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Art and Leisure

From the 17th century to the present day

What does leisure mean to you and how do you spend it? We have curated artworks that depict people spending their leisure time in the past and present; through these, you will find out what leisure meant back in the day and how it shapes our lives today.

Leisure is usually referred to as time spent away from day-to-day duties such as work and house chores; an opportunity to relax or participate in activities that are recreational. By definition, leisure has historically been enjoyed by the people with spare time; the upper class who didn’t necessarily have to work as they came from money. Ancient Egypt for example had a multi-layer class structure from the group in power, who enjoyed art and sports, to servants who had little time to rest let alone having free time.

The Renaissance marks the revival of arts and philosophy including the freedom of expression and the development of more scientific discoveries. It is also a period in many countries in Europe, especially in Italy and France, the patronage of art and culture developed outside of the church, encouraging people to spend time participating in non-religious activities. This naturally took the artists out of the restraints of biblical subject matters when painting subjects and began to depict people in everyday life, including while they spend leisure time.


1. Leisure as a privilege: 17th and 18th century Europe

2. Working class and leisure: 19th century and the concept of retirement

3. Attitude towards work and leisure: Postwar to modern-day

Sir Peter Lely, Two Ladies of the Lake Family

Sir Peter Lely, Two Ladies of the Lake Family, c. 1660
In the Tate collection, London

Leisure in the 17th and the 18th century was still very much for the privileged. There are many examples of paintings from this period of how the rich spent their spare time, usually surrounded by luxurious backgrounds. In Two Ladies of the Lake Family (c. 1660) by Sir Peter Lely, two well-dressed women are sitting together in a garden, possibly in their own home. The lady in the blue dress is playing the guitar, which was a popular instrument to play among the English upper class.

Joseph van Aken, Winter

Joseph van Aken, Winter, c. 1750
In Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA

In Winter (c. 1750) by Joseph van Aken, there is a group of fashionable people at leisure, seated in a drawing-room playing a card game, which is a perfect activity for a cold winter’s day. A conversation piece (a group portrait) like this was popular in 18th-century England, showing off the grand interior of their home where they were able to entertain themselves and friends.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, 1767
In the Wallace collection, London

In 18th century France, outside space was a symbol of romance and paintings often depicted fashionable women wearing bright dresses in gardens. The Rococo style of art is an important element when talking about outdoor entertainment in 18th century art, where nature was emphasized and women played a more prominent role in compositions. In The Swing (1767) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, there is a hint of sexuality looking into a garden composed of a lady in a vibrant dress whose elder husband is pushing the swing and her secret young lover hidden in the bushes.

Francisco Goya, The Parasol

Francisco Goya, The Parasol, 1777
In Museo Del Prado, Madrid, Spain

Francisco Goya’s The Parasol (1777) was made as a tapestry cartoon, a painting used as a template to guide the weaving of the final tapestry work. In the painting, it can be noted that the subject who is enjoying the outdoors protected from the sun in the shade is the young woman with a dog on her lap, and the servant is out in the sun holding the parasol. This painting is a good reflection of how leisure meant a different thing for opposing classes at the time; one who enjoys it and one who assists it.

With the effects of industrialization settling in, people in the 19th century experienced a reduction in working hours, giving them more leisure time mainly in the evenings and weekends. The late 19th century was when the notion of retirement was introduced in the West by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck by paying people who were 70 or over to stop working and enjoy the rest of their lives.

Although the new social structure had holes in the system given that the average lifespan then was around 70 years, it has influenced how modern-day society has formed the concept of leisure. Now people highly value having hobbies and time they spend with their families, not only when they retire, but to have a balanced life.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880-1881
In the Phillips collection, Washington D.C.

In the paintings from the 19th century, you begin to see people enjoying their time off regardless of their background. In Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880-1881) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the artist and his friends can be seen leisurely enjoying lunch. The place where the scene was captured, The Maison Fournaise of Chatou overlooking the Seine River, was a popular destination for dining cross-class; art collector Charles Ephrussi in the top hat, to his left a poet Jules Laforgue, and actress Angèle Legault on the bottom right corner. The painting is one of the most well known plein-air (outdoor) paintings of the time, and it is also famous for the Ducan Phillips’ acquisition of the work in 1923, after seeing the painting for the first time in 1911.

John Robertson Reid, A Country Cricket Match

John Robertson Reid, A Country Cricket Match, 1878
In the Tate collection, London

Set in Sussex, England, A Country Cricket Match (1878) by John Robertson Reid shows villagers socializing together from different backgrounds; while men play cricket, landowners and farmers are having conversations, and children and women are spectating the game. Cricket is one of the national sports in England, and people spend their leisure time playing the sport at weekends, often involving the whole family. The first evidence of adults playing cricket as a sport can be found in the early 17th century and since then the sport traveled to North America, West Indies, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa with the English colonies.

