William Powell Frith, A Private Viewing at the Royal Academy, 1881
I recently caused a bit of a ruckus on Facebook when I posted a series of pictures by various 19th century British artists under the title "Forgotten Victorians." All the Anglophiles on my friends list (a whole lot of them it turns out) took great exception to that title. They were indeed familiar with the portraiture of George Richmond and had never forgotten him. They were longtime fans of James (Jacques) Tissot. One even sent me recent auction prices for paintings by Lawrence Alma Tadema and James Tissot. Fair enough. It turns out that there is a burgeoning market for Victoriana, especially for Victorian painters. So these artists are hardly "forgotten." So, I took a cue from Lytton Strachey and decided to change the title of this post.
I would still contend that outside of Anglophile circles and those wealthy few in the market to purchase original art by the stars from that period, most of these artists remain little known. The painting above is by William Powell Frith who in his day was practically a household name in Britain and beyond. Now, I think it is a safe bet that few if any freshman or sophomore art history students from Bronx Community College to Yale have ever heard the name. In their day, almost all of these artists were celebrities.
A number of those Victorian celebrities appear in the painting by Frith above; Lord Frederick Leighton, Prime Minister Gladstone, Ellen Terry, Thomas Huxley, and Anthony Trollope among others. The only face in the painting that we would immediately recognize is that of Oscar Wilde to the right with his guidebook. Ironically, Frith intended this painting to be a criticism of Wilde and the aestheticism he stood for; the lifetime accomplishment of the late Benjamin Disraeli (seen in John Everett Millais' portrait in the archway in the background) contrasts with the alleged superficiality of Wilde and his followers. While the Royal Academicians in Frith's painting scowl at Wilde, it seems to me that in the end, Wilde's was the more lasting mark on history. Glory is fleeting.
Art was a matter of earnest public interest in the 19th century, and not just in Britain. National greatness, public morals, historical inheritance, political legitimacy, and social hierarchy were all at stake in the big public exhibitions of that era whether of the Royal Academy in London, or in the even larger Salon shows staged by the French state in Paris, or Academy exhibitions in Berlin, Madrid, and many other capitals in Europe and North America. Artists were public figures, creatures of the establishment whose paintings and sculptures reflected back upon the ruling oligarchies of Europe the mission of morals, culture, and education to the nation that the rulers (and owners) believed themselves to be historically tasked. The British took this more seriously than most, and Victorian painting has an earnestness to it unlike anything to be seen on the Continent at the time, or even in the USA. The Victorian artists took upon themselves the task of morally and culturally educating Her Majesty's subjects; to make the shopkeeps, clerks, mechanics, sailors, servants, carters, maids, and crafters mindful of the great mission of the Empire to bring the blessings Anglo Saxon culture to them and to the rest of the world.
Frederick Lord Leighton
The most eminent of all the Victorians, his work still widely known, was Frederick Leighton; Sir Frederick Leighton in 1878, Frederick Baron Leighton of Stretton in 1896 for one day before his death from a heart attack, the first artist ever granted a peerage in Britain, and the shortest peerage in history.
And here is the old Victorian lion himself in a proud self portrait in the robes and medals of his office as President of the Royal Academy.
Frederick Lord Leighton, Self Portrait, 1880
The popularity of his work endures because of its rich luscious colors and a strong current of sexuality just beneath the respectable surfaces (and sometimes not even beneath).
Frederick Lord Leighton, Flaming June, 1895
Lord Leighton's most celebrated picture, perhaps the most famous of all Victorian paintings, shows a very English looking ancient Greek girl sleeping in the afternoon heat of the Mediterranean, which we can glimpse in the upper quarter of the picture. An oleander blossom perfumes the warm air and reminds us of the link between sleep and death.
This is a very erudite picture with a lot of judicious use of art historical sources from ancient Greek sculptures of sleeping naiads to the flowing draperies of the Parthenon sculptures to Michelangelo's figures in the Medici Chapel (as Robert Rosenblum points out).
