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9.4: Victorian art

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    67084
  • Victorian art

    Artists responded to the wealth generated by empire and industry—and its moral consequences.

    1837 - 1901

    Early Victorian

    Sir Edwin Landseer, Windsor Castle in Modern Times

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    Sir Edwin Landseer, Windsor Castle in Modern Times; Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and Victoria, Princess Royal, 1840-43, oil on canvas, 113.3 x 144.5 cm (The Royal Collection)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Sir Edwin Landseer, Windsor Castle in Modern Times; Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and Victoria, Princess Royal, 1840-43, oil on canvas, 113.3 x 144.5 cm (The Royal Collection)

    A tribute to home, hearth and hounds

    When one thinks of Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, RA, many accomplishments come to mind. An English animal painter of mainly horses, dogs, stags and lions, Landseer’s works became commonplace in the homes of Victorian audiences, and his Lion sculptures sit proudly in Trafalgar Square to this very day.

    However, perhaps the most relatable Landseer artworks to our modern eye are those which depict the enduring relationship between the royal family and their dogs, a love affair which many modern pet owners can relate to. Windsor Castle in Modern Times presents such a scene and, as such, acts as a window into which we can explore both our love of Landseer and of dogs.

    A conversation piece

    Windsor Castle in Modern Times was modelled off a type of painting known as a ‘Conversation piece’—in which a group of people (normally family) would be positioned in an informal setting engaged in conversation, or a similar activity—and this painting by Landseer was certainly a discussion point among its royal patrons. Begun in 1840 and not finished until 1845, multiple sittings and bouts of time when Landseer appeared not to work on the painting at all meant that Queen Victoria was far from amused.

    Despite this, when the painting was finally hung up in her sitting room in Windsor Castle, Queen Victoria determined with no hesitancy that the painting was a “very beautiful picture, & altogether very cheerful & pleasing.” And, when looking at the painting, it’s not hard to see why the final result was received so positively.

    Regal but relatable

    The painting depicts an encounter between Victoria and Albert, in a drawing room at Windsor Castle (a medieval castle at Windsor that Queen Victoria used as the principle royal residence), just after Albert has come back from a day out hunting. Triumphant in his endeavours, as can be seen from the game that is sprawled out across the room, Victoria greets Albert with the presentation of a small bouquet of flowers (known as a nosegay), whist their eldest child, Victoria, can be seen playing with a dead kingfisher. The scene is, of course, entirely manufactured for the conversation piece—game would not be spread out with such compositional intent in the drawing room, or spread out in the drawing room at all for that matter!—but this is a large part of the painting’s charm and success.

    Prince Albert and Queen Victoria (detail), Sir Edwin Landseer, Windsor Castle in Modern Times; Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and Victoria, Princess Royal, 1840-43, oil on canvas, 113.3 x 144.5 cm (The Royal Collection)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Prince Albert and Queen Victoria (detail), Sir Edwin Landseer, Windsor Castle in Modern Times; Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and Victoria, Princess Royal, 1840-43, oil on canvas, 113.3 x 144.5 cm (The Royal Collection)

    Shown in the traditional role of royal huntsman, Prince Albert appears as an appropriately masculine figure in the home, at the same time as also representing the virtues that came with embracing a countryside life in Industrial Britain. Meanwhile Queen Victoria is depicted as a loving and caring wife and the epitome of feminine virtue—greeting her husband when he comes home in the most delicate of manner; with a bouquet of flowers—but, her position, standing in front of Albert, also makes it clear that she is the ruling monarch.

    All of these elements demonstrate the effectiveness of Landseer’s artwork—making the royal family look both regal, but also relatable in the eyes of the aspiring middle-class, who found themselves eager to emulate royal examples in this era. Completing the painting (and no doubt, a prevalent reason as to why Landseer was chosen to produce the work) is the inclusion of four dogs in the painting. Beloved family pets, each with their own story, the dogs in this painting add an additional level to Windsor Castle in Modern Times and, at the same time, also work to showcase Landseer’s reputation as the leading animal painter of the period.

    Canine conversations

    It was no secret that Queen Victoria was a lover of animals, and dogs in particular. When Landseer was given his first royal commission it was to paint Victoria’s beloved spaniel, Dash, when she was a Princess, for her Birthday. Windsor Castle in Modern Times follows Landseer’s transition into royal pet painter, and the animals in the painting are afforded as much detail as the royal family themselves.

    Princess Royal with Cairnach and Islay (detail) Sir Edwin Landseer, Windsor Castle in Modern Times; Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and Victoria, Princess Royal, 1840-43, oil on canvas, 113.3 x 144.5 cm (The Royal Collection)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Princess Royal with Cairnach and Islay (detail) Sir Edwin Landseer, Windsor Castle in Modern Times; Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and Victoria, Princess Royal, 1840-43, oil on canvas, 113.3 x 144.5 cm (The Royal Collection)

    The dog at the far bottom left of the painting, nearest to the young Victoria, was a Skye terrier (a breed the Queen favored) called Cairnach—who would also go on to be painted by Landseer in 1842 as a Christmas present from Albert to Victoria. If he wasn’t well known when Windsor Castle in Modern Times was finished then he would become so over time, as Albert’s Christmas present to Victoria was reproduced and made available to the public as an engraving. To the right of Cairnach, begging eagerly as he looks up to Albert, Islay can been seen; another Skye terrier and one of the Queen’s favorite dogs. He was, in fact, popular enough that he had been painted in a previous pet portrait by Landseer, titled Islay and Tico with a Red Macaw and two Love Birds (1839), in the exact same begging pose no less!

    Meanwhile the ironically named Skye terrier, Dandy Dinmont, can be seen in the painting at Albert’s side, licking his hand in a faithful greeting. Dandy’s faithful depiction in this painting would not be the last either, as, in 1843, he would be painted by Landseer at the side of the new born Princess Alice, in a painting by the same name, as her faithful guardian.

    The most well-known dog in this painting, however, would certainly be Eos, the Greyhound being stroked by Prince Albert. Eos was Albert’s favorite dog and belonged exclusively to him, rather than being a family dog.

    Sir Edwin Landseer, Eos, A Favorite Greyhound, the property of H.R.H. Prince Albert, 1841, oil on canvas, 111.8 x 142.9 cm cm (The Royal Collection)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Sir Edwin Landseer, Eos, A Favorite Greyhound, the property of H.R.H. Prince Albert, 1841, oil on canvas, 111.8 x 142.9 cm cm (The Royal Collection)

    This notable companion is best known for being the subject matter of the often reproduced Eos, A Favourite Greyhound, the property of H.R.H. Prince Albert (1841) by Landseer—an artwork which popularized the format of pet portraiture which followed (in pose, composition and the items included).

    In the same year Landseer also painted Eos with the young Princess Victoria (titled Victoria, Princess Royal, with Eos), as a birthday present to Albert. Lying faithfully with the Princess, Eos is seen here as the loyal and endearing pet that she was received as by her master.

    By the time this painting was finished, in 1845, both Eos and Islay had passed away, making their presence in this painting not just a dedication to man’s best friend, but also a tribute to two beloved family pets.

    What does this tell us?

    Victorian Britain saw a notable boom in both dog ownership and dog portraiture, as dogs shifted from working and sporting animals to family pet, and this boom was certainly influenced by the royal family’s love of dogs. With both more time and money at their disposal, the newly developing middle-class found a hobby in both the owning and showing of dogs, with the Queen’s love of the animal enabling a feeling of distinction in the act, which (on the other side of the coin) also served to make the royal family seem more relatable.

    As such we can see how Windsor Castle in Modern Times was truly a tribute to home, hearth and hounds—effectively presenting the royal family to those who wished to follow in their example, both in moral values and in animal preferences, but also giving Queen Victoria a memorable image of her family as she wished to see it; dogs and all.

    Additional resources:

    This painting in the Royal Collection

    This painting on the website for Michelle Facos’s An Introduction to Nineteenth Century Art

    The Conversation Piece: Scenes of Fashionable Life, the Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh (review in The Telegraph)

    Biography and Bibliography on Landseer on the Victorian Web

    Landseer on the BBC’s Your Paintings

    Charles Barry and A.W.N. Pugin, Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament)

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    Video \(\PageIndex{1}\): Charles Barry and A.W.N. Pugin, Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament), 1840-70, London

    Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

    Henry VII Lady Chapel, Westminster AbbeyPalace of Westminster, entrance detailWestminster Hall, Palace of WestminsterPalace of WestminsterPalace of Westminster, detail of crest, south façadePalace of Westminster, detail with windows, west facadeHenry VII Lady Chapel, Westminster AbbeyDetail of Victoria Tower, Palace of WestminsterPalace of Westminster, detail with Victoria TowerPalace of Westminster, detail of windows in fron of the House of LordsView of the Palace of WestminsterPalace of Westminster, street level viewHenry VII Lady Chapel (left), Elizabeth Tower (center) and Westminster Hall (right)View of the Palace of Westminster from across the Thames
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): More Smarthistory images…

    Robert Smirke, The British Museum

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    Robert Smirke, South Portico, built 1846-47, The British Museum, 1823-57 (London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Robert Smirke, South Portico, built 1846-47, The British Museum, 1823-57 (London)

    A museum open to all studious and curious persons

    Peter Frederick Robertson, Egyptian Hall, 1812, (London (destroyed))
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Peter Frederick Robertson, Egyptian Hall, 1812, (London (destroyed))

    In terms of painting, Europe was most definitely leading the way, the Louvre first opening its doors to the public in 1793, granting access to the French royal family’s former collection of art. In England, on the other hand, public access to works of art was largely a private enterprise. The Egyptian Hall in London’s Pall Mall being a good example. With its evocative neo-Egyptian façade, it was here Géricault exhibited his The Raft of the Medusa in 1820 and at other times large-scale works by important British painters such as Turner were on display, always to a paying audience (a shilling). It was not until the opening of the National Gallery in 1824, over thirty years after the Louvre, that the British had an art collection that belonged to the public and which they were free to visit.

    While lagging behind in some ways, in others London was somewhat ahead of the rest. It was here, for example, that the first public museum in the world was opened. The British Museum, was established in 1753 and open, free of charge “to all studious and curious Persons.” Well, in actual fact, there were quite stringent conditions for entry, being closed four days a week and all of August and September too. Then when it was open, visitors needed to apply for a ticket and present a letter of recommendation, while women, for propriety’s sake, were only admitted in pairs.

    Gray’s Inn Lane Hand Axe, c. 350,000 BCE, flint, 165mm long, The British Museum (London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Gray’s Inn Lane Hand Axe, c. 350,000 BCE, flint, 165mm long, The British Museum (London)

    The Museum, in its first incarnation, was located in a grand mansion on Montague Street, the site of the present building. Along with books and manuscripts, its collection held some 80,000 objects of natural history and “man-made curiosities,” all of which were bequeathed to the nation by the Royal Physician and chocolatier Hans Sloane, among them a very old flint hand axe found near the bones of a massive elephant buried in the gravel on Gray’s Inn Lane. While it is very doubtful those first curious and studious persons who entered the museum could conceivably have guessed its true date at 350,000 years or that massive elephants roamed the country back in the Stone Age, the questions such objects raised were absolutely fundamental to the emergence of new sciences in the nineteenth century, such as archaeology, anthropology, geology and paleontology.

    Two other acquisitions that helped secure the Museum’s international reputation were the Rosetta Stone (1802) and the Parthenon sculptures (1816). By 1823, when George IV gifted a library of 60,000 books he had inherited from his father, the Montague House site was no longer large enough to hold it all.

    One of the greatest neoclassical interiors in London

    Robert Smirke, The King's Library, The British Museum, 1823-7 (London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): Robert Smirke, The King’s Library, The British Museum, 1823-7 (London)

    The commission for the new building was given to Robert Smirke, a well-established neoclassical architect. The building took around thirty years to complete, its elevation mirroring the expanse of the British Empire itself. He started with the east wing, built to house the King’s Library. It survives complete today and is considered one of the greatest neoclassical interiors in London.

    In 1827 construction on the remaining wings was begun, creating the famous quadrangle with its impressive colonnaded portico and two acre courtyard. The antique sourcing of the façade is predictable enough. Neoclassicism had been the prevailing fashion in European architecture since the 1750s and would have seemed an appropriate choice, especially given the number and quality of classical sculptures in the Museum (particularly the Parthenon sculptures).

    These must surely have influenced Smirke’s design of the main entrance, which is modeled on Greek temple design and shares the same number of eight columns as the Parthenon itself. In scale though it is almost double the size, while the austere Doric order is replaced by the based and slender columns and scrolled capitals of the ionic order, which, with all its connotations of wisdom and learning, must have been thought best suited for the building’s purpose.

    Entablature (detail) Robert Smirke, The British Museum, 1823-57 (London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{10}\): Entablature (detail) Robert Smirke, The British Museum, 1823-57 (London)

    The entablature (the entire horizontal area carried by the columns) is composed of a tripartite architrave (the lowest part of the entablature) with a blind frieze above (without sculptural decoration) and a dentilated cornice (dentils are the repeated blocks forming a pattern at the base of the cornice)—all running in an unbroken chain around the whole length of the south portico.

    The building is topped with a flat roof, the pediment therefore being false, in the sense that its function is decorative rather than structural, its pinnacle creating a vertical axis that bisects the main entrance way. The projecting wings, like the skene or scenic backdrop in an ancient Greek theatre, add a dramatic sweep to the façade, channeling the eye of the viewer to the main entrance.

    The conscious reworking of the classical language of architecture, drawing on a period which, according to enlightened tastes, marked the greatest flowering of art and culture in European history, obviously served to elevate the status of the building, expressing something of the pride and confidence of the British at the very heyday of their empire. While not necessarily equating Britain with Rome or Greece, the building did seem to suggest, firstly, that the British were carrying the torch of civilization and, secondly, that they, like the Romans and the Greeks before them, were up to the task.

    This explicit nationalist message is illustrated in the pediment sculptures, designed by Richard Westmacott and given the grandiose name, The Rise of Civilisation. Here we see a female Britannia-like figure representing Enlightenment, surrounded by other allegorical figures standing for various artistic and scientific disciplines.

    Richard Westmacott, The Rise of Civilisation, Pediment of British Museum, 1845-51 (London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{11}\): Richard Westmacott, The Rise of Civilisation, Pediment of British Museum, 1845-51 (London)

    To the far left, however, we find a different story. Here early man emerges, crawling from rubble to be handed the Lamp of Knowledge by the Angel of Enlightenment, behind him is a dog-like animal and behind that a crocodile. Though hard to pick out from ground level, that crocodile’s snout is one of the most telling details in the whole sculpture, offering a foretaste of the debates that were soon to rage between religious and scientific communities. Though Darwin had yet to publish his On the Origin of Species, with the type of fossil and geological evidence that the Museum was amassing, the case for evolution was certainly mounting.

    The emergence of early man (detail), Richard Westmacott, The Rise of Civilisation, Pediment of British Museum, 1845-51 (London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{12}\): The emergence of early man (detail), Richard Westmacott, The Rise of Civilisation, Pediment of British Museum, 1845-51 (London)

    New technologies

    Sydney Smirke, The Weston Hall, 1845-47, The British Museum (London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{13}\): Sydney Smirke, The Weston Hall, 1845-47, The British Museum (London)

    Although on the face of it, the Museum might seem to be a very conservative building, the manner in which it was constructed was anything but. Smirke, for instance, was one of the first architects to make extensive use of concrete, laying it as a base for the cast iron frame that underpins the entire structure, a frame that was then filled with London stock brick and covered in a facing of Portland stone, brought all the way from Dorset.

    In the design of the interior, too, which was overseen by Smirke’s brother, Sydney from 1845 onwards, British materials were used throughout, the floor of the entrance hall—the Weston Hall—being paved with York stone, the staircase balustrade and ornamental vases carved from Huddlestone stone and the sides of the Grand Staircase lined with red Aberdeen granite. While, the fact that these materials were all sourced from the British Isles reinforced the nationalist message, the vivid colours of the stones themselves created a luminous interior that was further adorned with colorful designs based on those found on classical buildings, which by the nineteenth century were known to be polychromatic. The original stonework has all survived to this day, while the 1847 painting and gilding was restored in 2000. The electric lamps in the hall are also replicas of the original, installed in 1879, making the Museum one of the first public buildings in London to be electrically lit.

    The Reading Room

    Sydney Smirke, The Reading Room, 1854-7, The British Museum (London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{14}\): Sydney Smirke, The Reading Room, 1854-7, The British Museum (London)

    By the 1850s, with the collection continuing to expand, the site needed a yet larger library, the idea this time being to construct a round room in the central courtyard. Designed by Sydney Smirke, the Reading Room was built between 1854-1857. Given the size of it, 42.6m in diameter, the speed of construction, even assisted by modern building techniques, was astounding. Using cast iron, concrete and glass, it was a masterpiece of nineteenth-century technology, inspired as much by Paxton’s ferrovitreous Crystal Palace as by the Pantheon in Rome; the airy and graceful internal dome disguising the complex fretwork of cast iron that supported it from without. Even the bookshelves were state-of-the-art, built of iron to carry the weight of the books and making up a staggering three miles of cases and twenty-five miles of shelving.

    Recent times

    Foster and Partners, Queen Elizabeth II Great Court, 1997
    Figure \(\PageIndex{15}\): Foster and Partners, Queen Elizabeth II Great Court, 1997

    This was not the end of the story, though. In 1997, the books were relocated yet again to the newly built British Library on Euston Road and the old Reading Room transformed into an exhibition space, a move that provided the catalyst to revitalize the old courtyard. In 2000, Foster and Partner’s Queen Elizabeth II Great Court was opened and the two buildings, the Museum and the Reading Room, were now connected with a huge glazed canopy spanning the two acres of the courtyard. And the story still continues, for even more recently yet more changes have been made, with the new World Conservation and Exhibitions Centres, designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, open in 2014.That the site is a constantly evolving one is only to be expected, given the ever-changing nature of the collection itself. An astonishing compendium of 260 years of human discoveries, the British Museum is indeed a house filled with many mansions, the outside of which, in the last analysis, however brilliant and varied in its construction it may be, will never come close to matching the glories within.

    Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

    Smirke, The British Museum
    Figure \(\PageIndex{16}\): More Smarthistory images…

    The Pre-Raphaelites and mid-Victorian art

    The era of Darwin, Tennyson, Dickens, labor laws, the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts movement.

    c. 1848 - 1870

    A beginner's guide

    A beginner’s guide to the Pre-Raphaelites

    by

    William Holman Hunt, The flight of Madeline and Porphyro during the drunkenness attending the revelry (The Eve of St. Agnes), smaller version of the painting exhibited at the Royal Academy, begun as a sketch, 1847-57, oil on panel, 355 x 252 cm (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{17}\): William Holman Hunt, The flight of Madeline and Porphyro during the drunkenness attending the revelry (The Eve of St. Agnes), smaller version of the painting exhibited at the Royal Academy, begun as a sketch, 1847-57, oil on panel, 355 x 252 cm (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool)
    At first they were three

    During a visit to the Royal Academy exhibition of 1848, the young artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti was drawn to a painting entitled The Eve of Saint Agnes by William Holman Hunt. As a subject taken from the poetry of John Keats was a rarity at the time, Rossetti sought out Hunt, and the two quickly became friends. Hunt then introduced Rossetti to his friend John Everett Millais, and the rest, as they say, is history. The trio went on to form the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group determined to reform the artistic establishment of Victorian England.

    Looking back to look forward

    The name “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood” (PRB) hints at the vaguely medieval subject matter for which the group is known. The young artists appreciated the simplicity of line and large flat areas of brilliant color found in the early Italian painters before Raphael, as well as in 15th century Flemish art. These were not qualities favored by the more academic approach taught at the Royal Academy during the mid 19th century, which stressed the strong light and dark shading of the Old Masters. Another source of inspiration for the young artists was the writing of art critic John Ruskin, particularly the famous passage from Modern Painters telling artists “to go to nature in all singleness of heart . . . rejecting nothing, selecting nothing and scorning nothing.” This combination of influences contributed to the group’s extreme attention to detail, and the development of the wet white ground technique that produced the brilliant color for which they are known. The artists even became some of the first to complete sections of their canvases outdoors in an effort to capture the minute detail of every leaf and blade of grass.

    And then they were seven

    It was decided that seven was the appropriate number for a rebellious group and four others were added to form the initial Brotherhood. The selection of additional members has long mystified art historians. James Collinson, a painter, seems to have been added due to his short-lived engagement to Rossetti’s sister Christina rather than his sympathy with the cause. Another member, Thomas Woolner, was a sculptor rather than a painter. The final two members, William Michael Rossetti and Frederic George Stephens, both of whom went on to become art critics, were not practicing artists. However, other young artists such as Walter Howell Deverell and Charles Collins embraced the ideals of the PRB even though they were never formally elected as members.

    John Everett Millais, Isabella, 1848-49, oil on canvas, 103 x 142.8 cm (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{18}\): John Everett Millais, Isabella, 1848-49, oil on canvas, 103 x 142.8 cm (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool)
    The P.R.B. goes public

    The Pre-Raphaelites decided to make their debut by sending a group of paintings, all bearing the initials “PRB”, to the Royal Academy in 1849. However, Rossetti, who was nervous about the reception of his painting The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, changed his mind and instead sent his painting to the earlier Free Exhibition (meaning there was no jury as there was at the Royal Academy). At the Royal Academy, Hunt exhibited Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes, a scene from an historical novel of the same name by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Millais exhibited Isabella, another subject from Keats, created with such attention to detail that one can actually see the beheading scene on the plate nearest the edge of the table, which echoes the ultimate fate of the young lover Lorenzo in the story. In both paintings, the accurately designed medieval costumes, bright colors and attention to detail produced criticism that the paintings mimicked a “mediaeval illumination of the chronicle or the romance” (Athenaeum, 2 June 1849, p. 575). Interestingly, no mention was made of the mysterious “PRB” inscription.

    Critical reaction

    In 1850, however, the reaction to the PRB was very different. By this time, many people knew about the existence of the supposedly secret society, in part because the group had published many of their ideas in a short-lived literary magazine entitled The Germ. Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini appeared at the Free Exhibition along with a painting by his friend Deverell entitled Twelfth Night. At the Royal Academy, Hunt’s A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Priest from the Persecution of the Druids and Millais’s Christ in the House of his Parents, famously abused by Charles Dickens, received the brunt of the criticism. In the aftermath of the humiliating reception of their work, Collinson resigned from the group and Rossetti decided never again to exhibit publicly.

    Ruskin to the rescue
    Charles Allston Collins, Convent Thoughts, 1851, oil on canvas, 84 x 59 cm (Ashmolean Museum of Art)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{19}\): Charles Allston Collins, Convent Thoughts, 1851, oil on canvas, 84 x 59 cm (Ashmolean Museum of Art)

    Undeterred, Millais and Hunt again continued to exhibit paintings demonstrating the beautiful colors and detail orientation of the mature style of the PRB. The Royal Academy of 1851 included Hunt’s Valentine Rescuing Sylvia, and three pictures by Millais, Mariana, The Woodman’s Daughter, and The Return of the Dove to the Ark as well as Convent Thoughts by Millais’s friend Charles Collins. Although many were still dubious about the new style, the critic John Ruskin came to the rescue of the group, publishing two letters in The Times newspaper in which he praised the relationship of the PRB to early Italian art. Although Ruskin was suspicious of what he termed the group’s “Catholic tendencies,” he liked the attention to detail and the color of the PRB paintings. Ruskin’s praise helped catapult the young artists to a new level.

    The dissolution of the PRB

    The Brotherhood, however, was slowly dissolving. Woolner emigrated to Australia in 1852. Hunt decided in January 1854 to visit the Holy Land in order to better paint religious pictures. And, in an event Rossetti described as the formal end of the PRB, Millais was elected as an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1853, joining the art establishment he had fought hard to change.

