This a picture which bares and rewards repeated views. Painted over a 13 years period (1852-1865), at one level it is a reflection of Victorian views on the moral value of work. The justification for me in recommending it for this website would be the nature of the work underway here, the ‘noble’ labourers in the centre of the work are digging up a Hampstead pavement for the installation of new sewers. An image of the Public Health revolution underway.
If you want a different sort of entry point to the picture… The infant who regards you very directly (as babies do), and wears a black ribbon probably to symbolise the death of its mother, is modelled on the painter’s son, Arthur, who died during the creation of the work. At this time period the infant mortality rate in England (which is the proportion of babies born alive who die within the first year) was around 150 per 1,000 – its is now 4.5 per 1,000. In 2010 it is still possible to find a number of populations in the world where more than one in a hundred new births will not survive the year: Angola, Afganistan, Niger, Mali, Somalia, Central African Republic. As the baby’s black ribbon highlights birth was risky for mothers too, at the time of the painting nearly 5 per thousand births would lead to the death of the mother, in the UK now it is around 0.08 per thousand – maternal mortality however remains a global problem with around 350,000 deaths occuring per year in 2008 (approximately the combined population of Hull and Scuthorpe if that helps visualise the figure)
The picture can be seen at Manchester Art Gallery as part of their excellent collection of pre-raphaelite paintings.