An Al-Fresco Toilette by Samuel Luke Fildes

An Al-Fresco Toilette by Samuel Luke Fildes (1889)

For the third day running I am featuring a British artist.  The reason being is that the small art gallery I visited last week, although it had some wonderful pictures, ninety per cent were by British artists and whilst the paintings were fresh in my mind and I could still decipher my notes I thought I would dwell on what I saw.

My featured artist today is Samuel Luke Fildes who was born in Liverpool in 1844.  At the age of 17 and after he had completed his basic schooling he moved to the nearby Warrington School of Art before moving south to London and becoming a student at the South Kensington Art School and later the Royal Academy.   It was here that he was influenced by Frederick Walker, the English Social Realist painter who John Everett Millais described as “the greatest artist of the century”.   The Social Realism, sometimes termed Socio-Realism, was an  art movement whose members depicted social and racial injustice and economic hardship and in their works of art.  The subjects of their paintings were often members of the “working class” pictured struggling to survive the hardships of life.    Social Realism genre of painting was also very popular in America during the Great Depression and one famous example of  an American Social Realism painting was one by Grant Wood, entitled American Gothic which I featured on January 7th.

In 1869 when he was 24, Fildes joined the staff of the The Graphic, a new illustrated weekly newspaper, which was founded by the artist and social reformer William Luson Thomas.  Thomas believed strongly in the power of visual images and that they could change public opinion and it was his hope that this may lead to the eradication of social injustice and poverty.  Luke Fildes submitted an illustration, which was to run side by side with an article on the 1864 Houseless Poor Act and his poignant offering showing a line of homeless people queueing  up to get a ticket which would give them access to overnight accommodation.  This engraving entitled Houseless and Hungry caught the attention of a fellow artist who also worked for The Graphic, the Pre-Raphaelite painter, John Everett Millais, who showed it to the author Charles Dickens.  The author having recently just lost his book illustrator through ill-health, immediately commissioned Fildes to illustrate his new novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  Fame soon followed and in 1870, Fildes left the newspaper to concentrate on his artistic work. 

I am leaving the story of Fildes life at this point as I want to conclude it tomorrow with another of his paintings, which is extremely poignant and sad and is connected to an incident later in his life.  However for today, I want to look at a painting which he completed in 1889 entitled An Al-Fresco Toilette and which can now be found in the Lady Lever Art Gallery on Merseyside.  This painting was a move away from his social realist work which was the main focus of his early artistic life.  Fildes, who began this painting in Venice, had originally decided to call this painting The Morning of the Fiesta.  It is set in a Venetian courtyard of a very old building with its vine-covered trellis work over the main entrance.   The building belonged to the artist Henry Wood.  Fildes and Wood were, at that time, looked upon as leaders of the Neo-Venetian art movement and many of their works depicted scenes of happy groups of girls passing the time away along the sides of the canals or posing on their balconies.  This type of painting was extremely popular in exhibitions and as illustrations in magazines and most importantly with art collectors.

In this painting, we see some women and children preparing themselves for that day’s Fiesta.  It is a vibrant painting full of charm and the sun has lit up the courtyard and the three women as they discuss the forthcoming event.  It is not known with any amount of certainty but it is believed that this is not an en plein air painting of a real life scene but was probably based on various individual preliminary sketches Fildes made and which were then used to build up the finished composition when he returned to his studio.  This type of happy, sunny painting was popular with art buyers.  Lord Leverhulme, the Northern Industrialist, philanthropist, and soap-manufacturer bought the painting in 1913 and considered it appropriate for his soap advertisements. 

However not everybody was happy with Fildes new art genre.  Art critics and the Art Establishment never forgave Fildes for abandoning the Social Realism genre of his early career, which had highlighted the terrible circumstances some of the poorest people in Britain had to suffer.   The Art Establishment still fervently believed that art still had an important moralistic role to play but unfortunately the taste of the buying public was starting to change.   They were moving away from these downbeat works, with all their distressing scenes, and look towards happier and sunnier scenes and Fildes realised that this was the route to financial stability.