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Course: Europe 1800 - 1900 > Unit 4

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

Ford Madox Brown, Work

Ford Madox Brown, Work, 1852–65, oil on canvas, 137 x 198 cm (Manchester Art Gallery). A conversation with Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(piano music) - [Dr. Beth] We're in the Manchester City Art Gallery and we're looking at one of the most famous paintings in their collection. And one of the most famous paintings of the Victorian era, Ford Madox Brown's painting, "Work". And it's a painting that he worked on for more than a decade. - [Dr. Steven] There were so many figures in this painting but the three in the center really stand out. The man standing heartily drinking his beer. Below that, a man stooped, shoveling dirt. And then, just behind him, a man standing on a platform and adding dirt to a large pile. They are navvies. Excavators. We think that they're digging a trench for a new waterline, but they are heroized. They aren't ennobled - [Dr. Beth] And he's comparing the heroism of their labor with other kinds of labor. We have father and a daughter, members of the upper classes. The man likely a member of parliament. Below that, a woman distributing leaflets about her charity work on behalf of the working classes. And in front of that figure, we see a woman carrying a parasol, beautifully dressed, who doesn't seem to be engaged in work at all. And then in front of that, a really interesting and problematic figure, who's clearly impoverished, selling weeds, flowers. A male figure who's clearly set off in what Brown calls his effeminacy against the male heroism of the central navvies. Brown describes this figure as someone who has not been taught the value of work. - [Dr. Steven] Mirroring this arc of figures stacked on the left is another gentle arc on the right. Here we see a variety of workers including a beer seller. But this arc leads our eye down to a group of children. In the center we see a young girl. She's wearing a dress that's much too large for her and she's holding a child who's got a little black ribbon which signifies that their mother has died. And so this young girl has taken on this maternal responsibility. With her left hand holding a child but with her right, she's disciplining her brother. - [Dr. Beth] And on the other side of her is a young girl that she's also in charge of who's eating the end of a carrot. - [Dr. Steven] So the vast majority of the painting is given over to this contrast of different elements of society and the heroism of labor. But there's a different kind of labor that's exhibited by the two men who stand in shadow and look upon this scene very much the way that we do. - [Dr. Beth] These are two men who theorized about labor. about work. On the left, Thomas Carlisle. And on the right we see F.D. Maurice. Both of these men approached the problems of the working classes during this period in different ways. It's really interesting to me that this is a painting called "Work." But the workers who were probably most on everyone's mind are not included here. So we don't see industrial labor, we don't see factory labor. We don't see the work of tailors and other artisans who are being put out of work. We're looking at a moment in history of the emergence of a working class and a working class that feels its political power. But this is a painting that heroizes manual labor here, not agricultural labor, which would be the more traditional kind of work, but manual labor in the city. - [Dr. Steven] But the artist does make room in this painting for agricultural workers who have lost their livelihood. And we can identify them by the agricultural implements that surround them. There's also a family group. We see a mother feeding her child. We see a man, and we know that they're poor and displaced. - [Dr. Beth] This is, in a way, the most sympathetic part of the painting. And Brown is showing us how this family is neglected and impoverished in the modern city. And I think it points to a central paradox that was keenly felt during this time which was that England was a place of tremendous wealth. It had propelled the industrial revolution, but at the same time it had impoverished so many. And that conflict was referred to as the Condition-of-England problem. And Carlisle, one of the brain workers that we see on the right, wrote, "The condition of England is justly regarded as one of the most ominous, and withal one of the strangest, ever seen in this world. England is full of wealth... supply for human want in every kind; yet England is dying." And there were so many people at this moment looking for a solution, not least of which, because the working classes were feeling their power. The Chartists were presenting petitions to Parliament demanding suffrage, demanding the right to vote for men. - [Dr. Steven] And the vote was critical because labor reforms for one, were so badly needed. - [Dr. Beth] And Brown is asking, who is going to fix this problem? Is it a member of parliament? Is it the woman who's handing out leaflets? Is it the thinkers on the right? - [Dr. Steven] It's certainly not the political campaigning that we see in a little vignette in the extreme right. The artist seems to be saying that honest work outside in the sunlight is what will save England. - [Dr. Beth] And we have biblical quotes on the frame that reinforce that idea. But I also think it's important to step back and note the incredible modernity of what we're looking at, the city street where the artist is capturing the effect of sunlight. - [Dr. Steven] He painted it largely on location in Hampstead, London. - [Dr. Beth] The idea of truth-to-nature. - [Dr. Steven] This is such a modern scene. We have the sense of the bustle of the city, of people moving past each other, of glimpses of figures, of fragments of figures. This is the complexity of urban experience and it has a moral underpinning. He's asking bigger questions. (piano music)