Art is one of the major sources of information about cultural, historical and social development of society. In the late 19th century, the movement of romanticism was changed by realism which was focused on the truthfulness of the contemporary life. The leading theme of the realistic art was life of the working class. The two artists Honore Daumier and Jean-Francois Millet are typical representatives of the realistic art. Their works are characterized by typical subjects and themes of the French realistic art. The paintings under consideration are Third-Class Carriage (1862) by Honore Daumier, and The Gleaners (1857) by Jean-Francois Millet. Both works explore life and fate of working woman focusing on the depiction of the anxiety around figure of the laboring woman in late nineteenth century.
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As it has already been mentioned, the art of the late 19th century was focused on the modern urban life, in particular on the effect of the industrialization on the working class. The genres of the Realistic Art were diverse, they included landscapes, history painting, different portraits (mostly people of the middle and working class), etc. The artists searched for the “pictures” of the “real France and its people”, they were not interested in the feelings or dreams, “perfect heroes” and “beautiful ladies”. The subject matter was to portray ordinary life scenes and daily work of people. The paintings of the late 19th century often depicted street-scenes, working people, night clubs and various real-life situations. The images were not idealized as in the previous Romanticism Art, but ordinary with all realities of the social life:
“Realists portrayed real people not idealized types. From now on, artists felt increasingly free to depict real-life situations stripped of aesthetics and universal truths. In this sense, Realism reflected a progressive and highly influential shift in the significance and function of art in general, including literature as well as fine art” (“Realism”, n. p.)
As well as subjects of the Art works, the images of people were very realistic. The idea was to depict concrete people in concrete situations, the works were very detailed and no instances of imagination were noticed. The works of realism artists can be compared to the modern photography in detailed depiction of particular scenes, “rejecting the idealized classicism of academic art and the exotic themes of Romanticism, Realism was based on direct observation of the modern world” (Finocchio n. p.)
Depicting the reality of life, many artists paid special attention to the laboring woman. Indeed, a nineteen-century working class experienced great difficulties, they lack jobs and were forced working in hard conditions for little payment. However, the life of working women was characterized by specific circumstances. Apart from all hardship of life, like hard work and poor nutrition, the women of France were also “loaded” with home duties, such as taking care about their children, husbands and homes. At the same time, they were considered to be “second-class citizens” and had no social protection and benefits.
These circumstances did not prevent them from working. Although, they could not count on good payment, they were engaged in a variety of occupation, “working woman had long offered an especially poignant image of exploitation – a metaphor for capitalism’s “assault” on “nature” and the social turmoil of industrialization” (Coffin 270). This subject became one of the central ones in the art of the late 19th century Realism.
The works by Daumier and Millet are one of the “brightest” examples of the exploration of the 19th century French working woman and difficulties she faces. Regardless the fact that faces of women are not in the focus in both pictures, we can observe their anxiety and torment. We can see in from their postures and movement. The sceneries in both pictures are different, but the ideas are the same: to show peasant women and their daily responsibilities and that their work hard and should be respected. The artists depict women’s anxiety in different ways.
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The first work under consideration is Third-Class Carriage (1862) by Honore Daumier, “Honore Daumier (1808-79), one of the most direct portrayers of social injustice, has been called both a Romantic and a Realist” (Adams 417). In his works he sympathized urban and peasant workers, but he often focused attention on the urban scenes, “as a chronicler of modern urban life, Daumier captured the effects of industrialization in mid-nineteenth-century Paris” (Finocchio n. p.). The work The Third-Class Carriage provides the images of laboring women in the poor section of the carriage. The viewer can observe an old woman with her daughter and two grandchildren. While a young woman is occupied with the child in her hands, the attention of the viewer is focused on the posture of the grandmother.
