
In this and tomorrow’s article, I’m going to show a selection of paintings which show crowds in cities, particularly those going about everyday life.
This is motivated by my series of articles comparing changes in the landscape painting of Pissarro and Sisley: in his later work, Pissarro took to painting crowded and bustling urban views, which are a remarkable contrast to his earlier pure landscapes. These two articles are an attempt to set that in its historical context.
In the early Renaissance, landscapes of any kind were normally constrained to limited background vignettes, as seen through the arches of Jan van Eyck’s The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin from about 1435. When you do look at that distant detail (below), although not crowded by later standards, the bridge and its streets are certainly busy.
Curiously, the best season for painters to show crowds out in urban areas seems to have been winter, particularly in fairs and at other times when most of the population seem to have taken to the ice.
This view of the Frost Fair on the Thames, with Old London Bridge in the Distance painted by an unknown artist in about 1685, shows a winter when the ice here reached a thickness of nearly thirty centimetres (12 inches). Most of the people of London have taken to the frozen surface of the River Thames to visit the fair.
Similar scenes are shown in Hendrick Avercamp’s Winter Landscape with Skaters from 1608. The whole population has spilled out from the warmth of buildings to take to the ice. The fashionable parade in their best clothes and company, children play, and the occasional less able skater ends up sat on the ice.
The citizens of Venice timed their outdoor social gatherings in rather better weather, and there are numerous paintings by Canaletto and others showing water-based festivals there.
My example of more terrestrial crowds, though, comes from the more obscure artist Michele Marieschi and this view of The Procession in St. Mark`s Square in Venice from about 1740.
As the industrial revolution swept across Europe, it brought a new wave of growth in the cities which was documented by painters during the nineteenth century, particularly in Victorian Britain. William Powell Frith started painting human panoramas in 1854, when he showed the crowded beach of Ramsgate Sands. He followed that with The Derby Day in 1856-58, and entered one of London’s major railway stations in 1862, with a painting which remains a classic example of urban crowds.
The Railway Station (1862) is set in a crowded and busy Paddington railway station in London. It’s rich with little social vignettes, and among its many faces are associates and friends of the artist, including the dealer who paid handsomely for it.
Take, for example, the incident happening at the extreme right, where a man dressed in brown clothes is apparently in the process of being arrested whilst trying to board a train. We do not know what event has preceded or precipitated his arrest, nor do we have any inkling as to whether he will try to run off, or be taken into custody. Much as in later ‘problem pictures’, the viewer is left to endless speculation and absorption.
Frith was also one of the first painters to use photographs to aid him in the details.
Also in 1862, Édouard Manet painted a very different scene in Paris, in his famous Music in the Tuileries. Its setting is hardly urban though, and the Impressionist paintings which it inspired, such as Renoir’s Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (1876), were situated in equally atypical environs.
Shortly before Renoir painted his crowd in Montmartre, Giuseppe Sciuti completed this impressive crowd scene The Funeral of Timoleon (1874). Timoleon was a great Greek general, who was formative in the history of the Greek colonies in Sicily, particularly the city of Syracuse. His funeral pyre burns in the right foreground, ready to cremate his body when it has been carried from the other side of the forum.
As urban crowd scenes go, this is complex. Clearly Sciuti had little idea of what the original scene, in 337 BCE, might have looked like, and could only express this painting in terms of his own experience. So what he shows is probably an anachronistic composite of what he thought Syracuse looked like at the time, and more contemporary ideas of such urban crowds.
But it was another Italian, Alberto Pasini, who seems to have pioneered painting the outdoor urban crowd, in this stunningly detailed view of Constantinople from 1877.
Market Day in Constantinople is a ‘big’ if not cinematic view as the quay sweeps gently away into the distance. The detail below shows how meticulous Pasini is in his closer figures and produce, including his signature group of melon sellers with their great green globes glistening in the sunshine.
In the second and final article in this series, I’ll start with views of Paris before travelling to New York.