I believe one of the most distinct and interesting transitions in art came between the 19th and 20th centuries, at which a major change in metropolitan life occurred. During the 1800′s, European cities were not-so-densely packed locations for the upper bourgeois class. While the state of cities at this time can be researched and read about in a history book, I think it’s the works of art that most clearly represent both the physical and psychological state of the city at this time.

Changes In History Through Art


The 19th Century

The work work below by Caillebotte shows the city as a place composed of clear individuals. Each person is both distinct and isolated from other groups, which is enforced by the fact that they all carry umbrellas that define their own space in the painting. These people do not interact with each other, but instead are reserved to themselves and maintain their calm composure.  Caillebotte even further asserts this kind of isolation by not having any of his painted character make eye contact with the viewer, suggesting that the viewer is just another similar person walking on the street. The city appears spacious, quiet, and non-stressful. However, this perception of the city would be entirely reversed due to forces at the beginning of the 20th century that drastically changed metropolitan life.

Gustav Caillebotte, Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877

Changes In History Through Art: 19th and 20th Century Cities


The 20th Century

At the turn of the century and with the growth of industry, suddenly cities saw a major change in both size and atmosphere. The integration of lower classes and overpopulation brought an eclectic mix of people, including workers and prostitutes. Artist Ernst Kirchner illustrates this with his perception of the mass as an amorphous collection of people, bleeding into each other and no longer distinguishable as individuals (See painting below). Compared to Caillebotte’s use of softer, quieter colors, Kirchner uses an eccentric color palate to accentuate the literal and psychological “noise” of the city.  The women are sexualized through curvature and stare straight at the viewer, inviting him into the chaotic scene. However, it is hard to know where to focus as the eye is continually drawn from one point to another, skimming the overwhelming visual feed of the painting.

Ernst Kirchner, Street, Dresden, 1908

Changes In History Through Art: 19th and 20th Century Cities


In Conclusion

While it may seem easiest to pick up a book that summarizes the history and development and cities, sometimes the easiest way to understand changes in history through art. For each art movement there is a corresponding time period that can not only show the influence for the works, but best illustrate the state of life at the time.  These two paintings not only show that there was a change between the 19th and 20th century, but the gravity it had on one’s perception of the city and the atmosphere it created.

Written by Clio Sage Maudlin
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