    Lasting impact
    Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Bocca Baciata (Lips That Have Been Kissed), 1859, oil on panel, 32.1 x 27 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{20}\): Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Bocca Baciata (Lips That Have Been Kissed), 1859, oil on panel, 32.1 x 27 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

    Despite the fact that the Brotherhood lasted only a few short years, its impact was immense. Millais and Hunt both went on to establish important places for themselves in the Victorian art world. Millais was to go on to become an extremely popular artist, selling his art works for vast sums of money, and ultimately being elected as the President of the Royal Academy. Hunt, who perhaps stayed most true to the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic, became a well-known artist and wrote many articles and books on the formation of the Brotherhood.

    Rossetti became a mentor to a group of younger artists including Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Rossetti’s paintings of beautiful women also helped inaugurate the new Aesthetic Movement, or the taste for Art for Art’s Sake, in the later Victorian era.

    Edward Burne-Jones, The Adoration of the Magi, 1904, tapestry, 101.57 x 148.42 inches (Musée d'Orsay)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{20}\): Edward Burne-Jones, The Adoration of the Magi, 1904, tapestry, 101.57 x 148.42″ (Musée d’Orsay)

    To a contemporary audience, the Pre-Raphaelites may appear less than modern. However, in their own time the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood accomplished something revolutionary. They were one of the first groups to value painting out-of-doors for its “truth to nature,” and their concept of banding together to take on the art establishment helped to pave the way for later groups. The distinctive elements of their paintings, such as the extreme attention to detail, the brilliant colors and the beautiful rendition of literary subjects set them apart from other Victorian painters.

    Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:
    Burne-Jones, Hope (detail)Burne-Jones, Hope (detail)Hunt, Claudio and Isabella with frameBurne-Jones, Hope, 1896Hunt, Our English Coasts ('Strayed Sheep'), detail with flockBurne-Jones, Hope (detail)Hunt, Our English Coasts ('Strayed Sheep'), detail with sheepTate Gallery with Beata Beatrix and The Vale of RestMillais, OpheliaMillais's The Vale of RestBurne-Jones, The Golden Stairs, detail with skyHunt, Our English Coasts ('Strayed Sheep'), 1852William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, 1853Burne-Jones, Hope (detail)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{21}\): More Smarthistory images…

    The Aesthetic Movement

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    Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Monna Vanna, 1866, oil on canvas, 88.9 x 86.4 cm (Tate) (photo: Tate, CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{22}\): Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Monna Vanna, 1866, oil on canvas, 88.9 x 86.4 cm (Tate) (photo: Tate, CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)
    Art for the sake of art

    The Aesthetic Movement, also known as “art for art’s sake,” permeated British culture during the latter part of the 19th century, as well as spreading to other countries such as the United States. Based on the idea that beauty was the most important element in life, writers, artists and designers sought to create works that were admired simply for their beauty rather than any narrative or moral function. This was, of course, a slap in the face to the tradition of art, which held that art needed to teach a lesson or provide a morally uplifting message. The movement blossomed into a cult devoted to the creation of beauty in all avenues of life from art and literature, to home decorating, to fashion, and embracing a new simplicity of style.

    "The Six-Mark Tea-Pot" in Punch, October 30, 1880 (caption reads: The Six-Mark Tea-pot. Aesthetic Bridegroom. "It is quite consummate, is it not?" Intense Bride. "It is, indeed! Oh, Algernon, let us live up to it!”)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{23}\): “The Six-Mark Tea-Pot” in Punch, October 30, 1880 (caption reads: Aesthetic Bridegroom. “It is quite consummate, is it not?” Intense Bride. “It is, indeed! Oh, Algernon, let us live up to it!”)
    In literature

    In literature, aestheticism was championed by Oscar Wilde and the poet Algernon Swinburne. Skepticism about their ideas can be seen in the vast amount of satirical material related to the two authors that appeared during the time. Gilbert and Sullivan, masters of the comic operetta, unfavorably critiqued aesthetic sensibilities in Patience (1881). The magazine Punch was filled with cartoons depicting languishing young men and swooning maidens wearing aesthetic clothing. One of the most famous of these, The Six-Mark Tea-Pot by George Du Maurier (left) published in 1880, was supposedly based on a comment made by Wilde. In it, a young couple dressed in the height of aesthetic fashion and standing in an interior filled with items popularized by the Aesthetes—an Asian screen, peacock feathers, and oriental blue and white porcelain—comically vow to “live up” to their latest acquisition.

    In the visual arts

    In the visual arts, the concept of art for art’s sake was widely influential. Many of the later paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, such as Monna Vanna (above), are simply portraits of beautiful women that are pleasing to the eye, rather than related to some literary story as in earlier Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

    A similar approach can be seen in much of the work of Sir Edward Burne-Jones, whose The Golden Stairs (1880) captures the aesthetic mood in its presentation of a long line of beautiful women walking down a staircase, devoid of any specific narrative content. The designer William Morris, another disciple of Rossetti, created beautiful designs for household textiles, wallpaper, and furniture to surround his clients with beauty.

    Morris & Company, Carpet, c. 1884, hand-knotted wool pile, 315 x 656 cm (Art Gallery of South Australia)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{24}\): Morris & Company, Carpet, c. 1884, hand-knotted wool pile, 315 x 656 cm (Art Gallery of South Australia)
    James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862, oil on canvas 213 x 107.9 cm (National Gallery of Art)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{25}\): James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862, oil on canvas 213 x 107.9 cm (National Gallery of Art)
    “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”

    Most famous of the aesthetic artists was the American James Abbott McNeill Whistler. His early painting Symphony in White #1: The White Girl (left) caused a sensation when it was exhibited after being rejected from both the Salon in Paris (the official annual exhibition) and the annual exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. The simplistic representation of a woman in a white dress, standing in front of a white curtain was too unique for Victorian audiences, who tried desperately to connect the painting to some literary source—a connection Whistler himself always denied. The artist went on to create a series of paintings, the titles of which generally have some musical connection, which were simply intended to create a sense of mood and beauty. The most infamous of these, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875, Detroit Institute of Arts), appeared in an exhibition at London’s Grovesnor Gallery, a venue for avant garde art, in 1877 and provoked the famous accusation from the critic John Ruskin that the artist was “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”

    The ensuing libel trial between Whistler and Ruskin in 1878 was really a referendum on the question of whether or not art required more substance than just beauty. Finding in favor of Whistler, the jury upheld the basic principles of the Aesthetic Movement, but ultimately caused the artist’s bankruptcy by awarding him only one farthing in damages. In The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, a collection of essays published in 1890, Whistler himself pointed out the biggest problem for the aesthetic artist was that “the vast majority of English folk cannot and will not consider a picture as a picture, apart from any story which it may be supposed to tell.”

    No story or moral message

    The Aesthetic Movement provided a challenge to the Victorian public when it declared that art was divorced from any moral or narrative content. In an era when art was supposed to tell a story, the idea that a simple expression of mood or something merely beautiful to look at could be considered a work of art was a radical idea. However, in its assertion that a work of art can be divorced from narrative, the ideas of the Aesthetic Movement are an important stepping-stone in the road towards Modern Art.

    The Aesthetic Movement 1860–1900 from Victoria and Albert Museum on Vimeo.

    John Everett Millais

    Sir John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents

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    Video \(\PageIndex{2}\): Sir John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents, 1849-50, oil on canvas, 864 x 1397 mm (Tate Britain, London)

    A serious departure

    When it appeared at the Royal Academy annual exhibition of 1850 Christ in the House of his Parents must have seemed a serious departure from standard religious imagery. Painted by the young John Everett Millais, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (P.R.B.), Christ in the House of his Parents focuses on the ideal of truth to nature that was to become the hallmark of the Brotherhood.

    Sir John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents, 1849-50, oil on canvas, 86.4 x 139.7 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{26}\): Sir John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents, 1849-50, oil on canvas, 86.4 x 139.7 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Detail, Sir John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents, 1849-50, oil on canvas, 86.4 x 139.7 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{27}\): Detail, Sir John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents, 1849-50, oil on canvas, 86.4 x 139.7 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    The picture centers on the young Christ whose hand has been injured, being cared for by the Virgin, his mother. Christ’s wound, a perforation in his palm, foreshadows his ultimate end on the cross. A young St. John the Baptist carefully brings a bowl of water to clean the wound, symbolic of Christ washing the feet of his disciples. Joseph, St Anne (the Virgin’s mother) and a carpenter’s assistant also react to Christ’s accident. At a time when most religious paintings of the Holy Family were calm and tranquil groupings, this active event in the young life of the Savior must have seemed extremely radical.

    Detail, Sir John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents, 1849-50, oil on canvas, 86.4 x 139.7 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{28}\): Detail, Sir John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents, 1849-50, oil on canvas, 86.4 x 139.7 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    The same can be said for Millais’ handling of the figures and the setting in the painting. Mary’s wrinkled brow and the less than clean feet of some of the figures are certainly not idealized. According to the principles of the P.R.B., the attention to detail is incredible. Each individual wood shaving on the floor is exquisitely painted, and the rough-hewn table is more functional than beautiful. The tools of the carpenters trade are evident hanging on the wall behind, while stacks of wood line the walls. The setting is a place of work, not a sacred spot.

    Painted in a carpenter’s shop
    Detail, Sir John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents, 1849-50, oil on canvas, 86.4 x 139.7 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{29}\): Detail, Sir John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents, 1849-50, oil on canvas, 86.4 x 139.7 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    William Michael Rossetti recorded in The P.R.B. Journal that Millais started to work on the subject in November 1849 and began the actual painting at the end of December. We know from Rossetti and the reminiscences of fellow Brotherhood member William Holman Hunt that Millais worked on location in a carpenter’s shop on Oxford Street, catching cold while working there in January. Millais’ son tells us that his father purchased sheep heads from a butcher to use as models for the sheep in the upper left of the canvas. He did not show the finished canvas to his friends until April of 1850.

    Scathing reviews

    Although Millais’ exhibit at the Royal Academy in 1849, Isabella, had been well received, the critics blasted Christ in the House of his Parents. The most infamous review, however, was the one by Charles Dickens that appeared in his magazine Household Words in June 1850. In it he described Christ as:

    a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-haired boy in a nightgown, who appears to have received a poke playing in an adjacent gutter, and to be holding it up for the contemplation of a kneeling woman, so horrible in her ugliness that (supposing it were possible for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) she would stand out from the rest of the company as a monster in the vilest cabaret in France or in the lowest gin-shop in England.

    The commentary in The Times was equally unfavorable, stating that Millais’ “attempt to associate the Holy Family with the meanest details of a carpenter’s shop, with no conceivable omission of misery, of dirt, of even disease, all finished with loathsome minuteness, is disgusting.” The painting proved to be so controversial that Queen Victoria asked that it be removed from the exhibition and brought to her so she could examine it.

    At the Royal Academy

    The attacks on Millais’ painting were undoubtedly unsettling for the young artist. Millais had been born in 1829 on the island of Jersey, but his parents eventually moved to London to benefit their son’s artistic education. When Millais began at the Royal Academy school in 1840 he had the distinction of being the youngest person ever to have been admitted.

    At the Royal Academy, Millais became friendly with the young William Holman Hunt, who in turn introduced Millais to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the idea for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was born. The young artists exhibited their first set of paintings in 1849, all of which were well received, but the paintings shown in 1850 were universally criticized, although none with as much fervor as Christ in the House of his Parents.

    Detail, Sir John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents, 1849-50, oil on canvas, 86.4 x 139.7 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{30}\): Detail, Sir John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents, 1849-50, oil on canvas, 86.4 x 139.7 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    Millais’ Christ in the House of his Parents is a remarkable religious painting for its time. It presents the Holy Family in a realistic manner, emphasizing the small details that bring the tableau to life. It is a scene we can easily imagine happening, but it is still laced with the symbolism expected of a Christian subject. It is Millais’ marriage of these two ideas that makes Christ in the House of his Parents such a compelling image, and at the same time, made it so reprehensible to Millais’ contemporaries.

    Sir John Everett Millais, Mariana

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    Video \(\PageIndex{3}\): Sir John Everett Millais, Mariana, 1851, oil on wood, 597 x 495 mm (Tate Britain)

    Sir John Everett Millais, Mariana, 1851, oil on mahogany 59.7 49.5 cm (Tate)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{31}\): Sir John Everett Millais, Mariana, 1851, oil on mahogany 59.7 49.5 cm (Tate)
    The Victorian idea of a medieval woman

    Rising up to stretch after a long session of embroidery, Millais’ Mariana is the epitome of the Victorian idea of a medieval woman. Set in a vaguely Gothic interior with pointed arches and stained glass windows, the painting has an air of mystery and melancholy that is typical in Victorian depictions of the Middle Ages. The 1830s-50s saw an interest in the Middle Ages which appeared to offer an alternative to the problems of industrial capitalism of the Victorian era.

    Also typical of the time, is the emphasis on the isolated female figure. The dark colors and straining posture of the woman lead us to wonder about her story, and the Victorian painter always has a story to tell.

    An illustration for a poem by Tennyson

    Mariana is an illustration to Tennyson’s poem, lines from which were included in the catalog when the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1851:

    She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
    He cometh not,’ she said:
    She said, “I am aweary, aweary,
    I would that I were dead!’

    The inspiration for the poem was taken from the character of Mariana in Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure, who was locked in a moated grange (an estate with a moat around it) for years after her dowry was lost at sea in a storm, causing her to be rejected by her lover Angelo. However, the happily ever after ending found in Shakespeare’s play is not even hinted at in either Tennyson’s poem or the painting by Millais. Instead the young woman is totally enclosed and isolated by her surroundings, with even the garden visible outside the window bordered by a high brick wall. The visual imagery does not seem to suggest a happy ending for Millais’ heroine.

    Pre-Raphaelite details

    As is typical with the Pre-Raphaelites, Millais’ painting shows his mastery of the minute detail. The viewer can almost reach out and touch the softness of her velvet dress, and the jewels in her belt glitter against the dark blue fabric. The beautiful stained glass windows depicting an Annunciation scene were adapted from the windows in the Chapel of Merton College, Oxford. Even the smallest details such as the small mouse that runs across the floor and the light of the lamp by the prie dieu in the corner are painted with the same attention to truth to nature found in the more prominent elements of the painting.

    Mariana and the stained glass windows (detail), Sir John Everett Millais, Mariana, 1851, oil on mahogany 59.7 49.5 cm (Tate)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{32}\): Mariana and the stained glass windows (detail), Sir John Everett Millais, Mariana, 1851, oil on mahogany 59.7 49.5 cm (Tate)
    A turning point

    Mariana was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1851. Although Millais and his fellow Pre-Raphaelite artists were not well received by the critics, the attacks were not as savage as Millais had endured the previous year over his Christ in the House of his Parents. In fact, the young but influential critic John Ruskin was persuaded to send two letters to The Times praising the new style for its skill in drawing, intense color and truthfulness to nature. This was a turning point, both for the future of the Pre-Raphaelites and for Millais, whose future association with Ruskin was to be so eventful.

    In Mariana, Millais has created both an essay in Pre-Raphaelite execution and an evocative literary female portrait. The viewer feels the release of her aching muscles as she leans backward, however we are also palpably aware of her isolation. It is a work that is at once vibrant and colorful, but also cold and forbidding.

    Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia

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    Video \(\PageIndex{4}\): Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52, oil on canvas, 762 x 1118 mm (Tate Britain, London)

    A Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece

    Ophelia is considered to be one of the great masterpieces of the Pre-Raphaelite style. Combining his interest in Shakespearean subjects with intense attention to natural detail, Millais created a powerful and memorable image. His selection of the moment in the play Hamlet when Ophelia, driven mad by Hamlet’s murder of her father, drowns herself was very unusual for the time. However, it allowed Millais to show off both his technical skill and artistic vision.

    Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52, oil on canvas, 762 x 111.8 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{33}\): Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52, oil on canvas, 762 x 111.8 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    The figure of Ophelia floats in the water, her mid section slowly beginning to sink. Clothed in an antique dress that the artist purchased specially for the painting, the viewer can clearly see the weight of the fabric as it floats, but also helps to pull her down. Her hands are in the pose of submission, accepting of her fate.

    Ophelia (detail), Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52, oil on canvas, 762 x 111.8 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{34}\): Ophelia (detail), Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52, oil on canvas, 762 x 111.8 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    She is surrounded by a variety of summer flowers and other botanicals, some of which were explicitly described in Shakespeare’s text, while others are included for their symbolic meaning. For example, the ring of violets around Ophelia’s neck is a symbol of faithfulness, but can also refer to chastity and death.

    The hazards of painting outdoors

    Painted outdoors near Ewell in Surrey, Millais began the background of the painting in July of 1851. He reported that he got up everyday at 6 am, began work at 8, and did not return to his lodgings until 7 in the evening. He also recounted the problems of working outdoors in letters to his friend Mrs. Combe, later published in the biography of Millais by his son J.G. Millais.

    “I sit tailor-fashion under an umbrella throwing a shadow scarcely larger than a halfpenny for eleven hours, with a child’s mug within reach to satisfy my thirst from the running stream beside me. I am threatened with a notice to appear before a magistrate for trespassing in a field and destroying the hay.”

    The hazards of being an artist’s model
    Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal painting at an easel, pencil on paper, 1850s, 25 x 20.3 cm (private collection)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{35}\): Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal painting at an easel, pencil on paper, 1850s, 25 x 20.3 cm (private collection)

    His problems did not end when he returned to his studio in mid-October to paint the figure of Ophelia. His model was Elizabeth Siddal who the Pre-Raphaelite artists met through their friend Walter Howell Deverell, who had been impressed by her appearance and asked her to model for him.

    When she met the Pre-Raphaelites Siddal was working in a hat shop, but she later became a painter and poet in her own right. She also become the wife and muse of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Millais had Siddal floating in a bath of warm water kept hot with lamps under the tub. However, one day the lamps went out without being noticed by the engrossed Millais. Siddal caught cold, and her father threatened legal action for damages until Millais agreed to pay the doctor’s bills.

    Millais becomes a success
    Sir John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of his Parents, 1849-50, oil on canvas, 86.4 x 139.7 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{36}\): Sir John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of his Parents, 1849-50, oil on canvas, 86.4 x 139.7 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    Ophelia proved to be a more successful painting for Millais than some of his earlier works, such as Christ in the House of his Parents. It had already been purchased when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1852. Critical opinion, under the influence of John Ruskin, was also beginning to swing in the direction of the PRB (the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood). The following year, Millais was elected to be an Associate of the Royal Academy, an event that Rossetti considered to be the end of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

    Ophelia (detail), Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52, oil on canvas, 762 x 111.8 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{37}\): Ophelia (detail), Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52, oil on canvas, 762 x 111.8 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    The execution of Ophelia shows the Pre-Raphaelite style at its best. Each reed swaying in the water, every leaf and flower are the product of direct and exacting observation of nature. As we watch the drowning woman slowly sink into the murky water, we experience the tinge of melancholy so common in Victorian art. It is in his ability to combine the ideals of the Pre-Raphaelites with Victorian sensibilities that Millais excels. His depiction of Ophelia is as unforgettable as the character herself.

    Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:
    Millais, OpheliaMillais, OpheliaMillais, OpheliaMillais, OpheliaMillais, OpheliaMillais, OpheliaMillais, Ophelia
    Figure \(\PageIndex{38}\): More Smarthistory images…

    Curator’s choice – Millais’s Isabella

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    Video \(\PageIndex{5}\): Video from Tate.

    Sir John Everett Millais, Portrait of John Ruskin

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    John Everett Millais, Portrait of John Ruskin, 1853-4, oil on canvas, 78.7 x 68 cm (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{39}\): John Everett Millais, Portrait of John Ruskin, 1853-4, oil on canvas, 78.7 x 68 cm (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)
    John Ruskin, Study of Gneiss Rock, Glenfinlas, 1853, pen and ink, 47.7 x 32.7 cm (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{40}\): John Ruskin, Study of Gneiss Rock, Glenfinlas, 1853, pen and ink, 47.7 x 32.7 cm (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)
    “Go to nature…”

    Millais’s Portrait of John Ruskin depicts one of the most influential art critics of the Victorian era. Shown in front of a waterfall in Glenfinlas Scotland, Ruskin is surrounded by the wild, rocky landscape, an observer of the beauty of the natural world.

    The image is in keeping with Ruskin’s own writings which recommended that artists “go to nature in all singleness of heart,” as well as his personal interests as an amateur artist and dabbler in the burgeoning science of geology.

    Ruskin also completed several drawings of the area, including Study of Gneiss Rock, Glenfinlas (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) at the same spot as the background of Millais’s painting. In his own work, Ruskin shows the same meticulous attention to natural details.

    Sir John Everett Millais, The Order of Release, 1746, 1852-53, oil on canvas, 102.9 x 73.7 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{41}\): Sir John Everett Millais, The Order of Release, 1746, 1852-53, oil on canvas, 102.9 x 73.7 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    A controlling mentor

    The relationship between the young artist and the established critic began when Ruskin wrote two letters to The Times defending the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1851. Millais wrote to thank Ruskin, and Ruskin discovered a young artist he thought worthy of molding. In the summer of 1853, Millais was invited to visit Scotland with Ruskin and his wife Effie, who had previously posed for Millais’s painting The Order of Release 1746 (1852-3). Work began on the portrait almost immediately. Millais found the experience difficult, as Ruskin was an extremely controlling mentor, directing much of the production of the painting. Millais reported that he completed most of the background in Scotland, during July and August, although work on the picture was slow. In January of 1854 Ruskin sat for Millais in his studio and by April the face was completed. The painting was not finished until December 1854 when Ruskin’s father paid for the picture.

    The end of a marriage

    The painting was not the only thing to come out of the vacation, however. Effie was extremely unhappy in her marriage to the staid and conservative Ruskin, and she and Millais fell in love. She was ultimately to leave Ruskin and have their marriage annulled on the grounds of non-consummation. Effie married Millais in 1855 and the two eventually had eight children. Unfortunately, her reputation was considered tarnished because of the rigid Victorian social code and many people, including Queen Victoria, refused to receive her. Millais, who was created a baronet in 1885 and eventually elected as the President of the Royal Academy shortly before his death in August 1896, became more and more a part of the artistic establishment, and Effie’s exclusion from society was a source of unhappiness. It was only towards the end of Millais’s life, largely through the intervention of Princess Louise, that Effie was received in polite society.

    Detail, John Everett Millais, Portrait of John Ruskin, 1853-4, oil on canvas, 78.7 x 68 cm (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{42}\): Detail, John Everett Millais, Portrait of John Ruskin, 1853-4, oil on canvas, 78.7 x 68 cm (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

    Millais’s Portrait of Ruskin is an intimate glimpse at one of the most important figures in the Victorian art world. The painstaking attention to the details of the rocks and fast moving water shows the Pre-Raphaelite style at its finest, while the upright, serious figure of Ruskin hints at the sitter’s personality. The portrait is a rare meeting of art, science, and personal drama.

    Additional resources:

    Press release from the Ashmolean Museum on the acquisition of this painting

    Alastair Grieve, “Ruskin and Millais at Glenfinlas,” Burlington Magazine, vol. 138 (1996), pp. 228-234. (JSTOR)

    A Portrait of John Ruskin and Masculine Ideals of Dress in the Nineteenth Century

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    John Everett Millais, John Ruskin, c. 1853-54, oil on canvas, 78.7 x 68 cm (© Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{43}\): John Everett Millais, John Ruskin, c. 1853-54, oil on canvas, 78.7 x 68 cm (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

    While the skill of a portrait artist is often judged by whether or not the work resembles the sitter, a portrait may also reveal something about the sitter as well as fashionable norms of the time. What does John Ruskin reveal about himself in his choice of attire for his commissioned portrait by John Everett Millais? In this life-size oil painting, Millais depicts the art critic and polymath standing on a narrow rocky ledge looking downstream as the river rushes behind him. He is dressed in formal daywear suitable for a gentleman — a dark-colored wool double-breasted frock coat that comes to his knees worn over a crisp white shirt, and gray trousers.

