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Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Open Road (continued)

Landscape with a Carriage and a Train, Vincent van Gogh, 1890
Yesterday, I wrote about contemporary paintings of the open road. These would be impossible without photography or the automobile, so they are very much of our time.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, people moved around on foot, by horse, or by ship. While there were genre painters dealing with those subjects, the mechanics of life did not particularly interest artists or their patrons. The social realism (or naturalism) movement of the 19th century changed that. Its concern with the lives of the working class included the ways in which people travelled.

Vincent van Gogh painted Landscape with a Carriage and a Train shortly before his death, after he had left the asylum at Saint-Rémy. “Lately I’ve been working a lot and quickly; by doing so I’m trying to express the desperately swift passage of things in modern life,” he wrote.

The Third-Class Carriage, Honoré Daumier, 1864
The Third-Class Carriage by Honoré Daumier is the most well-known, and perhaps the earliest, depiction of mass transit, which has become such a fact of life in our modern existence.

Third-class railway carriages were dirty, crowded, and uncomfortable. They were filled with the lower orders. In short, they were the coach seats of their day. While the little family in the front row of Daumier's painting are fully delineated, the figures in the back rapidly dissolve into the anonymity of the endless human crowd.

Steaming Streets by George Bellows (1908) is a harshly honest look at urban transport. No Currier and Ives romanticism here.
In our nostalgic imaginings we like to believe we would have achieved a first-class railway ticket, but the vast majority of us would have been traveling coach then, just as we do now.


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