The Sanitary Arts
English professor’s new book looks at art and sanitation reform in Victorian England
English professor Eileen Cleere’s courses and research focus on the Victorian era, a time of abundant creative and social reform. Her forthcoming book examines the intersection between two such reforms: the sanitation reform movement and the shift from picturesque painting to Pre-Raphaelite painting and more realistic styles of representation.
The Sanitary Arts: Aesthetic Culture and the Victorian Cleanliness Campaigns will be published in July. The book draws a connection between reformist Edwin Chadwick’s 1841 report on the sanitary condition of the laboring class in England, and art critic John Ruskin’s 1842 Volume of Modern Painters, which condemned the Renaissance tradition of romanticizing scenes of poverty in paintings.
“It was the sort of moment when sewage was discovered to be contaminating and that the streets were reeking,” Cleere said. “It led to all of this horror and revulsion, for not only the insanitary status of London, but for the insanitary status of the working class more specifically.”
Cleere argues that this moment of sanitary realization was linked to a movement, pioneered by Ruskin, to also sanitize art.
“A reverence for picturesque environments − ruined cottages, old villages, ragged, dirty peasants − is actually a degraded and damaging aesthetic practice that the 18th century brought into existence, but that the 19th century could no longer tolerate,” Cleere said.
“The 19th century newly discovers that dirt is bad for you; dirt is damaging; that when you see an aesthetically beautiful environment it’s probably the case that whole legions of people are suffering because of that preference for aesthetic decay.”
Ruskin helped this along by providing critical support for the newer painters, who rejected the picturesque tradition of darkening and obscuring a landscape or portrait to make it seem more romantic, much in the same way that some Instagram filters do nowadays.
“John Ruskin celebrated the Pre-Raphaelites, painters who used bright colors, images of healthy bodies, images of realist environments. Those painters banished the dominance of brown that was a holdover from Renaissance art,” Cleere said. “With the new painters, like Turner, for example, white becomes a dominant color. Images that display cleanliness and health become more acceptable to the mainstream public than other kinds of images.”
At the turn of the century, this popularization of clean, bright images eventually evolved into modernism, which valued sleek, bright, simple environments.
“If you have an over-decorated Victorian parlor it’s really hard to clean, so modernism comes along, I would argue, not as much as an aesthetic transformation, but as a kind of sanitary intolerance for dirt and disease,” Cleere said.
Modernism was unfortunately accompanied by another movement at the turn of the century, one that also borrowed from Ruskin’s ideology, but took it to the opposite extreme.
“The sanitary reform movement, which was very much about rescuing the poor from an aestheticized form of representation, eventually became part of a eugenics campaign,” Cleere said. “Unfortunately, John Ruskin’s idea that clean bodies and clean environments should be the definition of art because it’s hopeful and optimistic played perfectly into the hands of geneticists at the end of the century who used all of that aesthetic argument in the service of eugenics.”
Although sanitation reform fell into obscurity with the public rejection of the eugenics campaigns, Cleere hopes to emphasize the ways in which Ruskin’s work, and the sanitary reforms of the Victorian era, are still with us today.
“One of the things I’m trying to do is uncover that long trajectory of sanitation reform. I think there’s this legacy stemming from the 19th century but we don’t think about it as a legacy anymore,” Cleere said. “We just think about it as science.”
Cleere has been researching the topic since before her first book, Avuncularism: Capitalism, Patriarchy and Nineteenth-Century English Culture, came out in 2004. The germ of the idea that would become The Sanitary Arts was planted when she read Victorian author Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help Guide: Character.
“He [Smiles] talks about how Ruskin would be walking around Venice, and he’d say to the attendant: ‘When we sniff a bad odor, we know we’ll be close to something really great in art.’ Smiles quotes this as an example of how degraded a study of fine art must be if you’re using your nose to find the foulest thing you can,” Cleere said. “My mind was blown by that. I just kept following up on it, and it turns out there’s this rich discourse about art being a filthy and contaminating experience for the middle classes that needs to be cleaned and transformed throughout the century.”
The Sanitary Arts traces that discourse into the present day, and demonstrates how two seemingly separate arenas − those of high art and public sanitation − are inextricably linked.