    Masculine dress in the nineteenth century
    John Everett Millais, John Ruskin, detail, c. 1853-54, oil on canvas, 78.7 x 68 cm (© Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{44}\): John Everett Millais, John Ruskin, detail, c. 1853-54, oil on canvas, 78.7 x 68 cm (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

    During the nineteenth century, the dress of men differed markedly from that of the previous century. They cast aside the flamboyant, colorful and decorative looks worn by men like Charles II in the eighteenth century. Instead, the elegant gentleman of the Victorian era was often seen wearing relatively dark and sober attire. In dressing this way, men seemed to have rejected fashion, a phenomenon historians often refer to as “The Great Male Renunciation of Fashion.” The contrast between the seemingly dark and sober menswear and the ornate and decorative dress worn by women aligned with traditional gender roles that cast women as ornamental accessories of their fathers or husbands in the nineteenth century.

    Nonetheless, a closer look at menswear of the nineteenth century shows that fashion was indeed present and can be found in small and subtle details, such as the quality of the cloth, the length of the coat, the style of the necktie, the height of the collar, and the fit of the trousers. In fact, it was just these types of details that conveyed a man’s status, wealth and identity.

    Reading the clues of dress

    Ruskin is wearing an ensemble that was considered formal urban daywear. This type of dark and sober costume was the uniform of respectability, worn by members of Parliament, bankers, judges, doctors and gentleman. He wears this elegant attire even though he is deep in the wilderness in a hard-to-reach ravine in Scotland, communicating the idea that he is an educated gentleman.

    Ruskin’s crisp white collared shirt emerges at the neckline and cuffs to show that he has the financial means to have his clothing laundered. The black or dark blue stock or necktie, wrapped smoothly around his neck, also denotes his social class. The dark long-waisted wool frock coat that comes to his knees creates a smooth line over his slender body and exemplifies the work of a skilled tailor.

    It is interesting that Ruskin did not select a looser-fitting hunting jacket for his portrait but instead chose clothing that he might have worn to give a lecture on architecture and painting. Millais’ initial sketches for this portrait made on site in Glen Finglas (Scotland) show Ruskin wearing this or a similar formal daywear ensemble even though the painting was later finished in the artist’s studio in London.

    Man’s Frock Coat and Trousers, circa 1852 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{45}\): Man’s Frock Coat and Trousers, circa 1852 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

    A comparable ensemble dated to 1852 from the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art reveals the waistcoat or vest typically worn under the frock coat. The key difference is that this ensemble is accessorized with two items found in every gentleman’s wardrobe from that time — a silk top hat and a walking stick.

    John Everett Millais, John Ruskin, detail, c. 1853-54, oil on canvas, 78.7 x 68 cm (© Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{46}\): John Everett Millais, John Ruskin, detail, c. 1853-54, oil on canvas, 78.7 x 68 cm (© Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)
    Ruskin’s walking stick

    Ruskin chose more casual versions of these accessories for his portrait by Millais. In the painting, he holds a brown felt hat in his left hand and a walking stick fashioned from a tree branch in the other. He is a gentleman, but with these choices he reveals his affinity for and love of nature, a topic that he also lectured on. He once wrote: “I would rather teach drawing that my pupils learn to love nature, than teach the looking at nature that they may love to draw.”

    In subsequent decades, Ruskin would be described as a slightly stooped figure who was somewhat old-fashioned in his dress. In 1884, the young Beatrix Potter recorded seeing Ruskin at the Royal Academy in her diary noting that he was “one of the most ridiculous figures” she had ever seen, and she observed that he wore “a very old hat, much necktie and aged coat buttoned up to his neck.” Nonetheless, in 1853-1854 when Millais painted his portrait, Ruskin emulated the ideal attire worn by an elegant gentleman, albeit with his own unique touch.

    Details of men’s attire are often less visible than women’s dress, especially since men’s suits are one of the most ubiquitous and enduring symbols of masculinity. Nonetheless, small details, such as the choice of accessories or the cut and quality of a suit, may reveal important clues to a sitter’s identity.

    Additional resources:

    This painting at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

    Read more about this portrait of John Ruskin

    Christopher Breward, The Suit: Form, Function & Style (London: Reaktion Books, 2016)

    James S. Dearden, John Ruskin: A Life in Pictures (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999)

    Ingrid E. Mida, Reading Fashion in Art (London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020)

    Sir John Everett Millais, The Vale of Rest

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    Video \(\PageIndex{6}\): Sir John Everett Millais, The Vale of Rest: where the weary find repose, 1858 (partially repainted 1862)

    Inspired by the sunset

    An October sunset was the inspiration for the evocative The Vale of Rest by John Everett Millais. In the foreground, two nuns in the graveyard, one digging and one looking out at the viewer, serve as a counterpoint to the colorful display of nature in the background. The scene is peaceful, tranquil, and without the explicit narrative often found in Victorian paintings (think about Hunt’s Awakening Conscience for example), but it is nonetheless rich in symbolism. The artist himself stated that this was his favorite painting.

    Sir John Everett Millais, The Vale of Rest: where the weary find repose, 1858 (partially repainted 1862), oil on canvas, 102.9 x 172.7 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{47}\): Sir John Everett Millais, The Vale of Rest: where the weary find repose, 1858 (partially repainted 1862), oil on canvas, 102.9 x 172.7 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Mortality & the cycles of nature
    Sir John Everett Millais, Spring (Apple Blossoms), 1859-9, oil on canvas, 110.5 x 172.7 (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{48}\): Sir John Everett Millais, Spring (Apple Blossoms), 1859-9, oil on canvas, 110.5 x 172.7 (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool)

    Millais apparently thought of the painting as a companion to his painting Spring (1856-9), also first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1859. Both together and separately, the two pictures relate to the traditional theme of mortality and the cycles of nature. The autumn setting of The Vale of Rest emphasizes the annual reminder of death in the falling foliage and shortened hours of daylight. This feeling is emphasized by the two nuns, one vigorously digging a grave and the other who prominently wears a rosary attached to a skull. The quiet of the scene is marred only by the sound of the shovel as it hits the dirt.

    Painted out-of-doors
    Nun (detail), Sir John Everett Millais,The Vale of Rest: where the weary find repose, 1858 (partially repainted 1862), oil on canvas, 102.9 x 172.7 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{49}\): Nun (detail), Sir John Everett Millais, The Vale of Rest: where the weary find repose, 1858 (partially repainted 1862), oil on canvas, 102.9 x 172.7 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    Although we often associate artists painting outdoors to capture the effects of light with Monet, Renoir and the Impressionist group, the Pre-Raphaelites also painted outdoors. The background of this painting is the garden of Millais’ in-laws home in Perth, Scotland, except, of course, for the gravestones, which were painted in Kinnoull churchyard, Perth. According to a long description of the production of the painting by his wife, Effie and recorded by their son J.G. Millais, “the sunsets were lovely for two or three nights . . . the effect lasted so short a time that he had to paint like lightning.” In a letter to William Holman Hunt, Millais tells his friend that he was painting the picture, figures and all, outdoors, despite the fact that it was extremely cold.

    Growing success

    In many of the paintings completed after The Vale of Rest, Millais began to move towards more saleable pictures. Although he had moved to Scotland after his marriage in July 1855, Millais and family returned to London in 1861, and many have argued that the change in his work reflects the need to support his growing family. He was to be increasingly successful, being elected RA (Royal Academician) in 1863 and ultimately serving as the President of the Royal Academy, although briefly, from early 1896 until his death in August of that year. In 1885 Millais also had the distinction of being the first artist to be created a baronet.

    Seated nun (detail), Sir John Everett Millais, The Vale of Rest: where the weary find repose, 1858 (partially repainted 1862), oil on canvas, 102.9 x 172.7 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{50}\): Seated nun (detail), Sir John Everett Millais, The Vale of Rest: where the weary find repose, 1858 (partially repainted 1862), oil on canvas, 102.9 x 172.7 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    The Vale of Rest is a transitional work in Victorian art. The attention to detail and truth to nature are firmly rooted in Pre-Raphaelitism, while the lack of a clear subject relates to the new ideas of the Aesthetic Movement and the concept of art for arts sake, which was to become so prominent in the 1860s and 70s. The quiet and contemplative mood of the painting encourages the viewer to enjoy the beauty of nature, while, perhaps, also pondering our own mortality.

    Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:
    Millais's The Vale of Rest with detail of treesMillais's The Vale of Rest with detail of nun diggingMillais's The Vale of RestMillais's The Vale of Rest with detail of nun and RosaryMillais's The Vale of Rest with detail of bonesMillais's The Vale of Rest with detail of nunTate Gallery with Beata Beatrix and The Vale of Rest
    Figure \(\PageIndex{51}\): More Smarthistory images…

    William Holman Hunt

    William Holman Hunt, Claudio and Isabella

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    Video \(\PageIndex{7}\): William Holman Hunt, Claudio and Isabella, 1850, oil on mahogany, 758 x 426 x 10 mm (Tate Britain)

    From William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Act III, scene 1 (a room in a prison):

    ISABELLA What says my brother?
    CLAUDIO Death is a fearful thing.
    ISABELLA And shamed life a hateful.
    CLAUDIO Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
    To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
    This sensible warm motion to become
    A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
    To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
    In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
    To be imprison’d in the viewless winds,
    And blown with restless violence round about
    The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
    Of those that lawless and incertain thought
    Imagine howling: ’tis too horrible!
    The weariest and most loathed worldly life
    That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
    Can lay on nature is a paradise
    To what we fear of death.
    ISABELLA Alas, alas!

    William Holman Hunt, Claudio and Isabella, oil on canvas, 1850, 30 x 16-3/4 inches (Tate Britain, London) Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1853.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{52}\): William Holman Hunt, Claudio and Isabella, oil on canvas, 1850, 30 x 16-3/4 inches (Tate Britain, London). Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1853.
    A moral dilemma

    William Holman Hunt’s Claudio and Isabella illustrates not only the Pre-Raphaelite fascination with William Shakespeare, but also the artist’s particular attraction to subjects dealing with issues of morality. Taken from the play Measure for Measure, which tells the story of Claudio, who has been sentenced to death by Lord Angelo (the temporary ruler of Vienna) for impregnating his fiancée.

    Claudio and Isabella (detail), William Holman Hunt, Claudio and Isabella, 1850, oil on mahogany, 75.8 x 42.6 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{53}\): Claudio and Isabella (detail), William Holman Hunt, Claudio and Isabella, 1850, oil on mahogany, 75.8 x 42.6 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, 1853, oil on canvas, 76 x 56 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{54}\): William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, 1853, oil on canvas, 76 x 56 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    Claudio’s sister Isabella, a nun, goes to Angelo to plead for clemency for her brother and is shocked that he suggests that she trade sex for her brother’s life. Of course, she refuses, and Claudio initially agrees with her decision, but later changes his mind. Hunt depicts the moment when the imprisoned Claudio suggests that Isabella sacrifice her virginity to gain his freedom.

    It was the type of subject that appealed to Hunt, who liked themes to do with questions of guilt and sinful behavior, such as his well known painting The Awakening Conscience (1853).

    Claudio and Isabella

    Claudio’s face, which is partly in shadow, looks down and away from his sister. His slouching posture, the rich texture of his dark, yet colorful clothes and pointed medieval-looking shoes are a sharp contrast to the stark white of the nun’s habit, her upright posture and unwavering gaze. Sunlight from the prison window lights Isabella’s face and permits a glimpse of apple blossoms and a church in the distance.

    The interior of the scene was painted at Lollard Prison at Lambeth Palace, and the crumbling masonry around the windows and the rusty metal of the shackle that bind Claudio’s leg detail the less than desirable conditions.

    Shackle (detail), William Holman Hunt, Claudio and Isabella, 1850, oil on mahogany, 75.8 x 42.6 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{55}\): Shackle (detail), William Holman Hunt, Claudio and Isabella, 1850, oil on mahogany, 75.8 x 42.6 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    Hunt also painted the lute hanging in the window while at the prison. The lute with its red string is symbolic of lust, but the fact that it is placed in the sunshine rather than the gloom of the cell lessens the negative impact. The petals of apple blossom scattered on Claudio’s cloak on the floor, although not added until 1879, are intended to show that Claudio is willing to compromise his sister to save himself.

    Financial difficulties

    Claudio and Isabella was begun in 1850 after Hunt received a small advance from the painter Augustus Egg. Poor reviews of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings at the Royal Academy of 1850 had created financial difficulties for Hunt. He continued to work on the painting for the next several years, finally exhibiting the picture at the Royal Academy of 1853.

    “Death is a fearful thing”

    The painting appeared with a quotation from the play carved into the frame, a devise Hunt was to explore in many of his paintings, as a way of reinforcing his message. The short notation “Claudio: Death is a fearful thing. Isabella: And shamed life a hateful,” serves not only to point to the exact moment in the play, but also as a reminder of the underlying moral dilemma of the subject. The ability to bring to life these moments of ambiguity was one of Hunt’s greatest achievements.

    Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:
    Hunt, Claudio and Isabella with detail of carved namesHunt, Claudio and Isabella with detail of footHunt, Claudio and Isabella with frameHunt, Claudio and Isabella without frameHunt, Claudio and Isabella with detail of churchHunt, Claudio and Isabella with detail of sillHunt, Claudio and Isabella with detail of headsHunt, Claudio and Isabella with viewer
    Figure \(\PageIndex{56}\): More Smarthistory images…

    William Holman Hunt, Our English Coasts (Strayed Sheep)

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    Video \(\PageIndex{8}\): William Holman Hunt, Our English Coasts (“Strayed Sheep”), 1852, oil on canvas, 432 x 584 mm (Tate Britain, London)

    A daring composition
    View from cliffs, Covehurst Bay
    Figure \(\PageIndex{57}\): View from cliffs, Covehurst Bay

    William Holman Hunt’s Our English Coasts (Strayed Sheep) is a remarkably original work of art for 1852. Painted largely out of doors at the “Lover’s Seat” (a scenic outlook) above Covehurst Bay near Hastings on the south coast of England, the scene captures a tranquil spot inhabited only by a flock of sheep. The rather daring composition and the attention to natural detail make this painting unique.

    William Holman Hunt, Our English Coasts (Strayed Sheep), 1852, oil on canvas, 43.2 x 58.4 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{58}\): William Holman Hunt, Our English Coasts (Strayed Sheep), 1852, oil on canvas, 43.2 x 58.4 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    Hunt captures the beauty of an English summer day. The brightness of the sunlight is interrupted only by the shadows of the clouds they move across the landscape. The sea glitters in the distance on the far left. The cliffs are pushed up to the top of the picture frame, leaving little room for the sky. Most daring, however, is the massing of the sheep on the edge of the cliff on the right side of the painting, creating an asymmetry to the composition.

    William Holman Hunt, detail Our English Coasts (Strayed Sheep), 1852, oil on canvas, 43.2 x 58.4 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{59}\): Detail, William Holman Hunt, Our English Coasts (Strayed Sheep), 1852, oil on canvas, 43.2 x 58.4 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    Although there are no people in the landscape, the sheep take on very human characteristics, for example the two sheep at the very edge of the canvas, one of whom lovingly rests his head on the back of the his companion. In the corner just underneath, a black sheep stares malevolently out at the viewer.

    Pre-Raphaelite truth to nature

    True to the ideals of Pre-Raphaelitism, Hunt painted every flower, bramble and blade of grass with extreme attention to detail. The texture gives the impression that you could reach out feel the uneven clumps of wool on the sheep, and Hunt even pays attention to the red marking, used to differentiate ownership, on each member of the flock. Hunt, who had introduced the Pre-Raphaelites to the ideas of John Ruskin, was perhaps the most faithful follower of Ruskin’s advice to “go to Nature in all singleness of heart.”

    Political and Moral Content

    Also following in the tradition of Ruskin is the fact that the painting carries a moral content. The title Our English Coasts related to the fact that at the time of the unguarded state of the many miles of English coastline was a serious topic of discussion at the time. The European revolutions of 1848 had made Britons nervous, and it was as yet unclear what the relationship was to be with France’s new ruler Napoleon III.

    William Holman Hunt, The Hireling Shepherd, 1851, oil on canvas, 76.4 × 109.5 cm (Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{60}\): William Holman Hunt, The Hireling Shepherd, 1851, oil on canvas, 76.4 × 109.5 cm (Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester)

    The selection of a location near Hastings, the landing site of the Norman Invasion of 1066, possibly relates to the last successful invasion of the island in British history. The painting’s subtitle, Strayed Sheep, relates to the more Biblical message of the painting. There is no shepherd tending the flock, some of which are perched perilously close to the edge of the cliff. In this the message relates to the moral of Hunt’s The Hireling Shepherd, in which a beautiful woman distracts the shepherd while the flock behind him gets into all kinds of trouble. Interestingly, when Hunt exhibited the painting in France in 1855, the Our English Coasts part of the title was dropped.

    Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelites

    Hunt was born in London in 1827 and became a student at the Royal Academy School in 1844, where he met Millais. He also became a close friend of Dante Gabriel Rossetti when the two bonded over a mutual regard for the work of the poet Keats. He was an important force in the early years of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and the subjects and moral content of his paintings frequently reflect his own deeply religious nature.

    The English countryside

    The realism of Our English Coasts (Strayed Sheep) transports the viewer to the spot. One can feel the breeze off the English Channel, and the heat of the summer sun. The picturesque blend of sheep and landscape typically found in the English countryside are here seamlessly intertwined with the moral message. Hunt has in no way created a replica of an earlier painting (which was the original commission), but a wholly original work of art.

    Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:
    Hunt, Our English Coasts ('Strayed Sheep'), detail with flockHunt, Our English Coasts ('Strayed Sheep'), 1852Hunt, Our English Coasts ('Strayed Sheep'), detail with sheep
    Figure \(\PageIndex{61}\): More Smarthistory images…

    William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience

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    Video \(\PageIndex{9}\): William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, 1853, oil on canvas, 762 x 559 mm (Tate Britain, London)

    William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, 1853, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 55.9 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{62}\): William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, 1853, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 55.9 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    A Fallen Woman (with a New Twist)

    William Holman Hunt’s painting, The Awakening Conscience, addresses the common Victorian narrative of the fallen woman (for more about this subject, see Stanhope’s Thoughts of the Past). Trapped in a newly decorated interior, Hunt’s heroine at first appears to be a stereotype of the age, a young unmarried woman engaged in an illicit liaison with her lover. This is made clear by the fact that she is partially undressed in the presence of a clothed man and wears no wedding ring.

    Detail, William Holman Hunt, detail The Awakening Conscience, 1853, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 55.9 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{63}\): Detail, William Holman Hunt, detail The Awakening Conscience, 1853, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 55.9 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    However, Hunt offers a new twist on this story. The young woman springs up from her lover’s lap. She is reminded of her country roots by the music the man plays (the sheet music to Thomas Moore’s Oft in the Stilly Night sits on the piano), causing her to have an awakening prick of conscience.

    Cat (detail), William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, 1853, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 55.9 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{64}\): Cat (detail), William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, 1853, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 55.9 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    The symbolism of the picture makes her situation as a kept woman clear—the enclosed interior, the cat playing with a bird under the chair, and the man’s one discarded glove on the floor all speak to the precarious position the woman has found herself in. However, as she stands up, a ray of light illuminates her from behind, almost like a halo, offering the viewer hope that she may yet find the strength to redeem herself.

    Richard Redgrave, The Outcast, 1851, oil on canvas, 31x 41 in (Royal Academy, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{65}\): Richard Redgrave, The Outcast, 1851, oil on canvas, 31x 41 in (Royal Academy, London)

    The theme of the fallen woman was popular in Victorian art, echoing the prevalence of prostitution in Victorian society. Hunt’s redemptive message is unusual when compared to other examples of this theme. For example, Richard Redgrave’s The Outcast (1851), which shows a young unwed mother and her baby being cast out into the snow by her disgraced father, while the rest of her family pleads for mercy. Countless other paintings of the period emphasize the perils of stepping outside the bounds of acceptable morality with the typical conclusion to the story being that the woman is ostracized, and inevitably, suffers a premature death. By contrast, Hunt offers the viewer the hope that the young woman in his painting is truly repentant and can ultimately reclaim her life.

    Pre-Raphaelite in style
    William Holman Hunt, detail The Awakening Conscience, 1853, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 55.9 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{66}\): Woman and reflection in the mirror (detail), William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, 1853, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 55.9 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    The Awakening Conscience is one of the few Pre-Raphaelite paintings to deal with a subject from contemporary life, but it still retains the truth to nature and attention to detail common to the style. The texture of the carpet, the reflection in the mirror behind the girl and the carvings of the furniture all speak to to Hunt’s unwavering belief that the artist should recreate the scene as closely as possible, and paint from direct observation. To do that, he hired a room in the neighborhood of St. John’s Wood. The picture was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1854, and unfortunately for Hunt, met with a mixed reception. While Ruskin praised the attention to detail, many critics disliked the subject of the painting and ignored the more positive spiritual message.

    A deeply religious man

    For Hunt, the moral of the story was an important element in any of his subjects. He was a deeply religious man and committed to the principles of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and John Ruskin. In fact, shortly after this painting was completed, Hunt embarked on a journey to the Holy Land, convinced that in order to paint religious subjects, he had to go to the actual source for inspiration. The fact that a trip to the Holy Land was a difficult, expensive and dangerous journey at the time was immaterial to him.

    The Awakening Conscience is an unconventional approach to a common subject. Hunt’s work reflects the ideal of Christian charity espoused in theory by many Victorians, but not exactly put into practice when dealing with the issue of the fallen woman. While others emphasized the consequences of one’s actions as a way of discouraging inappropriate behavior, Hunt maintained that the truly repentant can change their lives.

    Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:
    William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, detail with yarnWilliam Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, detail of Woman and MirrorWilliam Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, detail with manWilliam Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, detail with Cat and BirdHunt, The Awakening Conscience with viewersWilliam Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, detail with HandsWilliam Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, 1853
    Figure \(\PageIndex{67}\): More Smarthistory images…

    William Holman Hunt, Isabella or the Pot of Basil

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    William Holman Hunt, Isabella or the Pot of Basil, 1866-8, retouched 1886, oil on canvas, 187 x 116.5 cm (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle Upon Tyne)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{68}\): William Holman Hunt, Isabella or the Pot of Basil, 1866-8, retouched 1886, oil on canvas, 187 x 116.5 cm (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle Upon Tyne)

    One of the things that initially drew the Pre-Raphaelites together was a shared admiration for the writings of John Keats. Throughout their careers, subjects from Keats’ poems frequently supplied the narratives for the paintings done by the members of the PRB (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood), but William Holman Hunt’s Isabella or the Pot of Basil (1866-8) is an innovative interpretation of the subject.

    Keats’ Isabella or the Pot of Basil (published in 1820) is based on a story from the Renaissance author Boccaccio’s Decameron. It explores the traditional theme of star-crossed lovers. The poem tells the tragic tale of Isabella and Lorenzo, who is employed by Isabella’s brothers. Unhappy with the blossoming love between the pair, the brothers send Lorenzo on a trip and have him killed, but Lorenzo appears to Isabella as a ghost and tells her where to find his body. Isabella digs up the body, cuts off Lorenzo’s head and buries it in a pot of basil, which she waters with her tears. Eventually her brothers become suspicious, steal the pot, and flee. Isabella goes mad with grief and dies. Like the narratives of so many Victorian paintings, the course of true love does not run smoothly.

    John Everett Millais, Isabella, 1848-9, oil on canvas, 142.8 x 103 cm (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{69}\): John Everett Millais, Isabella, 1848-9, oil on canvas, 142.8 x 103 cm (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool)

    The subject had been treated by John Everett Millais in 1848-9 in one of his first forays into Pre-Raphaelite painting. Millais’ painting shows the lovers, oblivious to the others around them as Lorenzo shyly offers Isabella a blood orange on a plate. Isabella looks demurely downward while one of her brothers kicks a dog in fury over their obvious regard for each other. Millais’ Isabella is a stunning example of the mastery of the medieval detail for which the Pre-Raphaelites are known, and the pale, thin face of Isabella is reminiscent of a Renaissance Madonna.

