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Eventide: A Scene in the Westminster Union, 1878, by Hubert von Herkomer (1849-1914)


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About the artwork

Hubert von Herkomer is regarded as a British artist, although he was born in Germany. He started his early career as an illustrator for the Graphic Magazine in London, producing wood engravings of scenes of everyday life. The famous Dutch painter Van Gogh admired Herkomer's work for its expressive qualities.

Eventide depicts inmates of the St.James's Workhouse in Soho, London. Workhouses were the last resort of those - often the old - who through extreme poverty were unable to support themselves. Herkomer was drawn to the subject because of his sympathy for what he called "the sorrowful side of humanity".

The workhouse scene appears to be quite comfortable with its table cloth, vase and prints on the wall. The women look cheerful engaged in their sowing: one holds a bible on her lap, another enjoys her tea. The inclusion of a young woman in their midst shows the contrast between youth and age, a popular Victorian theme.

Eventide was considered as the female companion picture to the Last Muster (now in the Lady Lever Art Gallery), which shows elderly Chelsea pensioners and Crimean War veterans.

Eventide was purchased from the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition in 1878. The Walker also owns a watercolour study of Eventide.

Hubert von Herkomer was born in Bavaria in 1849. His family left for the USA in 1851 and, after spending a few years in Cleveland, returned to Europe to settle in England in 1857. Herkomer studied at the Southampton School of Arts; in 1865 he briefly attended the Munich Academy and later on the South Kensington Art School in London.

He began his career as an illustrator and preferred real life subjects, especially the lives of the poor and disadvantaged. Nevertheless, he also completed several portraits of famous people and romantic landscapes taken from his travels to rural England, Wales and Bavaria.

Herkomer was a multi-talented artist; he enjoyed experimenting with new media, such as enamel painting, and developed what he called "pictorial musical plays" designing props and directing plays. He also founded a successful art school in his home in Bushey, Hertfordshire. In 1913 Herkomer became involved in filming and must have made several films, at least two of which are known.

The painting

Eventide was considered as the female companion picture to the Last Muster, now in the Lady Lever Art Gallery. Both paintings describe the life of the old and entail notions of death. Eventide was based on three more realistic drawings that Herkomer had made for the Graphic magazine in which he focused on the hardship of the women's lives.

In Eventide the workhouse appears as a comfortable and sociable environment, despite the poverty. Nevertheless, one of the prints on the wall has been identified as two figures from the Last Muster - the dead pensioner and his companion - and Herkomer may have included this detail to stress the relevance of the two paintings as well as to allude to death.

When first exhibited, Eventide was well received by the press: the truthfulness of the faces and Herkomer's ability to capture their character as well as to appeal to the viewers' sentiments was greatly praised. In another review the theme of Eventide was criticised as an unhappy one, probably because the idea of art as serving beauty and idealism was still persistent in Victorian art.

It was when Eventide was exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1879 that it was most admired: its distorted perspective with the pressing foreground cluster of figures was considered extremely innovative and powerful while the natural expression of the elderly women was equally praised.