Tag Archives: Henry Robert Morland

Working Class Heroines of the Rococo

4 Dec

Earlier this year I wrote a post about Dolce Far Niente and the paintings which feature pretty girls doing nothing. Well, in this post we’ll take a look at some 18th century paintings where pretty girls are not daydreaming and lounging around in flimsy dresses but ironing, doing the laundry, carrying tea, soaping linen…

Philip Mercier, Girl with a Tray, c. 1750

Rococo is an often overlooked era in the history of art. It’s deemed as kitschy, pink and frivolous, but if you scratch the surface you’ll discover many wonderful artistic inventions. After the extravagances of Baroque which favoured sacral themes, dramatic lightning and chiaro-scuro, in Rococo painters shifted their attention from saints and kings to everyday life with its everyday pleasures and pursuits. If Baroque is a dark night with blazing thunderstorms, then Rococo is a quiet morning full of lightness and possibilities. If Baroque is a turbulent stormy sea, then Rococo is a serene lake whose surface reflects the blueness of the clouds. Baroque is extravagant, grandiose, serious; Rococo is lighter, gentler, simpler. Rococo brings as in intimate spheres of people’s lives, but at the same time it’s not realistic, it doesn’t portray the harsh reality, the hard working conditions of the underprivileged and poor. Rococo idealises and lies, it doesn’t mirror the truth but instead offers a world of dreams and escapism. There is such a fragility about Rococo and especially about the paintings of Antoine Watteau which started the movement in the first place: it is so beautiful that it cannot last. Dreams always end.

Rococo is typically full paintings that present luxury and pleasure; handsome men and charming women in silk gowns lounging in gardens of everlasting spring, nudes, “fete galante”, Venuses and angels, painting such as Fragonard’s The Swing… The paintings in this post are something different. My fascination with the subject started when I saw Mercier’s girl bringing tea on Pinterest. I liked it a lot and I noticed a series of paintings from the same time period which feature the similar theme: girls doing a domestic work such as ironing, bringing tea or washing the laundry. These ladies are maids and not duchesses and yet they are worthy enough to occupy a canvas. This intrigued me. So, I envisaged this post as a brief overview of eight paintings by four different French and British painters, not as a detailed study of each painting. Also, I have to say that there is a parallel between these Rococo paintings and Dutch Baroque art of Vermeer: he also painted everyday women in simple interiors. Nothing posh, nothing luxurious.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Laundress, 1761

Greuze shows us a rosy-cheeked Rococo maid who happens to be washing the laundry but has lifted her gaze towards us. One can sense a quiet curiosity in her eyes. And look at her mules; they were a very popular form of shoes for women in the eighteenth century. The wall behind her is grey, in the upper left corner red bricks are seen. From 1759 to about 1770s, there was a craze for Greuze’s genre paintings in the Parisian art circles.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Wool Winder, c. 1759

Another painting by Greuze shows a very young girl dressed in gentle blue and white gown winding wool. She looks so young and dreamy with her pale face and fine blonde hair hidden underneath a white cap. The gentleness of her face reminds me of Raphael’s faces. She looks as if her skin was silky soft and her neck smells of lily of the valley. I sense wistfulness, a quiet melancholy in her blue eyes. The cat, on the other hand, seems amused by the thread of wool, you can tell just by looking at its eyes and the tail turned upward. As I gaze at the girl who, to me, exudes such chastity and naivety, I am thinking about her name; for me it’s Justine. It just dawned on me that perhaps she is the same girl who is sitting in her attic flat abandoned by a lover in Greuze’s painting The Complain of the Watch of which I’ve written earlier this year. I will imagine that she is. This painting is becoming dearer and dearer to me.

Philip Mercier, Portrait of a young woman, 1748

Philip Mercier was a French painter who was born in Berlin and died in London and he is well-known for making some portraits of the royals. This is the painting that started my fascination in the first place and it is my favourite painting out of all that I’ve presented here, and a rather simple one too; just a girl with porcelain skin and large dark eyes holding a tea tray. She is dressed in a light green dress. The model was possibly the artist’s maid Hannah. I like her straightforward gaze. Now something that I am interested in: who is the lucky person to be served by this beauty?

The painting below is Mercier’s work again and its dramatic light reminds me of Baroque. It shows two girls, perhaps sisters; one is sewing and the younger one is sucking her thumb.

Philip Mercier, A Girl Sewing, 1750

Jean-Baptiste Chardin, Woman peeling turnips, 1740

Chardin’s portrayal of the working class life is perhaps the most realistic, both in terms of style and content. Painted in dark, muted colours and earthy tones and presenting a gritty image of reality instead of silk-clad idealism of the previous paintings, and it lacks the glamour and sparkling colours of Mercier’s girls bringing tea. In “Woman peeling turnips”, Chardin presents us with an intimate and realistic scene of a woman sat on a chair, peeling turnips in her kitchen, dressed in simple garments. The wall behind her is bare and grey, and she is surrounded by things you’d normally find in a kitchen, pots and a pumpkin. Something distracted her for a moment and she is looking to the right. It looks as if Chardin really was in her kitchen. Chardin was a keen observer of everyday life and his paintings emphasise the values such as industriousness, loyalness to ones family and honesty, and this struck a cord with the middle-class buyers. Speaking of turnips, whoever is a fan of Blackadder will know that Baldrick loved them. Ha ha.

Henry Robert Morland, A Laundry Maid Ironing, c. 1765-82

A London-based painter of genre scenes, Henry Robert Morland, presents us here with two pretty ladies dresses in sumptuous silks perhaps too sumptuous for the position of a maid, but then again all these paintings, apart from Chardin’s woman peeling turnips are just dreamy idealised portraits of domestic scenes, and why portray reality when it was so gritty? The girl above is shows ironing and is very focused on her task, while the girl doing laundry in the painting below had to stop for a moment to show us her smile.

Henry Robert Morland, Lady’s Maid Soaping Linen, c. 1765-82

Although artistically these paintings hold importance within their art movement, thematically we should embrace their light-heartedness. Unlike similar genre paintings of Victorian era, these Rococo portraits of beautiful working class heroines were not meant to convey a social message or serve as a social critique.

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