1855 and all that: The Bordeaux Classification and the arts

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While the Bordeaux brokers were busy establishing a wine hierarchy at the Exposition Universelle 164 years ago, a painter from Ornans was busy challenging the art hierarchy.

Displeased by the space allocated to him at the Exposition, Gustave Courbet organised his own exhibition – adjacent to the official pavilion – called “Le Réalisme”, showing 40 of his own paintings.

Courbet was de facto leader (though he did not form a school) of the Realist movement that championed accurate and objective representation, but was also a rebellion against historical, mythological and religious themes. He was asked to include angels in a painting for a church, but declared that ‘I have never seen an angel. Show me an angel and I will paint one’”.

The centrepiece of his one-man exhibition in Paris was the six-metres wide canvas entitled “L’Atelier du peintre” (“The Painter’s Studio”), subtitled (oxymoronically) “Allegory of Realism”. In his long and rambling account of the painting in the preface to the catalogue of his one-man show, Courbet described it as “the moral and physical history of my studio” and that it showed “all the people who serve my cause, sustain me in my ideal and support my activity”.

The figures on the left of the canvas were described by Courbet as “the world of commonplace life” (with Baudelaire among them), though many viewers saw covert political content in the painting – the 1848 revolution had taken place only seven years previously, and Louis-Napoleon had become the authoritarian Napoleon III, supposedly represented in Courbet’s painting by the figure of the hunter. “L’Atelier du peintre” was later described by Huysmans as “une terrifiante ânerie imaginée par un homme sans education et peinte par un vieux manoeuvre”.

Across the Channel, English painters were producing work that would have outraged the obstinate and self-assured Courbet. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had been formed in 1848 by several young artists, though by 1855 the group had effectively dissolved. Their style was a huge contrast to that of Courbet and the Realists: flat, bright colours and meticulous representation of detail, often with what is now considered to be a rather mawkish sentimentality of theme, as seen in the moral and social symbolism of William Holman Hunt’s 1855 canvas “The Scapegoat”.

Closer to Courbet’s Realism was Mrs Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell’s novel “North and South” – a depiction of the social contrasts between rural southern England and the industrial north – which was serialised in “Household Words” from September 1854 to January 1855, but published in volume form later in the year.

Dickens’ “Little Dorrit” was published in monthly parts from December 1855 to June 1857, the tale of Amy Dorrit – the “little Dorrit” of the title – and her father William, who has been in Marshalsea Prison for Debtors so long that he has become the ‘Father of the Marshalsea’. George Bernard Shaw later called it Dickens’ “masterpiece among many masterpieces”.

Tennyson – the Poet Laureate – published “Maud and Other Poems” in 1855. The British Prime Minister William Gladstone (this was an age when Prime Ministers actually read books) disliked the bloodshed in “Maud”, writing that “We do not recollect that 1855 was a season of serious danger from a mania for peace and its pursuits”.

In contrast to Gladstone’s comments, Charles Kingsley’s story of the Devon seaman Amyas Leigh and his adventures against the Spanish Armada in “Westward Ho!” (still the only English novel to have a village named after it) thrilled contemporary readers who were mindful of events in the Crimea, where Florence Nightingale was a real life heroine.

Charlotte Brontë – the last surviving Brontë sibling – died, but “The Daily Telegraph” was born. It was the first paper to be issued in London at a penny and was hugely successful, for a while enjoying a higher circulation than any other English paper. Thornton Hunt, the eldest son of poet and essayist Leigh Hunt, was officially a staff member but in fact served as de facto editor, imbuing the paper with radical political views in its early days.

Robert Browning’s two volume collection of 51 poems “Men and Women”, which he called “poems all sorts and sizes and styles and subjects”, featured much of his finest work, such as “Love among the Ruins”, “Childe Harold to the Dark Tower Came”, and “Fra Lippo Lippi”.

In America, Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” first appeared in 1855, saturated – as Whitman himself put it – “with the vehemence of pride and the audacity of freedom necessary to loosen the mind of still-to-be form’d America from the folds, the superstitions, and all the long, tenacious and stifling anti-democratic authorities of Asiatic and European past”. The collection appeared in eight editions altogether during Whitman’s lifetime, each edition an enlargement and revision of the one preceding it.

Similarly, Trollope’s “The Warden” was the first in his “Barsetshire” series of six novels, concluding with “The Last Chronicle of Barset” in 1867. As with many of Trollope’s novels, “The Warden” is steeped in wine. The penultimate paragraph of the novel reads, “Mr Harding does dine with him very often, which means going to the palace at three and remaining till ten; and whenever he does not the bishop whines, and says that the port wine is corked, and complains that nobody attends to him, and frets himself off to bed an hour before his time.”

The 1855 Médoc Classification, however, has proved to be rather more durable than much of the literature and painting produced in the same year. For the arts, then, 1855 was a good – but certainly not great – vintage.

Stuart George | Founder and Managing Director
Arden Fine Wines

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