    William Holman Hunt, Isabella or the Pot of Basil, 1866-8, retouched 1886,detail, oil on canvas, 187 x 116.5 cm (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle Upon Tyne)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{70}\): William Holman Hunt, Isabella or the Pot of Basil, 1866-8, retouched 1886, detail, oil on canvas, 187 x 116.5 cm (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle Upon Tyne)

    In contrast, Hunt’s image of an exotic, dark-haired Mediterranean-looking woman is at odds both with the earlier painting and the description in Keats’ poem. Here Isabella stares into space, her arms tenderly embracing a pot decorated with skulls, which Hunt based on examples he had seen in Florence. She is clad in a gauzy, clinging nightdress emphasizing her curves, and her feet are bare, creating a far more sensual version of the subject. Hunt’s Isabella also appears to be a more robust woman than the typical pale, fragile looking women often found in Victorian art. Ever practical, Hunt said that he wanted her to look as if she was actually capable of cutting off a head.

    Frederic Lord Leighton, Flaming June, oil on canvas, 120 x 120 cm (Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{71}\): Frederic Lord Leighton, Flaming June, oil on canvas, 120 x 120 cm (Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico)

    Although the attention to detail found in Hunt’s earlier Pre-Raphaelite paintings remains, his inclusion of vaguely foreign elements such as the inlay of the furniture, the elaborate tapestry on which the pot sits and the richly designed tile floor come more from the interest in the exotic found in paintings of the Aesthetic Movement. His approach to Isabella and the Pot of Basil has as much in common with later Victorian artists such as Frederic Lord Leighton and his paintings of classically dressed single female figures, as it does with his Pre-Raphaelite roots.

    William Holman Hunt, Fanny Waugh Hunt, oil on canvas, 104 x 73 cm (Toledo Museum of Art)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{72}\): William Holman Hunt, Fanny Waugh Hunt, oil on canvas, 104 x 73 cm (Toledo Museum of Art)

    The painting was begun in Florence, where Hunt and his new wife, Fanny Waugh, were stopped while traveling in 1866. In October Fanny gave birth to a son but contracted a fever and died in December. Hunt used Fanny’s likeness as the model for his Isabella and her mournful gaze may be an expression of his own grief. After working on the painting for some time, Hunt finally exhibited the work in 1868 at the showroom of the art dealer Ernest Gambart, where it was generally well received by critics.

    William Holman Hunt, Isabella or the Pot of Basil, 1866-8, retouched 1886,detail, oil on canvas, 187 x 116.5 cm (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle Upon Tyne)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{73}\): William Holman Hunt, Isabella or the Pot of Basil, 1866-8, retouched 1886, detail, oil on canvas, 187 x 116.5 cm (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle Upon Tyne)

    Throughout his career, Hunt stayed closest to the aesthetic of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in his attention to detail and his insistence on narrative content. His use of the Keats poem and his masterful treatment of small things, such as the minutia of the stitching on the beautiful tapestry, point to his continuing adherence to the ideals of the PRB, while his re-interpretation of the heroine shows his continued growth as an artist.

    William Holman Hunt, The Lady of Shalott

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    William Holman Hunt, The Lady of Shalott, c. 1888-1905, oil on canvas, 74 1/8 X 57 5/8 inches (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{74}\): William Holman Hunt, The Lady of Shalott, c. 1888–1905, oil on canvas, 74 1/8 X 57 5/8 inches (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)
    A Lady Cursed

    In the 1880s, William Holman Hunt turned to the poetry of Sir Alfred, Lord Tennyson, a favorite Victorian literary source, in his painting The Lady of Shalott. Hunt’s painting is a virtuoso performance, using the meticulous detail of Pre-Raphaelitism to capture the most dramatic moment in the story. The painting was based on a drawing for a lavish edition of Tennyson published in 1857 known as the Moxon Tennyson (after the publisher).

    William Holman Hunt’s illustration of The Lady of Shallot, Moxon edition of Tennyson’s Poems, 1857 (The British Library)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{75}\): William Holman Hunt’s illustration of The Lady of Shallot, Moxon edition of Tennyson’s Poems, 1857 (The British Library)

    The Victorians loved nothing better than a beautiful, tragic heroine, preferably one in medieval clothing, which explains their enduring fascination with Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott. One of his many poems based on the legends of King Arthur, Tennyson tells the story of a lovely lady confined to “Four gray walls, and four gray towers,” and cursed to constantly weave scenes that she can only observe through a mirror. As the poem explains:

    No time hath she to sport and play:
    A charmed web she weaves alway.
    A curse is on her, if she stay
    Her weaving either night or day,
    To look down to Camelot.
    She knows not what the curse may be;
    Therefore she weaveth steadily,
    Therefore no other care hath she,
    The Lady of Shalott.

    Unfortunately for the lady, her routine of constantly weaving reflections is quite literally shattered when she observes Sir Lancelot riding by and actually looks out the window rather than at the shadowy images in the mirror.

    She left the web, she left the loom
    She made three paces thro’ the room
    She saw the water-flower bloom,
    She saw the helmet and the plume,
    She look’d down to Camelot.
    Out flew the web and floated wide;
    The mirror crack’d from side to side;
    ‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried
    The Lady of Shalott.

    Knowing that the end is near, the final part of the poem recounts how the lady writes a message for those that will find her body, gets into a boat, and floats down the river to Camelot. In this, Tennyson’s poem ends as did many, many other stories popularized during the era, with the untimely demise of the lovely heroine.

    John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott, 1888, oil on canvas, 153 × 200 cm (Tate Britain)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{76}\): John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott, 1888, oil on canvas, 153 × 200 cm (Tate Britain)

    The subject was frequently illustrated, the most familiar example being John William Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott, which depicts a beautiful but stricken looking lady dying as she slowly floats down the river. In selecting this of the part of the story, Waterhouse was not alone, as the vast majority of renditions of this subject focused on the trip down river, with the lady either already dead or about to die.

    In contrast, Hunt illustrated the most active part of the poem, when the lady actually looks out the window, causing the mirror to crack. According to the text, “she made three paces thro’ the room,” and in Hunt’s figure, the swinging arms and the wild, wind-blown look of her flowing hair create the sensation of a slow rhythmic dance. The lady struggles to remove threads of her tapestry, which “out flew the web and floated wide,” creating long colored strings that bind the figure. Much of this can also be seen in the original drawing and were elements not appreciated by Tennyson himself who complained that her hair was like a “tornado” and that the threads encircling her body were an addition to the actual text of the poem.

    William Holman Hunt, detail of the mirror, The Lady of Shalott, c. 1888-1905, oil on canvas, 74 1/8 X 57 5/8 inches (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{77}\): Mirror (detai;), William Holman Hunt, The Lady of Shalott, c. 1888–1905, oil on canvas, 74 1/8 X 57 5/8 inches (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)
    William Holman Hunt, detail of Hercules, shoes and irises, The Lady of Shalott, c. 1888-1905, oil on canvas, 74 1/8 X 57 5/8 inches (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{78}\): Hercules, shoes and irises (detail), William Holman Hunt, The Lady of Shalott, c. 1888–1905, oil on canvas, 74 1/8 X 57 5/8 inches (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)
    Symbols and Meanings

    In the painting, Hunt added many symbolic references. The cracked mirror behind the lady’s head shows Lancelot on his way to Camelot and the river that will take her on her final journey. The subject of the tapestry she weaves, Sir Galahad delivering the Holy Grail to King Arthur, provides a virtuous counterpoint to Lancelot, whose adultery with Queen Guinevere ultimately brings down Camelot. To one side of the mirror, a decorative panel depicting Hercules trying to pluck a golden fruit in the Garden of Hesperides is reminiscent of Renaissance relief sculpture, something Hunt saw much of during an earlier stay in Florence. The same can be said for the decorative tile floor, which is similar to that used by Hunt in his earlier painting Isabella or the Pot of Basil begun during his stay in Florence.

    Hunt was a religious man, and included elements that may be interpreted as Christian symbolism—a pair of empty shoes and two purple irises. In the Bible shoes are often removed before walking on sacred ground. For example, a similar device is used in the famous Northern Renaissance painting by Jan Van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait, which was a favorite of the Pre-Raphaelites. The delicately painted irises are associated with faith, hope, and wisdom, and for a Victorian audience intimately aware of the language of flowers, this inclusion may have had special meaning for the tragic lady who was “half sick of shadows,” and in the throes of making a life-changing decision.

    Feminist scholars have noted that the story can be seen as a cautionary tale of what happens to women who flout the rules; in this case it is the lady’s obvious sexual desire for Lancelot that drives her decision to actually look out the window and bring the curse upon herself. And although a moralistic meaning would certainly have appealed to Hunt, his depiction of the lady is not unsympathetic. The reflection of the bright sunshine in the mirror is in sharp contrast to the darkness around the lady’s face and upper torso, while her lower half is bathed in light. His lack of overt condemnation of her actions is reminiscent of his more charitable approach towards what Victorians saw as the sin of prostitution in his earlier painting The Awakening Conscience. Although as a reader one must wonder how she ended up cursed in a tower in the first place, we are forced to admire her decision to free herself from her prison.

    William Holman Hunt, The Lady of Shalott, c. 1888-1905, oil on canvas, 74 1/8 X 57 5/8 inches (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{79}\): William Holman Hunt, The Lady of Shalott, c. 1888–1905, oil on canvas, 74 1/8 X 57 5/8 inches (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)

    The Lady of Shalott is a powerful example of later Pre-Raphaelitism. At a time when many artists were moving towards the ideas of Aestheticism where beauty is more important than subject, Hunt’s picture exhibits his meticulous attention to detail combined with his desire to include a narrative. His focus on the climatic action of the story, rather than the passivity of the lady’s death, grips his viewer with the moment of decision that will change the course of her life. Although Victorian painting abounds with images of women who, by the end of the story, will end up dead, Hunt’s portrayal of his subject shows a woman unwilling to accept the drudgery of her life and ready to make a change, no matter what the cost.

    Ford Madox Brown

    Ford Madox Brown, The Last of England

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    Ford Madox Brown, The Last of England, 1852-55, oil on panel, 82.5 x 75 cm (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, UK)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{80}\): Ford Madox Brown, The Last of England, 1852-55, oil on panel, 82.5 x 75 cm (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, UK)

    Ford Madox Brown’s great modern life study The Last of England (1852-55) captures a familiar scene in England during the 1850s. A man and woman aboard a crowded ship gaze out at the viewer. A brisk wind blows the woman’s bonnet ties and turns the sea into a mass of white caps, suggesting the potential for a rough passage. The deck behind them is packed with people also making the journey, while green cabbages hanging on the rope railings hint at the long voyage ahead. The predominately somber color scheme, the chilly look of the sea and the sky, and the mournful expressions of the main figures tell the story.

    Ford Madox Brown, The Last of England, 1852-55, oil on panel, 82.5 x 75 cm (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, UK)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{81}\): Ford Madox Brown, The Last of England, 1852-55, oil on panel, 82.5 x 75 cm (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, UK)

    The painting is dominated by the two figures, based on the artist and his wife, Emma. Their close proximity and clasped hands identify them as a couple, yet they both stare straight ahead, each locked in their own silent reflections. Barely noticed at first glance is the small hand emerging out of the woman’s cloak, the unseen child that is potentially a nod to the future. The umbrella propped up to shield them from the spray of the sea also blocks their view of the iconic white cliffs of Dover receding in the distance, representing what is left behind. The unusual circular format of the painting acts almost like a telescope, adding a voyeuristic quality to the scene, as if the viewer is spying on this moment of personal grief and introspection. In a catalogue of his paintings written in 1865, Brown described The Last of England as “the parting scene in its fullest tragic development.” He also alludes to the superior class status of the couple compared to most of those in the background as “a couple from the middle class, high enough, through education and refinement, to appreciate all they are now giving up.”

    Ford Madox Brown, The Last of England, detail of child’s hand inside cloak, 1852-55, oil on panel, 82.5 x 75 cm (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, UK)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{82}\): Ford Madox Brown, The Last of England, detail of child’s hand inside cloak, 1852-55, oil on panel, 82.5 x 75 cm (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, UK)

    Inspiration for the painting came from the departure of the sculptor Thomas Woolner, an original member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who joined the exodus to dig for gold in Australia in 1852. This came during a period of massive emigration from Britain—between circa 1815 and 1914 approximately ten million people sailed away, primarily to the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, hoping to improve their personal prospects. Unlike Woolner, who returned (without gold) to England in 1854, many of these people never saw their homeland again. Nor were they expected to return, which explains the couple’s mournful expressions. Other painters of the day addressed the subject of emigration, most notably Richard Redgrave in his The Emigrant’s Last Sight of Home (1858). However, Redgrave’s depiction of a family leaving a small village to begin their long journey is far more optimistic. In Redgrave’s work, the sunny sky, vivid green landscape, and the father’s theatrical wave of his hat as a final gesture of farewell create a feeling of hope largely missing from Brown’s painting.

    Richard Redgrave, The Emigrant’s Last Sight of Home, 1858, oil on canvas, 67.9 x 98.4 cm (Tate, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{83}\): Richard Redgrave, The Emigrant’s Last Sight of Home, 1858, oil on canvas, 67.9 x 98.4 cm (Tate, London)

    Brown worked on this image over a period of years. Painted for the most part in his backyard, the artist worked on cold days using his family and local people as models. For example, when the painting was nearing completion, he recorded in his diary “it was the weather for my picture & made my hand look blue with the cold as I require in the work, so I painted all day out in the garden.” The minute detail of the purplish flesh on the exposed hands of the man in the foreground attests to Brown’s attention to detail. The glowering expression on the man’s face may also relate to Brown’s own emotions, as at the time he was struggling to achieve commercial success and himself entertained the idea of emigration.

    Left: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown, 1852, pencil on wove paper, 17.1 x 11.4 cm (National Portrait Gallery, London); Right Ford Madox Brown, Emma Hill, 1852, chalk on paper, 17.7 x 16.1 cm (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, UK)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{84}\): Left: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown, 1852, pencil on wove paper, 17.1 x 11.4 cm (National Portrait Gallery, London); right Ford Madox Brown, Emma Hill, 1852, chalk on paper, 17.7 x 16.1 cm (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, UK)

    The Last of England is a poignant reminder of the journey made by millions of people during the 19th century. At a time when many people are interested in genealogy and learning where they came from, it is a visual reminder of the hope and despair that these emigrants must have felt as they left their homes and families behind in search of a better life.

    Ford Madox Brown, Work

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    Ford Madox Brown, Work, 1852-65, oil on canvas, 137 x 197.3 cm (Manchester City Art Galleries, Manchester)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{85}\): Ford Madox Brown, Work, 1852-65, oil on canvas, 137 x 197.3 cm (Manchester City Art Galleries, Manchester)
    Victorian London
    Detail, Ford Madox Brown, Work, 1852-65, oil on canvas, 137 x 197.3 cm (Manchester City Art Galleries)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{86}\): Detail, Ford Madox Brown, Work, 1852-65, oil on canvas, 137 x 197.3 cm (Manchester City Art Galleries)

    Construction projects have always been a part of city life, and Victorian London was no exception. Ford Madox Brown’s painting Work is a fascinating glimpse of just this. Our eye is immediately drawn to the young man in a striped hat effortlessly lifting a shovel high in the air, and the well-muscled forearms of the other workers.

    Our eye then moves through the large canvas to the other figures, some more finely dressed and obviously of a different social class than the workers. But it is clear that Work is about more than just men digging. While the painting might appear to be a random view of a street, it is a carefully composed snapshot of the new way that different classes and professions encountered one another on the streets of Victorian London

    Brown and the Pre-Raphaelites

    Ford Madox Brown is associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of British artists noted for their attention to detail, vibrant colors, and interest in scenes from literature. Although Brown himself was never an official member of the PRB, he was friendly with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and others in the group. The two got to know each other when Rossetti appeared on Brown’s doorstep in 1848 asking for art lessons. Although the lessons were short-lived, the two developed a lasting friendship. Through his association with the PRB, Brown adopted many of their stylistic tendencies, particularly the use of bright colors and attention to detail.

    Modern life

    However, Brown’s paintings show a much greater interest in subjects of modern life than many of the other artists associated with the PRB. Brown recalled that he got the idea for Work from seeing navvies, or construction workers, excavating sewers in Hampstead, North London. The painting was begun in the summer of 1852. Brown traveled to the same spot in Hampstead every day, transporting his canvas back and forth by means of a special cart. The background landscape of the painting was completed right on the street in Hampstead so that Brown could capture the precise details of light, color and form. This interest in direct observation and specificity were hallmarks of the Pre-Raphaelite style.

    Victorian ideas of class

    The painting centers on a group of working-class navvies. These figures represent the noble “working man,” as they are neatly dressed and diligently going about their tasks. In contrast to the workers, there is a group of ragged children in the foreground, representing the lowest of the lower classes. In the catalog of his 1865 one-man exhibition, Brown tells us that the children’s mother is dead, and that the oldest, a girl of ten, is in charge of the rest of the children. She wears a tattered dress and is holding an infant over one shoulder.

    Children (detail), Ford Madox Brown, Work, 1852-65, oil on canvas, 137 x 197.3 cm (Manchester City Art Galleries, Manchester)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{87}\): Children (detail), Ford Madox Brown, Work, 1852-65, oil on canvas, 137 x 197.3 cm (Manchester City Art Galleries, Manchester)

    Also representative of the lowest class is the ragged and barefoot plant seller on the left side, a figure whom Brown described as a “ragged wretch who has never been taught to work.” This hunched figure represents a stark contrast to the industrious and athletic navvies. shoveling away. Both the workers and the ragged children form another contrast, this time to the upper class figures depicted in the painting. On the left hand side, two ladies skirt the edge of the picture. The first, lady carrying a parasol, is a portrait of the artist’s Brown’s wife Emma. Following along behind is another well-dressed woman who offers a religious tract to one of the navvies. Seeing to the religious education of the lower classes was a type of “work” engaged in by many evangelical middle-class women.

    Plant seller (foreground), followed by two women, one, the artists wife, the other, distributing religions tracts (detail), Ford Madox Brown, Work, 1852-65, oil on canvas, 137 x 197.3 cm (Manchester City Art Galleries, Manchester)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{88}\): Plant seller (foreground), followed by two women, one, the artists wife, the other, distributing religions tracts (detail), Ford Madox Brown, Work, 1852-65, oil on canvas, 137 x 197.3 cm (Manchester City Art Galleries, Manchester)
    Detail, Ford Madox Brown, Work, 1852-65, oil on canvas, 137 x 197.3 cm (Manchester City Art Galleries, Manchester)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{89}\): Detail, Ford Madox Brown, Work, 1852-65, oil on canvas, 137 x 197.3 cm (Manchester City Art Galleries, Manchester)

    In the background we see two riders on horseback, illustrating the landed upper classes, who by virtue of their wealth and place in society, have no need to work. These class distinctions are even carried over into the pets in the foreground of the painting. The mongrel dog with a frayed rope collar stands with the group of children and stares at his more pampered counterpart, a small dog with a red coat

    Maurice and Carlyle
    Caryle and Maurice (detail), Ford Madox Brown, Work, 1852-65, oil on canvas, 137 x 197.3 cm (Manchester City Art Galleries, Manchester)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{90}\): Caryle and Maurice (detail), Ford Madox Brown, Work, 1852-65, oil on canvas, 137 x 197.3 cm (Manchester City Art Galleries, Manchester)

    On the right side of the painting, two well-dressed men watch the navvies work. These figures are portraits of two prominent men of the day, Frederick Denison Maurice and Thomas Carlyle, whom Brown dubbed “brainworkers.” Carlyle, the figure with the hat and stick, was the author of Past and Present, a book advocating social reform that Brown had read with interest. Maurice was a leading Christian Socialist and founder of the Working Men’s College, where Brown was recruited as an instructor along with Rossetti and the art critic John Ruskin. One of the posters visible on the far left side on the canvas is an advertisement for the Working Men’s College.

    At first glance Brown’s painting Work may appear to be an illustration of the stratification of social class in Victorian England. However, a deeper look reveals both a stunning example of the colorful and detailed Pre-Raphaelite style of painting as well as a commentary on the role of “work,” and its relationship to Victorian class structure. Work is at once a vivid reminder of both the class-consciousness of the Victorian age and the reforming spirit of that time which ultimately led to reforms like the ten-hour work day, and regulations restricting child labor.

    Additional resources:

    Interactive on this painting at Manchester City Art Gallery

    Reforming Acts from the BBC

    Curator’s choice – Ford Madox Brown’s Work

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    Video \(\PageIndex{10}\): Video from Tate

    Dante Gabriel Rossetti

    Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ecce Ancilla Domini

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    An age of revolutions
    Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ecce Ancilla Domini, 1849-50, oil on canvas, 73 cm x 42 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{91}\): Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ecce Ancilla Domini, 1849-50, oil on canvas, 73 cm x 42 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    It was an age of revolutions. Across Europe old regimes were toppling. Marx and Engels had published The Communist Manifesto, Darwin was fine tuning his famous theory and the invention of photography was beginning to change the face of art. It seems curious then, anachronistic even, that one of the most radical paintings of the time should draw so heavily on the past, taking as its theme the Annunciation, of all things. But the relationship between the past and the present lies at the very heart of Rossetti’s artistic program.

    Ecce Ancilla Domini was first exhibited in April 1850 in the National Institution of Fine Arts at the Old Portland Gallery on Regent Street. It provoked critical disapproval and failed to sell. Eventually the painting was purchased by the Pre-Raphaelite patron, Francis McCracken, in 1853.

    The subject of the Annunciation

    The scene, an Annunciation, is one that was commonly represented in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It depicts Mary with the archangel Gabriel delivering the news that she will give birth to the Son of God. Ecce Ancilla Domini, “Behold the Handmaid of the Lord”, was Mary’s response to this pronouncement. The choice of subject in part reflects Rossetti’s upbringing, which even by nineteenth-century standards, was extremely religious. His elder sister, Maria, later became a nun, and following a nervous breakdown at fourteen, his younger sister Christina left school to devote herself to her own spiritual calling. Initially Christina, then eighteen, and their brother, William, sat as models for the painting. Later, though, Rossetti hired professionals for the Virgin’s hair and for the figure of the angel.

    The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB)

    The recently founded Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) was another important influence. Formed in 1848, the PRB, of which Rossetti was a founding member, believed that European art had been in decline since the High Renaissance. They took particular exception to the florid, “sloshy” classicism taught in institutions such as the Royal Academy, where significantly the chief members of the Brotherhood met and where they felt technical effects were valued more than truthfulness of expression. To set British art on the right course they looked instead to Early Renaissance artists, those that had preceded the academic followers of Raphael, or “Raphaelites”, for inspiration, particularly those working in Northern Europe, such as the Flemish artist Jan van Eyck whose Arnolfini Portrait of 1434 had been bought by the National Gallery in 1848. The depiction of the Annunciation within a domestic setting is one often associated with the “Flemish Primitives” and would have seemed an appropriate subject through which to express the ideals of the PRB.

    Looking back in art history

    In autumn 1849, Rossetti traveled with his Pre-Raphaelite brother William Holman Hunt to France and Belgium. A highpoint of the trip came in Bruges where they saw works by van Eyck and Memling. Of all Rossetti’s paintings, Ecce Ancilla Domini, begun immediately on his return to London, draws most heavily on these earlier artists, not just in its subject but also in how it was painted. Following van Eyck, Rossetti prepared the canvas with a white ground instead of the toned or dark ground favoured by the Academies. He also avoided mixing his colors, choosing only the purest and brightest pigments. As for the actual painting, it was a painstaking process, the brushes being so fine, it took Rossetti all of five months to complete. Iconographically, the painting is pretty conventional. The lily Gabriel holds symbolizes purity and is repeated on the embroidery at the foot of the bed. The flame from the oil lamp reminds us of the presence of the Holy Spirit, here portrayed as a haloed dove. Less conventionally, however, Gabriel’s angelic status is shown not with wings, but by the flames around his feet, which appear to make him float. His head is framed by a window looking onto a blue sky, suggesting the kingdom of Heaven. Blue is also used for the screen behind the Virgin, and so, though in white, she is still set against that color most often associated with her in art. Despite the wealth of symbolism, compositionally Rossetti has kept things simple. Much like the Early Italian Renaissance fresco painter, Fra Angelico, the palette is limited, dominated by shades of white, which set off carefully situated primaries: the blues of the screen and the sky, the red of the embroidery and the yellows of the haloes and the flames. This pared down, economical style avoids academic techniques, such as chiaroscuro, used to create pictorial drama and signal spatial recession.

