Category

19th century

Queen Victoria’s Taste in Art

Frans Xaver Winterhalter, "Queen Victoria and Her Cousin, the Duchess of Nemours" (1852). Oil on canvas, 26.2" x 20", Royal Collection.

Franz Xaver Winterhalter, “Queen Victoria and Victoire, the Duchess of Nemours” (1852). Oil on canvas, 26.2″ x 20″, Royal Collection.

These past few months I have been delving into the art of the Pre-Raphaelites and William Morris, largely due to the Victorian Radicals: From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts & Crafts Movement  traveling exhibition that is in Seattle. I recently was asked what Queen Victoria, a supporter of the arts and an artist herself, would have thought of the Pre-Raphaelites. She definitely had an awareness of the movement (which I will discuss later), but her aesthetic preference seemed to veer more toward a more academic style, not only for public commissions but even private ones. Here are some of the contemporary painters whom she commissioned for portraits or purchased art from:

  • Sir George Hayter was appointed principal painter to Queen Victoria and also drawing teacher for the princesses. Hayter painted Victoria in a portrait that was made between c. 1838-1840. He was knighted in 1842, and he also didn’t receive any royal commissions after this year as Victoria turned her interest to Winterhalter and Landseer’s paintings.
  • Franz Xaver Winterhalter was one of Queen Victoria’s favorite painters. He made several official portraits for Queen Victoria, but he also made a private portrait (described as Albert’s favorite painting of his wife), and other portraits that included family members like her cousin, such as Queen Victoria and Victoire,  the Duchess of Nemours (1852, shown above)
  • Edwin Landseer also was commissioned to paint pictures of Victoria, her family members, and also her family pets. One such painting, Queen Victoria at Osborne, was commissioned to express and display her grief after Albert’s death. Landseer was so favored by Victoria that she even gave him a knighthood in 1850.
  • Alfred Edward Chalon was commissioned to make a portrait of Queen Victoria, and she appointed him to be a watercolorist for the royal house. One of his images became used for stamps of the queen.
  • Charles Robert Leslie painted an image of Queen Victoria in her coronation robes, and the queen said that she “like[d] the painting so much” that she bought it.

If you look at these art by these painters, particularly Winterhalter and Landseer (who both painted often for Victoria), it’s clear that she favored a traditional style of painting that included smoother brushstrokes and the color palette of the Academy (often, but not always, primary colors, which appropriately also fit with the red and blue colors of the Union Jack flag) .

John Everett Millais, "Christ in the House of His Parents (The Carpenter's Shop)," 1849-50. Oil on Canvas, approx. 2.8' x 4.5'. Tate Museum

John Everett Millais, “Christ in the House of His Parents (The Carpenter’s Shop),” 1849-50. Oil on Canvas, approx. 2.8′ x 4.5′. Tate Museum

She was aware of the artistic scene in England outside of her own royal artists, though, including news about the Pre-Raphaelites. When John Everett Millais’ painting “Christ in the House of His Parents” was exhibited in the Royal Academy show of 1850 and viciously attacked in the press, the Queen was so curious that she asked to have the painting brought from Trafalgar Square to the palace so she could see it herself.1 The news of the queen’s request was conveyed to Millais, and he in turn wrote to his friend William Holman Hunt, in perhaps a mix of both jest and sincerity, “I hope it will not have any bad effects on her mind.” I have read one account that the Queen applauded Millais for his efforts with this painting, but I haven’t found it substantiated by a primary source (does anyone know of one?).

William Morris, VRI Wallpaper, 1887. Balmoral Castle

William Morris, VRI Wallpaper, 1887. Balmoral Castle

It is certain, however, that Queen Victoria did like the work of William Morris. In 1880, Morris created lavishly complex wallpaper for the Grand Staircase at Saint James’ Palace. Then in 1887, he was commissioned to create a unique wallpaper for Balmoral Castle which contained the cipher “VRI” (see example above). These projects helped to secure William Morris’ reputation and career.

Does anyone know of other instances in which Queen Victoria saw or commented on works of art by the Pre-Raphaelites (or William Morris, for that matter)? I know that the Queen prohibited Millais’ wife Effie from coming to court, due to her previous divorce from John Ruskin. Even when Millais received a baronetcy, Effie was banned from court. She was only received at an official function when Millais requested as much from the queen while on his deathbed.2 Interestingly, at some point her photograph also entered the Royal Collection, so now she keeps a continual presence with the royal family.

1 Charles Dickens was one of the critics who was appalled by this painting and its “loathsome minuteness” of style. He described the Christ child as ‘a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed gown’ and said that his mother Mary looked “so hideous in her ugliness that … she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin-shop in England” (Household Words, 15 June 1850).

