This painting by British Ford Madox Brown titled The Work is absolutely incomprehensible regardless of when it was painted. Between the years 1852 and 1865, a time when the Industrial Revolution had accelerated and social movements gained an unthinkable dynamism, as were also unthinkable before the left-wing ideologies that began to have such importance, since you have to think that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had published their famous Communist Manifesto in London a few years earlier, 1848.
The work of Ford Madox Brown
And the fact is that the painter himself said that this painting, today kept in the Art Gallery Manchester City, is a representation of how work was distributed in society at the time.
All of this is reflected in a peculiar pyramid. There is a group in the upper corner who are the most idle, the aristocracy. While on the left are a group of women walking, who would be the representation of the bourgeoisie also quite idle. Which has its counterpart with the men who also have bourgeois airs on the right. A group in which he wanted to pay tribute to some of the thinkers of the moment. Hence, one appears that is the portrait of the philosopher Thomas Carlyle, with whom Brown felt very identified.
This group of bourgeois clearly have acontemplative attitude, which contrasts with the center of the painting where the workers themselves are. Among them stands out the figure of a worker with a white shirt, whose posture can easily be related to the classical sculpture of the Apoxyomenos by Lysippus. An image with which the author wants to give a heroic tone to the working class, in addition to bringing beauty to this class.
In fact, this is an element that separates it from certain currents of realistic art with social motivations, such as some paintings by Honore Daumieror Gustave Courbet in the style of Los Picapedreros, where the effort and fatigue of the workers is clear. Something that does not appear here in any way. Quite the contrary. The goal is another. He wants to give himself an image that all this physical effort is most comforting, since as the Scottish thinker Carlyle used to say, this work took man away from a savage state, civilized him and made him progress. Something that he summed up in a phrase that is currently more than criticizable. And it is that he wrote in 1888: “The disgusting forests are cut down and in their place fertile fields and majestic cities arise.”
A vision that is undoubtedly too idyllic of work and progress, without taking into account so many issues of enormous social and ecological importance. In other words, both those writings and the painting of Ford Madox Brown have very poorly withstood the passage of time and the evolution of society.