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Scenes of everyday life, commonly called genre scenes, were enormously popular in early nineteenth-century Britain. But their narrative emphasis, often with a strong moral message, and their humorous anecdotal detail damaged their reception in the modern era. As a result, this important subject has generally been neglected in serious art-historical studies. David Solkin’s new book, Painting Out of the Ordinary: Modernity and the Art of Everyday Life in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain, happily rectifies this. While steeped in recent scholarship, Solkin brings a wealth of new information, a remarkably observant eye, and an insightful, even adventurous analysis to this material.
Solkin’s book analyzes genre pictures in the context of the new sensibility that characterized Britain during the tumultuous time of the Napoleonic Wars and in the difficult years immediately thereafter. Though the actual fighting never reached native soil, the political and social demands of war touched all parts of the nation, as did the labor unrest that accompanied the economic depression in the postwar period. Meanwhile, memories of the French Revolution and its radicalism were still fresh in the minds of the British public. Finding evidence of “modernity,” of “a vision of the world in a constant state of flux” (5), of the boundaries between rural and urban life dissolving in the works of a roster of painters of common life, Solkin demonstrates that these everyday scenes reflect rising social tensions of the day while also tempering them in a variety of complex ways.
As one might expect, the work of the Scottish-born artist David Wilkie plays a large role in this study. His Village Politicians was a huge hit at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1806, and its popularity ushered in a craze for scenes of everyday life with the British public. Paintings by seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish artists, David Teniers the Younger among others, had been popular with wealthy British collectors for some time; but their coarse, vulgar humor was often disdained. Wilkie improved on this model. Keeping the humor while softening the rough edges of his Scottish villagers, he depicted the poor in a way that was comforting to his middle- and upper-class audience. The genre paintings of Edward Bird and William Mulready, artists who followed quickly in Wilkie’s wake, are also scrutinized (a favorite word of Solkin’s) with care. But much more surprising is his focus upon the little-known watercolorist Thomas Heaphy. Indeed, Solkin’s decision to bring a watercolorist into the discussion at all is in itself novel and refreshing (as is his emphasis upon the hefty prices Heaphy obtained), since watercolorists were so often segregated from oil painters, and thereby consciously or unconsciously demoted into a lesser category of art. More surprising still is the nature of Heaphy’s subjects. They are startling in their rejection of the arcadian pastoral manner in favor of depictions of frankly transgressive behavior, of “disgraceful and disgusting scenes of human depravity” (61), as a contemporary critic complained. Solkin wryly observes with reference to Heaphy’s Robbing a Market Girl (1807), “it is as though we are seeing one of Thomas Gainsborough’s melancholic cottagers being mugged by a couple of hardened juvenile delinquents” (80). Subtle gender considerations also come into play in his discussion of this work and others. As Solkin points out, in such scenes young women might be the unwilling victims of sharp ruffians, but their own behavior and dress are not above moral reproach. He plausibly argues that Heaphy’s Evangelical Christian faith motivated this stunning imagery.
Other artists—such as William Collins, Edward Rippingille, and Samuel Colman—who rarely or barely appear in surveys of British art are also given welcome attention here, as is the history painter Benjamin Robert Haydon. The last makes an unexpected appearance, bringing his outsize ambition to an outsize genre painting, Punch and Judy, or Life in London (1829), a work that depicts a recently developed urban square with a crowd of characters watching a puppet theater—one of the many views of public gatherings or fairs that provide rich material for Solkin’s interpretive gaze. Haydon’s painting depicts a bustle of people of all types on a London street: gentlemen and country folk, fruit sellers and chimney sweeps, policemen and rogues, pampered children and urchins, white and black, young and old. As Solkin notes, “No wonder that the artist considered calling the picture, simply, Life” (223). Here we see the epitome of “The EPIC of Common Life,” a label created by Francis Ludlow Holt in Bell’s Weekly Messenger in 1809 to describe the new elevated breed of “familiar life” paintings with reference to Wilkie’s and Bird’s works. Solkin adopts this phrase as an appropriate description of the many seemingly humble themes that with their “moral part” and their “dignity of composition” (37)—to use Holt’s own language—could present a challenge to what was then considered to be the more serious task of history paintings. Solkin offers as an example the underlying similarity between Wilkie’s Cut Finger (RA 1809), which features a sobbing boy injured while playing with a toy sailboat (a comic allusion to his future role in Britain’s mighty navy), and Benjamin West’s modern history painting, The Death of General Wolfe (RA 1771), which focuses on the heroism of a dying military leader. As he explains, “both works explore the same fundamental theme of human suffering and the sympathetic reactions that it provokes” (67).
One of the pleasures of Painting Out of the Ordinary is the valuable plumbing of contemporary commentary—periodicals, journals, anatomical publications (Charles Bell), art treatises (Sir Martin Archer Shee, Henry Richter), texts on physiognomy, among others—for a close reading of the concerns and values of the artists and the viewing public. Solkin often quotes lengthy excerpts describing a common-life subject from an exhibition review. Indeed, he points out that these lengthy descriptions of paintings were a new phenomenon. They indicate how these paintings so full of expressive characters and highly detailed settings were “read” by the educated public. In fact, Solkin emphasizes how these descriptions needed to be read by the public since so few viewers would actually have attended the exhibitions where the paintings could be seen. They also show how such very detailed renderings of the material world were a hallmark of these common-life paintings, and (though Solkin underemphasizes this) how their display of technical illusionistic skill contributed to their popularity.
Employing a theoretical analysis inspired by Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (trans. Alan Sheridan, London: Penguin, 1979), Solkin associates this precise record of the material world and its lowly inhabitants with a new “authoritarian culture of surveillance” (112), one that mirrors the contemporary preoccupation of the middle and upper classes (“the rich,” “the genteel,” “the ruling class,” “the better off,” “the affluent”) to examine, to characterize, to categorize, to better understand, to control the people (“the lower classes,” “the labouring poor,” “the common people,” “the rabble”). Class identification is an important descriptive tool for this social historian of art.
Solkin himself rivals the descriptive talents of the nineteenth-century critics he quotes so liberally. He takes note of large, small, and seemingly insignificant details in his visual analysis of the paintings—identifying objects, explaining their contemporary use, as well as their possible meaning in the context of the narrative. Indeed, who knew that “salop” was “an infusion of powdered starch (or sassafras) with milk and sugar, which was usually sold to the poor on London’s streets in the early morning or evenings” (141)? Solkin mentions this in order to describe a barely visible product being offered by a seated street vendor in the distant background of Mulready’s The Careless Messenger Detected (RA 1821). One marvels at Solkin’s ability to locate and bring to bear such arcane information about early nineteenth-century British street life. Fortunately, the publication’s exceptionally fine photographs, especially the generous number of photographic details, enable the reader to follow Solkin’s keen eye into every nook and cranny of the scenes under consideration. The reader will also want to follow Solkin’s lively discussion into his often pithy and informative endnotes.
By examining with exceptional care these previously neglected early nineteenth-century British paintings of pubs, cottage interiors, urban streets, school rooms and playgrounds, markets, fairs, and public gatherings in the rich context of contemporary texts and social records, Painting Out of the Ordinary informs the reader not only about these genre artists and their paintings but also about early nineteenth-century British life itself. It is a major contribution to the study of British art.
Kathryn Moore Heleniak
Professor of Art History, Department of Art History and Music, Fordham University
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