James McNeill Whistler Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862
Frederic Leighton Flaming June,
J. M. W. Turner Keelman Heaving in Coals by Moonlight,
Franz Xaver Winterhalter The First of May,1851
Edward Burne-Jones Laus Veneris,
by Joanna Shaw-Eagle
Pompous and prudish, sentimental and severe:
this is the way Victorians are usually
described. Not so, viewers will say after
they see the National Gallery of Art's
exhibition, "The Victorians: British Painting
in the Reign of Queen Victoria, 1837-1901."
While sexuality is only one of several
themes, it is a dominant one in this highly
varied, fascinating show. The Pre-
Raphaelites, of course, loved women. John
Everett Millais painted the poet John Keats'
heroine, Isabella, at dinner with her lover,
Lorenzo (he was later murdered by her
brothers for his trouble). Another Pre-Raphaelite,
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painted
Jane Morris as an imprisoned lost soul from
Dante Alighieri's Purgatory. Because Jane
Morris was the wife of artist and designer
William Morris, and she and Rossetti were
lovers, the theme of imprisonment -- within
her marriage -- is underlined here.
So, also, James McNeil Whistler created
Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl,
saying it was simply a portrait of a girl
dressed in white standing on a bear rug. More
likely, it's a contrast of innocence and lust
as the open-toothed head of the bear
suggests. Artists Albert Moore, Frederic
Leighton and Lawrence Alma-Tadema reveled in
depicting languorous, Greek Goddess-like
women basking under the bright Mediterranean
sun. Their clinging, diaphanous draperies,
such as the bright orange of Frederic
Leighton's Flaming June, are sexually
Paintings of sexual and erotic subjects were
but one escape for the British Victorians.
The Industrial Revolution had made them the
wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth.
But hardship came for many with these riches.
Industrialization, which included major
technological innovations such as the steam
engine and railways, also brought wrenching
social changes. Poverty, homelessness,
hunger, the breakup of the family, urban
alienation and the erosion of religious
values began then, and have accelerated into
our own times.
Victorian writers such as Charles Dickens,
George Eliot, William Makepeace Thackeray and
Henry James wrote about the effects of these
upheavals. Unlike the writers, however, the
artists saw art as an retreat from the
inhumanity of the new, dirty, industrialized
world. There are no Dickensonian Oliver
Twists in this show. The artists' patrons,
now enlarged from the British aristocracy to
the self-made monied class and a growing
middle class, demanded escapist paintings of
literary and religious themes from Medieval
times and classical Greece.
Painters were also rebelling, despite the
success of J.M.W. Turner's romantic light-and-color-
filled landscapes --two of which are included here -- against the academic,
pseudo-Italian Renaissance style of the Royal
Academy. Franz Xaver Winterhalter still used
this Grand Manner in depicting Queen Victoria
and her family. Winterhalter titled the
painting, The First of May, 1851, and painted
the family in the manner of a 16th-century
Adoration of the Magi.
Artists such as John Everett Millais, Dante
Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt
founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in
1848 in resistance to such art. Instead, they
turned to a moralistic, narrative, highly
detailed symbolic world. Millais' painting of
Shakespeare's Ophelia is typical of this
minute and factual approach.
She is laid out in a stream, much like a
corpse, but with arms outstretched as if to
embrace her lover Hamlet. Ophelia is shown in
death, a marked contrast to the green and
flowered lushness of the nature around her.
Every leaf and flower is carefully
delineated. Millais knew the floral symbolism
of Shakespeare's story, and employed it in
the painting: the pansy stands for both
"thought" and "love in vain"; violets are
faithfulness; and the willow, near her head,
the nettles and the daisies are symbolic of
forsaken love, pain and innocence.
After 1860, artists began exploring idyllic
visions of the past, especially from Greek
myths and Medieval legends. Edward Burne-Jones painted a series of works around the
Greek myth of Perseus. The one in the
exhibition, The Doom Fulfilled, shows Perseus
wrestling with a powerfully coiled sea
dragon. He's rescuing the beautiful
Andromeda, a glistening nude with her back
turned towards us, who had been chained to a
rock to appease the gods. Burne-Jones also
created a medievalizing version of a classic
myth with Laus Veneris (Worship of Venus).
Venus as the goddess of love and beauty is
seen as a queen at leisure, reminiscent of
the sensual Guinevere of Arthurian legends.
Reds amplify the erotic undertones, as the
goddess' handmaidens sing her praises.
Late Victorian estheticism concentrated on
the beautiful and erotic as well. Just like
the Victorian nostalgia for the Middle Ages,
they looked at Greece as a lost paradise of
physical and intellectual perfection.
Frederick Leighton portrayed a voluptuous
Persephone ascending from Hades to the upper
world. Alma-Tadema showed Alcaeus lusting
after Sappho of Lesbos as he entertains her,
and her all-female poet group, with songs on
"The Victorians: British Painting in the
Reign of Queen Victoria, 1837-1901," is on
view Feb. 16-May 11, 1997, at the National
Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., its only
JOANNA SHAW-EAGLE writes on art from
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