Art and Sociopolitical Comment. Daumier and James Marshall.


Daumier emerged in the late nineteenth century as a painter of the people and for the people. His paintings managed to capture the much deeper level with which he viewed his world. A close examination of his painting “Third Class Carriage” reveals how his painting technique reinforces his meaning. The central figures are a man and a woman with a small child sitting on the seat somewhat opposite of the viewpoint. Also visible is an old woman seated on the opposite side of the man and several passengers in the background. The mellow lighting of the carriage despite the brightness of the day outside as it can be glimpsed through the windows as well as the downcast features of the faces that can be seen all express a deep and abiding sadness. This communicates to the viewer the impression that none of these people hold out much hope for a happier future nor have they much reason to celebrate their current situations. The dilapidated top hat of one of the men in the background and less impressive headwear of some of the other passengers helps to illustrate this pervading sense of the downtrodden.

The deep-seated social commentary portrayed in this image as well as in other paintings has long been recognized. The shadows that surround the many passengers on the train have the effect of bringing them into sharp focus for the viewer. The use of impasto can be seen in the forehead of the young woman as she gazes down upon the face of her child. The paint is applied thickly and with downward curving short strokes that provide her with a look of concern, worry and perhaps regret that she cannot offer her child any better life than the one she now lives. The figures are full of ineffable sadness, extreme hopelessness and staunch perseverance. They become a means by which people even a century and more later might be able, if just for a moment, to sympathize as well with their strength, their perseverance and their hopeless resignation.

James Marshall

Kerry James Marshall’s paintings are drawn from such a broadly experienced background as the civil rights movements of the 1950s and the Watts riots and other cultural issues that hit the streets of Los Angeles in the 1960s which can be traced through his painting “Better Homes, Better Gardens.” The background here consists of a vividly blue sky, a rising sun, bluebirds, a flower-strewn courtyard, some trees and a housing area, all created in such a way as to indicate the ideals of the suburban lifestyle within the inner city projects. The circular flower garden area is surrounded by a green lawn. A blue splash toward the center of the painting can almost be considered the jet of a fountain. The full trees and brightly colored flowers dotting the lawn help to portray an innocent community. The lines on the sidewalk, drawn with a heavy white, almost chalklike stroke and a bright yellow toy ball on the bottom right hand corner of the painting adds the nature of play into the piece.

Despite the bright hues and innocent nature of much of the scene, though, one begins to see negative aspects that indicate all is not as well as it appears. The sign at the entrance gives an ominous message by instructing its readers to “Drive Carefully” and to “Watch Your Children.” The young black couple that constitutes the primary foreground, step over a banner proclaiming the name of the piece as if it were a stray piece of litter that is blowing in the wind. They don’t trip on it, indicating that they are accustomed to stepping over flying debris within their neighborhood. Each of the doors of the apartment complex is painted with a series of horizontal bars, belying the idea of an open, friendly community and suggesting all the dangers to society are confined. Even the orange color of the complex seems institutional. Through this depiction, Marshall demonstrates how superficial appearance does not constitute ugly reality.

Works Cited

Daumier, Honore. “The Third Class Carriage.” Artchive. 2008. Web.

Marshall, Kerry James. “Better Homes, Better Gardens.” Denver Art Museum, 1994. Web.