Though we enjoy the futuristic music of Kraftwerk and the photographs of Cindy Sherman, employees at MoMA are also enjoying the delicate, antique charms of Downton Abbey. In many ways, the themes of the series reflect a lot of the wild beginnings of modern art. The show is all about the shock of the modern age, with technology, war, and changing social conditions producing radical changes—which are often reflected in the art of the period.
In the show’s second season, the characters are uprooted by World War I and other health concerns. (Yes, I’m being vague to avoid spoilers.) Here are some works from the MoMA collection created during those tumultuous years of 1916–1918.
Art in the Age of Downton Abbey
1. Frederick George Cooper. Save a Loaf a Week – Help Win the War. Printer: W.F. Powers Co., New York. Publisher: W.F. Powers Co. Litho., New York. 1914–18
Printed posters were an essential part of wartime life, whether it was the iconic Uncle Sam or the less well-known version, I am Telling You On June 28th I Expect You to Enlist in the Army of War Savers to Back Up My Army of Fighters. This print especially reminds me of the food issues in season two, and scandals involving bread and other sundries.
2. Leopold Wharton. Patria. 1917
If the residents of Downton Abbey were shocked by the advent of the telephone and the electric light, the prevalence of motion pictures will provide a stronger shock soon enough. This serialized piece was personally funded by William Randolph Hearst, and its jingoistic inflections scandalized Woodrow Wilson. The smell of propaganda and scandal in this series reminds me of the threats and scandals involving residents of Downton (a certain Sir Richard Carlisle, and others). This still also includes three of the most important things in Downton Abbey: dressing up, reading, and sighing in frustration.
3. Charles Demuth. At a House in Harley Street. 1918
Hubba Hubba! Wearing nice clothes, hanging out by the fire, and enjoying puffy chairs: how very Downton! And, as with the characters on the show, a polite setting often gives way to racy scenes.
4. Underwood and Underwood. Mother, Wife, and Sweetheart Watching Boys of the Seventh Regimen as They Marched Away to War. 1917
MoMA’s photography collection is rich with examples that fit, whether it’s soldiers in the field that are reminiscent of Matthew and Thomas in the trenches in France, or the technical breakthrough of aerial photography, but this image of women wishing their sons and husbands well on the way to battle seemed most appropriate. Much like the residents of Downtown Abbey, they’re left to hearing about the war second-hand or seeing its effects after the fact. Also, check out those hats!
5. Henri Matisse. The Piano Lesson. Issy-les-Moulineaux, late summer 1916
At the time, artists—and especially painters—were executing powerful, violent works that expressed the horrors of war. (Take George Grosz’s Explosion, for example.) But most of all, Downton Abbey is about the slow agony of social structures. You can almost imagine one of the daughters toiling through piano lessons while the Dowager Countess looks on.
“What is a weekend?”, indeed.