VICTORIAN ART

 

 

 

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1      In 1855, the young Frederic Leighton, future President of the Royal Academy of Arts, exhibited Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna is carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence. His first big success, its subject demonstrates the high status of painting in Renaissance Florence, with the artist Cimabue in the position of hero. Implicit in this picture is a comparison with Victorian Britain. Leighton’s message is that art and artists should occupy a similar place of honour in contemporary society, and the remainder of his career was dedicated to realizing this ideal. It was a view shared by the Queen herself, who purchased Leighton’s painting. Victoria and Albert, modelling themselves on the princely families of the Renaissance, set an example to their subjects by patronizing living British artists.    sound     UP

 

 

2      Victoria’s long reign, from 1837 to 1901, was an age of expanding population and industry. There was peace at home, and middle-class prosperity and self-confidence increased, leading to conditions in which painting flourished. The period saw a large amount of artistic production. The public flocked to exhibitions and wealthy citizens amassed large picture collections. Painters became rich; they were honoured with knighthoods and baronetcies and mixed on equal terms with aristocracy and high society.    sound     UP

 

 

3      Many Victorian painters chose to speak a language that could be understood by people of widely differing social and educational backgrounds; they were providers of popular entertainment as well as cultural improvement. But some of the more advanced artists regarded painting as a private experience, directed at a cultivated élite. To understand the full spectrum of Victorian art the paintings must be seen in the context of contemporary ideas, social structure and patronage. Interpreted in this way, Victorian paintings give vivid expression to the aspirations, moral ideas and faults of the age.  [...]    sound     UP

 

 

4      There was a transformation in the British art market during the 1830s and 40s. The initiative in art collecting passed from the aristocracy to the rising middle-class of manufacturers, merchants and entrepreneurs, newly enriched by the Industrial Revolution, enfranchised by the 1832 Reform Act and endowed with the shrewdness and independence of judgment that had brought them success in business. They invested some of the large amounts of liquid capital they had amassed from industry and commerce not in Old Masters but in the work of living artists. They were not the first to collect British painting, for the lead had been set in the early ninetennth century by aristocrats like Lord Egremont (Turner’s patron at Petworth) and Lord de Tabley. But now the economic power lay elsewhere, with the middle classes. Not for them a classical education, the Grand Tour and the eighteenth-century connoisseurship of Guido and Raphael. These patrons liked recognizable subjects rather than remote allegory and they preferred signed modern paintings whose authenticity could be proved to dubious Old Masters, which were extensively faked at this period.    sound     UP

 

 

5      The taste of the new collectors embodies the middle-class values of propriety and respectability, hard work, the sanctity of family life, piety and self-improvement. These values were expressed in the many domestic subjects representing home and family, the innocence of children or the virtues of obedience and charity, for it was a commonplace of Victorian art criticism that painting was a moral teacher. The utilitarian and evangelical bias of middle-class education encouraged a distrust of the purely sensual. There was deep suspicion of the enjoyment of art for its own sake; it had to have a purpose, to profit the mind. Work benefited the soul and led to personal salvation, leisure time had to be spent in improving pursuits, hence the preoccupation with the subject, narrative and moral over artistic form, with learning from a picture and reading its details as closely as a book.    sound     UP

 

 

 

Julian Treuherz, Victorian Art, London, Thames & Hudson, 1993, pp. 6, 7 & 34.