The kings of Rome were overthrown in 509 BCE, establishing the period of the Republic. During this period, Rome conquered vast amounts of land throughout the continent of Europe, which put a strain on its political system and weakened the power of the Senate. Art was used to insight political and social change and ease the tension on the political system. The life-size bronze statue Aulus Metellus was used to speak to the people, assuring them that their government was working in their interests. Artists of the Republican period were keen on creating believable images based on careful study called naturalism. Romans loved accurate and faithful portraits of their leaders and were drawn to the confidence in the Republic exuded by these faithful representations.
Aulus Metellus is a remarkable statue due to its naturalism and its ability to interact with the viewer. The life size statue of a Roman official (the name is inscribed in the hem of his robe) stretches his hand out toward the crowd he is addressing. With his arm outstretched toward the people, the official is letting the public know that he has the power and authority to help them. His pose makes him ‘one of the people’ rather than some god-like government official. His toga is neatly folded and draped around his body, which is un-idealized, marking him as a governmental official, but an official that is of the people and works for the people. His features are common and not idealized like the statues of the gods were. Viewers would be able to identify with this statue and place their trust in the government this official hails from. The portrayal of senators and officials as caring and strong individuals helped restore trust and ease the tension on the Republic’s political system.
During the second quarter of the nineteenth century, many artists shared the belief that art should realistically and faithfully record everyday life. Due to a rapidly urbanizing Europe, the representations of peaceful and everyday country living became appealing and the careers of artists like Rosa Bonheur took off. During the 1820s and 1830s, art was dominated by the Académie des Beaux Arts and artists had to create history paintings (with subjects that were political, historical, or religious) in order to be successful. But after the 1830’s, there was a backlash against the Académie as artists began to test the limits of what they could get away with. Naturalism was one such challenge, albeit a subtle challenge as its characteristics were pastoral and inviting and not threatening.
Bonheur’s Plowing in the Nivernais: The Dressing of Vinesis not a history painting, but a scene of everyday life. However, it was accepted by the Académie because it is a clean and safe image of the French countryside and its people. This monumental oil on canvas depicts four farm hands, who pale in comparison to their powerfully large animals, plowing the French landscape. The dirt they have moved is thrust into the foreground while the rolling hillside in the background is pleasant and pastoral. The painting is classically composed with the oxen on the right balancing out the hillside on the left. The work the men and oxen perform does not give the viewer any sense of real work or hardships making this a comfortable and non-threatening image for the urban French viewer. Paintings like Plowing in the Nivernais: The Dressing of Vines helped shape the future of Modernism as it was the beginning of the backlash against the Académie and helped paved the way for Realism and Impressionism.