Vita Gazette

News from Italy

The great works of art that celebrate May Day

by Maria Stella

Vita gazette – Today, May 1st, we celebrate Labor and Workers’ Day. This anniversary was born following a strike carried out by a group of workers from Chicago, in the United States, which unfortunately ended with the death of some of them. However, they were ordinary men, humble and determined to want their rights respected by employers, who instead exploited them and asked their workers for onerous and exaggeratedly long shifts. It was 1886, and 137 years have passed, but their memory remains.

The May Day holiday was introduced in Italy a few years later, in 1891. Despite its suspension due to the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, it has established itself over the years as one of the best-known and most shared anniversaries. There are street demonstrations, concerts in the square and much more.

Many artists have denounced with their works the conditions in which workers lived in different eras. Labor Day or Workers’ Day is celebrated on May 1 each year in many countries worldwide to commemorate the commitment of the trade union movement and the goals achieved by workers in the economic and social fields. Many artists have denounced through their works the exploitation and the conditions in which the workers lived in different eras. Here are our picks in chronological order.

Saint Jerome in his study, Antonello da Messina, 1474-1475

Painting by Antonello da Messina datable to around 1474-1475 and preserved in the National Gallery in London. A large Catalan-style arched window opens onto the study of Saint Jerome, the father of the Church who translated the Bible, intent on reading like a learned humanist. Despite its small size, the painting takes on a monumental effect thanks to the articulated Catalan architecture, which plays with solids and voids, and to the light that strikes the subject and infiltrates from the windows in the background, revealing a meticulously cared-for landscape. The central perspective makes the gaze converge directly on the figure of the Saint and then gradually move away, following the details of the study. Synthesis of air and light, the San Girolamo nel studio is probably the work that Antonello brings as a “painting essay” for his stay in Venice (1475-1476), to be shown as a testimony to future clients.

The Rescue,  John Everet Millais, 1855

Millais depicts a fireman rescuing three children from a house fire, with their mother receiving them back into her arms.

Millais witnessed a fireman’s death during a rescue and decided to depict the subject. The fire brigade had only recently been transformed from a private business dedicated to protecting property to a public institution protecting life first. Millais sought to create the correct effects of light and smoke using a sheet of coloured glass and burning wood planks. This emphasis on the fleeting effects of colour and light was a new departure in his art. The painting is also notable for its startling transitions of colour, particularly the dramatic effect by which the sleeve of the mother’s nightgown changes from slatey blue to pale pink. This led to much critical comment at the time

Third class carriage, Honoré Daumier, 1862

It is a painting by the French painter Honoré Daumier, exhibited at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. In the style of Honoré Daumier, who made his art an instrument of political struggle, this painting from 1862 denounces the social conditions of the poorer classes (in line with the intentions of realism, the artistic and cultural movement to which he belongs). The artist created the representation of a humble social condition not considered by the state in the Renaissance manner.

In addition to the workers, whose fatigue is ideally intercepted, the bourgeois show themselves, in stark contrast to the other figures, with their arrogance and malevolence, thus underlining the clear gap between the weak (tired women and children) and the powerful (rich entrepreneurs ), a metaphorical and real concept that emerges from the painting. The drawing does not sketch the contours; it accentuates the inelegant forms in a different way from the refined and finished style taught in the academies and intends for heroic subjects; the signature of his name on the wooden case represents humility and a particular interest in the part of the painter for that social class.

The Farmer’s Daughter, Sir John Everett Millais, 1863

English artist Sir John Everett Millais painted the Farmer’s Daughter in 1863. Many people disagreed with how Millais portrayed the Holy Family as a working-class family. The holy family was almost always portrayed in more regal, honoredhonouredy artists throughout history. But Millais brought the holy family into a more realistic light and made them more identifiable with the average individual.

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, Édouard Manet, 1882

Édouard Manet was a French impressionist painter famous for depicting everyday life. This 1882 oil painting is entitled “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère”. It now resides at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.

Il bar delle Folies-Bergère, l’ultimo quadro realizzato nel 1881-1882 da Manet prima della morte.  Esso, infatti, riunisce con grande coerenza e integrazione i vari dati stilistici che hanno caratterizzato l’universo artistico di Manet: l’utilizzo del nero, l’amore per i temi quotidiani, l’utilizzo di colori piatti e omogenei ed il gusto per le composizioni calibrate e per le nature morte.