Georges Seurat, Bathers at Asnières (Une Baignade, Asnières)

Georges Seurat, Bathers at Asnières (Une Baignade, Asnières), 1884
In the National Gallery, London

In Georges Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières (1884), working-class men are not shown at work but taking time off from the factory in the background. With the introduction of machinery and shorter working hours, the factory workers would have had days off where they could spend leisurely time by the river bank. The painting is two meters high and 3 meters wide and when it was submitted to the Salon on completion, it was shunned away, because the depiction of working men at leisure was classified as inappropriate at the time.

Édouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

Édouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1881-1882
© The Courtauld. Courtesy of the Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust)

Édouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1881-82) is a good example of showing the new leisure culture that was developing in the late 19th century modern Paris in relation to how the labor structure was reshaping; that women were employed in the entertainment space cross-industry. The painting depicts a barmaid at a music hall selling Champagne and other beverages; which before would have been a job for a man. The class structure was changing and often blurred, and bourgeois women regarded themselves on higher grounds than those who worked; in the painting, the bar provides this divide between the women who went to the same space for leisure, and for work.

The 20th century was affected by many devastations including many wars, economic depression, 1918 flu pandemic, genocides, and use of nuclear power. Alongside these traumatic events, the 20th century is also when the process of decolonization began, new technologies were discovered, and women started to gain equal rights with men. The 21st century didn’t start easy either; the 9/11 attack in 2001 changed the way we traveled forever, with more restrictions put on by the Covid-19 pandemic. It is also a period where new technologies are developing faster than ever questioning our role in society as workers. All of these events are shaping the landscape of labor and ultimately how people look at leisure; transforming the perspective of life.

Mark Gertler, Merry-Go-Round

Mark Gertler, Merry-Go-Round, 1916
In Tate, London

Fairgrounds were historically associated with workers’ holiday but mechanization made them modern and futuristic, and more expensive. By the beginning of the 20th century, the fairgrounds included rides of all kinds: steam yachts, switchbacks, and carousels. Mark Gretler’s Merry-Go-Round (1916) is a depiction of a carousel at the Easter Fair on Hampstead Heath, London; observing groups of people and ‘a blaze of whirling colors’. Showmen have adapted to the change in time and culture and now provide a program that can be enjoyed by varied audiences.

Alexander Alexandrovich Deineka, Expanse

Alexander Alexandrovich Deineka, Expanse, 1944
In State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

There are only a few depictions of women involved in sporting activities in art and it is true even today. When women are playing sport in their leisure time in art, they are often having a casual game rather than a skilled competitive sport; in A Croquet Game (1873) by Édouard Manet, women are playing croquet in a relaxed environment. Although contradictory to the reality of the Soviet Union at the time, Alexander Deineka’s Expanse (1994) is forward-thinking at the time that women should participate in the same sports as men. The painting shows the ideology rather than the reality of the time, but it is an important work for its indication of where the future should be heading; that there are no boundaries between men and women when it comes to enjoying sports.

Julian Opie, Jogger

Julian Opie, Jogger. 1, 2015
Courtesy of the artist

According to fossil evidence of human bodies, ancestors of humans were able to run from around 2.6 million years ago. The activity then continued to develop through religious festivals in different cultures. The first official evidence of running as a sport is from 776 B.C.E in Olympia, in ancient Greece. Running now is not only a sport done by professionals but a popular leisure time hobby. Long distance running like marathons are run by both world class athletes and people who partake in it for personal reasons. In Julian Opie’s Runners, there are ordinary people jogging in a casual manner; it is also representative of contemporary urban life where people have to exercise between their busy schedules.

Doug Wheeler, PSAD Synthetic Desert III

Doug Wheeler, PSAD Synthetic Desert III, 1971
© Doug Wheeler. Collection of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Contemporary life in cities like New York can be challenging at times as people are buried in all kinds of pollution: air, land, and noise. With urbanization and the growth of the population in big cities and towns, sometimes doing something less active is preferable. A more subtle way of resting is popular in contemporary society including meditation and yoga retreats. People also often escape the city for the weekend and be closer to nature. Deeply rooted in the artist’s own experience of the natural world, Synthetic Desert III (1971) at the Guggenheim in 2017 describes the landscape of the deserts of northern Arizona. With optical and acoustic experience, the audience was invited into the room where the work was installed to reflect for a moment in the middle of the busy city.

In the past, work and leisure tended to have clear boundaries with the former being a means to build a future, and the latter more creative to give pleasure to increase the quality of life; although a certain amount of financial support is needed to participate in activities in free time now the two are sometimes blurred as more emphasis is placed on work and life balance. Artists throughout history have reflected this in their practice until today. With the world fast changing and with other unexpected factors such as the recent pandemic, our lives constantly reshape according to the surrounding environment including the way we spend our leisure time.

We hope you enjoyed traveling through time with us. For more curated articles please click here, including Art and Movie series where you can sit back and enjoy in your leisure time.