    Criticism at the time

    The painting’s use of perspective, or rather lack of it, attracted most criticism at the time. Even the PRBs were unsettled. Both Millais and Hunt offered to lend a hand correcting it. Rossetti refused though. With his innovative use of empirical rather than scientific perspective, like true Pre-Raphaelite ohe was paying homage to those “Flemish Primitive” he so admired, such as Rogier van der Weyden, whose own Annunciation he had recently seen in the Louvre. For a modern viewer it is hard to see what the problem was. The claustrophobic atmosphere makes sense to us. We accept the liberties Rossetti has taken, the way the setting threatens to encroach upon the figures, particularly Mary, as part of the overall design, aimed at heightening the sense of her disquiet. Instead it is the treatment of the figures that seems to us more shocking. While many artists have explored Mary’s fear and apprehension when painting the Annunication, stricken transfixed almost on her own bed, none had treated as explicitly as Rossetti does here the psychosexual nature of the Virgin’s anxiety, exposed and vulnerable in the company of an angel whose lily, phallic in shape, points suggestively to her womb. The muscles, sinews and veins on Gabriel’s bare arm alert us to his corporeal presence, while visible between the edges of his cloak, the line from his waist down the length of his thigh renders his nakedness apparent.

    Ahead of its time?
    James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862, oil on canvas, 213 x 107.9 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{92}\): James Abbot McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862, oil on canvas, 213 x 107.9 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)

    Though subtle, these pyschosexual undertones anticipate later developments in Rossetti’s art and with her long auburn hair and “love-fretted”, cupid bow lips perhaps we see in the head of Mary the prototype of future Rossettian beauties. But the painting offers more than that. Ultimately, despite its debt to artists of the past, it is a painting that is ahead of its time, introducing formal innovations, the way the close color tonalities, for example, create a sense of harmony, that would influence many artists to come, not least James McNeill Whistler whose justly famous The White Girl owes much to Ecce Ancilla Domini.

    Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix

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    Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, c. 1864-70, oil on canvas, 86.4 x 66 cm (Tate)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{93}\): Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, c. 1864-70, oil on canvas, 86.4 x 66 cm (Tate)

    Beata Beatrix is one of many portraits of beautiful women painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the last two decades of his life. During this time, Rossetti created many pictures of his favorite models luxuriously dressed in Renaissance-looking costumes and jewelry, often without the story or content associated with his earlier paintings, such as Ecce Ancilla Domini. Beata Beatrix is unique, however, due to the intensely personal symbolism and atmospheric quality of the sitter and her surroundings.

    Viola (detail), Walter Howell Deverell, Twelfth Night Act II, Scene IV, oil on canvas, 40 x 52 inches
    Figure \(\PageIndex{94}\): Viola (detail), Walter Howell Deverell, Twelfth Night Act II, Scene IV, oil on canvas, 40 x 52 inches

    Beata Beatrix is a portrait of Rossetti’s wife Elizabeth Siddal, an important model in the early years of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Siddal was working in a hat shop when she met the artist Walter Howell Deverell. She posed as Viola in Deverell’s painting Twelfth Night (left). Taken with her lovely face and beautiful red hair, Deverell invited all his friends to come and see his new “stunner.” Others in the Brotherhood were also enthusiastic, and Siddal became a favorite model in many now famous early Pre-Raphaelite paintings, including Millais’s Ophelia (image below).

    Rossetti and Siddal soon became a couple, spending the next decade in a tempestuous relationship. It was during this period that Siddal developed into an artist in her own right. By the time of their marriage in 1860, however, Siddal was in ill health and had to be carried to church. After a miscarriage, Siddal became depressed and, at some point, addicted to laudanum.

    In February 1862 Rossetti returned home from a dinner to find his wife dead. Although her death was declared accidental by the coroner, Rossetti was distraught, and in a grand romantic gesture, placed his only copy of some recently written poems in Siddal’s coffin, nestled in her red hair. Several years later, however, Rossetti had her body exhumed and his poems retrieved by his friend and agent, Charles Howell, who reported that Siddal’s hair was still beautiful and red and had continued growing until it filled the coffin.

    Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52, oil on canvas, 762 x 1118 mm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{95}\): Detail, Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52, oil on canvas, 762 x 1118 mm (Tate Britain, London)

    Beata Beatrixis filled with symbolism. Rossetti identified with the Italian poet Dante Alighieri and the title is reminiscent of Dante’s account of his own love, Beatrice. Behind Siddal are the figures of Dante and Love, with the Florentine landmark the Ponte Vecchio in the distance. The figure of Siddal, which was done from sketches completed before her death, looks towards heaven with her eyes closed. A bird, the messenger of death, swoops in and drops a poppy, symbolic of Siddal’s laudanum addiction, into her upturned hands. The fuzzy, atmospheric quality of the painting creates a dream-like intensity about the subject, and differs greatly from the crisp details found in many of Rossetti’s other famous pictures of beautiful women from this period, such as Monna Vanna (1866).

    Detail, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, c. 1864-70, oil on canvas, 86.4 x 66 cm (Tate)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{96}\): Detail, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, c. 1864-70, oil on canvas, 86.4 x 66 cm (Tate)

    After the death of his wife, Rossetti’s own health began to decline. He experienced depression, became addicted to drugs and alcohol, and in 1872 suffered a mental breakdown. He also became increasingly paranoid and even destroyed a section of the manuscript journal kept by his brother William Michael Rossetti during the early days of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The missing section included the period when Elizabeth Siddal was first introduced to the members of the Brotherhood.

    In her final appearance as a model for the Pre-Raphaelites, Siddal is immortalized as a tragic and romantic heroine. The soft dream-like setting and tragic beauty of the central figure give Beata Beatrix an otherworldly quality, evoking an air of melancholy and loss that everyone can relate to, and making it, justifiably, one of Rossetti’s most famous pictures.

    Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Proserpine

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    Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Proserpine 1874, oil on canvas, 125.1 x 61 cm (Tate)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{97}\): Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Proserpine, 1874, oil on canvas, 125.1 x 61 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Fatal fruit

    Just one bite. Surely that can’t hurt. Or can it? It took less than one bite to destroy the mythological goddess Proserpine’s life. This tragic maiden was gathering flowers when she was abducted by Pluto, carried off to his underground palace in Hades – the land of the dead, and forced to marry him. Distraught, her mother Ceres pleaded for her return. The god Jupiter agreed, on condition that Proserpine had not tasted any of the fruits of Hades. But she had—a single pomegranate seed—and as punishment she was destined to remain captive for six months of each year for the rest of her life in her bleak underground prison.

    The English painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti produced at least eight paintings of Proserpine trapped in her subterranean world, the fatal pomegranate in her hand. He also wrote a sonnet to accompany the painting, which is inscribed in Italian on the painting itself and in English on the frame, cited below. This is the seventh version of the painting. It was produced for the wealthy ship-owner and art collector Frederick Leyland from Liverpool and is now in the Tate collection, London. The original idea was to paint Eve holding the forbidden apple, a scene from Genesis; and in fact the two stories are almost directly comparable. Eve and Proserpine both represent females banished for their sin of tasting a forbidden fruit. Their yielding to temptation has often been seen as a sign of feminine weakness or lack of restraint.

    Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Proserpine, 1874, oil on canvas, 125.1 x 61 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{98}\): Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Proserpine, 1874, oil on canvas, 125.1 x 61 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Twists and turns

    At first glance the painting appears still, subdued—muted like the colour scheme. Proserpine is motionless, absorbed in thought, and the only sign of movement is the wisp of smoke furling from the incense burner, the attribute of the goddess. But look closely, and the painting appears to bristle with a tortuous, pent-up energy. It is full of peculiar twists and turns. Take Proserpine’s neck: it bulges unnaturally at the back, and looks as though it is slowly being screwed or twisted like rubber. Her hands too are set in an awkward grip. Try mimicking this yourself—it is difficult to hold this pose for long. This is a painting of almost tortured stillness: a body under strain.

    This underlying unease is also apparent in the lines and creases of Proserpine’s dress. Notice how it does not form natural-looking folds. Instead it looks like the fabric is covered in clinging, creeping ridges that seem to slowly wind their way around the goddess, ensnaring and rooting her to the spot. These ridges could be compared to the tendril of ivy in the background, which appears to sprout directly from her head. Ivy is a plant with dark connotations—an invasive vine, it has a tendency to grip, cover and choke other plant-life. It is often associated with death, and is a common feature in graveyards. Rossetti wrote that the ivy in this painting symbolises ‘clinging memory.’ But what are these memories that cling so tightly?

    Personal torment and morbid melancholy

    As many have pointed out, this painting of Proserpine strikes a chord with Rossetti’s personal life. The writer Theodore Watts-Dunton, Rossetti’s close friend, wrote that “the public… Has determined to find in all Rossetti’s work the traces of a morbid melancholy… Because Proserpine’s expression is sad, it is assumed that the artist must have been suffering from a painful degree of mental depression while producing it.” Rossetti had, in fact, suffered a nervous breakdown just two years before he produced this painting. He suffered from acute paranoia, and was becoming increasingly reliant on alcohol and chloral for relief. There are doubtless many reasons for this, one of which was the death—or perhaps suicide—of his wife Lizzie Siddal in 1862, of a laudanum overdose. Rossetti and Lizzie’s relationship had been fraught and unstable. He was haunted by memories of her for the rest of his life.

    From an album of portraits of Mrs. William Morris (Jane Burden), posed by Rossetti, 1865 (Gordon Bottomley, 1933, available on the rossettiarchive.org)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{99}\): Mrs. William Morris (Jane Burden), from an album of portraits of Mrs. William Morris (Jane Burden), posed by Rossetti, 1865 (Gordon Bottomley, 1933, available on the rossettiarchive.org)

    But the plot thickens. When he painted Proserpine, Rossetti was entangled in a complicated love triangle. He was completely infatuated with the model for this painting, Jane Morris, easily recognizable by her thick raven hair, striking features and slender, elongated figure—though here they have been molded into the typical Rossettian type. Rossetti called her a “stunner.” The problem was that this stunner happened to be the wife of his good friend William Morris. When this was painted, the three were living together at Kelmscott Manor (Oxfordshire). Morris appeared either to tolerate or ignore the intimacy that cleaved Rossetti and his beloved Jane together. Many have noted the similarity between Proserpine and Jane’s personal predicaments: both were young women trapped in unhappy marriages, longing for freedom. But perhaps it is also a meditation on Rossetti’s own situation. Unable to contain his feelings for Jane, he had given in to temptation and for this was destined to live part of his life in secrecy and withdrawal. Rossetti himself had tasted the fatal fruit and was living with the consequences.

    The problematic pleasures of taste
    Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Bocca Baciata (Lips that have been Kissed), oil on panel, 32.1 x 27 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{100}\): Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Bocca Baciata (Lips that have been Kissed), oil on panel, 32.1 x 27 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

    In this painting, a clear correspondence is set up between Proserpine’s improbably large lips and the pomegranate in her hand. While the rest of the painting has been completed in cool, sometimes murky colors—Rossetti called it a “study of greys” —the lips and pomegranate are vivid and intense, painted in warm orange and red tones. It is significant that these features—the mouth and the fruit—have strong associations with the pleasures of taste. It is as though Rossetti is presenting both as objects ripe for consumption, tempting the viewer to take a taste. This is not as improbable as it first sounds: one of Rossetti’s earlier paintings, Bocca Baciata (left), which also shows a single female figure with a fruit (an apple in this case) was considered capable of stirring an erotic, physical response in viewers. The artist Arthur Hughes, a contemporary of Rossetti’s, said that the owner of this painting would probably try to ‘kiss the dear thing’s lips away.’ In fact, the title of the painting itself translates as “the mouth that has been kissed.”

    This sensual, carnal side of Rossetti’s work caused controversy during his lifetime—for a Victorian artist, he was venturing into dangerous territory. Even today some find his sexualized vision of feminine beauty difficult to stomach. Rossetti argued however that work was not just a study of the sensual in life. He insisted that his art was an attempt to synthesize the sensual and the spiritual. His fried Theodore Watts-Dunton defended this in an article “The Truth about Rossetti.” To Rossetti he wrote, “the human body, like everything in nature, was rich in symbol… To him the mouth really represented the sensuous part of the face no less certainly than the eyes represented the spiritualized part.” adding that if the lips of Rossetti’s women appear overly full and sensual, this is always counter-balanced by the spiritual depth invested in their eyes. It is true that in this painting there does appear to be a haunting melancholy in Proserpine’s eyes, but whether Rossetti fully achieves this synthesis of the sensual with the spiritual is still up for debate.

    Afar away the light that brings cold cheer
    Unto this wall, – one instant and no more
    Admitted at my distant palace-door.
    Afar the flowers of Enna from this drear
    Dire fruit, which, tasted once, must thrall me here.
    Afar those skies from this Tartarean grey
    That chills me: and afar, how far away,
    The nights that shall be from the days that were.
    Afar from mine own self I seem, and wing
    Strange ways in thought, and listen for a sign:
    And still some heart unto some soul doth pine,
    (Whose sounds mine inner sense is fain to bring,
    Continually together murmuring,) –
    “Woe’s me for thee, unhappy Proserpine!”

    —Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Proserpina (For a Picture)”(1880)

    Henry Wallis, Chatterton

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    Video \(\PageIndex{11}\): Henry Wallis, Chatterton, 1856, oil on canvas, 622 x 933 cm (Tate Britain, London).

    A tragic suicide

    Chatterton by Henry Wallis is an example of the Victorian approach to history painting. The picture illustrates the suicide of the poet Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770). Despairing over his lack of literary success, the young poet tore up his manuscripts and took a lethal dose of arsenic.

    Henry Wallis, Chatterton, 1856, oil on canvas, 622 x 933 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{101}\): Henry Wallis, Chatterton, 1856, oil on canvas, 622 x 933 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    Wallis’s shows the pale, still body of Chatterton lying on a bed, his head and right arm dangling loosely over the edge, his tattered papers and the poison vial beside him. His white shirt and stockings help to silhouette the figure against the darker background, while the vivid purple of Chatterton’s knee breeches and his reddish hair grab the viewer’s attention.

    Tattered papers (detail), Henry Wallis, Chatterton, 1856, oil on canvas, 622 x 933 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{102}\): Tattered papers (detail), Henry Wallis, Chatterton, 1856, oil on canvas, 622 x 933 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    Above the body, an attic dormer window looks out at the sunrise across the city of London, with St. Paul’s Cathedral in the distance. Both the vivid colors of Chatterton’s pants and hair and the attention to detail in areas such as in coverlet on the bed and the clothing carelessly strewn off to one side, point to Wallis’s interest in the ideas of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. His greatest deviation from “truth to nature” was in his choice of model. George Meredith, another struggling author, was depicted as the dead Chatterton, since no actual portraits of the poet were available to copy. This collaboration was not to be repeated, however, as Wallis later eloped with Meredith’s wife.

    View of the city (detail), Henry Wallis, Chatterton, 1856, oil on canvas, 622 x 933 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{103}\): View of the city (detail), Henry Wallis, Chatterton, 1856, oil on canvas, 622 x 933 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    A Victorian approach to history painting

    Chatterton is typical of the Victorian interest in historical subjects. The Victorians were voracious readers, and history of all types—from scholarly tomes to sentimental historical novels—were frequently “best sellers.”

    The goal of all types of history was to bring the past to life for the audience. To quote the Art Union from 1843

    to make the past present…to place our ancestors before us, in all their peculiarities of their dress and time, until they seem not part of a personified allegory, but beings of flesh and blood; such are the duties which belong to the artist as well as the historian.

    The almost sculptural beauty of the body of Chatterton and the aura of tragedy over the squandered potential of this youthful talent was clearly calculated to appeal to the sentimental Victorian public.

    The work of Henry Wallis was associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Born in London, Wallis was a student at the Royal Academy schools beginning in March 1848. He also studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and the studio of Gleyre in Paris, which set him apart from many of the other PRB artists. He began to exhibit in 1853 and his best know canvases come from early in his career as he spent much of his time traveling after his elopement.

    Poison vial (detail), Henry Wallis, Chatterton, 1856, oil on canvas, 622 x 933 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{104}\): Poison vial (detail), Henry Wallis, Chatterton, 1856, oil on canvas, 622 x 933 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    Chatterton created a sensation when it was first exhibited in 1856 and again when it appeared at the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition in 1857. John Ruskin called the painting “faultless and wonderful,” but for others it was a cautionary tale. The Victorian public could not fail to understand the moral message of a talented life tragically cut short. Wallis’s Chatterton is a brilliant combination of history, romanticism, and truth to nature.

    Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

    Wallis, Chatterton (detail), 1856Wallis, Chatterton (detail), 1856Wallis, Chatterton (detail), 1856Wallis, Chatterton (detail), 1856Wallis, Chatterton (detail), 1856Wallis, Chatterton (detail), 1856Wallis, Chatterton (detail), 1856
    Figure \(\PageIndex{106}\): More Smarthistory images…

    William Powell Frith, Derby Day

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    William Powell Frith, The Derby Day, detail of the scene around the thimble rigger, 1856–8, oil on canvas, 101.6 × 223.5 cm (Tate Britain)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{107}\): William Powell Frith, The Derby Day, 1856–58, oil on canvas, 101.6 × 223.5 cm (Tate Britain)

    A Day at the Races

    The Derby Day by William Powell Frith captures the excitement of one of the premier events in British horse racing, The Derby (pronounced “dar-bee”) held annually at Epsom Downs in Surrey. His large-scale canvas illustrates the event during the Victorian era, capturing the milling crowd, festive atmosphere, and general excitement of the day. The horse race in the background takes a decided back seat to the many personalities in the congested throng of people in the foreground. The crowd, which presents a cross-section of Victorian society, is what captures the attention of the viewer.

    Left side (detail), William Powell Frith, The Derby Day, detail of the scene around the thimble rigger, 1856–8, oil on canvas, 101.6 × 223.5 cm (Tate Britain)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{108}\): Thimble rigger (detail), William Powell Frith, The Derby Day, 1856–58, oil on canvas, 101.6 × 223.5 cm (Tate Britain)

    The large painting contains representatives from all social classes. On the left side, a well-dressed group of men make bets on the sleight-of-hand tricks of a thimble rigger at a makeshift table. Nearby a ruddy-faced young man in a country drover’s smock has his hand in his pocket, while an anxious woman tries to stop him from making an unwise bet on the swindler’s game. To the other side of the trickster’s table, a young man stands checking his empty pockets, the victim of a pickpocket.

    Right side (detail), William Powell Frith, The Derby Day, detail of the scene around the thimble rigger, 1856–8, oil on canvas, 101.6 × 223.5 cm (Tate Britain)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{109}\): Right side (detail), William Powell Frith, The Derby Day, detail of the scene around the thimble rigger, 1856–58, oil on canvas, 101.6 × 223.5 cm (Tate Britain)

    On the far right, an unhappy-looking young woman seated in a carriage tries her best to ignore both the advances of a fortune-teller and her equally bored male companion, who leans against the vehicle assessing a barefoot girl selling flowers with a predatory gaze.

    Center (detail), William Powell Frith, The Derby Day, detail of the scene around the thimble rigger, 1856–8, oil on canvas, 101.6 × 223.5 cm (Tate Britain)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{110}\): Center (detail), William Powell Frith, The Derby Day, 1856–58, oil on canvas, 101.6 × 223.5 cm (Tate Britain)

    In the center of the painting, children sprawl on the ground. The top-hatted men mix not only with well-dressed women, but also with a woman holding a baby begging coins from the more affluent people in the carriages. The viewer’s eye is attracted to a pair of tumblers dressed in white. While the older of the two holds out his arms to “catch” the other, the child’s attention is distracted by the picnic being spread in front of the carriages by a footman. It is a stark reminder of the differences in diet between rich and poor during the period. It is also an indication of the Victorian preoccupation with the issue of class mixing, a reality of modern life, but one of which many Victorians were wary.

    Earthenware phrenological bust, areas are marked off with an impressed line, by J. De Ville, London, 1821
    Figure \(\PageIndex{111}\): Earthenware phrenological bust, areas are marked off with an impressed line, by J. De Ville, London, 1821 (Wellcome Collection, CC BY 4.0)

    The Social Spectrum

    Another element employed by Frith to create identifiable “types” was the Victorian interest in phrenology, or the study of the shape of the skull. Developed in the late 18th century, phrenologists took detailed measurements of the head and looked for variations such as bumps or indentations to determine particular character traits. Although largely discredited as a “science” as early as the 1840s, phrenology was a popular topic in Victorian lecture halls, and even Queen Victoria and Prince Albert invited a phrenologist to “read” the heads of their children.

    Another popular idea was that of physiognomy or the idea that one’s character or personal characteristics can be seen in the body, particularly in the face. Scholars have pointed out that Frith used these ideas in his paintings to distinguish between, for example, a decent working man and a shopworker mimicking the middle class he aspires to join. For Frith, this was another way, besides dress, to categorize the individuals in his modern life ensemble. And for the Victorian audience, these pseudo-sciences were a quick, although completely inaccurate, way to classify the wide variety of people they came into contact with in the new industrial society.

    William Powell Frith, Ramsgate Sands (Life at the Seaside), 1851-54 , oil on canvas, | 77.0 x 155.1 cm (Royal Collection Trust)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{112}\): William Powell Frith, Ramsgate Sands (Life at the Seaside), 1851–54 , oil on canvas, 77.0 x 155.1 cm (Royal Collection Trust)

    It was this attention to the social spectrum that enthralled Victorian viewers. Frith began his career painting literary scenes and portraits, but he is best known as a commentator on modern life. The first of his great modern life subjects, Life at the Seaside: Ramsgate Sands, was painted in 1854 after a family holiday to the seaside. The picture was immediately purchased by Queen Victoria. Another of his well-known paintings, The Railway Station of 1862, depicts the interior of Paddington Station. Again, Frith captured modern Victorian life, not only in the mixing of social classes, but in the still fairly new mode of transportation (the first railway opened in Britain in 1825) and the state-of-the-art train station designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Such pictures showed the Victorians as they liked to see themselves, as a prosperous, progressive, and technologically advanced society.

    William Powell Frith, The Railway Station, c.1862-1909, oil on canvas, 54.1 x 114.0 cm
    Figure \(\PageIndex{113}\): William Powell Frith, The Railway Station, c.1862–1909, oil on canvas, 54.1 x 114.0 cm (Royal Collection Trust)

    When Derby Day was displayed at the Royal Academy, so many people flocked to see it that a police constable was stationed by the canvas to keep it from being damaged by the jostling crowds. The Art Journal in October 1858 described the painting as “a popular subject with a large section of the English people, having its upper extremity in the drawing-rooms of Belgravia, and its lower in the darkest nooks of Whitechapel; and within these lie diversely-charactered and many-shaded varieties of society.” (p. 296) Everyone wanted to have a look at the cast of characters Frith created. Today their variety is equally compelling and provides the modern viewer with a fascinating glimpse into Victorian life.

    Additional resources:

    This painting at Tate Britain

    William Powell Frith at Tate Britain

    Mary Cowling, The Artist as Anthropologist: The Representation of Type and Character in Victorian Art (Cambridge University Press, 1989).

    Pamela Fletcher, “Happiness Lost: William Powell Frith and the Painting of Modern Life,” Nineteenth-Century Contexts, vol. 33, no. 2, (2011) , pp. 147-160.

    William Powell Frith at ArtUK

    Phrenology on the Victorian Web

    T. M. Parssinen, “Popular Science and Society: The Phrenology Movement in Early Victorian Britain,” Journal of Social History 8, no. 1 (1974), pp. 1-20.

    Mark Bills and Vivien, eds, William Powell Frith: Painting in the Victorian Age (Yale University Press, 2007).