This painting is also full of sex. Taking his cue from Phidias, Leighton's draperies reveal far more than they conceal of the lovely and nubile young woman making herself tantalizingly available to us. The brilliant color, the heat of the day, the scent of the flowers, and a lovely scantily clad girl make for one magnificent wet dream.
One of the the things that I find so remarkable about Victorian painting is how much sex there is in it. It is remarkable that an age that fetishized "innocence" and virginity, where a whole spectrum of public figures from Cardinal Manning to Thomas Huxley regularly exhorted people to lead lives of sobriety and chastity, could produce paintings so full of throbbing breathless sexuality. Rubens would blush at some of these paintings with their spreads of luscious young flesh as splendidly built up from layers of paint as anything produced by the great Antwerp painter himself. As one of my old professors remarked, "the Victorians ... they're so transparent."
On the famous issue of Victorian prudery and hypocrisy in matters of sexuality, I have to agree with the Marxist historians. While cloaked in the language of earnest piety, the real force behind all this repression of private passions was not religion but the demands of the larger rationalized industrial economy. Maybe the pre-industrial craftsman could dawdle and diddle, but the age of the factory, the office, and the global economy needed everyone's full and conscious attention. A rational (and rationalizing) age where everything fits together like clockwork made no place for anything so anarchic as sexuality. It is routine to see Victorian prudery and squeamishness as rooted in the Judaeo-Christian horror of the flesh (especially in its Protestant manifestations). And yet the industrialized societies of the Far East that have only the most minimal contact with Christianity are very deeply prudish. Thomas Huxley, no pious Christian, felt just as strongly about sobriety and self-control as his Anglican antagonist Bishop Wilberforce.
Frederick Lord Leighton, The Painter's Honeymoon, 1864
Frederick Lord Leighton, Daphnephoria, 1874 - 1876
Leighton's painting of the Daphnephoria, an ancient Greek religious rite honoring Apollo, comes out of 19th century archaeological research and scholarship that would culminate in Friedrich Nietzche's The Birth of Tragedy, and in Jane Ellen Harrison's Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion in the English speaking world. There is nothing of Nietzche or Harrison in Leighton's painting. To me, it is one of those pieces of erudition that fails to see the forest for the trees; for all its learning, it ultimately rings false. Victorian costume pieces like this were intended to flatter their audience, and were deeply nationalistic. Very pretty upper class English girls, and even prettier English boys from the rowing team, enact an ancient Greek religious ritual. Leighton and other Victorian artists wanted their upper class English audience to see themselves in these impossibly well-scrubbed ancient Greeks, and to see their country as the direct heir to the greatness of Classical Greek civilization.
One thing Victorian painting and contemporary art have in common is an awful lot of upper class navel gazing. A painting like this appealed to the Best People with the Best Classical educations expensively acquired at Oxford or Cambridge and painfully received at the end of a birch in public schools ( as well as furtively gotten through sneak peeks at the naughty parts of the The Greek Anthology while the headmaster wasn't looking). Such erudition separated the Best from other mere mortals.
Something similar takes place today in so much art over the past 50 years which is full of art historical quotations (now called "samplings," thank you rap music), parodies, and lots of art world in-jokes. The Ivy League MBA visiting the gallery can congratulate himself on his expensively acquired university education and on his "cool," being in on all the sly jokes, that sets him apart from the mere mortals he employs or who owe him money.
Frederick Lord Leighton, The Fisherman and the Syren, c. 1856 - 1858
Leighton's women are hot, but his men are even hotter. This is one of many Victorian paintings of sirens fatally seducing sailors. It was tough being a woman in the 19th century. Art and literature assigned women the role of virgin innocent or femme fatale, and not much else.
Frederick Lord Leighton, Daedalus and Icarus, 1869
Sensuality grasps for erudition to make itself respectable. The story is a pretext to show off a magnificent young man. He is a composite of ancient Greek sculptures by Polykleitos, Lysippos, with some of the sensuality of Praxiteles, together with a college track and field athlete. The luminous painting of his skin is worthy of Rubens.
