By Navjeet Sidhu
“May the revolution come then. If I am not a coward, I hope that I will be there, and well, I think I will be happy to get hurt for the idea that I believe in” – Maximilien Luce
In February, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) launched its latest exhibit: “Impressionism in the Age of Industry”. The exhibit features a collection of over 120 pieces of artwork by a number of Impressionist artists including Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, Georges Seurat, James Tissot, and Mary Cassatt.
Impressionism invariably conjures up tranquil images of water lilies and sunsets, and at first glance, the pieces on display seem to take viewers on a casual journey through Parisian streets and the French countryside. However, the exhibit’s period of focus – the late 1800s – reveals a city and country undergoing significant social, political, and economic change. The roots of Impressionism trace back to the late 19th century amidst a backdrop of rapid French industrialization, the Franco-Prussian war and the end of the Second Empire under Napoleon III, the Siege of Paris and the short-lived radical socialist Paris Commune, a burgeoning French industrial working class, and the city of Paris itself undergoing significant urban transformation.
With such a confluence of activity, it is no accident that the early French Impressionists grew weary with the prevailing and traditional school of thought regarding art, with its focus on realism, portraits of nobles and monarchs, religious figures, and mythological stories. These artists longed to leave the studios and be in the city streets and the countryside, looking to capture and document the physical and social transformations that were happening all around them. Their initial works were rejected by the largely conservative Académie des Beaux-Arts, the foremost French art institution of the time. In response, the early Impressionists self-organized to form the “Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers” in order to exhibit their works to the public.
While ‘industry’ is highlighted as the central theme of the AGO exhibit, a perhaps more apt theme is that of labour. With increased industrialization in France and the emergence of the French industrial working-class, many artists captured people at work, making them central figures of their pieces.
For many of these artists, putting workers at the forefront was no accident. Some came from working-class backgrounds, worked day jobs to support their art careers, or were influenced by radical socialist and anarchist theory and politics. As such, we see many of the urban and rural workers represented in heroic-like nature and sympathetic tones. This includes scenes depicting steelworkers and farmworkers by anarchist painters Maximilien Luce and Camille Pissarro, city streetlamp lighters and barge workers by Raffaëlli and Monet, and shop attendants and caregivers by Tissot and Cassatt.
Themes of rest and leisure are also captured in pieces such as Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières, as well as being alluded to by other scenes depicting dormant factory smokestacks that dot the French landscape. On display as well are the first motion pictures ever produced by brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière, including what can be considered the very first labour film, Leaving the Factory (1895).
Of notable absence in the exhibit are more pieces by women Impressionist artists. While we can observe and contrast between the labour performed by women and men in these artworks, the largely male portrayal and representation offers only a limited perspective into the gendered nature of work in this period. Further lacking (although briefly highlighted in the exhibit) were pieces that reflect the more negative aspects of industrialization and rapid urban transformation, including poverty, overcrowding, and the working conditions inside factories.
Despite its shortcomings, the exhibit offers a fascinating glimpse and snapshot during a particularly transformative time in French history. With its focus on workers on farms, in shops, the household, and in factories – one message does clearly resonate: industry does not function without labour. Without worker power, the factories remain idle and the fields lay barren. In an era of continued attacks on labour by governments and business, this exhibit serves as an important reminder of where our collective power lays.
Impressionism in the Age of Industry wraps up at the AGO on May 5, 2019.