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.

the-first-coat-1892It is clickable, and worth a click.

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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    1. Thank you. Makovsky’s contemporaries believed he was successful about 20% of the time in his “genre” paintings, with 80% of them being made-up scenes, often false and bland. This painting represents the good 20% of his paintings.

    1. Oh, but I thought I made it clear it was a maid above. And yes, she is indeed a maid, for she’s dressed in a sort of “maid’s uniform” of the 19th c. ))

      Were she a teen sister of the young man, she would have to look envious that her elder brother is getting totally adult. I wonder how the artist would paint that emotion!

      1. Why do you suppose she would “have to look envious.” I can almost imagine a child giggle at that idea. But, a maid would be more “suited” for the theme.

        1. A sis trying to cover her emotion would be younger. A younger sis in Russia would be envious of her elder brother because what she sees in front of her right now is freedom and excitement that await her brother ready to enter the “society”. )

  1. I’m wondering if this might have been an impromptu ‘fashion show’, instigated by the seamstress. I’m led to this conclusion (?) by.. what seems to me.. a dish of fresh fruit on the desk; indicating that the “Mother” had been writing.
    ~~I just love stories in art~~

    1. Did you notice the Last Supper by Leonardo above the table? Generally, the abundance of paintings is meant to signal the family is very well educated ) The bowl of fruit is also a symbol that the family is affluent enough to afford fresh fruit daily. So it is the upper middle class of Russia in the 19th century.

    1. I absolutely love your theatre comparison. The only difference is that theatre is very much alive and kicking and this kind of painting is rather dead, despite our contemporary life can provide a lot of ideas for it. It is not photography that killed it, I guess, but just a general lack of interest in the seemingly unremarkable lives of common people, ourselves. It is unmarketable, unlike a glamorous picture of a celebrity.

It would be grand to hear from you now!

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