The modernist period spanned from 1850 to 1960. It was a product of the Industrial Revolution; as people migrated from farms to cities to find work in newly established factories, mills, and mines, traditional values and a close knit agricultural community were replaced with mass consumerism and a sense of depersonalization. A bourgeois class emerged from the prosperous industrialists. These members of the middle class wielded financial and economic power. Some artists and authors focused less on creating intellectual art and instead marketed their products to the new middle class who preferred more relatable artwork. The modern era was also a reaction to the over emphasized logic and reason of the Enlightenment. The world no longer operated by a set of rules but behaved irrationally. Passion and emotion were prioritized over reason.
Romanticism was the creation of a new mindset. It sparked a worldwide movement that would forever change our perspective of love, nature, and humanity itself. It was a reaction to the hyper rationality of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution that brought about a new world order of mass consumerism and urbanization. Rousseau wrote Emile, juxtaposing the sterile nature of the Industrial world against the freedom and pureness of children. Other literature emphasized young, passionate, impractical heroes tormented by a cruel, uncaring world. Nature was prioritized over technology, humans insignificant in comparison.
J.M.W Turner, The Fighting Temeraire
Joseph Turner was deeply impacted by the Industrial Revolution. He witnessed his country, Great Britain experience unparalleled success with the invention of steam power and the economical expansion offered by factories and mills. However, this new era of progress was met with hesitation by many, including Joseph Turner. Turner recalled the Temeraire’s victory over Napoleon's navy. Turner depicts the famed ship being pulled into port to be disassembled. The Temeraire is ghost like, a reminder of a bygone era, as it is pulled by a more modern steamboat. The Industrial age replaced the history and tradition of the past.
Wagner was a musician and composer who envisioned “total artwork”, a combination of music, drama, text, and design working in tandem to convey a story, often a myth or legend. His operas are expansive and the short themes develop over the course of the piece. Wagner romanticized his work by using chromaticism to emphasize the emotions the characters felt. His chromatic harmonies in Tristan und Isolde depict the passionate yet unattainable love felt by the characters.
Mary Shelley’s most famous work is her novel Frankenstein, detailing a scientist’s attempts to create life and dealing with the fallout of his creation. The novel is often characterized as Gothic but it contains Romantic elements too. The characters are driven by their emotions to commit unthinkable acts. Frankenstein also toys with man’s desire for forbidden knowledge. The work rebukes the constraints of science and human knowledge, as the main character disregards the laws of nature to reanimate the dead. This rebellion against certainty and fact demonstrates the Romantic movement’s disdain logic and rationality.
Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection shocked the European world. Humanity was no longer the center of the universe and a deliberate creation of God. Humans were merely the product of a continuous struggle for survival among individuals and species to survive. Darwin’s work demonstrates the concepts of realism because applied meticulous study and rational argument to explain biological change. Many people took the concepts presented by Darwin and prescribed them towards social order. Europeans used “Social Darwinism” to justify themselves as the superior continent and race. This notion further advanced European imperialism.
Leo Tolstoy viewed the novel as a means for education and reform, rather than a leisure activity. Art should expand the viewer’s morality and tolerance by depicting reality. Tolstoy penned classics such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina, garnering sympathy for characters by depicting their perspective and struggles. Tolstoy believed that understanding the inner lives of others would create a more sympathetic and kinder world order. Tolstoy introduced his audience to “unlikable” characters that would later gain dimension demonstrate the reality of people possessing both good and bad qualities.
Jean-Francois Millet, The Gleaners
Millet’s painting, The Gleaners, juxtaposes the muted colors and soft brushstrokes against the tense stances of the gleaners as they harvest the remains of the crops. The harsh destitution of the gleaners is compared to the prosperous harvesters in the background. Millet captures the struggle of everyday life for peasants but softens the image with a subdued color pallet and gentle contrast between the subjects and the background. The Gleaners depicts back breaking labor of peasants to illustrate reality for many 19th century farmers.
Nietzsche was a proponent of Self-Overcoming, a philosophy that a person who ignores their struggles to embrace the challenge of life. Many of Nietzsche’s recommendations were at odds with Christianity, such as his instruction to embrace envy which was pitted against the Church’s demand for humility. Nietzsche denounced Christianity for its virtue of obedience and submissiveness. He also despised alcohol for its use as a numbing agent against reality. Nietzsche’s statement “God is Dead”, threatened the religious values of the 19th century Europe. Nietzsche’s beliefs went directly against the scientific values established during the Enlightenment. He also was a threat to religious orders with his revocation of Christianity.
Edgar Degas, The Dance Class
The Dance Class is an impressionist work by Edgar Degas, portraying ballerinas in ungraceful positions. The dancers in the foreground adjust their costumes and fidget with their hands, watching and waiting their turn to perform. It’s a small glimpse into the urban culture of leisure, manifested in the ballerinas. The image is not self contained, dancers focus on objects outside the scope of the painting. The staging of the painting is unbalanced with the tension of the upper left compared to the empty bottom right corner. Impressionist art disregarded painting rules established since the Renaissance and experimented with depth, perspective, brush strokes, and the regality of the human figure. Degas bushes the boundaries of 19th century painting with his innovative staging and ungainly posing of the traditionally graceful dancers.
Vincent van Gogh, The Bedroom
Vincent van Gogh elevates color to just as significant as structure in Post-Impressionist painting. van Gogh uses color to express emotion and solidity in his artwork. He strove to use painting as a medium to capture subjective scenes rather than capture reality. His painting, The Bedroom, invokes the serenity and simplicity of the moment. The palpable brush strokes on the pillows grant the painting texture and depth, en capturing the billowy shape of the pillows. The painting is very personal. van Gogh conveys the intimacy of his bedroom and invites us into his world.