Art and the Industrial Revolution
Once there was a time before electricity, modern transportation, and manufactured goods. People worked the land and made the most of what they needed. For most people, the world was a lot simpler and a lot smaller. Today, we live in a big world where one quick click can instantly show us what it might be like to live on the other side of the planet. So how did we get from there to here? The Industrial Revolution was a big piece of that puzzle. And in relation to art, the Industrial Revolution had a key role to play.
The Industrial Revolution was the period between 1760 and 1840 in which society transitioned from an agrarian culture, which focused mainly on farming and working the land, to an industrial culture that was mostly focused around machines that produced goods. New kinds of machines, steam engines in particular really facilitated the growth of factories. Weaving innovations made it easier to mass-produce clothing and textiles. New chemical processes also brought along the invention of photography. These advances in science and industry changed the way that people lived their daily lives. It became easier to travel long distances (thanks to railroads) and to communicate with people far away, (thanks to telegraphs). These changes came in waves and by the middle of the 19th century, a second revolution was already underway. Artists were affected by these changes more than ever and felt moved to respond to it by developing new ways of expressing and representing the world.
Artists benefited both directly and indirectly from the effects of the Industrial Revolution. The new availability of manufactured products like tubed paint made artists more mobile. Previously, artists usually worked in studios where they painted either from memory or imagination. New materials, like collapsible metal paint tubes, gave them an alternative to mixing oil-based paint from scratch. Its impossible to underestimate the impact that photography had on the role of the artist. When it was invented in the 1830s, photography gave people the unprecedented ability to instantly capture scenes. In a way, this made painters irrelevant. Imagine having trained for years to develop a practiced hand and style and then suddenly, your art is threatened by new technology that might just make what you’re doing irrelevant. That was the fear anyway and in many aspects, it was a valid concern. For some artists, it was a wake-up call, forcing painters out of their studios and into the streets to find new subjects. The expanding new railroad network also allowed artists to explore the countryside and see new places, which pulled more worldly landscapes from their minds. The railroad had an impact on artists in several unexpected ways too. As railroads made long-distance travel more accessible and cities became more and more overcrowded, the impact of technology and machines on everyday life became impossible to ignore. The fleeting moment became more important. Life seemed to move faster and artists sought to capture that.
Three major artistic movements emerged out of the Industrial Revolution and art. These were namely Romanticism, Realism and Impressionism. We have already spoken about Impression so we will focus just on the two former movements.
Romanticism is a style of art that was characterized by beauty and a reverence for nature. The rise of Romanticism coincided with the Industrial Revolution and in many ways acted as a response to the rising of technology and modernism. It was a genre that many mediums tapped into, from literature, painting, music and architecture. It is seen as a rejection of order, calm, harmony and balance. They rejected the idealization and rationality that was characteristic of the late 18th century and the industrial revolution. It was also to some extent, a reaction against the Enlightenment (an era also known as the Age of Reason) and physical materialism in general. It emphasized the individual, the subjective, the irrational, the imaginative, the person, the spontaneous, the emotion, the visionary and the transcendental. There was a deep appreciation of the beauties of nature, a general exaltation of emotion over reason and of the value of the sense over intellect. Human personality and mood were key. The creative spirit is more important than strict adherence to formal rules and traditional procedures.
Realism, on the other hand, was a detailed, unembellished depiction of nature and life. Realism rejected imaginative idealization in favour of close observation of the subject. Realism can be found throughout art history in many ways, from the Hellenistic Greek sculptures of the old ages to the works of Caravaggio and Diego Velasquez.
Realism was not consciously adopted as an aesthetic form until the mid 19th century in France. The French proponents of realism all agree that the artificiality of both Classicism and Romanticism were overblown genres that lived in a world outside of reality. They were particularly interested in portraying the lives, appearances, and problems of the middle and lower classes. They were interested in the unexceptional, the ordinary and the humble. Again, Realism saw itself in not just fine art but also in music and literature.
The Industrial Revolution saw these come to a head in many interesting ways and in both instances, one can see where the artists and creators found solace. There was a rejection of the march forward from Romanticism, a way of escaping the grayness of the Industrial Revolution. From the side of Realism, there was unerring acceptance and a need to show it for what it was. Realism came with a grace of necessity and understanding. Both were beautiful and both were important for the progress of art and rose out of an unwavering march forward for humanity.