“Life Style” in the Nineteenth Century
“Painting is dead!” cried a French artist when he saw his first photograph about 1840. But painting was not dead at all: it survived the arrival of photography with surprising vigor. And if there was one branch of art that held its own more steadily than others, it was genre painting, the kind of thing to which this portfolio is fondly devoted.
The camera, despite its reputation for veracity, often fudges considerably on the truth. Even the best lens distorts reality somewhat, and the film used throughout most of photographic history deprives the world of color. Moreover, the camera depicts the particular—the individual piece of reality confronted by the lens. When a photograph manages to show the typical rather than the particular, it is usually a lucky accident.
But the typical is the genre painter’s stock in trade. He is interested in life as it “really” is, in typical people and the things they typically do—for the typical is somehow more real than the actual. This is the secret of drama and fiction, and of genre painting as well. The rural folk at right, inspecting the work on a painter’s easel, are not identifiable people caught in a particular moment of time; but we may be sure that the scene is “just like” what really happened again and again. The characters, setting, costumes, and attitudes are all typical. We have experienced a moment in the life of a younger America by contemplating this painting; we have come to know more about our past. It is a good way to study history.
It is true, of course, that nineteenth-century American genre painters had their conventions and their biases. In many a painting a hint of satire or irony suggests the personal view of the artist, while the absence of certain subjects suggests the accepted taboos. According to the Victorian ethic, art was an elevating factor and must appeal to the higher emotions; there are few scenes showing street brawls, drunks, naked ladies, or slums. The cheerful side of life was emphasized, so that we find few pictures of laborers even though honest toil was held to be a thoroughly American virtue. There is nevertheless a wealth of variety in the selection that follows. It was made for us by Hermann Warner Williams, Jr., director emeritus of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which is gathering a collection of 250 such paintings for an exhibition to be presented there in 1972. Meanwhile, the exhibition will appear in book form from the New York Graphic Society Ltd., with a text by Dr. Williams. The captions for the reproductions that follow are based on his commentary.