"A Victorian Salon: Paintings from the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth, England," Jan. 19-Apr. 17, 1999, at the Dahesh Museum, 601 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y.10017.
Since its inception the Dahesh Museum has provided a surprisingly spry alternative to the grand old museums of New York. Wedged into the second floor of a small building between Saks Fifth Avenue and Benneton on Fifth Avenue, the museum is devoted to 19th-century academic art -- a once- popular field that deserves more attention from a broader public.
And what better exemplar of the Dahesh mission than "A Victorian Salon: Paintings from the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth, England," a selection of over 40 Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian paintings in addition to letters and artists' palettes?
The installation replicates the décor of the Russell-Cotes' extraordinary East Cliff Hall (ca.1907) that houses the collection in England. Also on view are photos of the East Cliff Hall's cramped Victorian interior. With its period colors and decorative stencils, the exhibition design recalls a late 19th-century salon.
One highlight of the show is Albert Moore's Midsummer (1887), a five-foot-square painting of three women in bright orange classical drapery with nearly transparent chemises. Two attendants holding green fans face their idle mistress, whose lounging body sinks into her throne like a Sistine Chapel Sybil on heavy medication. Her eyes are gently closed as her right hand absently grazes her shoulder. The background is starkly black, inflected by a potted plant on the right and on the left a vase resting on a mother-of-pearl vessel.
It's a late work and features all the usual devices of Moore's art: expressionless beauties posed at once naturally and consciously in emulation of classical precedents; surroundings and accouterments like fans, furniture and objects d'art that to the Victorians signaled reverie rather than allegory; a symmetrical composition with a limited range of colors.
Moore's paintings brazenly declare themselves as atemporal and subjectless. Critics described them as merely decorative, rather than as illustrations of classical history. Algernon Swinburne described Moore's pictures in 1868 as "the faultless and secure expression of an exclusive worship of things formally beautiful. That contents them; they leave to others the labors and the joys of thought or passion."
Another star of the show is Venus Verticordia (1864-68) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in the 1840s.The painting shows Venus gazing out at the viewer, holding in her hands an arrow of love and an apple of temptation, a reference to Homer's epic tale of the fall of Troy. Butterflies drift in and around the shimmering gold halo that crowns her long red hair. The painting's rich jewel-like tones and the model's full lips and exposed breast recall the Venetian tradition of Titian, but the remarkably observed depiction of honeysuckles and roses relates to the Pre-Raphaelite concern for truth in the observed world.
The picture's complicated symbolism, strange sensuality and the unsettling directness and contemporaneity of the model, who has the features of one of Rossetti's lovers, all add up to an elaborate layering of pictorial devices.
The show's only work by Frederic Lord Leighton -- another major player in the Victorian circuit -- is a fabulously compact sketch for the artist's dramatic Perseus and Andromeda, presently at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. With a remarkable economy of brushstrokes the artist conveys Andromeda's terror before the darkened sea-monster, while Perseus on his winged-steed Pegasus rides to the rescue above. Backlit dramatically by the sun, he's Superman in gold and umber.
Leighton has emerged as a key figure in the second half of the 19th century -- he was the subject of an exceptionally beautiful exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in 1996 and was recently covered in a substantial compilation of critical essays published by Yale University Press. But, despite being president of the Royal Academy, he does not represent the mainstream of Victorian art production. Instead, he is at the forefront of esthetic experimentation and thematic ambiguity, and his mastery of continental traditions removes him from the more limited orbit of British art.
Another arresting image in the show is John Wilson Carmichael's small 1861 oil showing a view of the beach at Bournemouth from the sea. The shore line is slightly tilted to convey the unsteadiness of the surface below our feet. This painting is a record of an expanding city -- a pier is being constructed and the railway is on the horizon, while the bathers and strollers on the beach are caught as if in a small-town snapshot. This is not Boudin or Monet in Le Havre or Trouville painting the bourgeoisie and their surf-side amusements, nor Turner or Constable on the south coast responding to weather and tide. Carmichael anticipates Manet with his reflection of things to come for a modern middle class.
Other works display the Victorian interests in the Middle East and North Africa, the continuing taste for Biblical subjects, academic nudes and domestic landscapes.
The exhibition inspired a review in the New York Times by Grace Glueck that has roiled students and admirers of 19th-century Victoriana. She called the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery a "stronghold of conservative painting [that] gives the word kitsch a new dimension" and said the show "is generally awash in the high-camp flummery of a 19th-century Royal Academy exhibition." According to Glueck, the artists deserve their obscurity -- they pandered to the wishes of their patrons with "sappy" and "coyly erotic" works that are compositionally challenged or represent the "peak of pre-Raphaelite insipidity." The few works that have redeeming esthetic values are either minor watercolors of interiors or images by artists who were not Royal Academicians.
Glueck concludes by remarking that even the Metropolitan "shows these chestnuts, albeit in a larger context." In fact, the Met has shown its Victorian art only once since remodeling its 19th-century galleries six years ago (and then for only three months), and has not purchased a British picture in nearly a century.
Undoubtedly, Victorian art is not kitsch -- the flotsam and jetsam derived from high culture, degraded and rendered accessible in lower art forms -- but rather is the product of high culture in England in the second half of the 19th century. And there is little doubt that Rossetti, Moore, Leighton, Byam Shaw, Carmichael and many of these artists evoke the dawn of modernity in Britain, every bit as much as the Impressionists do in France.
There has been much buzz in the arts community about the Dahesh moving into sorely needed larger quarters, and of the museum's interest in Edward Durrell Stone's Gallery of Modern Art building on Columbus Circle. In the 1960s this building contained the collection of A&P magnate Huntington Hartford. Like the Dahesh, the Hartford collection was a gathering of pictures similarly bold in its refutation of the MoMA and Metropolitan pedagogy, including masterpieces by Millais, Burne-Jones, Puvis, and Moreau, alongside the established canon of Courbet, Pisarro, Monet, and Derain.
The Huntington Hartford Gallery of Modern Art also held important exhibitions of 19th-century art that were similarly lambasted by the New York press, notably one on the Pre-Raphaelites in 1964. At the New York Times, John Canaday then referred to them as "these poor, splendid, foolish and deluded painters," although uniquely for the time he included them in abundance in his survey books on Western art.
It's perhaps no surprise, then, to find the same biases some 35 years later in our city's paper of record. The Dahesh's exhibitions of less familiar artists of the 19th century and earlier provide New York with a welcome addition to the dominant vision of Western art, giving us all a chance to understand history in its fullest.
JASON M. ROSENFELD is a New York based art historian.