The Underworld

Representation in Art


The System

Famous Crime





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

An image 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 the tenement.

This etching 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.

These 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 children of 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.

This page was created by M. Childs