Victorian art  

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Image:Richard Dadd - Come unto These Yellow Sands.jpg
Come unto These Yellow Sands (1842) by Richard Dadd. Images of nude and semi-nude fairies dancing in rings became popular during the Victorian era.

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
19th century art, Victorian era

Victorian art is British art from the 19th century, known as the Victorian era.


The late 18th century and the early 19th century was perhaps the most radical period in British art, producing William Blake (1757–1827), John Constable (1776–1837) and Joseph Turner (1775–1851), the later two being arguably the most internationally influential of all British artists. Turner was noted for his wild, almost abstract, landscapes that explored the effects of light and was a profound influence on the later impressionists. Constable too, was a landscape painter who was also to have an influence on the impressionists, but is more accessible than

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) achieved considerable influence after its foundation in 1848 with paintings that concentrated on religious, literary, and genre subjects executed in a colorful and minutely detailed style. PRB artists included John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and subsequently Edward Burne-Jones. Also associated was designer William Morris, who advocated a return to hand-craftsmanship in the decorative arts over industrial manufacture. His efforts to make beautiful objects affordable (or even free) for everyone led to his wallpaper and tile designs defining the Victorian aesthetic and instigating the Arts and Crafts movement.

Alfred Sisley, who was French by birth but had British nationality, painted in France as one of the Impressionists. Walter Sickert and the Camden Town Group developed an English style of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism with a strong strand of social documentary.

The emergence of photography, which was showcased at the Great Exhibition, resulted in significant changes in Victorian art. John Everett Millais was influenced by photography (notably in his portrait of Ruskin) as were other Pre-Raphaelite artists. It later became associated with the Impressionistic and Social Realist techniques that would dominate the later years of the period in the work of artists such as Walter Sickert and Frank Holl.


The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) achieved considerable influence after its foundation in 1848 with paintings that concentrated on religious, literary, and genre subjects executed in a colourful and minutely detailed style, rejecting the loose painterly brushwork of the tradition represented by "Sir Sploshua" Reynolds. PRB artists included John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Ford Madox Brown (never officially a member), and figures such as Edward Burne-Jones and John William Waterhouse were later much influenced by aspects of their ideas, as was the designer William Morris. Morris advocated a return to hand-craftsmanship in the decorative arts over the industrial manufacture that was rapidly being applied to all crafts. His efforts to make beautiful objects affordable (or even free) for everyone led to his wallpaper and tile designs defining the Victorian aesthetic and instigating the Arts and Crafts movement. The PRB, like Turner, was supported by the magisterial art critic John Ruskin, himself a very fine amateur artist. For all their technical innovation, the PRB were both traditional and Victorian in their adherence to the history painting as the highest form of art, and their subject matter was thoroughly in tune with Victorian taste, and indeed "everything that the publishers of steel engravings welcomed", enabling them to merge easily into the mainstream in their later careers.

While the Pre-Raphaelites had a turbulent and divided reception, the most popular and expensive painters of the period included Edwin Landseer, who specialized in sentimental animal subjects, which were favourites of Victoria and Albert. In the later part of the century artists could earn large sums from selling the reproduction rights of their paintings to print publishers, and works of Landseer, especially his Monarch of the Glen (1851), a portrait of a Highland stag, were among the most popular. Like Millais' Bubbles (painting) (1886) it was used on packaging and advertisements for decades, for brands of whisky and soap respectively. During the late Victorian era in Britain the academic paintings, some enormously large, of Lord Leighton and the Dutch-born Lawrence Alma-Tadema were enormously popular, both often featuring lightly-clad beauties in exotic or classical settings, while the allegorical works of G.F. Watts matched the Victorian sense of high purpose. The classical ladies of Edward Poynter and Albert Moore wore more clothes and met with rather less success. William Powell Frith painted highly detailed scenes of social life, typically including all classes of society, that include comic and moral elements and have an acknowledged debt to Hogarth, though tellingly different to his work.

