I found this in Judith Flanders’s The Victorian House (2003).
I don’t know much of anything about art, but I love it when someone walks me through a painting and explains all the little details that I normally wouldn’t notice. In 1858, artist Augustus Egg (great name, he should be a Roald Dahl protagonist) painted his famous triptych, Past and Present. According to Wikipedia, “The triptych depicts the discovery and disastrous consequences of a wife’s adultery on a middle-class Victorian family. The artist leaves the viewer to determine whether the woman should be condemned or pitied.”
The first of these three paintings, entitled “Misfortune”, is this somberly ridiculous thing, which I CANNOT stop laughing at:
Flanders writes, “Augustus Egg’s remarkable triptych, Past and Present, showing the downward path of an adulterous woman, begins in a standard mid-century drawing-room, complete with green and red decoration, central table, well-proportioned mirror over the fireplace and suitable paintings on the walls. But clues to disorder are everywhere in this household: the painting over her husband’s portrait on the right is of a shipwreck, over hers on the left the expulsion from the Garden of Eden; her children play with a pack of cards, a clear sign she is a bad mother who allows them knowledge of gambling; and, possible worst of all, their house of cards is built on the foundation of a French novel – the spine is marked, firmly, ‘Balzac’“.
THIS IS SO INTERESTING.
I also love how his expression is clearly, “Jesus Christ, Eustacia, pull yourself up off the floor. I cannot be bothered with any of your shit today.”
The following two pictures are cheerily entitled “The Prayer” and “Despair”:
“The Prayer” is apparently set five years later, just after the death of the father. The two children from the first picture are weeping for both of their lost parents. “Despair” shows the mother, having been kicked out of her home and kept from her two legitimate children, cradling a child that we can only presume is hers born out of wedlock, as she bunks down by the docks for the night.
If anyone out there with an artistic eye fancies giving me a close reading of these last two pictures, it would be much appreciated!
I’ve received a couple of insightful comments from readers who have analyzed the pictures for me.
Per Becky Black in the comments below:
“I do recall, from my art school days, that the second and third painting are meant to depict the same night, almost the same moment, as the two girls and their estranged mother gaze up at the same moon, with that same little cloud under it.”
I DIDN’T EVEN NOTICE THE CLOUD–HOLY CRAP, YOU’RE RIGHT. I am the least observant painting looker in the world.
And then, per a regular reader who goes by the initials “M.A.” over on my mirror Livejournal site:
“Well, I’m no art critic, but a few things that stand out for me in that last one are some of the posters on the wall: “Victims” “Cure for Love” (maybe patent medicine ads for STDs?) and “Excursions to Paris” (because we all know how wicked things are in Paris). I’d say the wrecked boat beside the woman echoes the shipwreck above. On the right side of the picture, I can’t tell if that’s stacked wood or a pile of stones, but stones would bring to mind the Biblical story of the woman taken in adultery and everyone saying she should be stoned until Jesus intervened. (And where was the man, hmmm? That woman didn’t commit adultery by herself . . .)”.
You guys are so sharp. Again, I didn’t even notice the posters on the wall, but now that I see them, they are BLATANT. Thanks for the help!