    William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858

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    Video \(\PageIndex{12}\): William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858, 1858-60, oil on canvas, 25 x 35″ (Tate Britain, London)

    A comet in the sky

    William Dyce’s Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th, 1858 captures an historical moment with remarkable clarity. The painting shows the artist’s wife, his wife’s two sisters, and his son on a lonely stretch of beach near Ramsgate on the south coast of England. The day is particularly important as one can see Donati’s Comet in the sky. Discovered by Giovanni Donati on June 2, 1858, it was one of the brightest comets to appear during the 19th century. The comet had reached its perihelion, or the point where it is closest to the sun, just a few days prior to the date recorded in the painting.

    William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, Kent - a Recollection of October 5th, 1858, 1858-60, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 88.9 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{114}\): William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th, 1858, 1858-60, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 88.9 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    Pre-Raphaelite attention to detail

    What is most incredible about the painting, however, is the minute attention to detail. A true Pre-Raphaelite in his approach, Dyce illustrated the intense “truth to nature” that characterizes much of the art of the period. This attention to detail had been championed by the critic John Ruskin in the first volume of his famous Modern Painters, published in 1843. In it, Ruskin advised artists to,

    go to Nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly, having no other thoughts but how best to penetrate her meaning, and remember her instruction; rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing; believing all things to be right and good, and rejoicing always in the truth.

    Many young artists of the day, including John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt, were influenced by Ruskin’s ideas and worked to bring as much naturalistic detail as possible into their paintings.

    Figures in the distance (detail), William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, Kent - a Recollection of October 5th, 1858, 1858-60, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 88.9 cm (Tate Britain, London) (photo:  Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
    Figures in the distance (detail), William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th, 1858, 1858-60, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 88.9 cm (Tate Britain, London) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    Art and science

    The observations of nature exhibited by artists like Dyce were also present in another Victorian preoccupation, science, and in particular, the burgeoning study of geology. Charles Lyell had published his Principles of Geology in three volumes between 1830 and 1833, and the entire scientific community was interested in the controversial attempt to reconcile the implications of geological time with the Bible.

    Figures and horses (detail), William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, Kent - a Recollection of October 5th, 1858, 1858-60, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 88.9 cm (Tate Britain, London) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
    Figures and horses (detail), William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th, 1858, 1858-60, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 88.9 cm (Tate Britain, London) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    A little more than a year after the day captured in Dyce’s painting, On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin was published, opening a floodgate of debate over the issue of religion versus scientific observation. The geologically unstable cliffs along much of England’s south coast were (and still are) a paradise for those in search of fossils, including the famous fossil hunter Mary Anning (1799-1847) of Lyme Regis, who is credited with the discovery of the first plesiosaur skeleton. The preserved remnants of geological time evident in places like Pegwell Bay provided the Victorians with much to think about.

    The light

    In Dyce’s painting the angled light of the late afternoon setting sun emphasizes the striations in the towering cliffs above the shore. The detail delineates every variation in the rock. Pools of water, algae covered rocks and stretches of sand exposed by the low tide create opportunity for discovery at every turn. The figures are also extremely detailed. Two of the women in the foreground have their attention focused on collecting the shells left by the receding water, while the other woman and the child stare off in the distance.

    Child in the foreground (detail), William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, Kent - a Recollection of October 5th, 1858, 1858-60, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 88.9 cm (Tate Britain, London) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{117}\): Child in the foreground (detail), William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th, 1858, 1858-60, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 88.9 cm (Tate Britain, London) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    William Dyce was born in Aberdeen, Scotland. After studying at the Royal Academy Schools in London and in Rome, Dyce became well known for his paintings, and between 1837 and 1843 was Superintendent of the Government School of Design. He later won a competition to complete fresco paintings for the newly rebuilt Houses of Parliament, a project that occupied him almost until his death. However, Dyce was also interested in intellectual and scientific pursuits, for example, writing a prize-winning essay on electro-magnetism in 1830.

    Dyce’s Pegwell Bay, Kent is a painting that evokes many time-honored themes. The variety of ages in the figures may represent the passage of time, while the setting sun and the autumnal chill in the air serve as a reminder of death. However, this lonely stretch of beach is also a metaphor for many of the new issues that concerned the Victorians, such as the implications of scientific discovery. It is an image as timeless as the tide itself.

    Additional resources:

    This painting at Tate Britain

    A video on this painting from the University of Cambridge

    Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

    Pegwell Bay, Kent - a Recollection of October 5th 1858, detail with bottom of cliffsWilliam Dyce, Pegwell Bay, Kent - a Recollection of October 5th 1858, detail of boyPegwell Bay, Kent - a Recollection of October 5th 1858, detail of cliff housePegwell Bay, Kent - a Recollection of October 5th 1858, detail of standing womanPegwell Bay, Kent - a Recollection of October 5th 1858, detail of womenPegwell Bay, Kent - a Recollection of October 5th 1858, detail of cometPegwell Bay, Kent - a Recollection of October 5th 1858, detail of bay at low tidePegwell Bay, Kent - a Recollection of October 5th 1858
    Figure \(\PageIndex{118}\): More Smarthistory images…

    Emily Mary Osborn, Nameless and Friendless

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    Emily Mary Osborn, Nameless and Friendless, "The rich man's wealth is his strong city: the destruction of the poor is their poverty" (Proverbs: 10:15), 1857, oil on canvas, 82 x 104 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{119}\): Emily Mary Osborn, Nameless and Friendless, “The rich man’s wealth is his strong city: the destruction of the poor is their poverty” (Proverbs: 10:15), 1857, oil on canvas, 82 x 104 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    A studio of one’s own

    Emily Mary Osborn was among the most successful Victorian women artists. Far from the well-trodden academic route followed by her male contemporaries, Osborn pursued her training with resourcefulness and tenacity, taking evening classes and persuading one of the teachers to give her private lessons, and then going on to study and work in his gallery.

    Though success did follow, with regular exhibitions of her work at the Royal Academy and sales enabling her to set up a studio of her own, as a woman in the male-dominated world of the art market, Osborn must have been only too aware of the obstacles facing women artists. As a woman she was never granted membership of the Academy and could not study in the Royal Academy schools (women were admitted in small numbers after 1860). More generally, though, Osborn, like many of her contemporaries was deeply concerned with the issue of educational and employment opportunities for women. It is a recurrent theme in her work and is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in her most famous painting, Nameless and Friendless.

    The primal eye

    A woman stands in a print-seller’s shop, beside her a boy, her brother, stands carrying a portfolio under his arm. The black dress and hood she wears tell of a recent loss. She is not wearing a mourning ring though, so she and her brother are probably orphans. Behind the counter to the right is the print- seller, a portly gentlemen, inspecting a small painting, a still life perhaps—the genre that, through lack of access to the life model, tended to be favored by women artists.

    Woman toying with string (detail), Emily Mary Osborn, Nameless and Friendless, "The rich man's wealth is his strong city: the destruction of the poor is their poverty" (Proverbs: 10:15), 1857, oil on canvas, 82 x 104cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{120}\): Woman toying with string (detail), Emily Mary Osborn, Nameless and Friendless, “The rich man’s wealth is his strong city: the destruction of the poor is their poverty” (Proverbs: 10:15), 1857, oil on canvas, 82 x 104cm (Tate Britain, London)

    The anxious pose of the woman, her downcast eyes, her left shoulder coiled inwards as though guarding herself against the dealer’s critical gaze and the way, too, her hands toy nervously with a length of string, may lead us to assume that the painting is her own work. Her defensiveness is justified. The chair to the right is empty, the dealer having made no attempt at courtesy by offering her a seat. In the doorway another woman and boy make their way out, some rolled up sheets under the arm of the latter, while outside in the rain a woman is just visible walking along the pavement sheltering herself with an umbrella.

    What the future holds

    Like a continuous narrative (where we see more than one moment of time within a single canvas), do these peripheral figures hint at what awaits the woman and her brother, who, failing to sell her work, will soon be back walking the street? The orthogonal lines in the painting would seem to support this view, pointing conspicuously to the door as they do. So too, of course, does the title of the work, Nameless and Friendless, suggesting that without the necessary connections, a woman artist stands little chance of finding professional success.

    A possible literary source for the painting is Mary Brunton’s novel Self-Control, first printed in 1810 and re-published in the 1850s, which tells the story of Laura Montreville who tries unsuccessfully to sell her paintings in order to help save her father from financial ruin. In one chapter of the novel Laura visits a number of print-sellers in the hope of selling her work, but each time is disappointed. On her fourth attempt, a young man, a former artist himself, admires her painting and agrees to hold it in his shop on a sale or return basis. Perhaps, if the book was indeed the source of the painting, Osborn had this fellow in mind when painting the man on the step ladder. The way his face echoes the woman’s hints at a certain sympathy between the two, while his elevated level suggests that his vision extends beyond the myopia of his colleagues, one of whom sits wearing glasses scratching away with a pen at a ledger.

    Men surrounding the woman in the print seller shop (detail), Emily Mary Osborn, Nameless and Friendless, "The rich man's wealth is his strong city: the destruction of the poor is their poverty" (Proverbs: 10:15), 1857, oil on canvas, 82 x 104cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{121}\): Men surrounding the woman in the print seller shop (detail), Emily Mary Osborn, Nameless and Friendless, “The rich man’s wealth is his strong city: the destruction of the poor is their poverty” (Proverbs: 10:15), 1857, oil on canvas, 82 x 104cm (Tate Britain, London)

    Everywhere we look in fact men are engaged in looking. Outside the shopfront a man peers at one of the prints displayed in the window. The boy too levels his eyes at the print-seller in a challenging attitude, the red of his scarf suggestive of his fervor to champion his sister’s talents. This interplay of gazes is made still more complex with the two men seated to the left, customers who seem very much at home inspecting the prints. The seated figure holds a print of a dancing-girl, a ballerina, with her arms lifted above her head and her bare legs exposed. It is not the print however that they are looking at, but this young woman, vulnerable and distressed; the conspiratorial intimacy and the intentness of their gazes renders almost tangible the transference of their fantasies of the dancing girl onto this perhaps soon-to-be-fallen woman, whose part in all this seems almost unbearably passive. Her eyes cast down, as though, as Linda Nochlin puts it, the artist had now become the model to be looked at and judged.*

    The rich man’s wealth is his strong city…

    Young boy looking up at woman with expectation (detail), Emily Mary Osborn, Nameless and Friendless, "The rich man's wealth is his strong city: the destruction of the poor is their poverty" (Proverbs: 10:15), 1857, oil on canvas, 82 x 104 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{122}\): Young boy looking up with expectation (detail), Emily Mary Osborn, Nameless and Friendless, “The rich man’s wealth is his strong city: the destruction of the poor is their poverty” (Proverbs: 10:15), 1857, oil on canvas, 82 x 104 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    The title carries a quotation from the Biblical Book of Proverbs: “The rich man’s wealth is his strong city: the destruction of the poor is their poverty” (10:15). The passage goes on to develop the theme of the spiritual poverty of the rich, who complaisantly forget about God, a sentiment with which the Victorians would have been very familiar.

    The “strong city” of London was witnessing an extraordinary expansion as a result of the Industrial Revolution. For some this was an enormously prosperous time, for the working class and for those on the margins of society, however, living conditions had never been worse and without any form of welfare a change in fortune could easily see you ending up not just nameless and friendless, but homeless and penniless. Without adequate opportunities for gainful employment, single, middle-class women were among the most vulnerable.

    By quoting scripture, Osborn perhaps is encouraging us to read the painting more universally than as the depiction of a struggling woman artist: the point being that the great divides operating in Victorian society between the haves and the have-nots (what the Victorians called the “two nations”), as well as men and women, make us all the poorer. The quotation might also tempt us to a religious reading of the painting. The woman herself, though clearly outnumbered and surrounded by men on all sides, still dominates the composition—the implication being that though meek and mild, spiritually she is the strongest.

    An image of its time

    For some, the problem with Osborn’s painting is that the woman is presented as too passive, too willingly accepting of rejection, too much of a martyr to male prejudices and male desires. Rather than breaking down the gender divide, then, the painting instead seems to perpetuate it. As valid as this argument is, as an early or proto-feminist painting Nameless and Friendless offers one of the most forceful examples of a women artist making a clearly articulated stand on one of the central social issues of the day. The painting is an image of its time, one that expresses the contradictions within Victorian society as well as its appetite for the mawkish. Like a character from a Dickens novel, the distressed woman artist is indeed sentimentalized, but like Dickens, Osborn does this not simply for effect, but to awaken her audience to the real and urgent need for social change.

    Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

    Osborn, Nameless and Friendless (detail)Osborn, Nameless and Friendless with BethOsborn, Nameless and Friendless (detail)Osborn, Nameless and Friendless (detail)Osborn, Nameless and Friendless (detail)Osborn, Nameless and Friendless, 1857Osborn, Nameless and Friendless (detail)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{123}\): More Smarthistory images…

    John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Thoughts of the Past

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    Video \(\PageIndex{13}\): John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Thoughts of the Past, exhibited 1859, oil on canvas, 864 x 508 mm (Tate Britain, London)

    John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Thoughts of the Past, 1859, oil on canvas, 86.4 x 50.8 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{124}\): John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Thoughts of the Past, 1859, oil on canvas, 86.4 x 50.8 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    A “fallen woman”

    In the 1840s and 1850s, Victorian artists and writers increasingly turned their attention to modern life, including topics they considered to be social problems such as prostitution and the limited employment opportunities for women.

    These were decades when the costs of the industrial revolution came to the attention of the Victorian public. Parliamentary Reports and newspapers chronicled low-wage and child labor, long hours in factories and mines, crowded cities, and, perhaps most painful to the Victorians, the increased autonomy of women in a world of wage labor and economic insecurity. Writers such as Harriet Martineau wrote about the need for increased employment opportunities for middle-class women (becoming a governess or dressmaker were virtually the only options at that time).

    A common trope in the literature of the period is the “fallen woman”—a woman who became a prostitute, usually due to dire economic circumstances. Thoughts of the Past is an example of this familiar theme.

    Woman and view of the Thames (detail), John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Thoughts of the Past, 1859, oil on canvas, 86.4 x 50.8 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{125}\): Woman and view of the Thames (detail), John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Thoughts of the Past, 1859, oil on canvas, 86.4 x 50.8 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    The artist places his figure in front of the window looking out onto the Thames River crowded with boat traffic. Waterloo Bridge can be seen in the distance and not far away is The Strand, a bustling London thoroughfare, popular with prostitutes during the Victorian period. The woman stares not at the busy scene, but soulfully out at the viewer, her eyes focused somewhere in the distance. She pauses from brushing her hair, perhaps, as suggested by the title, to remember some episode from her past.

    Visual clues

    Visual clues in the painting implicate her as a prostitute. The showy purple dressing gown, her untended plants, the man’s glove and walking stick on the floor, and the money and jewelry on the table beside her (perhaps payment from the owner of the glove) all provide the viewer with evidence of her status as a “fallen woman.”

    Her red hair, a popular feature with Pre-Raphaelite painters, also relates to traditional images of the prostitute Mary Magdalene, who is often shown with red hair. On the floor beside her feet is a small bunch of violets. In the language of flowers, something all Victorians were familiar with, violets were a symbol of faithfulness, and the fact that they have been cast aside to wither and die may speak to the multiple liaisons that is the reality of prostitution.

    The river in the background adds to the symbolism of the picture. During the Victorian period the problem of the prostitute was often discussed in terms of the threat to public health from disease. The river too was a public health issue, most notably during the “the Big Stink” in the summer of 1858 when central London was permeated with the smell of raw sewage rising from the river.

    George Frederic Watts RA, Found Drowned, oil on canvas, c. 1848-50 (Watts Gallery, Guildford, Surrey)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{126}\): George Frederic Watts RA, Found Drowned, oil on canvas, c. 1848-50 (Watts Gallery, Guildford, Surrey)

    Stanhope, who had a studio on the river on Chatham Place at Blackfriars just below one occupied by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, would have been intimately aware of both the picturesque quality of the Thames and its sanitation issues. It is also the case, that in the narratives of Victorian art and literature, women forced into prostitution often committed suicide, usually by drowning (see for example, George Frederick Watts’s famous painting, Found Drowned, of 1848-50). The end suggested for the young girl in the painting is bleak indeed.

    It is critical to remember that these paintings (and works of literature) do not represent the true lives these women lived. Nevertheless, these narratives allow us to see the Victorians trying to come to terms with the dire problems and profound changes wrought by urbanization and industrialization.

    Stanhope and the Pre-Raphaelites

    John Rodham Spencer Stanhope was born in Yorkshire and was educated at Rugby and Oxford. In 1850 he worked with the artist Watts and was introduced to the artistic circle of Little Holland House, where he met Rossetti and other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In 1857 he was asked by Rossetti to participate in a project to paint frescoes on the walls of the Oxford Union. During the project he became friends with Edward Burne-Jones, who was to become an important influence in his art.

    Thoughts of the Past provides the viewer with much to think about. Rossetti tells us that the painting was originally conceived as part of a diptych, showing an “unfortunate” in two separate phases of her life. It would be fascinating to know what the artist intended for the other panel. Perhaps it would have shown the viewer just how the young woman came to find herself in this situation. As is typical with Victorian paintings, the detailed symbolism helps us understand the narrative. Stanhope has given us a haunting image of a young woman remembering the innocence of youth rather than confronting the bleakness of her future.

    Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

    Stanhope, Thoughts of the PastStanhope, Thoughts of the PastStanhope, Thoughts of the PastStanhope, Thoughts of the PastStanhope, Thoughts of the PastStanhope, Thoughts of the PastStanhope, Thoughts of the Past
    Figure \(\PageIndex{127}\): More Smarthistory images…

    Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones

    Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, The Golden Stairs

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    Video \(\PageIndex{14}\): Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, The Golden Stairs, 1880, oil on canvas 2692 x 1168 mm (Tate Britain, London)

    Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, The Golden Stairs, 1880, oil on canvas, 269.2 x 116.8 cm (Tate Britain)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{128}\): Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, The Golden Stairs, 1880, oil on canvas, 269.2 x 116.8 cm (Tate Britain)
    No specific subject

    A seemingly endless stream of young women descending a spiral staircase is the subject of Sir Edward Burne-Jones painting The Golden Stairs. The passive beauty of their faces is typical of the artist, and a quality that can also be found in many of the paintings of his early mentor Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Clothed in vaguely Renaissance costumes, the women are painted in a monochromatic palette designed to create a sense of mood and timelessness. One of the artist’s first attempts at working on such a large scale, the very vertical structure of the canvas draws the viewer’s eye downward through the long parade of nearly identical women.

    Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, The Golden Stairs, 1880, oil on canvas, 269.2 x 116.8 cm (Tate Britain)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{129}\): Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, The Golden Stairs, 1880, oil on canvas, 269.2 x 116.8 cm (Tate Britain)

    A painting that has no specific subject matter, The Golden Stairs, shows the growing influence of the Aesthetic Movement, a style that demanded beauty, but not a direct link to a source. Instead it is the aesthetic quality of the picture and the mood it created that are important. F.G. Stephens commented in The Athenaeum (May 8, 1880) that the women move “like spirits in an enchanted dream, each moving gracefully, freely, and in unison with her neighbors.”

    Painting and music

    More frequently commented on is the association between the painting and music. Many of the women hold musical instruments, and several of the titles initially proposed by Burne-Jones for the painting were musically related. The power of music to evoke a mood without a particular story is something celebrated by many in the Aesthetic Movement, such as the painter James Whistler. In the words of the Aesthetic critic Walter Pater in his Renaissance (1873) “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.”

    Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelites
    The figures at the top of the stairs (detail), Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, The Golden Stairs, 1880, oil on canvas, 269.2 x 116.8 cm (Tate Britain)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{130}\): The figures at the top of the stairs (detail), Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, The Golden Stairs, 1880, oil on canvas, 269.2 x 116.8 cm (Tate Britain)

    Born in Birmingham in 1833, Burne-Jones went to Exeter College, Oxford in 1853, intending to enter the church. At Oxford he met William Morris, and the writings of Ruskin and the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites inspired the pair. They both decided to devote themselves to art, eventually meeting Rossetti and working with him on a scheme to paint murals in the Oxford Union on the subject of King Arthur. Burne-Jones and others helped Morris to found Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. in 1861, for which Burne-Jones provided designs for stained glass, tapestries and other decorative elements. From the 1860s onward, Burne-Jones began to develop his distinctive style of painting, a fusion of the Pre-Raphaelite style with the developing Aesthetic Movement.

    A new way of exhibiting art

    The Grosvenor Gallery of Fine Art, May 5 1877, engraving, from the Illustrated London News
    Figure \(\PageIndex{131}\): The Grosvenor Gallery of Fine Art, May 5 1877, engraving, from the Illustrated London News

    Burne-Jones was one of the first artists to exhibit at the Grosvenor Gallery, contributing 8 paintings to the opening exhibition in 1877. The vision of Sir Coutts Lindsay and his wife Blanche, the Grosvenor Gallery was an alternative to the Royal Academy, and many of the more avant-garde artists of the day exhibited there.

    One of the innovations of the Grosvenor was a new style of hanging the works of art. Instead of a floor to ceiling riot of art with frames virtually touching as was seen at the Royal Academy, the Grosvenor hung each painting with space around it, allowing the viewer space to contemplate each individual work of art.

    Paintings such as The Golden Stairs firmly established Burne-Jones’ image of the slender, pale, and vaguely wistful young woman as the aesthetic standard of beauty. So popular was this picture that apparently one of Burne-Jones’ patrons suggested to W.S. Gilbert that he base an opera on The Golden Stairs. In April 1881 Patience by Gilbert and Sullivan, a comic operetta satirizing the Aesthetic Movement, opened in London. The curtain rises to reveal a stage full of young women in aesthetic dress playing musical instruments and singing, much like the women in the painting. In The Golden Stairs, Burne-Jones captured an image that resonated with the Victorians, but his evocation of mood and vision of beauty are timeless.

    Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:
    Burne-Jones, The Golden Stairs, detail with instrumentsBurne-Jones, The Golden Stairs, detail with skyBurne-Jones, The Golden StairsBurne-Jones, The Golden Stairs, detail with stepsBurne-Jones, The Golden Stairs, detail with draperyBurne-Jones, The Golden Stairs, detail with women below (close)Burne-Jones, The Golden Stairs, detail with women below
    Figure \(\PageIndex{132}\): More Smarthistory images…

    Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid

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    Video \(\PageIndex{15}\): Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, 1884, oil on canvas (Tate Britain, London)

    Her arms across her breast she laid;
    She was more fair than words can say:
    Bare-footed came the beggar maid
    Before the king Cophetua.
    In robe and crown the king stept down,
    To meet and greet her on her way;
    “It is no wonder,” said the lords,
    “She is more beautiful than day”.
    As shines the moon in clouded skies,
    She in her poor attire was seen:
    One praised her ancles, one her eyes,
    One her dark hair and lovesome mien:
    So sweet a face, such angel grace,
    In all that land had never been:
    Cophetua sware a royal oath:
    “This beggar maid shall be my queen!”

    —The Beggar Maid (written 1833, published 1842) by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

    The power of love
    King and Beggar Maid (detail), Edward Burne-Jones, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, oil on canvas, 1884, 293.4 x 135.9 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{133}\): King and Beggar Maid (detail), Edward Burne-Jones, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, oil on canvas, 1884, 293.4 x 135.9 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    In King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, Edward Burne-Jones depicts the moment when, according to legend, an African king noted for his lack of interest in women, finally falls in love. The object of his affections is a beautiful beggar, and in a fairy-tale happy ending, King Cophetua marries the young woman, making her his queen. It is a story about the power of love and its ability to transcend more practical considerations such as social class.

    Edward Burne-Jones, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, oil on canvas, 1884, 293.4 x 135.9 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{134}\): Edward Burne-Jones, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, oil on canvas, 1884, 293.4 x 135.9 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    As in many of his other paintings, Burne-Jones used an extremely vertical canvas. The beautiful beggar maid sits in the middle of the composition, above the king himself, a very visual reminder of the obvious elevation in her social status. Her pale skin contrasts with the darker tones in the rest of the painting, helping to focus our attention on the slim, ethereal figure that is so typical of Burne-Jones’s women.

