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Painting Out of the Ordinary

Review by: Ian Miller, University of Manchester

David H. Solkin, Painting Out of the Ordinary: Modernity and the Art of Everyday Life in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

In Painting out of the Ordinary, David Solkin demonstrates that the early nineteenth-century London art world was taken by storm by the work of a new generation of painters. He argues that a range of contemporary artists, led by the Scottish painter David Wilkie (1785-1841), developed a new approach to the depiction of everyday life that became synonymous with Britian’s cultural pre-eminence. Wilkie sought to enhance the reputation of the pictoral tradition – previously perceived as a low, vulgar form of art, by setting new standards of realism within his depictions of nature. Solkin contends that this phenomenon accurately represented the ambivalent feelings of a country that was in the midst of accelerating economic growth and social change, as well as in conflict with its neighbour France. Solkin suggests that many of the paintings produced in this era display a sense that the common people were becoming increasingly entangled with exceptional historical events or, at least, that the effects of conflict in previously distant parts of Europe were beginning to have an impact even in, for instance, the remote Highlands of Scotland. Hence, these painters depicted themes such as the removal of traditional boundaries between city and country and the encroachment of the present upon traditional aspects of rural society. 

As his title suggests, Solkin is particularly concerned with the transformation of the ‘everyday’ in the first decades of the 1800s. As such, he places the impact of modernity at a slightly earlier stage than many authors. By analysing the work of painters including Wilkie, Edward Bird (1722-1819), Thomas Heaphy (1775-1835), William Collins (1788-1847) and William Mulready (1786-1863), he sets out to show how ‘everyday life’ (as definable by an increasing number of representations of the activities of the rural poor) was scrutinised, regularised, and represented by the operations of an increasingly pervasive hegemonic power. Solkin also reveals how many of the paintings illustrated resistance to this increasing imposition of surveillance and order from above.

Solkin begins by tracing how a young Wilkie presented his first exhibition piece, entitled ‘Village Politicians’, at the Royal Academy of Arts, which made him an overnight celebrity. Solkin argues that such work was sensational because of its depiction of how the revolutionary fervour of the 1790s had upset the equilibrium of the British classes. Solkin interprets a seemingly innocuous painting depicting a small group of Scottish men reading a newspaper as demonstrative of the dramatic impact of foreign politics and modern forms of communication on Britain, even in the remote slowness and poverty of the Scottish countryside.

Solkin illustrates how the subject of genre painting quickly became widely discussed, as both critics and consumers approached the painting first as a social text and only secondarily as a highly specialised aesthetic object. The author details how genre painting depicted themes relevant to England’s seemingly lost pastoral heritage. For instance, vices such as rape and theft, thought to be mostly restricted to the sinful and chaotic urban environment, are presented in these paintings as intruding upon the wholesome tranquillity of the countryside. If Arcadia had been lost, Solkin suggests, then a new understanding of rural life that shared a common sense of time and space with everyday life in urban settings had been found. He concludes by suggesting that work such as ‘Village Politicians’ continued to influence painters into the Victorian era, when artists including Ford Madox Brown began to make contributions to the epic of common life (even though they were ultimately to abandon rural themes). Overall, Painting Out of the Ordinary is a beautifully illustrated work that would be valuable to both academics and general readers interested in the art and social politics of the Georgian era.

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