For all such artists the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition was an essential platform, reviewed at huge length in the press, which often alternated ridicule and extravagant praise in discussing works. The ultimate, and very rare, accolade was when a rail had to be put in front of a painting to protect it from the eager crowd; up to 1874 this had only happened to Wilkie's Chelsea Pensioners, Frith's Derby Day and Salon d'Or and Luke Filde's The Casuals (see below). A great number of artists laboured year after year in the hope of a hit there, often working in manners to which their talent was not really suited, a trope exemplified by the suicide in 1846 of Benjamin Haydon, a friend of Keats and Dickens and a better writer than painter, leaving his blood splashed over his unfinished King Alfred and the First British Jury.

British history was a very common subject, with the Middle Ages, Elizabeth I, Mary, Queen of Scots and the English Civil War especially popular sources for subjects. Many painters mentioned elsewhere painted historical subjects, including Millais (The Boyhood of Raleigh and many others), Ford Madox Brown (Cromwell on his Farm), David Wilkie, Watts and Frith, and West, Bonington and Turner in earlier decades. The London-based Irishman Daniel Maclise and Charles West Cope painted scenes for the new Palace of Westminster. Lady Jane Grey was, like Mary Queen of Scots, a female whose sufferings attracted many painters, though none quite matched The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, one of many British historical subjects by the Frenchman Paul Delaroche. Painters prided themselves on the increasing accuracy of their period settings in terms of costume and objects, studying the collections of the new Victoria and Albert Museum and books, and scorning the breezy approximations of earlier generations of artists.

Victorian painting developed the Hogarthian social subject, packed with moralizing detail, and the tradition of illustrating scenes from literature, into a range of types of genre painting, many with only a few figures, others large and crowded scenes like Frith's best-known works. Holman Hunt's The Awakening Conscience (1853) and Augustus Egg's set of Past and Present (1858) are of the first type, both dealing with "fallen women", a perennial Victorian concern. As Peter Conrad points out, these were paintings designed to be read like novels, whose meaning emerged after the viewer had done the work of deciphering it. Other "anecdotal" scenes were lighter in mood, tending towards being captionless Punch cartoons. Towards the end of the century the problem picture left the details of the narrative action deliberately ambiguous, inviting the viewer to speculate on it using the evidence in front of them, but not supplying a final answer (artists learned to smile enigmatically when asked). This sometimes provoked discussion on sensitive social issues, typically involving women, that might have been hard to raise directly. They were enormously popular; newspapers ran competitions for readers to supply the meaning of the painting.

British Orientalism, though not as common as in France at the same period, had many specialists, including John Frederick Lewis, who lived for nine years in Cairo, David Roberts, a Scot who made lithographs of his travels in the Middle East and Italy, the nonsense writer Edward Lear, a continual traveller who reached as far as Ceylon, and Richard Dadd. Holman Hunt also travelled to Palestine to obtain authentic settings for his Biblical pictures. The Frenchman James Tissot, who fled to London after the fall of the Paris Commune, divided his time between scenes of high society social events and a huge series of Biblical illustrations, made in watercolour for reproductive publication. Frederick Goodall specialized in scenes of Ancient Egypt.

Larger paintings concerned with the social conditions of the poor tended to concentrate on rural scenes, so that the misery of the human figures was at least offset by a landscape. Painters of these included Frederick Walker, Luke Fildes (although he made his name in 1874 with Applicants for Admission to the Casual Ward at Saint Martin in the Fields- see above), Frank Holl, George Clausen, and the German Hubert von Herkomer. William Bell Scott, a friend of the Rosettis, painted historical scenes and other types of work, but was also one of the few artists to depict scenes from heavy industry. His memoirs are a useful source for the period, and he was one of several artists to be employed for a period in the greatly expanded system of government art schools, which were driven by the administrator Henry Cole (the inventor of the Christmas card) and employed Richard Redgrave, Edward Poynter, Richard Burchett, the Scottish designer Christopher Dresser and many others. Burchett was headmaster of the "South Kensington Schools", now the Royal College of Art, which gradually replaced the Royal Academy School as the leading British art school, though around the turn of the century the Slade School of Fine Art produced many of the forward-looking artists.