    Scholars have noted the resemblance of the beggar maid to Burne-Jones’s wife Georgina, whom he married in 1860. One of the four celebrated MacDonald sisters, Georgina would later become the artist’s biographer. Theirs was not always a match made in heaven, however. Burne-Jones’s affair with his model Maria Zambuco caused a scandal when Zambuco, distraught over the end of their relationship, made a public scene outside the house of the poet Robert Browning when she threatened to commit suicide by throwing herself into the Regent Canal.

    Interestingly, one of the flowers found in King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid is the anemone, the symbol of rejected love, a sentiment obviously not in line with the story of the painting, but perhaps more meaningful to the artist himself. Scholars have also pointed out that the theme of love winning out over considerations of class and money was in keeping with the ideas expressed by William Morris, a Socialist, and one of Burne-Jones’s closest friends.

    Figures at the top (detail), Edward Burne-Jones, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, oil on canvas, 1884, 293.4 x 135.9 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figures at the top (detail), Edward Burne-Jones, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, oil on canvas, 1884, 293.4 x 135.9 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Literary source

    The subject was inspired by a reprint of “A Song of a Beggar and a King” by Richard Johnson (1612) published in 1842 by the Percy Society, and by Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem “The Beggar Maid,” which appeared in the same year. Tennyson, who became Poet Laureate in 1850 and received a peerage in 1884, was extremely popular with the Victorians, including Queen Victoria herself. Many of his poems were a source of inspiration for artists of the day. Burne-Jones’ interpretation of the subject was well received when it was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in the spring of 1884, and when it was exhibited in 1889 at the Paris Universal Exhibition, Burne-Jones received a Cross of the Legion of Honour from the French government.

    The sentimentality of the subject undoubtedly appealed to a 19th century audience. In Victorian painting, where so many of the stories behind the pictures end badly, the happily ever after narrative of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid is a refreshingly upbeat subject. The combination of the romantic theme and the brilliant execution make this one of Burne-Jones’s most celebrated paintings.

    Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:
    Detail of Maid, King Cophetua and the Beggar MaidDetail of Crown, King Cophetua and the Beggar MaidKing Cophetua and the Beggar MaidDetail of King, King Cophetua and the Beggar MaidKing Cophetua and the Beggar Maid with ViewerDetail of Blossom, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid
    Figure \(\PageIndex{136}\): More Smarthistory images…

    Sleeping Beauty — but without the Kiss: Burne-Jones and the Briar Rose series

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    Video \(\PageIndex{16}\): Edward Burne-Jones, The Briar Rose (The Briar Rose, The Council Chamber, The Garden Court, and The Rose Bower), c. 1890, oil on canvas (Buscot Park). Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

    Additional resources:

    This series at Buscot Park

    Peter Faulkner, “The Briar Rose,” The Journal of William Morris Studies, Winter 2009

    Alison Smith, Edward Burne-Jones (Tate Publishing, 2019)

    Andrea Wolk Rager, “’Smite this Sleeping World Awake’: Edward Burne-Jones and The Legend of the Briar Rose,” Victorian Studies, vol. 51, no. 3 (Spring 2009), pp. 438-450.

    Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:
    Burne-Jones, The Rose Bower from the The Briar Rose seriesBurne-Jones, The Briar RoseBurne-Jones, The Briar Rose seriesBurne-Jones, The Garden Court from the The Briar Rose seriesaltBurne-Jones, The Council Chamber from the The Briar Rose seriesBurne-Jones, The Council Chamber from the The Briar Rose seriesBurne-Jones, The Council Chamber from the The Briar Rose seriesBurne-Jones, The Council Chamber from the The Briar Rose seriesBurne-Jones, The Council Chamber from the The Briar Rose seriesBurne-Jones, The Council Chamber from the The Briar Rose seriesBurne-Jones, The Council Chamber from the The Briar Rose seriesBurne-Jones, The Briar Rose seriesBurne-Jones, The Council Chamber from the The Briar Rose series
    Figure \(\PageIndex{137}\): More Smarthistory images…

    Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, The Depths of the Sea

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    Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, The Depths of the Sea, 1887, watercolor and gouache on wove paper mounted on panel, 197 x 76 cm (Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{138}\): Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, The Depths of the Sea, 1887, watercolor and gouache on wove paper mounted on panel, 197 x 76 cm (Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum)
    Strange seaways

    A smiling mermaid hauls the dead body of a naked young man to the bottom of the sea in this painting by British artist Edward Burne-Jones. With its warped forms, wavering lights and monochrome dimness, the painting is evocative of the strange seaways of underwater life. In fact, Burne-Jones was so determined to get these underwater effects right that he borrowed a large glass tank from another artist, Henry Holiday, filled it with tinted water, and used it as a prop to paint from in his studio. But this painting is more than just an eerie scene of mermaid mythology or a demonstration of the artist’s technical skill; it can also be seen as a psychological exploration of fear, desire, and fatal attraction.

    This painting, in watercolour and gouache, is a copy of an oil painting (now in a private collection) which Burne-Jones exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1886—his first and last time to exhibit at the prestigious London venue. Burne-Jones usually exhibited his work at the Grosvenor Gallery, a younger and more radical exhibition space which was set up as to rival the conservative Royal Academy.

    Hidden meanings

    When first displayed, the painting left many perplexed. ‘It sets one beating one’s brains to find some hidden meaning,’ wrote one critic in The National Review. Even today it is easy to understand why. There is neither a clear-cut narrative to help us understand the painting, nor a straightforward indication of how we should feel towards the two figures. Did the young man submit to the mermaid willingly, or was he dragged to his death? What does she plan to do with his body? Does she know that she has caused his death, or is she yet to find out? Perhaps the most perplexing feature of this painting is the Mona Lisa smile on the mermaid’s face—how do we read it? We can only speculate—and this in fact was part of Burne-Jones’ intention. He described the painting as ‘indefinite’ and ‘suggestive.’ In this sense, it can be associated with the Symbolist movement of the late 19th century—an approach to art which favoured ambiguity, mood and suggestion over certainty or definite meanings.

    The figures themselves are decidedly ambiguous. The mermaid is not only half-human, half-fish, but with her elfin features, thick torso, and defined muscles (with even a hint of a six-pack) she also appears half-male, half-female—an androgynous look which was common in the work of Burne-Jones. She clings like a limpet to her victim’s body. The deadly grip of her arm around his torso is reinforced by the serpent twist of her hair around his shoulder; and the two bodies are so tightly interlocked that they almost appear as one. Notice how the legs and feet of the drowned sailor are so firmly compressed that they begin to resemble the tail and flippers of the mermaid herself.

    Mermaids and sirens

    Mermaids haunted the 19th century imagination; the femmes fatales (seductive and dangerous women) of the deep, they sparked fear and fascination in equal measure. They are closely related to the figure of the Siren in classical mythology. Sirens were seductive but dangerous sea nymphs who would use their voices to lure sailors to their death. According to Burne-Jones’ wife, Georgiana, the artist associated the face of the mermaid in this painting with the high-class Victorian beauty Laura Lyttelton, also known as ‘the Siren’—her ability to charm and captivate those she met was legendary.

    Mermaids can also be linked to concepts of womanhood and femininity. As many feminist writers have observed, women have often been linked symbolically to water. The goddess Venus for example, the ultimate symbol of feminine charm and sexuality, was born of the sea; and women, like water, are considered the source and sustenance of life. But there is also a dark side to this comparison: water is a dangerous element, which can contaminate or even kill. Mermaids and sirens were often used by 19th-century moralists to demonstrate the dangers of lustful living—those who allow themselves to be seduced by the charms of these creatures invariably meet a bad end.

    Dangers of the deep

    As many art historians have pointed out, many of Burne-Jones’ works, despite their dreamlike, otherworldly qualities, appear to hold deep psychological resonance. If so, what might this painting mean? A close reading of the image itself may give us some clues. The lack of space, and the way in which the figures are crammed into the foreground close to the picture plane suggests entrapment. There appears to be no way out—the background is closed off; the stone pillars crowd in either side; and the sand at the bottom of the sea appears to tilt up towards the picture plane, suggesting compression rather than depth. Even the stream of bubbles and the little shoal of fish at the top right of the painting appear to struggle to escape. The painting is also imbued with a sense of the unobtainable: the way that the two naked bodies are entwined is sexually suggestive, but sex itself is a physical impossibility. The mermaid may be physically incapable of human copulation; and the man lies limp and impotent in her arms.

    The painting, perhaps, may be seen as a meditation on the trappings of lust, unattainable desire, and the hazards of straying out of your depth. Let us be warned.

    Yea, draw him gently through the strange seaways
    Down through the dim, green, water whispering.
    Thy cold lips have not kissed so fair a thing
    As this young mariner for many days.
    So well he sleeps, he will not wake to praise
    Thy wan bright loveliness, nor feel thee cling
    Around him, neither smile to hear thee sing,
    Though thou dids’t lure him hither with thy lays.
    The bubbles sigh and sparkle overhead,
    How white thou art! But he is paler still,
    Pale with despair of young days forfeited.
    Smiling thou bear’st him to thy chill green bed.
    Of brightest, bitterest triumph take thy fill,
    Thou hast his body, but the soul has fled.

    —R. Armytage (Rosamund Marriott Watson), “The Depths of the Sea: after Burne Jones,” Academy (22 May 1886)

    Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Hope

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    Video \(\PageIndex{17}\): Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Hope, 1896, 179 x 63.5 cm, oil on canvas (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

    One of the artist’s last works

    One of the last large paintings created by Edward Burne-Jones before his death in 1898, Hope is an allegorical painting in the Renaissance tradition. The lone female figure is reminiscent of the graceful women of Botticelli, while the symbolic message of the painting is subtly, yet effectively conveyed. The slender figure is confined within a narrow space, a shackle around her ankle chaining her to the ground, while she reaches for the sky above and beyond the cage-like bars behind her. In her arms is a branch of apple blossoms, the symbol of hope.

    Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Hope, 1896, 179 x 63.5 cm, oil on canvas (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
    Figure reaching (detail), Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Hope, 1896, 179 x 63.5 cm, oil on canvas (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
    Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Hope, 1896, 179 x 63.5 cm, oil on canvas (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{140}\): Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Hope, 1896, 179 x 63.5 cm, oil on canvas (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

    Hope was commissioned by Mrs. George Maston Whitin of Whitinville, Massachusetts, also a patron of John Singer Sargent. Mrs. Whitin originally requested a figure of a dancing girl, but Burne-Jones, upset over the recent death of his friend and collaborator William Morris, asked if he could produce a figure of “hope” instead.

    Friendship with William Morris

    Burne-Jones and Morris had been friends since they met at Exeter College, Oxford in 1853. Together the two had come under the influence of Gabriel Dante Rossetti when they participated in the scheme to paint murals on the subject of King Arthur in the Oxford Union. In 1861 Morris co-founded Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co., also know as “The Firm,” which created decorative elements inspired by a love of medieval imagery and a determination to move away from the mass production of industrial society. When the original company dissolved, Morris founded Morris and Co. in 1875, which carried on the work of creating textiles, carpets, wallpaper, furniture, stained glass and other decorative items. Many of the artists associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood contributed designs for stained glass windows, tapestries and other items, while Morris himself specialized in designs for wallpaper and fabrics.

    A member of the Socialist movement from the early 1880s, Morris believed in the power of art to transform society, and the importance of creating beauty in the home as a way of uplifting the spirit. His often quoted advice to “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,” is typical of his attitude that people should surround themselves with beautiful things as a buffer against the squalor of industrial society. Morris was also convinced of the superiority of handmade objects over things that were mass-produced. Unfortunately, his egalitarian principles were thwarted as the meticulous processes used to create his goods also made his products too expensive for most people.

    Stained glass

    Burne-Jones frequently designed stained glass for Morris, and Hope bears a strong resemblance to many of his designs. The vertical organization of the composition, fairly typical in the work of the artist, resembles an elongated church window. The bars behind her head form a grid similar to the iron bars that support the glass in a stained glass window. In fact, the painting bares a strong resemblance to the figure of Hope in an earlier stained glass window of Faith, Hope and Charity that Burne-Jones designed for Christ Church Oxford in 1871.

    A beautiful romantic dream

    Burne-Jones once wrote “I mean by a picture a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be—in a light better than any light ever shone—in a land no one can define or remember, only desire—and the forms divinely beautiful.” In his painting Hope the artist puts on canvas what he earlier put into words, and at the end of a long career still shows his lasting dedication to the creation of beauty.

    Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:
    Burne-Jones, Hope (detail)Burne-Jones, Hope, 1896Burne-Jones, Hope (detail)Burne-Jones, Hope (detail)Burne-Jones, Hope (detail)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{141}\): More Smarthistory images…

    John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott

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    John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott, 1888, oil on canvas, 153 x 200 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{142}\): John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott, 1888, oil on canvas, 153 x 200 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    A Pre-Raphaelite revival

    In many ways, Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott, painted in 1888, transports viewers back forty years—to 1848, when the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) was formed. Indeed, one commenter from Art Journal noted, “The type he [Waterhouse] chose for the spell-controlled lady, her action, and the garments in which he has arrayed her, bring his work into kinship with that of the “Pre-Raphaelites” of the middle of the century.” The subject of a vulnerable young red-haired woman in white gown, adrift in a riverine setting, is reminiscent of John Everett Millais’s Ophelia of 1852. Millais, one of the founding members of the PRB, had a much-acclaimed retrospective at London’s Grosvenor Gallery in 1886, which Waterhouse attended.

    Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 111.8 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{143}\): Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 111.8 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    Lord Alfred Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott

    Waterhouse’s chosen subject, the Lady of Shalott, comes from Lord Alfred Tennyson’s Arthurian poem of the same name (he actually wrote two versions, one in 1833, the other in 1842). Tennyson was a favorite among the Pre-Raphaelites. In the poems, the Lady of Shalott lives isolated in a castle upon a river that flows to Camelot. Because of a curse, she is fated to spend her days weaving images of the world onto her loom, but on pain of death, she is forbidden from looking out her window. Instead, she has to look at images of the outside world as reflected in a mirror. One day she sees a reflection of the knight Lancelot and is instantly smitten, so she breaks her prohibition and looks directly at him through the window. Desiring to meet him, she leaves her castle and rides a boat down to Camelot. The horrible conditions of the curse set in, and she dies before reaching the shore.

    William Holman Hunt, The Lady of Shalott, c. 1890-1905, oil on canvas (Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{144}\): William Holman Hunt, The Lady of Shalott, c. 1890-1905, oil on canvas (Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT)

    The Lady of Shalott was a prominent subject in the Pre-Raphaelite repertoire, the most notable example being William Holman Hunt’s illustration for an edition of Tennyson’s works published in 1857 by Moxon, which the artist reworked into a painting in the 1880s. Whereas Hunt highlights the moment of transgression, right after the Lady looks at Lancelot through the window, Waterhouse shows her on the boat to Camelot, her death foreshadowed by the lone candle that remains lit on the prow.

    Pre-Raphaelite subject, but impressionist Technique

    Nonetheless, as the Art Journal commenter went on to observe, there is a significant difference between Waterhouse’s work and that of the original PRB, specifically, in the technique: “[T]he almost impressionary delicacy of the rendering of willows weeds, and water is such as claims harmony with French work rather than what was so intensely English.” The early works of the PRB showed an extreme attention to detail, reflecting John Ruskin’s principle of “truth to nature,” which advocated a faithful transcription of landscapes and objects. But Waterhouse’s technique is notably looser, revealing his experimentation with French Impressionism. Impressionism offered a different conception of “truth to nature,” one that was based more in optical truth, that is, how an object or scene appears to the eye in a fleeting moment, given the time of day and atmospheric conditions.

    Convincing illusionism in reeds (detail, left), Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52, oil on canvas, 762 x 1118 mm (Tate Britain, London) and more evident brushstrokes in reeds (detail, right) John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott, 1888, oil on canvas, 153 x 200 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{145}\): Convincing illusionism in reeds (detail, left), Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52, oil on canvas, 762 x 1118 mm (Tate Britain, London) and more evident brushstrokes in reeds (detail, right) John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott, 1888, oil on canvas, 153 x 200 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    We can see the difference if we compare the reeds of Millais’s Ophelia (left) with that of Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott (right), positioned in analogous parts of the composition. Whereas Millais’s reeds maintain their physical integrity and rich detail when viewed up close, Waterhouse’s reeds lose some of their convincing illusionism and dissolve into obvious brushstrokes (even more apparent when you see the paintings in person!). The Lady’s tapestry, which drapes over the boat, seems to further highlight the difference between Waterhouse and the PRB. Whereas the early PRB were inspired by the bright jewel tones and minute details of medieval illustrated manuscripts and tapestries, Waterhouse took his inspiration from the plein air (open air) methods of the Impressionists, replacing jewel tones for the atmospheric silvers and greens of a cool English day. Like the Lady herself, Waterhouse turns away from an art of the cloistered life and towards an art that engages with optical effects.

    Artistic nationalism: English vs. French

    Although the original PRB openly declared their allegiance to continental “Old Masters” such as Jan Van Eyck and the early Raphael, by the end of the nineteenth century Pre-Raphaelitism was cast as a specifically English phenomenon. As such, it was regularly pitted against the Impressionist trend, which solidified into a movement in Britain with the founding of the New English Art Club (NEAC) in 1886. Many figures in the art world were worried about the “Frenchification” of British artists. Marion Spielmann, editor of the Magazine of Art, noted with consternation at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1888: “that they [younger painters] are most of them imbued with the French spirit . . . is a fact that the Royal Academy cannot afford to overlook.” He then addresses the Council: “the future of the English ‘School’ is in their hands, and upon them devolves the responsibility of moulding it to the proper form.”

    Peter Henry Emerson, “Ricking the Reed,” photograph from Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads by P.H. Emerson and T.F. Goodall. London : Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1886
    Figure \(\PageIndex{146}\): Peter Henry Emerson, “Ricking the Reed,” photograph from Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads by P.H. Emerson and T.F. Goodall. London : Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1886

    Spielmann also noted the “French flatness” of Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott. However, the painting’s debts to early Pre-Raphaelitism and that most “English” of poets, Tennyson, remained undeniable. The setting, moreover, suggested a thoroughly English landscape, evoking not only the Surrey of Millais’s Ophelia, but also bearing resemblance to the sort of marshy, reedy scenery that could be seen in Peter Henry Emerson’s photographs of English landscapes, as in this image, “Ricking the Reed,” from his album, Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads (1886). Despite initial remarks as to the “Frenchness” of its technique, The Lady of Shalott was ultimately accepted by the establishment as an “English” painting, and was acquired by Henry Tate for his museum of national art, where it still enjoys pride of place today as one of their most popular works.

    William Butterfield, All Saints, Margaret Street, London

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    Video \(\PageIndex{18}\): William Butterfield, All Saints Church, 7 Margaret Street, London, designed 1849, consecrated 1859, primary patrons: Alexander Beresford Hope and Henry Tritton, cornerstone laid by Edward Bouverie Pusey, 1850

    William Butterfield had little more than 100 square feet of real estate to work with, but designed perhaps the greatest example of High Victorian Gothic architecture. The spire soars 227 feet above London and its interior is a kaleidoscope of color and pattern that expresses the vision of the Oxford Movement and the Ecclesiological Society. In 1841, the Society announced its intentions for their model church:

    It must be in a Gothic Style.
    It must be built of solid materials.
    Its ornament should decorate its construction.
    Its artist should be ‘a single pious and laborious artist alone, pondering deeply over his duty to do his best for the service of God’s Holy Religion’.
    Above all the church must be built so that the “Rubricks and Canons of the Church of England may be Consistently observed, and the Sacraments rubrically and decently administered.”

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    William Butterfield, All Saints Margaret Street, LondonPulpit and Tiles, William Butterfield, All Saints Margaret Street, LondonStained Glass, William Butterfield, All Saints Margaret Street, LondonWilliam Butterfield, All Saints Margaret Street, LondonClearstory, William Butterfield, All Saints Margaret Street, LondonScreen, William Butterfield, All Saints Margaret Street, LondonAltar, William Butterfield, All Saints Margaret Street, LondonSteeple, William Butterfield, All Saints Margaret Street, LondonNave Vault, William Butterfield, All Saints Margaret Street, LondonGate, William Butterfield, All Saints Margaret Street, LondonExterior Brick and Stone Detail, William Butterfield, All Saints Margaret Street, LondonSteeple, William Butterfield, All Saints Margaret Street, LondonElevation William Butterfield, All Saints Margaret Street, London
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    William Morris and Philip Webb, Red House

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    William Morris and Philip Webb, Red House (garden with well), 1860, Bexleyheath, England (photo: Steve Cadman, CC BY-SA 2.0)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{148}\): William Morris and Philip Webb, Red House (garden with well), 1860, Bexleyheath, England (photo: Steve Cadman, CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Cult of domesticity

    By the mid-nineteenth century, many people were troubled by the effects that the Industrial Revolution was having on the environment, society at large, and workers employed in factories, concerns that are echoed in today’s environmental movement. The English art critic John Ruskin argued that the inexpensive, factory-made goods flooding the markets had a negative effect on both those who made them and those who consumed them.

    Ruskin and others believed that mechanized factory production deprived workers of the personal satisfaction and creativity involved in designing and making an object entirely with one’s own hands. They also believed that people who bought these goods were surrounding themselves with soulless objects that lacked aesthetic value. Thus, their domestic environments were missing the elements of spirituality and refinement that produce healthy, well-rounded citizens.

    This was a particular concern in the age of the Victorian “cult of domesticity,” which emphasized the home as a morally uplifting respite from the negative influences of city life. Ruskin and his followers advocated a return to the medieval guild model in which artisans were responsible for handcrafting their works from beginning to end. This produced a sense of pride in the worker and guaranteed quality products for the consumer. William Morris was strongly influenced by Ruskin’s writing and also dedicated to social reform.

    William Morris and Philip Webb, Red House (side), 1860, Bexleyheath, England (photo: Steve Cadman, CC-BY-SA 2.0)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{149}\): William Morris and Philip Webb, Red House (side), 1860, Bexleyheath, England (photo: Steve Cadman, CC-BY-SA 2.0)

    Craftsmanship and community

    Red House was the home he designed in Bexleyheath, a southeastern suburb of London, England, for his family with the assistance of Philip Webb. Webb and Morris met while working in London for the architect G. E. Street. Webb would go on to be one of the major architects of the Gothic Revival movement in England.

    Morris wanted the house to be a place that reflected his ideals and celebrated art, craftsmanship, and community. Morris and Webb collaborated to make the house’s architecture and interior design merge into a unified whole. This would provide the appropriate atmosphere to foster domestic harmony and instill creative energy in its inhabitants and visitors. It was the first home built according to the principles of fine artistry and utility that became the hallmark of the design firm Morris founded with Webb in 1861, as well as the emerging Arts and Crafts movement.

    Morris and Webb designed the house in a simplified Tudor Gothic style. The features of this style include historicizing elements such as steep roofs, prominent chimneys, cross gables, and exposed-beam ceilings, all present in Red House. Morris was influenced by Ruskin and other theorists who saw the Gothic as a time of perfection in the craft and building trades, as well as a period of great faith and belief in human dignity. They also viewed the Gothic as a more suitable style for Northern Europe because it originated in France, a northern country, as opposed to the classical forms of ancient Greece and Rome. For Morris and Webb, the adoption of a specifically English form of Gothic architecture seemed natural and appropriate to the site.

    William Morris and Philip Webb, plan of Red House, 1860, Bexleyheath, England
    Figure \(\PageIndex{150}\): William Morris and Philip Webb, plan of Red House, 1860, Bexleyheath, England

    A medieval ideal

    The use of exposed red brick for the exterior both gave the house its name and reveals the innate beauty of the construction materials. Morris and Webb valued the specific beauty of natural materials, which they saw as far superior to and healthier than industrially produced materials. Red House is L-shaped, with the rooms laid out for maximum efficiency and clarity. The L-shaped plan also allows the house to embrace the gardens as a part of the domestic sphere, as well as creates an asymmetry that is typical of traditional Gothic structures that were built over long periods of time. The concept of an integral whole extended to the interior design as well. Webb, Morris, his wife, Jane, and the painter Edward Burne-Jones all worked together to design everything in the home, from the wallpaper to the stained-glass windows to the built-in cabinets and furniture, so that all celebrated the beauty of nature and the medieval guild ideal.