Frederick Lord Leighton, The Garden of the Hesperides, 1892
Another painting where sensuality grasps at erudition for respectability. The Hesperides are the nymphs assigned to tend the tree of the Golden Apples of immortality. The goddess Hera sent a dragon, Ladon, to guard the tree. Leighton seems to be enjoying that large snake perhaps a bit more than the story warrants.
There is no doubt that Leighton was a superb painter, and this is a first rate example of his abilities. A circular composition is always a challenge. Leighton meets it magnificently with a beautiful balance of masses that is gratifying without being inert. The large diagonal of the tree, the three women sprawled about it, create a beautiful sequence of forms from top to bottom and back and forth across. The warm color tonality also is splendidly incorporated into the composition.
Frederick Lord Leighton, Athlete Wrestling with a Python, 1888 - 1891
There are several editions of this sculpture in bronze and marble. It was hailed by critics in its day as a masterpiece and a revival of sculpture. It is almost impossible for us to see past the blatant homoeroticism of this statue.
Edward Poynter, who knew Lord Leighton since Poynter was 17, was Leighton's successor as President of the Royal Academy. He is most famous for his spectacular costume spectacles set in the ancient world.
Edward Poynter, The Queen of Sheba Before King Solomon, 1890
Early Hollywood movie directors loved Poynter's ancient costume dramas. Here, erudition is subsumed in imagination. English archaeologists such as Austen Henry Layard published the remains and artifacts of ancient Mesopotamia to the European public for the first time. Layard excavated the Assyrian palaces at Nineveh and Nimrud, bringing back sculpted relief panels to the British museum in the 1850s. By the end of the 19th century, the ancient Orient began to supplant the Classical world in the public imagination.
I heard about one scholar from a second hand source who identified the costume of the Queen of Sheba as from ancient India. Perhaps, but the costumes and sets in this painting are such composites of everything ancient Middle Eastern that it seems impossible to assert any certain nationality for these clothes. If the Queen of Sheba is indeed meant to look like an ancient Indian queen, then Solomon's audience chamber begins to look suspiciously British despite the ancient decor; perhaps an ancient version of the House of Lords. If that scholar is right, then this painting may be a kind of imperial allegory.
Edward Poynter, Israel in Egypt, 1867
This is probably Poynter's most celebrated ancient costume drama showing enslaved Hebrews laboring on colossal Egyptian monuments. Despite the glaring inaccuracies of this painting, a lot of research went into it, but not much further than the collections and library of the British Museum. The colossal stone lion in the painting is based on an actual Egyptian red granite lion in the British Museum that is much smaller. The Egyptian procession, and even the hauling of the colossus, are based on Egyptian tomb and temple paintings. Poynter added the whip-cracker because the Egyptian prototypes show soldiers, not slaves, moving colossal stone statues.
Ancient costume pieces like these were meant to be deeply patriotic. Poynter wanted his British audience to see themselves not in the imperial Egyptians, but in the captive Hebrews whose sufferings are front and center in this painting; a chosen people tasked by God with proclaiming Him to the ends of the earth. I think we would have to look way back in history to find any kind of similar suffering for the people of the British Isles. This painting certainly did not reflect any recent historical experience. The 19th century British had more experience doling out the suffering to captive peoples than experiencing it themselves.
A very late work by Poynter that is particularly luscious example of sensuality grabbing Classical studies for a small transparent figleaf.
Lawrence Alma Tadema
Probably the most successful of the Victorian ancient costume painters was the Dutch artist Laurens (later Lawrence, and later still Sir Lawrence) Alma Tadema. His brightly colored luscious paintings of English girls and boys in the ancient Mediterranean sun remain widely popular and have enjoyed a renewed respectability among critics over the last 50 years after being consigned to the critical doghouse and obscurity shortly after his death.
Alma Tadema migrated to Britain during the Franco-Prussian War, partly to put some distance between himself and the fighting, but mostly to take advantage of the opportunities for him in London where his work was already popular.
