Artistic impressions on port industrialisation

2020 is a year that will stay in our memories for a long time. Not so much for the pandemic, more for how it forced us to adapt to a new reality. The second half of the 19th century was a time when innovations in energy provision, technology, production systems and labour also forced change in society radically. It was also the start of a revolutionary art movement. My visit to the cradle of impressionism this Summer made me aware of the strong connection between art, the industrial revolution and port cities in transition.

What can we learn from the views of great painters on those transitional changes and how does that give us a perspective on the changes of our time?

If there is one port-city that was in the midst of change, it must have been Le Havre. The railway between the port and the capital of Paris provided a fast connection with the French coast and accelerated urbanisation and industrialisation but also started a whole new art movement. The new rich in England and France discovered beach tourism and flocked the beaches along the coastlines. Migrants from across Europe crowded ports to set sail to the new world. Everyone seemed to be on the move, but there were some people, artists who devoted their time and talent to register these changes and by doing so left us a time capsule with their paintings.

Pioneers of a new art movement

It was Eugene Boudin, son of a pilot at sea in Honfleur who was fascinated by beach tourists along the Côte Fleurie. He invited the 17 year old Claude Monet into painting en plein air. Together with Dutch painter Johan Barthold Jongkind who was also a teacher to Monet, the three shared a love for seascapes and ports. Monet soon convinced other painters in Paris such as Manet, Pissarro, Sisley to come along to paint along the river Seine and in port cities of Le Havre, Rouen and Paris. They must have been mesmerized by what they saw, given the many paintings they made, sometimes even side-by-side.

On a port-city discovery

The French-Prussian War in 1870–1871 forced these young artists to flee to London where their ideas and styles converged into what was to become a revolution. Being abroad was also an opportunity to visit and paint other ports and industrial landscapes. Monet crossed the North Sea for a holiday in Zaandam and Amsterdam. Boudin went to Rotterdam, Antwerp, Dunkirque and Dieppe. Edouard Manet visited Bordeaux, Pissarro stayed in Pontoise near Paris and later painted along the waterside in Rouen, important for cereals, citrus and wine.

Scaling up a revolution

What happened in these ports at that time? Cities were expanding, ports were rapidly industrialising and consequentially their evolving economies required goods to be transported from a larger distance in larger quantities. River slopes disappeared and were converted into straight quays, canals were dredged and sailing vessels were replaced by steamships. Technology opened a window of opportunities for economies of scale, which translated into port expansion projects, as risky as they were rewarding for investors.

The connection between the art movement and port industrialisation is also about money. The new rich port industrialists provided a market for the impressionists. Coal, cotton, cocoa were traded, shipped and sold, and industrialists often were the early buyers of the art work of undiscovered talent. Telling examples are Francois Depeaux for Monet and Sisley, and Pieter van de Velde for Boudin. And then there were the art collectors. Paul Durand-Ruel purchased large quantities of paintings, was their promotor and provided both financial and even moral support ar times to Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Cassett, Manet and Degas. His New York exhibition of 300 impressionist paintings in 1886 was a roaring success and launched impressionism as art movement and lasting legacy in the USA.

Art as a window to change

Paradoxically, the impressionists owed their success to the revolution that were the subject of their own creations. Port and transport technology offered new territories for exploration and opened new markets. They captured the metamorphosis from the world of horse and wind to steam powered engines in a time capsule. Now that we are struggling to adapt to new realities in our own day and age, we should open up our senses, we should go outdoors. We should set our easel on the edge of land and water and we should marvel on the wonders of the transition as it unfolds in front of us. Moreover, we should learn to appreciate art as our window to a changing reality.

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Author: Maurice Jansen, senior researcher, Erasmus UPT and LDE Port City Futures and art lover. This is the first in a series on impressionist art in port cities.

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Maurice Jansen

Maurice Jansen

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Born, raised, living and working with Port of Rotterdam in my backyard.Dedicated to create, share knowledge and connect with port professionals around the world