Not only did authors
of the day find fascination with the underclasses,
but many important artists did as well. Daumier, American expatriate
James McNeill Whistler, and many others captured the lives of the French
people in their art.
Through art, we can possibly learn more about the conditions of
the poor because we can see them in their lives. Also, through comparisons
of different artists who used the same subjects, we can find likeness
that can lead us to theories about how life really was for the poor. For
instance, the two pictures below--one is of the Gorbeau tenement from
the 1862 publication of Les Miserables. The other is an etching
Whistler did while in Paris.
La Masure Gorbeau
The Unsafe Tenement
of The Gorbeau Tenement from Les
MisÚrables on-line text edition; first published in 1862;
by Thomas Y. Cromwell & Co. This is a representation of the
home where many members of Les Mis's cast stay in their
poverty. Jean Valjean stays there with Cosette for a while during
his escape. Then the Thenardiers, after loosing their inn and
belongings, find themselves scraping by while living in this home.
Even Marius, as a potential Bohemian, lives here for awhile. We
can easily see the state of disrepair it is in--shutters falling
from the windows, an overgrown, dirty surrounding area, and the
misalignment of the foundation all serve to show the poverty of
by James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) is from James
McNeill Whistler. It was made during a trip to France in 1858.
It depicts what appears to be a rural household in a great state
of decay. The walls almost appear to sag and the shadows give
the effect of many holes in the walls. The area surrounding the
tenement is messy and jumbled; however, leaning against a portion
of the building is a small girl.
two illustrations make a wonderful example of how we can compare
artistic representations to
discover underlying conditions of human life. We find certain congruities
in the portrayals of these establishments--both are rundown and
in bad need of repair and possibly even dangerous, since both seem
to have weak foundations and sagging walls. We can only assume that
the little girl lives in Whistler's tenement, and if she does, we
know that she probably was impoverished. Also the fact that there
is no adult supervision anywhere near the girl--no one to watch
her to make sure she doesn't hurt herself--backs up the assumption
that she is one of the impoverished and possibly abandoned
France. Through these two pictures, we can theoretically assume
that the poor of France had to live in dangerous housing because
it was least expensive, or, depending upon the dangerousness of
the home, free. Also, we can assume that the poor did not live directly
in the city but if outside the city in rural towns, or in fauborgs--the
oldest areas of housing that surrounded the city.
By looking and "reading"
illustrations, we can make hypotheses about living conditions of the poor
among many other factors of underclass life. Art is a very important
form of representation, as you can see, and makes up for a great deal
of the knowledge we have about history.
To learn more about
how Hugo represented underclasses and their housing, please click here.
page was created by M. Childs