    William Morris, Niebelungenlied Settle, c. 1860, painted wood
    Figure \(\PageIndex{151}\): William Morris, Niebelungenlied Settle, c. 1860, painted wood
    William Morris and Philip Webb, front hall of Red House, 1860, Bexleyheath, England (photo: Tony Hisgett, CC BY 2.0)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{152}\): William Morris and Philip Webb, front hall of Red House, 1860, Bexleyheath, England (photo: Tony Hisgett, CC BY 2.0)

    The house is entered through a large wooden door that leads to a rectangular hallway. A settle Morris decorated with illustrations from the medieval German epic Niebelungenlied is to the right. The hallway is filled with light from the stained-glass windows. The dining room to the right contains the original hutch designed by Philip Webb, which has Gothic trefoil motifs and is painted in “dragon’s blood” (a deep red-brown favored by Arts and Crafts practitioners). The original rustic dining room table remains, along with the decorative arch in the brickwork around the fireplace.

    William Morris and Philip Webb, kitchen hutch in Red House, 1860, Bexleyheath, England (photo: Tony Hisgett, CC BY 2.0)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{153}\): William Morris and Philip Webb, kitchen hutch in Red House, 1860, Bexleyheath, England (photo: Tony Hisgett, CC BY 2.0)
    William Morris and Philip Webb, living room fireplace in Red House, 1860, Bexleyheath, England (photo: Badly Drawn Dad, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{154}\): William Morris and Philip Webb, living room fireplace in Red House, 1860, Bexleyheath, England (photo: Badly Drawn Dad, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Other original built-in furniture is present in the main living room on the second floor, notably a fireplace painted with Morris’s motto: “Ars Longa, Vita Brevis” (Life is short, art is forever). This room also has paintings by Edward Burne-Jones. Stained glass decorated by Morris, his family and their friends is found throughout the house.

    Unfortunately Morris had to sell Red House in 1865 due to financial difficulties. It remained a private residence until 2003, when it was acquired by the National Trust of Great Britain. The architecture of Red House has not been significantly altered, but most of the original furniture is gone and some of the original wall paintings have been covered with modern reproductions of wallpaper Morris produced after he established his design company with Webb and like-minded colleagues. Red House now functions as a museum and is open to the public.

    Late Victorian art

    Though this period sees a continuing interest in art for art's sake, Victorian artists never entirely give up their interest in moralizing.

    c. 1880 - 1901

    Sir Frederic Leighton

    Sir Frederic Leighton, An Athlete Wrestling with a Python

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    Video \(\PageIndex{20}\): Sir Frederic Leighton, An Athlete Wrestling with a Python, 1877, bronze, 1746 x 984 x 1099 mm (Tate Britain, London)

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    Leighton, An Athlete Wrestling with a Python, 1877Leighton, An Athlete Wrestling with a Python, 1877Leighton, An Athlete Wrestling with a Python, 1877Leighton, An Athlete Wrestling with a Python, 1877Leighton, An Athlete Wrestling with a Python, 1877Leighton, An Athlete Wrestling with a Python, 1877
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    Sir Frederic Leighton, Bath of Psyche

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    Frederic Leighton, Bath of Psyche, 1890, oil on canvas, 189.2 x 622 cm (Tate)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{156}\): Frederic Leighton, Bath of Psyche, 1890, oil on canvas, 189.2 x 622 cm (Tate, London)

    At first glance, Frederic Leighton’s Bath of Psyche, painted at the end of the nineteenth century by the President of the British Royal Academy, seems like the epitome of a conservative academicism. While contemporary painters like Walter Sickert were painting the lurid interiors of London’s music halls and tenement housing, here Leighton presents us with a female nude, skin polished to marmoreal perfection, absorbed in her own reflection.

    Moreover, this figure has a pedigree including both classical statuary and nineteenth-century French academic painting. Based in part on a famous statue from antiquity, the Venus Kallypogos (“Nice Buttocks,” in the Archaeological Museum in Naples), Leighton muted the racy overtones of that ancient statue by turning the figure around to present a more modest three-quarter view of Psyche’s flank.

    He also drew from French academic nudes like Ingres’s La Source of 1856, evident in the almost identical pose involving contrapposto and one arm raised overhead; the white drapery falling behind Leighton’s Psyche, painted in a frothy manner evocative of cascading water, replaces the urn with streaming water held by Ingres’s figure.

    Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, La Source, 1856, oil on canvas, 163 x 80 cm (Musée D’Orsay, Paris)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{157}\): Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, La Source, 1856, oil on canvas, 163 x 80 cm (Musée D’Orsay, Paris)

    However, Leighton was a complex figure who challenges any neat division between the academic and avant-garde. In the 1860s, Leighton revived the genre of the nude in Victorian Britain, which had been languishing since the death of William Etty in 1849.

    Whereas Etty’s nudes were voluptuous and his painterly technique was richly coloristic in the manner of Titian and Rubens, Leighton adopted a cool classicism. Instead of warm, dimpled flesh, Psyche’s skin is pale, smooth and flawless, like the chill surface of marble. Leighton further subordinates sensuality by privileging line over color. Rather than building up forms through color, like Etty, Leighton emphasizes the contours of Psyche’s figure and uses muted tones, giving an impression of precision and control rather than spontaneity and bravura.

    William Etty, Candaules, King of Lydia Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, As She Goes to Bed, 1830, oil on canvas, 45.1 x 55.9 cm (Tate, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{158}\): William Etty, Candaules, King of Lydia Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, As She Goes to Bed, 1830, oil on canvas, 45.1 x 55.9 cm (Tate, London)
    James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White No. 1: The White Girl, 1861-62, oil on canvas, 213 x 107.9 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{159}\): James Abbot McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White No. 1: The White Girl, 1861-62, oil on canvas, 213 x 107.9 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)

    In fact, Psyche can be seen as an exercise in tones akin to Whistler’s versions of Symphony in White. Just as Whistler’s compositions consist primarily of different shades of white, Psyche’s reduced palette of colors juxtaposes different shades of white, from the milky tone of the drapery to the buff pallor of her skin and the honeyed off-whites of the marble architectural setting.

    Leighton, like Whistler, was a key proponent of the avant-garde Aesthetic movement in Britain, which engaged with artworks primarily in terms of their visual properties—that is, in the relation of forms and colors in the service of beauty, rather than as a vehicle for narrative or conveying conventional morals. While the title of Leighton’s painting, Bath of Psyche, alludes to the story of Cupid and Psyche as told in Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, very little in the painting itself suggests this specific narrative. Leighton chose a moment in the story devoid of dramatic action—Psyche preparing her bath while she awaits her lover, Cupid, in his palace—a moment that is generic in its theme of woman gazing at her reflection.

    Berthe Morisot, The Psyche Mirror, 1876, oil on canvas, (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{160}\): Berthe Morisot, The Psyche Mirror, 1876, oil on canvas, (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid)

    This theme was represented in more modern terms by artists like Berthe Morisot, whose Before a Psyche Mirror depicts a contemporary woman looking at herself in a mirror while adjusting her clothing (here, “psyche” is a type of mirror). The identity of Leighton’s figure is suggested in the reflective pool before her feet, which serves as her mirror. The figure of Psyche and her association with mirrors and reflections underscore the emphasis on vision in Aestheticism and the appreciation of beauty for its own sake.

    Frederic Leighton, The Sluggard, 1885, bronze, 191.1 x 90.2 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{161}\): Frederic Leighton, The Sluggard, 1885, bronze, 191.1 x 90.2 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    Although Leighton’s vision of beauty subdued overt sensuality, this is not to say his nudes exhibit prudishness or reactionary tastes. In the context of his time, Leighton’s nudes had a certain radical quality even as they reflected traditional sources. Rejecting the voluptuousness of Etty’s nudes, Leighton’s Psyche is somewhat androgynous with her small breasts and restrained curves. As if emphasizing her androgyny, Leighton has Psyche twist her upper torso so as to open it up from a side view to a near frontal one, and he raises her arms upward and outward, the sum effect of which gives her upper body the more masculine proportions of a triangle. In fact, Psyche’s general form and position resembles those of Leighton’s male nudes in his painting Daedalus and Icarus of 1867 and his bronze sculpture of 1886, The Sluggard.

    Leighton’s personal life and sexual orientation has been the subject of much scholarly speculation, with his artistic production read in terms of homoeroticism. With regard to Psyche’s androgyny, though, Leighton may have just wished to temper the eroticism associated with more conventional female nudes so that the viewer may apprehend the beauty of the body at the highest artistic level, as pure form. In a letter to art critic Joseph Comyns Carr of 1873, Leighton wrote, ‘ . . . my growing love for Form made me intolerant of the restraint and exigencies of costume, and led me more and more, and finally, to a class of subjects . . . in which supreme scope is left to pure artistic qualities . . . These conditions classic subjects afford . . . as vehicles . . . of abstract form . . .” For Leighton, in other words, the classical nude was a means to express his love of form in and of itself, as an abstraction. Although he never went so far as to completely reject representation in art, his explicit appreciation of the purely visual, abstract qualities of form presaged the modernists of the next century.

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    No photos

    Figure \(\PageIndex{162}\): More Smarthistory images…

    Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Listening to Homer

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    Video \(\PageIndex{21}\): Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Reading from Homer, 1885, oil on canvas, 36-1/8 x 72-1/4 inches (91.8 x 183.5 cm) (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

    Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Reading from Homer, 1885, oil on canvas, 1836.67 x 918.72 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{163}\): Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Reading from Homer, 1885, oil on canvas, 1836.67 x 918.72 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

    Reading?

    The title is A Reading from Homer. And yet, we see no indications of anyone reading (either to themselves privately or aloud to others). In fact, the storyteller at right, crowned in a wreath of laurel leaves and gesticulating with his left arm, is decidedly looking away from the scroll that unfurls on his lap. Moreover, this painting does not even illustrate a specific scene from Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey.

    Despite the title, then, Alma-Tadema’s painting showcases the oral transmission of culture across the ages. Unlike the Victorian (male) elite, who spent long hours studying ancient Latin and Greek texts in pedantic exercises at grammar schools and at university, Alma-Tadema favored a vision of the ancient world that was anything but dry. His paintings were accessible to those outside academia and thus more democratic in their appeal. In A Reading from Homer, the marble bench even seems to curve towards the viewer’s space, as if offering us an invitation to participate in this gathering.

    Too populist?

    In fact, at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1885, art critic Claude Phillips perceived the populist element of this painting, although he interpreted it negatively. While acknowledging that the painting demonstrates Alma-Tadema’s “usual mastery . . . of light, color, texture, and drawing,” Phillips nonetheless disapproved of the figures themselves: “The facial types, though they have an air of realistic truth, are of a low order, and not such as should have been selected for such a subject.”¹ Here Phillips draws upon the contemporary pseudo-scientific discourse of phrenology and physiognomy, which argued that an individual’s character was legible through the shape of the head and facial features. For Phillips, the supposedly “low” nature of the figures’ faces was corroborated by their lethargic attitudes, and he preferred paintings with classical themes that elevated the viewer by featuring noble people doing noble deeds.

    Figures listening ( detail), Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Reading from Homer, 1885, oil on canvas, 1836.67 x 918.72 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art)
    Figures listening ( detail), Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Reading from Homer, 1885, oil on canvas, 1836.67 x 918.72 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

    A different kind of Classicism

    Alma-Tadema’s vision of antiquity was decidedly different than that. He was a key figure in the mid- to late-Victorian Classical Revival. We can think back to the Neo-classical movement of a century before. A product of the Enlightenment, Neoclassical art favored the cerebral over the sensual and themes that promoted reason, civic virtue, and heroism. Think of Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii (1784), which shows three brothers who vow to go to war and sacrifice their lives for Rome. By contrast, in A Reading from Homer, Alma-Tadema shows a group of languorous figures enjoying the sensory delights of a warm Mediterranean day by the sea, withdrawing into private worlds of reverie rather than being urged into collective, public action.

    Albert Joseph Moore, A Musician, c. 1867, oil on canvas, 8.7 x 28.6 cm (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{165}\): Albert Joseph Moore, A Musician, c. 1867, oil on canvas, 8.7 x 28.6 cm (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT)
    Lyre (detail), Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Reading from Homer, 1885, oil on canvas, 1836.67 x 918.72 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{166}\): Lyre (detail), Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Reading from Homer, 1885, oil on canvas, 1836.67 x 918.72 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

    Here Alma-Tadema’s classicism also engages with the mid-Victorian Aesthetic movement (which emphasized the aesthetic qualities of art over the narrative), and A Reading from Homer resembles Albert Moore’s A Musician of c.1867. The lyres in both Moore and Alma-Tadema’s paintings underscore the Aesthetes’ “musical” approach to painting, encouraging the viewer to look at painting in terms of harmonies, rhythms, and contrasts rather than offering any specific narrative moment or moral meaning. In A Reading from Homer, the viewer can appreciate a series of visual contrasts that offer a pleasing sense of balance and harmony: the angular geometries of the marble architecture at left, which transforms into the sweeping curve of the bench at right; the figures resting in cool shadow against the bright, glowing marble and sun-lit water; the palette of whites, blues, and browns punctuated by the loud accents of the red tambourine and fuschia roses.

    An archaeological approach

    Alma-Tadema delighted in the day-to-day materiality of the past. In A Reading from Homer we can see the skill with which he depicted the translucency of the marble, tinged blue by the light from the sky and water; the soft fur tunic worn by the reclining man; and the lyre with all strings carefully delineated.

    Alma-Tadema’s attention to artifacts and architecture represents an archaeological approach. The second half of the nineteenth century was a great age of archaeological study and excavation, with discoveries being made in Mediterranean and Near Eastern sites such as Knossos, Mycenae, and even the famed Homeric city of Troy. Alma-Tadema himself regularly visited Pompeii, the Museo Nazionale in Naples, the Vatican Museum, and Rome for archaeological inspiration; at home in London he also had a great resource in the British Museum.

    An instance of Commercial Materialism?

    Because of Alma-Tadema’s pleasure in depicting the material objects and structures of the past, critics have sometimes been unkind in their view of him. Critic and curator Roger Fry, who helped introduce Post-Impressionism to Britain, denounced Alma-Tadema as representing “an extreme instance of the commercial materialism of our civilization.”²

    This view was further cemented by the fact that his art was collected by the wealthy capitalists of his day. A Reading from Homer was purchased by American financier Henry Marquand, then President of the Metropolitan Museum, to go in the music room of his New York mansion. Marquand also commissioned Alma-Tadema to design a suite of furniture for this room, most notably a grand piano made of exotic wood, ivory, and mother-of-pearl.

    Music Room in the mansion of Henry Marquand
    Figure \(\PageIndex{167}\): Music Room in the mansion of Henry Marquand

    A Reading from Homer offered visitors to Marquand’s home a sort of mirror for their own behavior. Like the figures in the painting, these Gilded Age elite would gather in the music room to listen to a performance or recital. They would also witness Alma-Tadema’s artistic performance by proxy, in the form of this painting. Inscribed on the seat beneath the storyteller is Alma-Tadema’s signature, suggesting the artist’s identification with this figure. Like the Homeric storyteller, Alma-Tadema captivates his audience through his artistic performance, bringing visions of the ancient world to life.

    1. Claude Phillips, “The Royal Academy,” The Academy 679 (9 May 1885), p.336.
    2. Roger Fry Reader, “The Case of the Late Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, O.M.” (reprinted from The Nation, 18 January 1913, 666-67) p.149.

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    Alma-Tadema, A Reading from Homer (detail)
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    George Frederic Watts, The Minotaur

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    George Frederic Watts, The Minotaur, 1885, oil on canvas, 118 x 94.5 cm (Tate Britain, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{169}\): George Frederic Watts, The Minotaur, 1885, oil on canvas, 118 x 94.5 cm (Tate Britain, London)

    George Frederic Watts was a colossus of the Victorian art world. The first living artist to have a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, in his heyday Watts was the most celebrated painter in the country, and that at a time when the status of the artist in Britain had never been higher.

    The Minotaur myth

    The Minotaur belongs to his later, symbolic works and illustrates a scene from the famous ancient Greek myth.

    After her defeat by the Cretans, the story goes, the city of Athens was forced every nine years to send as tribute seven youths and seven maidens. A ship, bearing a black sail, ferried the victims across the Aegean Sea to the land of their subjugators. Once on shore they were sent to the fabled Labyrinth of Daedalus, an impossibly complex maze-like structure, as large as a town. It was here the Minotaur lived; half-human and half-bull, conceived through the preternatural coupling of Pasiphaë, the wife of King Minos, and the Cretan Bull.

    One by one the beast would pick them off, wandering, half-starved and utterly disorientated, searching desperately for a way out, only to meet their gruesome end with a savage business of goring, pummeling and devouring.

    Pablo Picasso, Dying Minotaur, Plate from the Vollard Suite, 1933, etching
    Figure \(\PageIndex{170}\): Pablo Picasso, Dying Minotaur, Plate from the Vollard Suite, 1933, etching

    A monstrous aberration of nature in western art and literature, the Minotaur came to embody the violent, bestial impulses of man. In the twentieth century however, in Picasso’s etchings and the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, for example, the creature has been viewed more sympathetically.

    In Borges, he is a prisoner, painfully unaware of the crime he has committed, who longs for nothing but to be killed. For Picasso, the Minotaur is a tragic figure, dying a pitiful death in his Vollard Suite. For the Victorians, though, the Minotaur was just plain evil, the embodiment of violence and depravity, an association that was dramatically exploited in one of the most effective journalistic campaigns of the nineteenth century.

    “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon”

    In 1885 the Pall Mall Gazette published a series of articles by William Thomas Stead that proved a milestone in the history of modern journalism. At the time Parliament was delaying pushing through a bill that would raise the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen. In a bid to force through this piece of legislation, Stead’s articles set about exposing the widespread practice of child prostitution, particularly in London. The analogy with the Minotaur myth, comparing these young girls with Athenian virgins, was a powerful trope, but far more compelling were Stead’s investigative journalistic tactics, the most controversial involving the purchase for £5 of a thirteen year-old girl, bought from her own parents.

    The articles were instrumental in pushing the bill through, ensuring the age of consent was raised, as well as making it a criminal offence to procure girls for prostitution by the administering of drugs, intimidation or fraud. Not all the reforms were progressive, though. Equating child abuse with other forms of sexual behavior, the new laws also criminalized acts of homosexuality, now punishable with a two-year prison sentence, with or without hard labor. Over the months that followed, however, many cases of child abuse were successfully brought to trial, thanks in no small part to Stead’s widely circulated articles.

    Reading them prompted Watts to take up his brush, “to hold up to detestation the bestial and brutal,” as he put it, and paint The Minotaur.

    The beast

    Viewed obliquely, his neck twisted, his face in profil perdu (the figure is viewed from behind, with the face only partially visible), the Minotaur stands on the ramparts of the Labyrinth, gazing, almost longingly, out to sea. On closer inspection one sees to the left the white sail of the ship bearing the seven fair youths and seven maidens from Athens. It is this that has caught his eye. Gripped by destructive impulses he crushes a small bird in his hand. The sail lies on the orthogonal created by his arm emphasizing the fact that they are heading towards a similar fate as the bird’s.

    Painted with startling rapidity in a single morning, Watts rejects the academic finish of his Victorian counterparts, applying the paint with agitated brushstrokes. The form of the figure is built up with layers of red and yellow creating expressive muscular striations, bringing to mind Turner’s incarnadine sunsets or perhaps the industrial processes—the steelworks and blast furnaces—that have forged this modern Babylon, London.

    The angle of the body rhymes visually with the masonry that constrains it, creating a dynamic interplay of curve and line, of raw animal energy set against the geometric exactitude of Daedalus’s structure. The frame, too, constrains the figure, emphasizing the verticality of the composition and suggesting at first glance that he is standing on two legs and not four. We soon realize, though, following the musculature of the neck, the curvature of the back and the modeling of the lower-half of the body that it is a bull-headed, centaur-like creature that we are looking at, the human torso emerging from the bulk of a bull’s body.

    Blake’s The Minotaur

    William Blake, The Minotaur (Canto XII), Illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy, 1826, watercolor, black ink, graphite and black chalk on paper, 37 x 52 cm (Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Mass.)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{171}\): William Blake, The Minotaur (Canto XII), Illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy, 1826, watercolor, black ink, graphite and black chalk on paper, 37 x 52 cm (Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Mass.)

    This rather unusual amalgamation of parts can also be found in Blake’s 1826 illustration of Dante’s Inferno, where, both bull-headed and quadrupedal, a Minotaur rampant signals Dante and Virgil’s descent into the Seventh Circle of Hell.

    A more likely visual source, however, given Watts’s training as a sculptor, are those famous scenes from the Centauromachy, the battle between the Centaurs and the Lapiths, illustrated on the metopes from the Parthenon, works which profoundly informed his early training as a sculptor.

    Centaur and Lapth in Combat, Metope from the Parthenon, c. 447-438 B.C., Marble, H. 172 cm, (British Museum, London)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{172}\): Centaur and Lapth in Combat, Metope from the Parthenon, c. 447-438 B.C., Marble, H. 172 cm, (British Museum, London)

    In contrast to both Blake and the metope marble, Watts’s Minotaur is surprisingly subdued. For all his muscly strength, his Michelangelesque physicality, he seems strangely to evoke feelings of pity more than terror. The use of the profil perdu is instrumental here, although clearly bestial, though more canine than bovine-looking from this angle, the wrinkled folds of the forehead, the exposed eyeball and the delicate lashes suggest vulnerability rather than brutality and if anything a certain wistfulness rather than the lecherousness suggested by Stead’s analogy.

    Profile of the minotaur (detail), George Frederic Watts, The Minotaur, 1885, oil on canvas, 118 x 94.5 cm (Tate Britain)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{173}\): Profile of the minotaur (detail), George Frederic Watts, The Minotaur, 1885, oil on canvas, 118 x 94.5 cm (Tate Britain)

    To read the painting exclusively as an illustration of Stead’s article, then, runs the risk of overlooking the experience of many of its viewers. To argue that his vulnerability is deceptive, designed to beguile us as it were seems an inadequate explanation and certainly out of keeping with the Minotaur myth.

    Dream/painting

    One way of tackling the problem is to look at the immediate context of its production. As mentioned, the painting was executed swiftly, Watts’s friend Mrs Russell Barrington recording how it was composed early one morning in response to “a painful subject” that “had filled one of the evening papers.” The earliness, the urgency and the likelihood that he had read Stead’s article the previous evening are all interesting clues, leading one to the possible conclusion that it is not the text that Watts is illustrating, but the dream he had dreamt after reading it.

    There is certainly a dreamlike quality to the painting, the symbols used all being highly charged with meaning: the sail, the labyrinth, the Minotaur, the crushed bird, the looping tail. If only Freud were around, we may be tempted to say. But then, of course, he was around and in the years following The Minotaur, was busy penning The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), in which he proposed that the unconscious mind is structured like a language, the mechanisms of which serve to hide from the dreamer their disturbing thoughts. With this in mind, while the symbolism of the dream/painting purports to illustrate Watts’s support for Stead’s campaign, the visual contradictions of the image seem out of step with the moral certitudes of the articles, allowing a reading of the painting as a sort of dream displacement in which, while borrowing the symbols of Stead, who himself had borrowed them from the ancient Greeks, Watts is actually saying something entirely different and entirely personal. Whatever meanings or interpretations the painting generates are for the individual viewer to construct. The art historian, Andrew Graham-Dixon, suggests this is a characteristic feature of Watts’s later works which whether consciously or otherwise anticipate Modernism, giving form to “the troubled subjectivity and anxious relativism of a new era.”¹

    1. Andrew Graham Dixon, “GF Watts: is the Victorian visionary back in fashion?” The Telegraph (June 2011)

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