Lawrence Alma Tadema, Unconscious Rivals, 1893
Leighton was still very much a classical painter rooted in classical formal traditions for all that very modern sexuality trying so hard to break out in his work. Leighton composes his pictures from a dominant figure group outward. As in the best classical tradition, the human figure is the center and the measure of the composition. Meaning (such as it is in Leighton's work, or in any Victorian classicist) is revealed through human action.
Alma Tadema takes a contrary approach placing figures in a setting that doesn't require them for form and measure. There isn't much meaning to be revealed, and there is rarely much action. Alma Tadema's paintings are less history paintings in the old classical sense than they are historical genre pieces; a day in the lives of the ruling classes of ancient Greece and Rome. It is commonplace to describe the figures in Alma Tadema's work as languorous. But we can see that same listlessness in so many Victoria painters from the last part of the 19th century, in the work of Tissot, and even in Leighton's work (see Flaming June). I'm not sure what that languorousness is about, and seems to me surprising from so hard-working a century and from a culture still so deeply Calvinist, that felt only contempt for any kind of idleness.
Lawrence Alma Tadema, Expectations, 1885
Another superbly composed and painted picture; Alma Tadema was celebrated in his day for his ability to paint textures and substances, especially marble.
Lawrence Alma Tadema, A Reading from Homer, 1885
Once again, Alma Tadema like Leighton and Poynter encourages his British audience to see themselves in his paintings of the ancients, as heirs of Classical civilization.
Lawrence Alma Tadema, Phidias Shows the Parthenon Frieze to His Friends, 1868
Nowhere does Alma Tadema so blatantly flatter his audience than in this painting. We are supposed to believe that some of Athens' Best People climbed up to the top of a 60 feet high scaffold at the invitation of Phidias to view the newly completed frieze of the Parthenon. In this painting, the Frieze is exactly the same eye-level as it remains in the British Museum to this day. Thoughtful viewers could see themselves looking at the same sculptures in this painting. The Best People viewed the Frieze in place at the Parthenon in the same way that the Best People now look at it in the British Museum.
Probably the most popular and commercially successful of the Victorian painters in his lifetime, Landseer specialized in painting animals intended to reflect their Victorian audience.
Edwin Landseer, The Monarch of the Glen, 1851
Together with Leighton's Flaming June, this is the most famous of Victorian paintings. Never was the domineering self-image of the priviledged Victorian male so perfectly expressed. The Victorian world, like so much of the 19th century, was a man's world, especially men who had the means to appreciate a magnificent stag in the wilds of a glen. The Lord of His Castle could see himself in this noble animal, having defeated all rivals, proudly surveys his dominions.
Edwin Landseer, The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner, 1837
Few peoples on earth love dogs like the English, and Landseer capitalized on that affection with downright mawkish paintings like this. So popular were his paintings of dogs that a breed of dog was named for him, the Landseer Newfoundland.
Edwin Landseer, Man Proposes, God Disposes, 1864
Nature was not always so warm and cuddly in Landseer's work. In this painting, starved polar bears tear at the remains of dead men in a shipwreck lost in the Arctic ice. This painting almost certainly refers to an Arctic expedition in 1845 that ended in catastrophe. The explorer John Franklin took two ships into the Arctic to look for the Northwest Passage and never returned. An expedition sent to find out what happened to them discovered wreckage and remains indicating that all had perished, and more disturbingly, that they resorted to cannibalism in their last days. The fate of the expedition shocked the public, and the evidence of cannibalism horrified and scandalized them (Charles Dickens argued that the cannibalism couldn't have happened on grounds of "moral improbability). Landseer's title, which suggests a pious resignation, was probably meant ironically. He had a famous distaste for conventional religious pieties. I suspect that the real spirit behind this picture is that 19th century tendency to see nature as a fight to the death, and to project that struggle into the human sphere in statements like Herbert Spencer's famous "survival of the fittest."
