One of the great strengths of even early photography is its immediacy and visual reportage. Take a traditional film camera shot of any newsworthy story, and within a couple of hours you can have prints which record the event. This has become even simpler and quicker with digital photography too, with news stories such as that huge and tragic explosion in Beirut viewed across the world within minutes.
Although visual artists could never match that, there are plenty of examples of paintings being made in sufficient time of an event to count as reportage. In this article and its sequel tomorrow I look at a selection of examples, and some which might look like news but actually aren’t.
During the Dutch Golden Age, the voracious appetite of the middle and upper classes for paintings extended to those depicting large and destructive fires, known as brandjes. Quite a few landscape artists painted the occasional brandje, but it was Egbert van der Poel who probably painted more than any other artist in history. Van der Poel moved to Delft in 1650, and four years later was a victim of the massive explosion in a gunpowder store there on 12 October 1654. That killed one of his children, and he moved again to Rotterdam.
Although awesome paintings, the great majority of these brandjes were painted long after the event, and some seem to have been composites or even imaginary.
Van der Poel, at least, seems to have based at least some of his brandjes on contemporary sketches of real fires. The Fire in the Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam, in 1645, was clearly made in front of the motif using washes with touches of pen and brown ink. Perhaps he was the first ‘ambulance chaser’ who travelled out to sketch fires, from which he painted his famous brandjes in the studio.
Benjamin West spent much of his career in quest of the ‘modern history’ painting which came close to reportage of current events.
Of all West’s ‘modern history’ paintings, The Death of Chatham is the most contemporaneous, as he painted it immediately after the sudden collapse and later death of William Pitt the Elder, the First Earl of Chatham, in the House of Lords on 7 April 1778.
Chatham had been the political architect of the British success in the Seven Years’ War between 1757-63, which had won the British power in North America. He was a strong opponent of American independence, and when the Duke of Richmond proposed the withdrawal of British troops from America, Chatham made his way to the House of Lords to answer Richmond’s motion. Chatham appeared feeble at the start of his speech, and when he finished he collapsed, as shown in West’s painting. He did not die then, but just over a month later.
For West, an American who by this time had lived in Britain for fifteen years and received a salary from its king, this must have been an emotive subject. He manages to avoid overdramatising the moment, but in doing so understates it.
West was unfortunately upstaged by his former protegé John Singleton Copley, whose more dramatic version of this motif was painted much later, in 1779-80, and immediately became the definitive painting of the event. Indeed, some consider unjustly that this work made Copley an equal partner with West in creating the new ‘modern history’ painting.
Sometimes, artists just happen to be in the right place at the right time, as the Venetian Francesco Guardi was in 1789.
In the winter of 1789, Venice’s oil depot at San Marcuola caught fire. Although Guardi was 77 at the time, he painted the scene in his Fire in the San Marcuola Oil Depot, Venice, 28 November 1789. This is one of three versions of his painting; this is believed to be a copy made between 1789-1820, and is now in the Rijksmuseum, the others being in the Alte Pinakothek, and the Gallerie dell’Accademia.
During the Napoleonic Wars, between 1803-15, civilians living in European cities were dragged into battles as their homes came under bombardment, and buildings were set alight. One example of this is the Second Battle of Copenhagen, in which the Royal Navy attacked the Danish fleet when in Copenhagen harbour. This brought much of the city under bombardment, which caused serious fires.
The Danish painter Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg was a student in the city at the time, and painted several works in which he depicted the effects of the bombardment, including The Terrible Bombardment of Copenhagen (1807), which shows the Church of Our Lady well ablaze.
In Copenhagen, the night between 4 and 5 September 1807 seen from Christianshavn (1807), Eckersberg gives a broader impression of the effects on the port area at the height of the bombardment.
John Constable had a couple of chance encounters with newsworthy events. The first occurred when he was living in Hampstead in about 1826. He enjoyed going out to sketch in oils on Hampstead Heath, mainly skying.
It was there one evening that Constable painted this marvellous oil sketch of Fire in London, Seen from Hampstead.
But it was on 16 October 1834 that Constable had his greatest opportunity, when fire completely destroyed the Old Palace of Westminster, the seat of the English parliament at the time.
When the old Palace caught fire, most of London turned out to watch the flames. John Constable was in a cab, stuck in a jam on Westminster Bridge, where he painted this Fire Sketch (1834), showing the north end of the building ablaze. He did not, apparently, try to develop it into anything more substantial.
With Constable, his arch-rival, stuck in a cab on Westminster Bridge, JMW Turner was still on the ‘south’ bank, at the far end of that bridge. From there, or rather later, he painted one version of The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834 (1834-5) in oils, which is now in Philadelphia. The two prominent towers behind the fire are those of Westminster Abbey.
Turner’s other canvas shows a view from near what is now Hungerford Bridge, still on the ‘south’ bank of the Thames because of the traffic jam. At that time there was no Hungerford Bridge: the first bridge built at that point in 1845 was a suspension footbridge designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and was replaced with a more massive structure to carry trains to Charing Cross Station, in 1864.
In this view, Westminster Bridge is silhouetted against the flames, instead of being lit by them, and the massive towers of Westminster Abbey appear ghostly in the distance. This version is also in the USA, in Cleveland.
Turner capitalised successfully on this spectacle, although these paintings were not the atmospheric sketches that they might appear. A lot of Turner’s oil paint has been applied wet on dry, showing that he must have worked on each for several weeks, at least, in the studio.