Augustus Leopold Egg's narrative series Past and Present exemplifies a work that puts forth profound questions of Victorian morality and the state of the artist's society by way of a most visceral experience. One might say that his seriation nearly attacks every sense of the viewer. In Past and Present (I), The Infidelity Discovered , Egg immediately immerses us in the given circumstance: The light, though true to the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of realism in that the light comes from a natural source, the window, serves as a haunting contrast with the darkness in the room, and the black-eyed stares of the man and the young girl who turns toward him. Although the people are noticeably flattened, the light seems to be a tool for Egg to carve space and depth into the scene. As a symbolic parallel, perhaps, Egg reinforces the contrast by showing the children in the same room as the corpse of a woman--most likely their mother.
Like two important influences for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, The Arnolfini Portrait and Hogarth's Industry and Idleness, Egg's painting makes room for both profound questions of morality, religious truth and everyday human relations. The Infidelity Discovered bares one particularly striking resemblence to Van Eyck's work with the use of the mirror, but instead of two people as seen in the latter, a wide open door through which a more natural color emits is reflected. Whether this represents the irony of continuation of life even after such an atrocity, or more specifically issues of the then current Victorian society, what is clear is that Egg probably was somewhat influence by Hogarth's moralist stance: This scene portrays a middle, upper-middle, class Victorian home. And yet nothing here seems to fit the conventional view of the perfect Victorian family.
By the second painting, The Abandoned Daughters , there is almost a struggle between two light sources: One, much more inflammed, coming from the candle, and the other, the natural, from the moon. But this is only a larger symbolic framework for many other drastic changes to take place within. Not only is the window now actually in view, but the daughters are transfered from their luxurious middle-class home to an almost orphanage setting. Looking out the window towards the cityscape becomes a performative act of realizing that the window is there, that there is reality and life beyond the interior. The last work of this series, The Wife Abandoned by Her Lover with Her Bastard Child , we are no longer inside at all. The character herself is physically a part of the outerworld, and, more importantly, part of a working-class world. As Hogarth might include, Egg has painted a barrel as fit for the scenery of the waterfront. This is a scene of modern labor and life. The woman here is not even the main study, she is merely accessory, it seems. With the inconstant moon shining upon boats that, too, will sail from port to port, this painting finishes the narrative with a near religious undercurrent over Hogarthian commentary.
1. Was a three-part series the best way for Egg to narrate this story? Could he have achieved the same artistic power through one painting alone?
2. Does the seriation do a good job of balancing absence (what the viewer must fill in for herself) with presence (manifest narrative elements)? Must the two women in the second painting be adult versions of the two little girls in the first painting? Does Egg force this conclusion upon us? If yes, how so?
3. With this work in mind, where do we set the boundaries for how much symbolism is okay to buy into? For instance, in the first painting, The Infidelity Discovered , do we give symbolic meaning to all the scattered items on the floor? To the chandelier and the colors of the clothing worn, as in The Arnolfini Portrait ? How about the mirrors in both the The Infidelity Discovered and The Abandoned Daughters ?
4. Is there anymore significance to the grotesque and rather shocking appearence of the characters and their relation to one another other than its contribution to mood?
5. Why did Egg paint one of the women with her head in the other's lap? Is this to enforce the concept of the embowered woman?
6. What, other than title and ideas mentioned above, blatantly suggests social commentary on Victorian life? After all, it is unlikely that we would have a clear idea what the conflict in the first painting is (why the woman is dead) without the hint from the title.
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Last modified 4 February 2008