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Europe 1800 - 1900

Course: Europe 1800 - 1900 > Unit 4

Lesson 2: The Pre-Raphaelites and mid-Victorian art

Pre-Raphaelites: Curator's choice - Ford Madox Brown's 'Work'

One of the most radical paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite movement is Work by Ford Madox Brown, which attempts to capture the entire social fabric of Victorian London in a single scene. Curator Tim Barringer explores its multiple stories. Ford Madox Brown's Work is one of over 150 works currently on show at Tate Britain in the exhibition Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (2013). Created by Tate.

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Video transcript

we're looking at Ford Madox Brown's painting work begun in 1852 and completed after 11 years of hard work in 1863 is a consummate masterpiece of 19th century realism one of the greatest paintings of the 19th century and it takes us to the very heart of Victorian London so this painting is a social panorama amazingly for a Victorian artist Ford Madox Brown makes the hero of this painting a laborer a manual labor and a group of navvies this great pentagonal mass of figures in the middle these heroes in the sunlight the other social types are pushed to the sides of the composition here are the intellectuals the brain workers the people who make a living by thinking Thomas Carlyle the satirical philosopher with his strange sneer and the holy man Frederick Denison Morris who gazes philosophically even theologically at the central mass and on the other side we have the strange figure of a groundsel seller a seller of weeds and strange herbs this figure is one of the most exciting and the most strange in the painting because his shifty look his long etiolated stretched figure and if we look closely at this text automatics Browns filled the painting with words you can see the word robber great violence and it's clear that that's actually connecting this text with this character so there's a danger that he himself will eventually turn to violence because no one has taught him how to work maddox Brown had a wicked sense of humor and what he gives us is a parody of the English class system in terms of the dogs that we see in the painting so down here at the front we have a working dog this is a Victorian equivalent of a Jack Russell a dog which goes down into the excavations catches rats here by contrast is a ridiculous middle-class dog a bourgeois dog wearing a kind of necklace and a little red coat meanwhile here we have a dog which is a kind of homeless mutt this is a dog who nobody takes care of a dog who actually belongs to this group of orphaned street children here we can tell they're orphan because as a little black band around the baby's arm and finally at the height of the pyramid the top of the social pyramid but thrown into shade at the back is a hunting dog a dog which belongs to these aristocrats who no longer have an important role in society so this painting is an extraordinarily radical avant-garde piece first of all it takes the format and size of historical or religious paintings of earlier periods and turns that same gaze that same seriousness to everyday life in the city it gives us an extraordinary example of the clarity and precision of pre-raphaelites realist painting so this is as if to say that the real heroes of Victorian London the people who built the Britain that we still live in were in fact these anonymous laboring man that was effectively a socialist statement so this painting is visually radical but it's also politically radical you