Burne-Jones is often called the last of the Pre-Raphaelites, but his work comes less out of the original principles of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood than out of the reverie and fantasy of Dante Gabriel Rosetti's later work. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is too big a topic for this post. I mostly want to concentrate on the Establishment artists here, the Royal Academicians and the Salon stars. Some of the original Pre-Raphaelites traveled the well worn path of so many British artists and intellectuals, from angry rebels to pillars of the Establishment (with William Blake among the very few significant exceptions). In doing so, they deeply influenced the direction of Victorian painting, and were in turn influenced.
Edward Burne Jones, Laus Veneris, 1868
All that survives of the original Pre-Raphaelite style in Burne-Jones' work is the archaism rooted in the paintings of Botticelli and in late medieval French art. The odd Victorian languor settles over his work just as much as it does the work of Alma Tadema or Leighton. Instead of Alma Tadema's rosy cheeked English girls in classical dress, Burne-Jones paints pallid listless girls who perhaps should lay off the laudanum.
Edward Burne Jones, The Doom Fulfilled, 1885
Edward Burne-Jones, The Tree of Forgiveness, 1881- 1882
This striking painting comes from an obscure passage in an obscure work by Ovid, the story of Demaphoön and Phyllis. A young prince of Attica and son of Theseus promises to marry Phyllis after he returns from settling his affairs in Athens. He is gone so long that she despairs of ever seeing him again, so she kills herself. The gods take pity upon her and change her into an almond tree. Demaphoön returns finding her transformed and embraces the almond tree. She returns to form and embraces and forgives him.
Again, classical erudition casts a thin veil of respectability (just barely, the critics of the time were not fooled) upon a painting full of sex. Burne-Jones' kids may be pallid opium eaters, but clearly here they've both been working out. The painting of their flesh is not luminous like that of Leighton's sexy boys and girls, but in its smooth gradations of tone it is every bit as sensual. Burne-Jones puts that very modern sexiness in a very archaic setting that seems to make them look like they are emerging out of a very Art Nouveau (avant la lettre) tapestry.
Edward Burne-Jones, The Angels of the Creation, 1895
I've always been fond of the Angels of the Creation, but they are very far in form and spirit from from controversial Pre-Raphaelite religious classics like John Everett Millais' The Carpenter's Shop.
Burne-Jones designed a lot of decorative work for churches in Britain and in the USA. He designed windows, mosaics, and tapestries. Among his most beautiful mosaic cycles is this one for the apse of Saint Paul's Within the Walls, the Episcopal church in Rome.
John William Waterhouse
Waterhouse was a late comer to the Pre-Raphaelite style, though not the Brotherhood which broke up years prior to his public debut. He created a composite of Pre-Raphaelite imagery with the painterly realism of the Royal Academy; two schools of painting which had once anathematized each other.
John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott, 1888
This is probably the most famous and most popular depiction of Tennyson's poem. The pallid Pre-Raphaelite girl with red hair drifts to her doom with the tapestry she wove in captivity draped over the side of the boat.
John William Waterhouse, Hylas and the Water Nymphs, 1896
Hylas is about to be abducted by very English looking water nymphs in a lilly pond. The very literate Victorian audience for this picture would not only be familiar with the ancient sources for this story, but with Edmund Spenser's retelling of the story in the Faerie Queene.
William Holman Hunt
All of that lavish torrid sexuality in Victorian painting came with a large helping of moralizing remorse. William Holman Hunt painted one of the most famous pictures of sexual remorse of the Victorian era, The Awakening Conscience. Morality in Victorian Britain, just as in much of modern America, was personal morality. Social consciences were consigned to the opposition ranks. Some of the Pre-Raphaelites forgot their origins in social morality as they climbed the ranks of social respectability and commercial success.
William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, 1853
As in so much Victorian painting, Holman Hunt's The Awakening Conscience is crammed full of anecdotal details inspired by Flemish painting, especially by Jan Van Eyck whose Arnolfini Betrothal entered the National Gallery collection in 1842. We see this woman, a kept mistress, at the sudden moment of dawning conscientiousness. We see her again in the painting reflected from behind in the large mirror in back looking out at a bright sunny spring day. The clock on the piano says that the time is about 11AM, shortly before high noon. Everything in the room tells us about her gilded captivity. The arm of her lover across her waist is repeated in the forms of his chair. A cat under the table toys with a captive bird. The clock on the piano is under glass. The whole room is narrow and cramped. She wears her hair down and loose, the traditional sign of a woman of fallen reputation. At the very last moment, she refrains from taking her lover's hand and sees the possibility of freedom and redemption in the sunlit world out the window.
