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Leon Augustin L'Hermite
Boy and Girl in Spring Landscape,
date unknown
Oil on canvas
© Smart Museum of Art 2005

Shepherds and Plowhands:
Work and Leisure in the Nineteenth Century

January 18 - April 24, 2005

Smart Museum of Art
University of Chicago
5550 S. Greenwood Ave.
Chicago, IL 60637
tel.: 773-702-0200
hours: Tue, Wed, Fri 10am - 4pm; Thu 10am - 8pm;
Sat & Sun 11am - 5pm; Galleries closed on Mondays

This concise little exhibition assembles 40 works from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for a brief and well-annotated exploration of the imagery of work and leisure in rural, nineteenth-century France. Primarily works on paper, the art represents a response to the increasing predominance of industrialization, which moved artists to idealize the peasants' deep connection with the earth and the natural rhythms of seasonal time, even as such a lifestyle was rapidly disappearing. These are the roots of our nostalgia for country life, even today -- a fact which makes Shepherds and Plowhands particularly intriguing.

The industrial era had firmly established itself, drawing rural denizens to city factory jobs, while the new spread of railroads in the late 1900s opened up formerly remote areas of the countryside to weekend pleasure-seekers. Rural life, which had been the same for centuries, was indelibly altered. Exploring a variety of subjects, including images of rural toil, pastoral landscapes, figure types, and rustic leisure, Shepherds and Plowhands reveals two developing attitudes: realists, such as Jean-Francois Millet, capturing the sweat of rural toil, a regret for noble labor drawn from more natural cycles of the earth; others, such as Leon Augustin L'Hermite in his Boy and Girl in Spring Landscape, turning to idealized, fantasy visions of the countryside as rustic retreat, a place of "charming scenes of carefree leisure". Both represent responses to the new industrial realities: the increased pace of urban living, its mechanized repetition, its crowds and congestion.

They are our own realities, even more so than a century ago. Shepherds and Plowhands is an illuminating look at the art of the time as well as the origin of many of our contemporary attitudes toward weekends and the countryside escape. A portion of the exhibition touches on the 'etching revival', itself a response to the mechanization offered by the developing art of photography. Forty works, primarily works on paper, including as well several sculptures and paintings. Artists include Jean-Francois Millet, Camille Pissaro, Charles Daubigny, Gustave Doyen, Charles Meunier, David Lucas, Felix Buhot, Frank Brangwyn, and many more. Modestly sized, yet well-annotated, this exhibition covers a great deal of ground in a small space. Shepherds and Plowhands will be at the Smart Museum through April 24, 2005.

--Katherine Rook Lieber

Katherine Rook Lieber has edited ArtScope.net's Visual Arts reviews since 1998. Ms. Lieber is Editor and Associate Producer for ArtScope.net.

Editorial Note: Quotes are from the exhibition text.

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