We’ve had an exceptionally wet autumn here in the south of England, and our local footpaths and bridleways are now deep tracts of mud, impassable in anything but high boots. For much of European history, most winters have been the same, only when there were few paved roads, most of the population squelched, slipped and cursed their way through that mud.
Except in paintings they didn’t, at least not until relatively recently. This and tomorrow’s articles try to discover what wet winter conditions were really like in paintings.
I’ve spent long hours working through paintings made before 1800 in the couple of thousand articles I’ve published here, and across Wikimedia Commons collections. Although plenty of landscape, genre and other paintings show winter conditions, before 1800 few if any have depicted people, vehicles or animals in mud of any visible depth. Indeed, in most cases even their feet or footwear have magically remained essentially clean.
Neither do many painters show scenes of the common European weather which brings seemingly inexhaustible mud: rain. Roads are dusty and dry in the summer, or covered in deep snow for troikas to slide over in the winter, but never just deep mud. Not until the nineteenth century.
In the early nineteenth century, streets in major cities in Europe including Paris spent much of the winter as muddy morasses. Enterprising poorer inhabitants took long planked constructions to locations where the more affluent would try to cross the rivers of mud, and hired them out to enable the rich to stay cleaner.
This is shown well in Louis-Léopold Boilly’s Passer Payez, or Pay to Pass, from about 1803, where a whole family is taking advantage of one of these crossings. This spared their footwear and clothing gaining a coating of mud. As you can see, their shoes, lower legs and clothing are amazingly clean, as if they might actually have been painted in Boilly’s studio rather than the muddy streets of Paris.
As realism and real-world scenes became more popular in the middle of the century, Adolph von Menzel showed a more accurate view of the problem of muddy roads in his Hussars Rescue a Polish Family from 1850. It was clearly a wet autumn, with the leaves still burning red and gold on the trees in the background. These mounted soldiers are helping the elderly women from a carriage across the muddy ruts of the road. The hussar in the foreground, with his back to the viewer, even has mud on his riding boots.
One of the first artists to have used mud in a more meaningful way is Jean-Léon Gérôme, in his 1868 painting of The Death of Marshal Ney. Michel Ney (1769-1815) was a leading military commander during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and was made a Marshal of France by Napoleon. Following Napoleon’s defeat and exile in the summer of 1815, Ney was arrested, and tried for treason by the Chamber of Peers. He was found guilty, and executed by firing squad near the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris on 7 December 1815.
Gérôme shows Ney’s body abandoned after the execution, slumped face down and lifeless in the mud, his top hat apart at the right edge of the canvas. The firing squad is being marched off, to the left and into the distance. The mud only reinforces Gérôme’s powerful image of a cold, bleak, heartless execution.
Mud also has its recreational uses, as children of all eras will attest. Ludwig Knaus’s painting of Mud Pies from 1873 shows a group of children in the evening, near Dusseldorf, Germany, who are enjoying play in and with the mud, which is perhaps less fun for the swineherd behind them.
While other Impressionists had been exploring the effects of transient light on the River Thames, in 1875, Giuseppe De Nittis examined the city’s muddy and rutted streets, in his painting of The Victoria Embankment, London. This wasn’t one of the older roads in the city either: the Victoria Embankment wasn’t constructed until 1865, and had only opened to traffic five years before De Nittis painted it.
Muddy roads in northern British cities like Leeds were one of the favourite settings for the nocturnes of John Atkinson Grimshaw. At The Park Gate from 1878 (above) and November from 1879 (below) are glistening examples.
Mud became a frequent effect in the Naturalist paintings made so popular in France by Jules Bastien-Lepage.
Pas Mèche (Nothing Doing) (1882) shows a cheeky ploughboy equipped with his whip and horn, on his way out to work in the fields. His face is grubby, his clothing frayed, patched, and dirty, and his boots caked in mud.
Bastien-Lepage’s brilliant but equally ill-fated protégé Marie Bashkirtseff painted a muddy track in one of the parks beside the River Seine in Paris, during the wet Autumn of 1883.
But for real mud, deep enough for wheels and legs to sink in and cake clothing, I turn to central and eastern Europe.
Jakub Schikaneder’s The Sad Way from 1886 shows a single rather weary horse towing a cart on which a coffin rests. The woman, presumably widowed before her time, stares emptily at the rutted mud track, as a man walks beside them. It’s late autumn in a world which is barren, bleak, muddy and forlorn.
Józef Marian Chełmoński’s undated Market is one of the most vivid insights into country life in Poland during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. To reach this street market, carts are being drawn through a deep ditch, which is full of muddy water. Market stalls are mounted on tables set in the mud, which forms the basis for everything, as if it were elemental.
Also undated is contemporary and fellow Polish artist Alfred Wierusz-Kowalski’s Meeting the Train. A couple of horse-drawn carts have gone to a rural railway station to meet a train. The winter snow still covers much of the ground, except where it has been turned into rutted mud on the road.
Tomorrow I will follow this trail of mud through the salons of a French château, up into the Nordic countries, and off to the War to End All Wars.