Victorian morality is very selective. The moral life of the woman is always the focus of these paintings. It's always a choice for her between fidelity and promiscuity. The man's role in all these family break-ups (the husband and the seducer) is usually ignored. We almost never see paintings of remorseful husbands with their mistresses, or of a roue who suddenly feels ashamed. In an age where men had legal title over their wives and children, men, especially priviledged men of means, were as free as Edwin Landseer's stag to rut (unless they were rutting for other men). The indiscretions of the Prince of Wales were famous. Indiscretions by women, noble and otherwise, could only be notorious.
Holman-Hunt painted another one of the most famous paintings of the Victorian era as a pendant to The Awakening Conscience, Christ the Light of the World.
William Holman Hunt, The Light of the World, 1853
In this celebrated painting illustrating Revelations 3:20, Christ knocks on the weed-choked door of a house (intended to stand for the soul) that clearly has not been opened in a long time. Christ appears in the middle of the night with his lamp, visiting us each in the middle of our long dark nights of the soul, and offering us light and redemption. This remains a widely popular painting in the English speaking world. The painting was so celebrated in its day that Holman-Hunt painted a much larger version for Saint Paul's Cathedral in London. Arthur Sullivan wrote an oratorio based on the painting.
Holman-Hunt's moralizing is downright kind compared to the sermon preached by Augustus Egg.
Holman-Hunt's work may be full of remorse, but Augustus Egg gives us a brutal sermon about the cruel consequences of crossing the lines of Victorian sexual morality, especially for women in a trilogy of paintings known as Past and Present.
Augustus Egg, Past and Present 1, 1858
The first of the three painting set, and probably intended to hang between the other two as the center of a triptych.
The husband clutches a letter, evidence of his wife's adultery while crushing a picture of her lover on the floor. The wife lies prostrate on the floor begging for mercy. Egg paints her gold bracelets to look like shackles. Reflected in the mirror is the open door waiting for the wife's exit. The daughters playing a game of house of cards turn with a start knocking down the cards. As in all Victorian moral melodramas, this painting is filled with telling details. The fallen house of cards alludes to the end of the household. An apple lies cut in half on the table with one half lying on the floor. The painting on the wall to the left shows the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden. The one on the right shows a shipwreck.
Augustus Egg, Past and Present 2, 1858
The following two paintings take place at exactly the same time as indicated by identical views of the moon in each picture. The husband has just died, and in this painting, the two daughters living in impoverished circumstances, grieve.
Augustus Egg, Past and Present 3, 1858
In the final painting, set on the same night as the previous second panel, the discarded wife lies under an arch by the Thames amid discarded refuse. She holds in her arms a bundled up child. We see only the child's feet; presumably the child is the offspring of the affair. She gazes longingly not at the moon, but at the tiny dim light in the shattered lamp at the top of the arch, perhaps hinting at some diminishing hope for redemption.
George Richmond began as a close friend of the elderly William Blake and was present at Blake's death. In his younger years, he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his beloved mentor as a mystic revolutionary outsider. Marriage, children, and financial misfortune changed that ambition into the successful pursuit of society portraiture. Richmond would paint some of the most famous people of his day and form a close friendship with Prime Minister William Gladstone.
George Richmond, Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, 1868
Richmond painted a magnificent portrait of Gladstone in what I think are academic robes. I used to have a reproduction of it in a book I no longer own, and I haven't been able to find it online.
Splendid as Richmond's portraits in oil are, he is best remembered for his watercolors and drawings.
George Richmond, Charles Darwin, late 1830s watercolor
Here is Richmond's watercolor of Bishop Wilberforce's bete noir, the young Charles Darwin.
