What was there before movies? Books, of course. People used to read books, because books were telling stories.
But there were also paintings in that dark, pre-movie world. Until the 17th century, paintings had been illustrating holy texts, or ancient myths, that is stories created outside of a painting. A painting would aim to illustrate the climax of the story chosen as its subject, adding here and there a few symbols linked to the story’s beginning or end.
It was the 17th century Holland that saw the start of mass-production of the first “genre” paintings, showing lives of burghers, their wives, maids and boat rowers. I will talk about it some day. Russian artists in the 19th century picked up the baton of “genre” painting to produce a gallery of ironic, compassionate, satiric, sarcastic and mildly offensive pictures of Russian life. Most of stories narrated in those paintings are not relevant today, gallery visitors look at them, smile at the characters and move on. Yet, there are some which make a knowing smile appear on the faces of their viewers.
This is one of my favourite pictures, which is somewhat overlooked today, The First Tail-Coat by Vladimir Makovsky. It is 1892, Russia. It can be anyplace anytime. We’ve been through this, as young men or women, their parents, or their grandparents.
Some things never change. The man feels awkward, so he stands with his elbows stuck out and leaning forward, while he waits for women of the house to give their verdict.
The seamstress (green shirt) is all smiles and happy appreciation of her own efforts.
The mother (red stole) doesn’t rush to congratulate her son: she seems to be sad for her boy is entering quite a different life.
The maid (at the door) tries to stiff a giggle or hide her reaction before any is given by her lady.
And, finally, the grandmother: feeling the material, inspecting the quality, and, probably, complaining that tail-coats used to be made much better in the old days. And then remembering those old days, when she was young and similarly young men were courting her at receptions.
This painting is not about tail-coats, actually. It is about growing up, about doing things for the first time in life. Done with a smile.
And, again I must thank the Daily Prompt, which did exactly what it said on the tin: prompted me to remember this.
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