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Oil painting - Idleness

Idleness

  • Object:

    Oil painting

  • Place of origin:

    Britain (painted)

  • Date:

    ca. 1795-1819 (painted)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Bird, Edward, born 1772 - died 1819 (painter (artist))

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Oil on oak panel

  • Credit Line:

    Given by Charles Roberson

  • Museum number:

    FA.246[O]

  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

Idleness is an oil painting on panel by Edward Bird. Its subject matter pays homage to works on similar themes by William Hogarth and to 17th-century Dutch genre scenes of neglected interiors. The single-figure format of the sleeping girl, in particular, draws upon the 18th-century British tradition of the single-figure fancy picture, especially the work of Jean-Baptiste Greuze. This British art genre was a vehicle for the prevailing attitudes of morality and sentiment; whilst we may pity the sleeping servant girl, the painting’s title of Idleness may also invite our condemnation, although it is unclear whether the title comes from Bird or was imposed on the picture later on. Bird was a successful artist who is credited with a pivotal role in the emergence of the so-called Bristol School in about 1820. He excelled in painting domestic, humble scenes, exhibiting regularly at the Royal Academy and the British Institution, becoming a full member of the former in 1815 soon after his appointment as Historical Painter to Princess Charlotte in 1813.

Physical description

A young girl in an unbuttoned, white blouse and green skirt asleep on a chair in a darkened, untidy interior, off which leads a staircase and an adjacent room.

Place of Origin

Britain (painted)

Date

ca. 1795-1819 (painted)

Artist/maker

Bird, Edward, born 1772 - died 1819 (painter (artist))

Materials and Techniques

Oil on oak panel

Dimensions

Height: 12.375 in estimate, Width: 16.375 in estimate, Height: 31 cm, Width: 41 cm, :

Object history note

Given by Charles Roberson, 1865

Historical context note

Idleness is an oil on panel by Edward Bird (1772-1819). The painting’s single-figure format shows its debt to Marcellus Laroon (1679-1772), an artist of Dutch parentage, who introduced into British art what were known in the 18th century as ‘fancy pictures’.

The painting’s subject matter also owes much to William Hogarth (1697-1764), who painted scenes of Industry and Idleness. More especially it recalls 17th-century Dutch genre scenes which played upon the theme of idleness and domestic neglect, as painted by Nicholas Maes (1634-93), Pieter de Hooch (1629-84) and Jan Vermeer (1632-75). The vista into an adjacent room was also a device popularised by these artists. In emulating Dutch art, Bird was no doubt appealing to the growing taste for Dutch painting in the early-19th century.

The young servant girl’s uncorseted appearance and loose neckline, however, draw more upon the British tradition of the single-figure fancy picture. This genre was essentially European in origin and emerged in Britain during the first half of the 18th century, promoted by artists such as the French émigré painter Philip Mercier (1689-1760). Its success was fuelled by an emerging-bourgeois consumerist culture eager for pictures to please and, in some cases, titillate, and by engravers whose prints gave a wider market for an artist’s work. The addition of titles, often moralising or suggestive, aided interpretation and amplified the meaning of such fancy pictures. Children proved the most popular subject matter, closely followed by a range of colourful characters including market women, servants and old beggars (for a discussion of the fancy picture see, Martin Postle, Angels and Urchins: The Fancy Picture in 18th-century British Art, London, 1998).

The fancy picture became a vehicle for prevailing attitudes of both morality and sentiment and Bird’s painting creates an unsettling tension between the two: whilst voyeuristically observing the adolescent girl’s obvious dishevelment, are we invited to pity her poverty or condemn her unkempt appearance? The picture’s title of ‘Idleness’ and the strategically-placed bottle on the staircase, perhaps hinting at inebriation, certainly suggest the latter although it is unclear whether the title comes from Bird or was imposed later on.

Bird was a successful artist who is credited with a pivotal role in the emergence of the so-called Bristol School in about 1820. He excelled in painting domestic, humble scenes, exhibiting regularly at the Royal Academy of Art and the British Institution, and became a full member of the former in 1815, soon after his appointment as Historical Painter to Princess Charlotte in 1813.

Descriptive line

Oil painting, Idleness, by Edward Bird, British School, ca. 1795-1819

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Richardson, Sarah, Edward Bird: 1772-1819, Wolverhampton Art Gallery, Geffrye Museum, 1982

Materials

Oil paint; Oak

Techniques

Oil painting

Subjects depicted

Sleep; Idleness

Categories

Paintings

Collection

Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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