George Richmond, Charlotte Bronte, three color chalk drawing, 1850
James Tissot was a French artist, born Jacques Tissot, who moved to London in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune uprising. It is assumed that he came to London for political reasons (though what they are remains unclear; Tissot fought for the defense of Paris during the Commune uprising, but remained a devout Catholic all his life). More likely he came for the same reason as Alma-Tadema, to get away from the fighting and crises and to pursue a potentially lucrative market for his work.
Tissot maintained friendly relations with the pioneering moderns in France. He admired the work of Manet. He was close friends with Whistler and Degas (who failed to persuade Tissot to exhibit work in the first Impressionist show in 1874).
Tissot was famous in his day, not only for his painting, but for his scandalous love life. In the 1870s, he lived openly with his mistress, a beautiful Irish girl named Kathleen Newton who already had a child born out of another previous affair. She appears in many of his paintings from this time. Tissot apparently was devoted to her, refusing admonitions to discard her. Kathleen contracted tuberculosis, and committed suicide in 1882 rather than die gradually from the disease. Tissot was devastated and returned to France. Like many people of the time, he became interested in Spiritualism and tried to contact Kathleen in seances. Toward the end of his life, Tissot became ever more devoutly religious traveling to Palestine, and ended his days making religious watercolors.
The High Society of late Victorian Britain never looked so glamourous as they did in Tissot's paintings (well, except maybe in John Singer Sargent's portraits).
That late Victorian languor pervades much of Tissot's work; it's so hard to explain or understand for so hard-working a century where authors wrote (and the public read) thousand page novels.
James Tissot, Hush! (The Concert), 1875
James Tissot, The Ball on Shipboard, c.1874
James Tissot, Holyday, c.1876
James Tissot, Spring, c.1878
James Tissot, The Thames, 1876
William Powell Frith
An earlier Victorian painter, William Powell Frith, made his name painting huge panoramas of not-quite-so-high society. Frith was good friends with Charles Dickens, and there is something of that reforming spirit embedded in the anecdotal detail of his work.
William Powell Frith, Derby Day, 1856 - 1858
Frith's most famous panorama is this painting of what was once the premier sporting even in England, the Derby horse race on Epsom Downs. Frith paints the crowd on the edge of the race, a coming together of all classes, and not always happily. On the left, a group of wealthy and respectable gentlemen from a tent with a sign that says "Reformer's Club" get fleeced by a grifter setting up a shell game. In the center, a father son acrobat team perform for the Carriage Set which brought their lunches. The boy acrobat is distracted by the lavish spread of lobster and champagne behind him. Other beggars and pickpockets work this affluent crowd.
There is definitely something of Dickens in the storytelling, but perhaps not his sympathy. Frith shared the 19th century belief that class was destiny, that the various classes of society were not just socially, but physically different. Like many in the 19th century, he believed that those differences were revealed in their physiognomy. Frith spent much time preparing for this painting by studying physical "types" from various classes.
William Powell Frith, The Railway Station, 1862
This is one of the very few Victorian paintings to show specifically modern subject matter, a railway station, probably Paddington Station in London. Over a decade later, Claude Monet would paint a series of paintings of the newly completed Gare Saint Lazare station in Paris. Monet was interested in the light and steam of something that at the time was still very new, rail travel. Frith fills his painting with about a hundred people who form the primary subject of the painting. They are his usual mixes of class, all saying farewells, arguing with conductors and porters, hurrying to catch the train, and one man on the far right apparently being arrested; an overwhelming pile of anecdote. Frith was so preoccupied with the little human dramas that he hired an architectural draftsman, William Scott Morton, to paint the station itself.
Both of these large panoramas form centerless almost democratic compositions that recall similar compositions by Courbet for his large paintings over a dozen years earlier.
