All too often, we study art in a vacuum. Louis Armstrong played minor 3rds on major chords, Seurat painted using only dots, James Joyce wrote extended metaphors… but why? As I researched the career of English naturalist painter, John Constable, and his contemporaries, I came across many detailed descriptions of his brush work, color choices, and accolades, but one big question remained:
Why were European artists living in the height of the Industrial Revolution painting scenes like these?
Wivenhoe Park – John Constable (1816)
A View from Stalheim – John Christian Dahl (1842)
…meanwhile their home countries were starting to look more and more like these:
In the Anchor-Forge at Söderfors. The Smiths Hard at Work – Pehr Hilleström, (1782)
Kensington Marketplace Slums – photographer unknown (1868)
As a 21-year-old living in 2019, it’s so easy for me to look at a painting like Wivenhoe Park from 1816 and just think, “Wow, I guess that’s what the world looked like before the internet.” Of course, there are areas that look like that even now, but artists like John Constable lived, studied, and worked in the heart of London! It is by no accident that he chose to head to the hills and meadows for his work even in the face of (arguably) the largest shift in human history.
For some perspective:
1. John Smeaton transformed the look of cities forever when he developed modern cement in 1793.
2. 19th century Facebook arose as Samuel Morse developed the telegraph in the 1830’s.
3. William Murdoch finally lit up cities streets all across England in 1808 as he popularized gas lighting.
4. People gained access to travel at unprecedented speeds as Richard Trevithick patented the first steam-powered locomotive engine in 1802.
5. Cotton production doubled each decade after Eli Whitney unveiled the mechanical cotton gin in 1793.
So, we have machines replacing human jobs, instantaneous communication, accessible long-distance travel, and cities that look nothing like they did 5 years before. Sound familiar?
Today, we look back at the Industrial Revolution with respect for its innovation but an understanding that life for an enormous amount of people was utterly miserable. Record low wages, inhumane working conditions, and 85-100 hour work weeks are just the easily cite-able facts of life. But here’s the part that’s harder to deduce from a history book: I have to imagine that these people experienced the same feelings of unfulfillment, strange emptiness, and mental health crises that plague billions of people today. Why else would these artists flee metropolis as the rest of the world flocked to it? They knew we were missing something. (text continues after image)
The naturalist movement of early 19th century Europe and the romantic movement that took over the second half of the century are where we can look for answers! These artists dealt with their entire world turning upside down, did the “social media detox” 200 years before it was cool, and taught us not to forget the value of our natural Earth, mental space, and real human experience. Today, we live in a time where our lives should be easier than ever, yet we face unbelievable amounts of depression, loneliness, and anxiety. Let us not forget these lessons and act like 2019 has never happened before.
Now, I’m not saying we need to abandon cities, take down the internet, and stop innovation. That’s the thing though, nobody regrets that the Industrial Revolution happened regardless of the immense human suffering that accompanied it. With the rise of virtual reality, social media, and self-driving cars, we are living in the midst of Industrial Revolution 2.0. Why not skip the suffering this time around?
I’ll leave you with the sweet sounds of Beethoven: Symphony No. 6, the “Pastoral Symphony” written in 1808:
P.S. Earlier this week I released my newest project, Constable, which covers similar themes discussed in this blog.