Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Realism (pt. 3)

With the rise of industrialism in the Victorian Age, art changed subject matters from the glorious to the ordinary.  The art movement known as Realism spawned from such a thematic turn.  Images of the common man and everyday life, as we saw with Thomas Eakins' The Gross Clinic become increasingly prevalent during this time.  Young artists in France started rejecting both Neoclassicism and Romanticism due to the industrial changes occurring all around them.  They focused on peasants, factory workers, and common scenes of otherwise insignificance.  This new art form, Realism, represented everyday scenes and events as they actually looked.
The American painter Winslow Homer was a Realist artist who tended to focus on marine landscapes.  In the aftermath of the American Civil War, Homer painted a thoughtful scene entitled Veteran in a New Field.
The person we see here is an ordinary man, not a revolutionary, aristocrat, or priest.  In fact, he is so ordinary that nothing of his features stand out to us, the viewers.  He's got his back turned to us, and we can't see his face.  We can tell, however, by his clothing and the labor which he is performing, that he is a lower-class individual, dressed in farmer's attire, reaping crops for the harvest.  The scene is a humble one, like Millet's The Angelus, but no hopeful, inspiring, spiritually encouraging church steeple can be seen on the horizon.  There is no horizon.  Our lone farm worker is lost in a seemingly endless field of tall crops, and we cannot see what lies ahead.  The unidentified character keeps his head down, focused on his melancholy work.  He's holding an old-fashioned scythe, which no doubt conjures images of another Reaper who famously holds a similar tool in his deadly grip.
After the profound loss of life the United States witnessed during its Civil War, paintings like this one by Homer brought a sentiment of somber reflectiveness on the past and solemn assessment of the future.  America was in a period of Reconstruction.  After the assassination of President Lincoln, the South was more harshly dealt with as far as reparation demands extended.  The nation was falling into a Gilded Age of financial corruption and economic instability that would, in jest of the national single-partisan political period of half a century earlier (the so-called Era of Good Feelings), later be nicknamed "The Era of Good Stealings."  But for the veteran, the common soldier who had witnessed the bloodiest conflict in American history, post-war assimilation was a much deeper matter than money.  Homer's painting of the "Veteran" carries weighty, psychological implications for the soldier returning from war to the home that will never be the same again.  The hacked crops sprawled out on the bottom half of the work make sober reference to the carnage seen in the war; the veteran farmer's feet are buried in it.  He has returned from the battlefield to a new field that is, in its own sense, no less full of death.  His scythe, as I mentioned, is a symbol of death, and the rising wall of crops blocking our vision ahead connotes an uncertain future for the common man living in America.  But perhaps what is most poignant about the scene with the veteran is that he is alone, unaccounted for, as veterans sadly so often have been over the course of U.S. history.  This common farmer's plight is the stuff of Realism and the uncovering of the middle class struggle in the art world in general.

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