Despite all the brilliant painterly skill and earnest high-mindedness of Victorian painting, so much of this work rings hollow to me. In the end, Oscar Wilde, pilloried in Frith's painting at the top of this post, had a point. The Victorians didn't trust art much. Art simply couldn't be allowed to be itself, to be beautiful, compelling, or even just visual. It couldn't be mysterious, paradoxical, and certainly not ambiguous (never mind that life is all of those things). It had to have some didactic moralizing or scholarly point in order to be justified. Meanings had to be clear and unequivocal or risk moral turpitude. That's the problem with all the erudite gravy poured over so many passionately sexual paintings. On the Continent, Edouard Manet would rip away that thin transparent veil of respectability and show the sexuality of 19th century Salon painting for what it was, sex, even commercialized sex.
Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1865
Manet replaces all the Venuses, Apollos, nymphs, and swains out of the pages of the Classical authors with a whore on a bed (Manet's ready-for-anything model Victorine Meurent plays the role here). Those two dominant forces of the modern world that respectable Victorians chose to ignore, sex and commercialism, combine here blatantly and unapologetically. Manet replaces the subtle luminosity and nuanced chiaroscuro of artists like Lord Leighton and Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema with the harsh frontal light of high noon. The inviting smile of Venus becomes the blank actuarial stare of Manet's whore.
In the end, all the moralizing, erudition, and high culture comes off as an evasion. As Charles Baudelaire would point out, the modern world of slums, factories, railroads, crowded smokey cities, brothels, bars, cabarets, and banks was filled with as much drama and poetry as found in the pages of Classical literature and the Bible, if only people would put down their copies of Theocritus and their perfumed hankies and look at it.
In 1872, the French illustrator and printmaker Gustave Dore made images of the real London from which respectable society averted its gaze in silent horror. Upon reflection, it's not hard to see why modern art happened.
Prints from Dore's London, A Pilgrimage, 1872:
Over London by Rail
While Dore's prints of London were a great commercial success, the British critics were not amused.
Should we feel bad for enjoying Victorian art? Certainly not. In terms of technique and imagination, these artists were first rate. From our perspective there is the added fascination of seeing so much strong passion and deep longing struggling to find a way out of the hard carapace of Victorian respectability. We can enjoy Leighton's richly painted and sexy classical stories, or the beautiful languid dreams of Alma Tadema or Burne-Jones or Tissot for what they are. But we must keep in mind the limitations of this work. Perhaps the best way to remember their limitations is not to compare them with other artists from the time like the Impressionists or the Realists, but with literature from that same time and place. Novelists of the Victorian era from Dickens to Thackery to Trollope to Henry James to Joseph Conrad revealed in their writings the savagery that lay just beneath the thin brittle crust of Victorian social convention. We see nothing in any of these paintings of "the merry dance of death and trade" in the words of Joseph Conrad.
For much of the 20th century, these artists represented the old order overthrown by modern art. They were the visual manifestation of that opulent and anxiously confident culture that committed suicide in the First World War, and laid the foundation for so many of the catastrophes of the 20th century. Their works collected dust in museum basements or were de-accessioned from public collections for decades. In the early 21st century, we no longer feel threatened by these paintings. In hindsight, for all their evasions, it was never fair to draw any lines from Leighton, Tissot, and Alma Tadema to Hitler and Albert Speer. And are we really in much of a position to feel superior? The USA long ago replaced Britain as the pre-eminent imperial power in the world. We too have our culture of evasion and hypocrisy, only enhanced by the internet and social media. Our age is just as dominated by "the merry dance of death and trade" as Conrad's. Our contemporary art can be just as academy bound and establishment pandering as Victorian art. Our painters can engage in skillfully painted upper class navel gazing as any of the Victorians (from James Tissot to John Currin). Only ours is not nearly so much fun or so well done. Our art is also filled with sex only without the legitimizing cultural pretexts. But our attitude toward "the body" and sex would warm the hearts of moralizers like Augustus Egg; in contemporary art, the flesh is always victim and/or victimizer. For the past 25 years or so, politics dominates art; and yet, so much of that political art borrows from 1970s conceptual art, probably the least communicative and most arcane art form ever created. For all their passion, so many artists these days create political art with all the punch of a seminar in semiotics. Small wonder that we prefer looking at the imperial chest beating of the Victorians. Their imperial cause may offend us, but their paintings still beguile us.