The relatively quiet roads of the period up to the middle of the nineteenth century, shown in the previous article, became busier during its latter half. Those whose role it was in life to maintain the roads, or to travel them selling goods or services, grew in numbers. So did artistic interest in those itinerants, as Courbet’s paintings developed first into social realism, then into Naturalism.
Among those who took to the roads were pioneer photographers, out to record life wherever they could. Lajos Bruck’s Photographer from 1870 shows a whole village and their innumerable children being cajoled into smiles ready for the camera. The itinerant photographer’s partner, though, seems disinterested, as she sits resting her head against her hand and looking away.
Entertainers of various sorts had long travelled the roads in search of new audiences. Richard Dadd’s last oil painting, of Wandering Musicians from about 1878, shows an itinerant couple and their son among gently overgrown ruins of a classical building, above a town most probably near the Mediterranean. The two musicians are intended to be pifferari, typically Italians who wandered from festival to festival as a lifestyle, playing distinctive folk music. JMW Turner had earlier painted pifferari, in his Modern Italy – the Pifferari (1838).
However, meticulous research by Patricia Allderidge has uncovered a deeper reading. The fragments of frieze in the foreground bear the names of Bion, Moschus, Tyrtaeus, and Theocritus – ancient Greek bucolic poets. One of Dadd’s close friends during his institutional life was William Chester Minor, an American surgeon and etymologist who was contributing to the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. The story of Minor and the dictionary is told in Simon Winchester’s book The Surgeon of Crowthorne.
Minor apparently had a copy of Theocritus’ poems in English translation, to which Dadd would have had access. In that volume, the Seventh Idyll describes a shepherd on the Greek island of Kos, which may explain the crook being held by the man, and this unusual setting. Dadd made a watercolour copy of this painting, which he inscribed with the title Italian Rustic Musicians.
During harvest time in particular, agricultural workers were often seen travelling to their next engagement. The canonical painting of these workers is Léon Lhermitte’s The Harvesters’ Pay from 1882. Although there are a couple of cut sheaves of wheat at the lower right, it looks at its economic and social aspects. Four of the harvesters, bearing their heavy-duty scythes, await payment by the farmer’s factor, who holds a bag of coins for the purpose.
In the centre of the painting, one of the workers is counting out his pay in front of his wife, who is feeding a young infant at her breast. To their left, another worker just sits and stares blankly into the distance, dead-beat tired and wondering whether his pittance was worth all that effort. Life was hard, and the harvest pitifully short.
Hans Andersen Brendekilde’s On Forbidden Roads from 1886 shows one of the core themes in Naturalist painting: itinerant workers making their way through neglected corners of the countryside. These two men are equipped for forestry, with a two-man saw, axes, and spades. Almost hidden among the vegetation at the far left is a third figure, who looks anxiously towards them. Maybe none of them should really be there at all.
Around 1890, Eugène Buland painted several overtly political works, including Propaganda Campaign in 1889. A travelling salesman is in the home of a poor family, selling books and coloured prints to the head of the household. That in his left hand shows the populist politician General Boulanger, and the salesman’s motives combine politics with business. His buttonhole rosette declares his role as a canvasser for the General. A few decades earlier, before increased literacy as a result of education, you might have been surprised to see anyone trying to sell books to the public.
There’s a more complex story behind another of Brendekilde’s road paintings, People by a Road from 1893. The group at the left are old road-workers, breaking larger rocks into coarse gravel. They lived out under the wooden shelter behind them, as they slowly made their way around the country roads.
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.
Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret was at the height of his Naturalism by the early 1890s, when he painted In the Forest in 1893. This shows a group of itinerants sat together, eating to the sound of a violin. Behind them are two oxen, and the forest which is currently their home.
By the end of the century, generalist tinkers, menders and fixers of almost anything, were in decline. Modern technology required an array of tools which soon became too hard to carry far.
Eugène Buland’s The Tinker (1908) is busy at his cottage industry, repairing damaged pots, pans, and domestic metal objects. He may still have gone out on the road to gather in pots and pans for repair, but was increasingly dependent on his workshop.
As even modest households gained possession of mechanical devices such as sewing machines, their repair called for specialists. Robert Koehler’s undated The Old Sewing Machine shows a woman and her young daughter with a mechanic and repairman, looking at the woman’s old and very primitive sewing machine.
By the end of the Great War, roads were transforming further, and the itinerants of the past were fast disappearing, eventually onto motorcycles and into cars.