Il bar delle Folies-Bergère,  a pochi passi da rue la Fayette, celebre ritrovo della borghesia parigina che qui si svagava assistendo ai concerti, dimenticando la noia e le seccature quotidiane. Lo stesso Manet faceva parte del cenacolo degli habitué di questo locale, tanto che nonostante il dipinto sia stato eseguito in studio il locale è descritto con grande realismo. Il dipinto, in ogni caso, raffigura un’inserviente del bar in mesta attesa dell’ordine del cliente.

The Potato Eaters, Vincent Van Gogh, 1885

It is a painting by Vincent Van Gogh, made in April 1885. It is kept in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. This is the most important painting from Van Gogh’s Dutch period. In a poor room, this painting shows some peasants eating their evening meal using a single plate of potatoes.

Van Gogh is very attached to this subject as he feels like ‘one of them’. Farmers like him also suffer, and he finds it unfair that despite all their efforts and sacrifices, they have to live so miserably. The work underlines the continuous physical effort of those who have spent their lives working in the fields day after day.

For eighty cents, Morbelli, 1893

After the first Triennale, in 1893, Morbelli painted Per 80 cents! A painting is explicitly denouncing the work of weeders. The painting depicts weeders immersed in water up to their ankles, bent over in the hard work of transplanting rice. The figures in the foreground are seen from the back in the repetitive act of planting the young seedlings. Hard work was compensated with 80 cents. Water is understood as a source of life and death. In 1897 the painter won the gold medal in Dresden with this painting.

The Fourth Estate, Giuseppe Pellizza, 1901

This work symbolises 20th-century society, as it represents the workers’ strike and symbolises social protest and the affirmation of a new social class. This proletariat becomes aware of its rights against the industrial society.

It is a famous painting by Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo in 1901, initially titled The Path of the Workers. The work, a manifesto of the workers’ struggle, is placed on the watershed between realism and symbolism. The fourth state represents the conclusion of the author’s journey through numerous paintings, all concerning the same theme, namely the workers’ strike. The first painting is the Ambassadors of Hunger; then he paints the Fiumana and finally, the preparatory sketch of 1898, The Workers’ Journey. The fourth state, the painting symbol of the workers and today, the desire to start again. Symbol of workers’ struggles, Pellizza da Volpedo’s The Fourth Estate continues to touch us deeply. Our desire to return to work is reflected in those tenacious looks.

Pellizza thought of selling the painting immediately, but in the society of his time, this painting had yet to be successful. The municipality of Milan bought it only in 1920 for 50,000 lire, thanks also to contributions from banks, associations and individuals. Initially, it was exhibited at the Castello Sforzesco and soon became a symbol of socialism. Precisely for this reason, with the advent of fascism, it was deposited in a warehouse. It was only in 1954 that it was exhibited again, and Mayor Ferrari placed it in the council chamber of Palazzo Marino. Unfortunately, it suffered damage from smoke, for which restoration was required. Subsequently, it was shown in various world cities, such as Washington and Rome; in the 1980s, it found its fixed location in Milan, first in the Galleria d’Arte Moderna and finally in the Museo del Novecento.

The Bricklayer, Giovanni Sottocornola, 1981

Painting by Giovanni Sottocornola dated 1981. Sottocornola presented the work at the 1st Brera Triennial Exhibition in the same year; as Giovanna Ginex points out, the struggles waged by the working class to which the bricklayers, unskilled workers and painters belong take on greater importance in prominent society in Milan at the end of the 19th century. However, the image of the worker proposed by Sottocornola is distinguished by the sobriety of the paginated scene, devoid of the emphasis and peremptoriness that instead pervades many compositions belonging to the same vein, such as L’oratore dello sciocioro by Emilio Longoni, which appeared at the same Triennale braidense of 1891 in the same room as Muratore. The character, captured in an elegant pose that derives from that of official portraiture, is rendered through solid and full-bodied drafting, still far from the divisionist experimentation implemented by Sottocornola in other works inspired by social themes, such as L’alba dell’operaio, dated 1897, conserved at the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Milan.

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