All her body tells that she is tired, worried and unhappy. Her face is calm, but the way she holds her hands (as if she is praying) provides a much deeper context of her life. Her thoughts are far from the present moment, she thinks about her children and if she will be able to survive another day of hard work to support her family. The viewer does not know whether these women are going from work to home, or they have some other business, but the viewer can see that both of them feel anxiety and are worried about the future of their children. In addition, the artist depicted the women in contrast with the passengers of upper- and middle-classes emphasizing the differences between them:
“Strong contrasts of light and dark, notably in the silhouetted top hats, create clear edges, in opposition to the looser brushwork elsewhere. The very setting, the interior of a railroad car, exemplifies the new industrial subject matter of nineteenth-century painting” (Adams 417).
The Second image is by Jean-Francois Millet, The Gleaners (1857) is also focused on the depiction of the working class women and “holds the similar theme of the laboring working” (Gunderson 28). The viewer observes tree women (peasants glean) who gather the leftover grain from the farmer’s field after the harvest. It is a hard work and it is accompanied by a back ache. The viewer can see that women’s backs really ache as one of the put her hand behind and two other women help their backs with their hand on their knees. However, they do not complain and do their job well to earn their miserable money and feed their children.
The anxiety of these women (as well as in The Third-Class Carriage) can be seen from their postures. We cannot observe the expression of their faces, but we can suggest that they are motionless and worried and tired. The fatigue is seen in their bodies. Apart from the postures of the three glean, the author makes use of light to emphasize a social difference between women and farmers, “Millet uses light to highlight economic differences- the farm is illuminated in a golden glow of sunlight, while the three foreground figures and the earth from which they glean are in shadow” (Adam 413).
In such way, Millet managed to depict the structure of not only a farming community, but the structure of the 19th century society. In the picture, we can see a contact between poor and rich people, man and women work. Millet was successful in depicting hardness of the rural work, “he emphasized the dignity of this rural task and the people who performed it” (Gunderson 28).
Another point should be mention. The anxiety of the women in both pictures can be explained by the historical events that took place in the late 19th century France. The women are preoccupied with the changes that were caused by French Revolution they survived and Industrial Revolution they faced. People were not prepared to change their lives and they were afraid that they can lose their jobs and usual lifestyle. Moreover, the women are feel anxiety about fate of their children and families. The laboring women are poignant in the pictures and their images exemplify the images of contemporary women of France that lived in the époque of considerable historical changes and radical cultural, political and social coup. Industrial Revolution in France had a major influence on French laboring women. With the opening of factories, rural women were forced to look for a job at factories.
This required them to move to towns and work long hours for little money (because machines substituted people). It is possible that women in The Third-Class Carriage are going to town to find a job and they are anxious that they will not be able to find it. Moreover, children also worked extensively, so a boy in the picture will work at the factory as well. Women in The Gleaners are working in the field, but they are also anxious that machines will substitute them and they will not be able to earn their living. As we can see, historical and social changes caused by the influence of Industrial Revolution are reflected in both paintings.
Thus, we can come to a conclusion that both artists were focused on the daily responsibilities of the working class people (which was characteristic for the Realism of the late 19th century), especially, on the work and hard life of the laboring French women. They tried to attract attention of the upper and middle class people to the problems of the contemporary society. Without attracting the viewer’s attention to the faces of the women depicted in the pictures, both artists managed to show their inner world, and their anxiety. Motionless faces and specific postures, as well as the use of the colors and light, speak for these women and hardships they face in their everyday life.
Adams, Laurie Schneider. A History of Western Art. 4th ed., rev. New York: McGraw Hill, 2008.
Coffin, Judith. “Social Science Meets Sweated Labor: Reinterpreting Women’s Work in Late Nineteenth-Century France.” The Journal of Modern History 63.2, (1991): 230-270. Print.
Finocchio, Ross. “Nineteenth-Century French Realism”. in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.
Gunderson, Jessica. Realism. Mankato: The Creative Company, 2008. “Realsim.” Encyclopedia of Art. Web.