The paradoxical landscape: Romanticism in modern landscape art (France 1850-1900) – part 3

See Part 1

See Part 2

Nostalgia of the Pastoral and the Industrial

Landscape in the second half of 19th century France was perceived as two polar images: the rural and traditional countryside versus the advancing modern and industrialized nation.1 While landscape art sometimes portrayed one or the other vision, often images were a combination of both the rural and the developed. Consequently, the pastoral and the industrial could be found in single images. Nostalgia played a prominent role in these types of images, either representing the longing for a simpler life of the past when one was perceived to be more in harmony with the environment, or dreaming of a present modern life that could bring a new type of harmony within society and lifestyles.

Unlike the paintings of the Romantic period that depicted emotions of humanity’s awe, fear, and melancholy in the face of cosmological nature, the landscape image of the modern era expressed more intimate and nostalgic feelings. Since nostalgia is often associated with the concept of belonging and returning home, one can presume that the nostalgia represented in the modern landscape images was towards a yearning to return to the past landscape that the French symbolically held in their imaginations as their true home. Pastoral images of idyllic fields where peasants quietly lived their lives were images from this end of the gamut of nostalgia.

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Charles-François Daubigny, Fields in the Month of June, 1874, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Many of Charles-François Daubigny’s paintings depict the anti-modern agricultural lifestyle of rural French peasants. Fields in the Month of June is a good example of this pastoral landscape image. Deduced to be set near the town of Auvers, which was northeast of Paris, the painting depicts peasants busy collecting hay in the background amidst the foreground of a field of blooming red poppies.2 The scene is set at daybreak with the moon still visible within a colourfully tinted sky. The feeling expressed is one of serenity and simplistic beauty, with no signs of the modernity found in the busy city nearby. Critics at the time were moved by the painting, viewing it as patriotic and symbolic of the precious agricultural landscape of France: “Nothing resembles our country more than this productive plain and nothing offers a better idea of our resources than this apologia for agriculture.”3 Fields in the Month of June was exhibited at the 1874 Salon and the 1878 Exposition Universelle.

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Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Le Chemin de Sèvres, Vue de Paris, c.1865, Louvre Museum. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot’s Le Chemin de Sèvres, Vue de Paris shows a nostalgic countryside landscape in a different way.   The scene takes place in suburban Paris following the road from the Sèvres hilltop leading to the metropolitan city seen far off in the distance.4 Although the paved road in the painting is a sign of modernity leading to the modern city, the figures in the painting are transporting by foot and donkey. Many of Corot’s paintings use similar compositions: lone peasants along a path by foot or horse within a hillside landscape, overlooking a far off horizon. This composition creates a feeling of solitude and prospect. On one hand, Le Chemin de Sèvres is idyllic and rustic, but on the other hand, it is not the nostalgia of looking backwards; the peasants and the viewer are all figuratively looking forward towards modernity.

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Paul Gauguin, Washerwomen, 1888, Museum of Modern Art. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Paul Gauguin’s Washerwomen portrays the peasant worker in yet another manner. His scene is up-close unlike the picturesque portrayal of peasants in landscape in Daubigny and Corot’s paintings. Gauguin moved away from the realistic painterly method by using a stylized illustrated technique of crisp lines and bright colours. However, his content retains the nostalgic archetype of the traditional peasant woman. Similar to Giraudon’s photographs of the peasant women at work, the figures in Washerwomen represent a traditional ideal of humankind in nature: humble, hardworking, and harmonious. Like Washerwomen, Gauguin’s series of paintings of the Breton landscape also depict the traditional peasant woman in work or in leisure within the stylized pastoral landscape.

In contrast to the anti-modern countryside landscape, some artists embraced the marks of modernity in their art. The romanticism found in the natural world is unexpectedly displaced by the industrial. The modern artist’s vision in the modern city landscape can be revealed through Charles Baudelaire’s description: “He gazes at the landscape of the great city, landscapes of stone, now swathed in mist, now struck in full face by the sun.”5 In comparison to the countryside landscape, concrete buildings replace foliage in the city; smog from the smoke stacks replace the mist of the morning dew; the same sun shines on the landscape, but the atmosphere is different. Baudelaire’s quote aptly complements Claude Monet’s famous Impression: Sunrise, the iconic painting that represents the modern era, the subjectivity of Impressionism, and the acquired romanticism of the industrial landscape.

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Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise, 1872, Musée Marmottan Monet. (Image source: Wikipedia)

Many Impressionists, including Monet, celebrated modernity and depicted modern infrastructure in their landscape paintings. Ports, bridges, and train tracks were common elements in modern landscape paintings. Often these paintings would utilize the same picturesque quality as the pastoral anti-modern images, creating dialectical images of modernity as progress and nature as idyllic. Camille Pissarro’s The Oise near Pontoise and Monet’s Argenteuil, the Riverbank in Flower are two examples. Both paintings noticeably show the polluted smoke from the industrial stacks in the background in juxtaposition with the riverbank flowers blooming in the foreground. If The Oise near Pontoise and Argenteuil, the Riverbank in Flower are paradoxical views of modernity, Monet’s earlier painting Train in the Countryside can be seen as a welcoming of modernity. The painting reveals a train filled with passengers merging into a lush background of foliage in contrast with the green fields where leisurely tourists saunter in the foreground. The image portrays a new type of harmony between modern life and nature that has been intervened by humans.6

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Camille Pissarro, The Oise near Pontoise, 1873, Clark Art Institute. (Image source: WikiArt)
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Claude Monet, Argenteuil, the Riverbank in Flower, 1877, Private collection. (Image source: WikiArt)
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Claude Monet, Train in the Countryside, c.1870, Musée d’Orsay. (Image source: Wikimedia commons)

1. Simon Kelly and April M. Watson, Impressionist France: Visions of Nation from Le Gray to Monet, (St. Louis: Saint Louis Art Museum and The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 2013), 16.
2. Ibid, 204.
3. Quoted by Jules-Antoine Castagnary, Ibid.
4. James H. Rubin, Impressionism and the modern landscape: productivity, technology, and urbanization from Manet to Van Gogh, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 23.
5. Charles, Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life,” in Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents, eds. by Vassilike Kolocotroni, Jane Goldman and Olga Taxidou, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 105.
6. James H. Rubin, Impressionism and the modern landscape, 98.

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