The Royal Academy was initially by no means as conservative and restrictive as the Paris Salon, and the Pre-Raphaelites had most of their submissions for exhibition accepted, although like everyone else they complained about the positions their paintings were given. They were especially welcomed at the Liverpool Academy of Arts, one of the largest regional exhibiting organizations; the Royal Scottish Academy was founded in 1826 and opened its grand new building in the 1850s. There were alternative London locations like the British Institution, and as the conservatism of the Royal Academy gradually increased, despite the efforts of Lord Leighton when President, new spaces opened, notably the Grosvenor Gallery in Bond Street, from 1877, which became the home of the Aesthetic Movement, and the New English Art Club, which from 1885 exhibited many artists with Impressionist tendencies, initially using the Egyptian Hall, opposite the Royal Academy, which also hosted many exhibitions of foreign art. The American portrait painter John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), spent most of his working career in Europe and he maintained his studio in London (where he died) from 1886 to 1907.

Alfred Sisley, who was French by birth but had British nationality, painted in France as one of the Impressionists; Walter Sickert and Philip Wilson Steer at the start of their careers were also strongly influenced, but despite the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel bringing many exhibitions to London, the movement made little impact in England until decades later. Some members of the Newlyn School of landscapes and genre scenes adopted a quasi-Impressionist technique while others used realist or more traditional levels of finish. The late 19th century also saw the Decadent movement in France and the British Aesthetic movement. The British based American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Aubrey Beardsley, and the former Pre-Raphaelites Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Edward Burne-Jones are associated with those movements, with late Burne-Jones and Beardsley both being admired abroad and representing the nearest British approach to European Symbolism. In 1877 James McNeill Whistler, sued the art critic John Ruskin for libel after the critic condemned his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. Ruskin accused Whistler of "ask[ing] two hundred guineas for throwing a pot of paint in the public's face." The cost of the case, together with huge debts from building his residence ("The White House" in Tite Street, Chelsea, designed with E. W. Godwin, 1877–8), bankrupted Whistler by May 1879, resulting in an auction of his work, collections, and house. Stansky notes the irony that the Fine Art Society of London, which had organized a collection to pay for Ruskin's legal costs, supported him in etching "the stones of Venice" (and in exhibiting the series in 1883) which helped recoup Whistler's costs.

Scottish art was now regaining an adequate home market, allowing it to develop a distinctive character, of which the "Glasgow Boys" were one expression, straddling Impressionism in painting, and Art Nouveau, Japonism and the Celtic Revival in design, with the architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh now their best-known member. Painters included Thomas Millie Dow, George Henry, Joseph Crawhall and James Guthrie.

New printing technology brought a great expansion in book illustration with illustrations for children's books providing much of the best remembered work of the period. Specialized artists included Randolph Caldecott, Walter Crane, Kate Greenaway and, from 1902, Beatrix Potter.

The experience of military, political and economic power from the rise of the British Empire, led to a very specific drive in artistic technique, taste and sensibility in the United Kingdom. British people used their art "to illustrate their knowledge and command of the natural world", whilst the permanent settlers in British North America, Australasia, and South Africa "embarked upon a search for distinctive artistic expression appropriate to their sense of national identity". The empire has been "at the centre, rather than in the margins, of the history of British art".

The enormous variety and massive production of the various forms of British decorative art during the period are too complex to be easily summarized. Victorian taste, until the various movements of the last decades, such as Arts and Crafts, is generally poorly regarded today, but much fine work was produced, and much money made. Both William Burges and Augustus Pugin were architects committed to the Gothic Revival, who expanded into designing furniture, metalwork, tiles and objects in other media. There was an enormous boom in re-Gothicising the fittings of medieval churches, and fitting out new ones in the style, especially with stained glass, an industry revived from effective extinction. The revival of furniture painted with images was a particular feature at the top end of the market. From its opening in 1875 the London department store Liberty & Co. was especially associated with imported Far Eastern decorative items and British goods in the new styles of the end of the century. Charles Voysey was an architect who also did much design work in textiles, wallpaper furniture and other media, bringing the Arts and Crafts movement into Art Nouveau and beyond; he continued to design into the 1920s. A. H. Mackmurdo was a similar figure.

See also

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