The title of Augustus Egg's Past and Present triptych implies, it might be argued, a narrative progression — some kind of illustration of how we arrived at 'now' through an examination of 'then'. The clue to the present situation is found in the following quotation, displayed with the pictures (in fact the paintings were untitled when first exhibited, so this was the only textual elucidation they received): "Aug. 4: Have just heard that B. has been dead more than a fortnight; so his poor children have now lost both their parents. I hear she was seen on Friday last, near the Strand, evidently without a place to lay her head — What a fall hers has been!"

The same moon can be seen in two of the paintings, a visual clue that these are both in the same moment. They are in the present, allied with the quotation (as shown by the solitary, grieving children and the homeless woman they present) and the drawing room image containing all the family is the past with which these present images are juxtaposed — the moment that made the two later images inevitable. There is a starkness to this juxtaposition, as indeed there is to the paintings themselves; they display extreme situations (the discovery of an infidelity, grief and hopelessness) with a rigidity and a peculiar sense of having been thoroughly staged. We see the events and emotions figured in the paintings with a great deal of symbolism — in the first, the woman is flung on the floor in what is very much a pose of shame and despair, as well as a gesture of supplication to the husband who grinds the image of his rival under his shoe. The bisected apple figures both the dissolution of their marriage and the Biblical fall (paralleled with the literally fallen woman) and as if this were not enough, one half of the apple lies on the floor with the unfaithful wife (as though there were a danger that we might miss the point). The other half is stabbed through with a knife — the fatal blow to the doomed husband. Further, the house of cards that the children have been constructing is tumbling to the floor, and they had been attempting to construct it upon some novels by Balzac, a writer famous for his tales of adultery.

There is no room for a complex interpretation of this picture. The adultery of the woman stands utterly condemned (the fact that we do not even see her face is suggestive of the complete lack of sympathy with which we are encouraged to view her; this is all reserved for the husband, whose furious and grief-stricken expression confronts us head-on) the biblical imagery is used without any subtlety — the woman has fallen through weakness and brought the man down with her — and the children's ruined house of cards is yet another comment upon the destruction wrought by this adulterous affair. The seemingly inevitable consequences are shown similarly starkly; the children pose in conventional expressions of abandonment and grief whilst the mother lurks under the bridge (a bridge famous for being a venue for the suicide of desperate women) beneath posters that comment ironically upon her fate, clutching her illegitimate child — again very little is seen of her face, and all we see of the child are his disembodied legs poking out towards us — very little opportunity for connection or sympathy with the bastard child on the part of the viewer.

There does not seem to be a narrative here. It is more an illustration of the commandment, 'Thou shalt not commit adultery'. It is an illustration of a moral and an inexorable judgement on the woman who has transgressed — even the sufferings of the children are shown in connection with the mother's position, thanks to the fact that they all stare at the same moon. The words exhibited with the painting flesh out the story, and perhaps it is indicative of how little narrative is present within the image itself that without the diary entry we would not realize the fact of the father's death — we might instead see the children pining for their mother and feel a sympathy for her through their longing. Instead, once we see them as alone in the world they could be looking out for any guiding or protective power, it is not necessarily an expression of the loss of the mother. Even the novels in the first painting are merely symbolic — the collapsing house of cards built upon the stories of adultery.

This lack of complexity and rigid presentation achieves a peculiar effect in the viewer. We are being encouraged — one might argue, commanded — to judge, and yet the need for our judgement is eradicated because the artist has made his judgement so comprehensively. The result is didactic, perhaps even a warning, and yet at the same time to escape the strong condemnation of the painting we almost feel required to join in and add our own voice to that of the artist. It feels that we are bullied into a reaction.

Questions

What effect do the posters on the walls of the bridge have on the presentation of the mother?

If we were to see the same scenes from a different visual perspective, would we respond differently?

Are we encouraged to flesh out the story of the painting with our own imaginings, for example considering what will be the fate of the children? Do we add a future onto the past and present?

Is there any way in which the paintings allow for sympathy towards the mother?


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Last modified 20 September 2007