2 The anecdote of Millais deathbed request (“Yes, let her receive my wife”) is recorded by Suzanne Fagence Cooper in “Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin, and John Everett Millais,” p. 235-236. Found online here: https://books.google.com/books?id=vhlkCf-pbREC&lpg=PA236&ots=9deNRxw92x&dq=%22yes%20let%20her%20receive%20my%20wife%22&pg=PA235#v=onepage&q&f=false

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Fragonard and Morisot?

Berthe Morisot, "Reading (The Green Umbrella), 1873. Oil on fabric, 18 1/8 × 28 1/4 in. (46 × 71.8 cm). Cleveland Museum of Art

Berthe Morisot, “Reading (The Green Umbrella), 1873. Oil on fabric, 18 1/8 × 28 1/4 in. (46 × 71.8 cm). Cleveland Museum of Art

The post that you are reading is a very different one than the first one that I originally wrote this evening. I recently read in The Art of Reading: An Illustrated History of Books in Paint that Berthe Morisot was the descendant of the painter Jean-Honore Fragonard, and I hoped to write a post that explored that relationship between the two. However, as I researched, I found conflicting information about how Morisot was either the granddaughter of Fragonard, the great-niece of Fragonard, or the great-great-niece of Fragonard. So I began to comb through the genealogical timelines of the Morisot family and realized that I couldn’t find a clear ancestral connection between the artists at all. Dozens of sources claim that this connection comes through the family of Berthe’s mother, who was named Marie-Joséphine-Cornélie Thomas, although as of yet I can’t find the origin of this claim in writing. I can assert though, that Morisot is not the granddaughter of Fragonard: her paternal grandparents were Tiburce Pierre Morisot and Claude Elisabeth Morisot; her maternal grandparents were Jean Simon Joseph Thomas and Caroline Françoise Marie Mayniel.

Chronologically, it seems to be that Fragonard lived four generations before Morisot. Her only two great-grandparents that I know of (her grandmother’s parents, whose names were Jean Henri Mayniel and Josephine Anne Victoire de Ménard) were both born in 1760. That doesn’t go back far enough to meet up with Fragonard, who was born in 1732. Other branches of Berthe Morisot’s family line don’t seem to go back far enough, at least through online genealogical records. I finally found an archived excerpt of  Anne Higgonet’s 1995 book Berthe Morisot, which explains that “family tradition claims indirect descent from the painter Fragonard.” Is this actually just a “family tradition” then, but an unsubstantiated one? If that’s the case, we need to stop repeating it in scholarship or take Higgonet’s approach to explain the relationship has just been merely “claimed” or rumored through family tradition.

I can see how it is appealing to connect these two artists together. Fragonard painted many outdoor scenes that depicted aristocrats engaged in romantic or pleasurable pursuits. Likewise, Morisot painted plein air and often depicted members of the bourgeoisie. I also like thinking about how they both were drawn to the subject matter of a woman reading: Fragonard’s Woman Reading (c. 1776, shown below) was made almost exactly one hundred years before Morisot’s Reading (The Green Umbrella) from 1873 (shown above). It is also clear to see how Fragonard’s lively brushwork (especially seen in the fabric of the painting) helps to open the door for the loose, painterly strokes of the Impressionists like Morisot.

Fragonard, "A Young Girl Reading," c. 1776. Oil on canvas. National gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Fragonard, “A Young Girl Reading,” c. 1776. Oil on canvas. National gallery of Art, Washington, DC

One thing is certain: if Morisot was a descendant of Fragonard, she never met the artist. Fragonard died in 1806 and Morisot was born in 1841. The one thing that makes the ancestral connection believable in some regard is that Fragonard’s reputation and career fell into a decline during the end of his lifetime due to the upheaval of the French Revolution.1 He even remained relatively unknown for the first half of the 19th century and was even omitted from scholarship.2 So he would have seemed like an odd choice to claim kinship in the 19th century, unless the kinship either was actual or derived from family lore that began in the 18th century!

If you can fill in the genealogical record or add to the connection (or lack thereof) between Fragonard and Morisot, please share! I’m also curious to learn how this “family tradition” has been upheld in scholarship – who was the first to pen down this connection? Was it Berthe Morisot herself or it is in an Impressionist review? So far the earliest mention I have found is from 1904.

Regardless of the ancestral connection, I am particularly struck at how often this connection has been repeated in scholarship and publications. On one hand, it is a neat connection if it is true, simply to show how art was a familial pursuit. But I also wonder if this connection to Fragonard was also used to legitimize the contributions of a female artist in the male-dominated world of art.

1 Melissa Percival, Fragonard and the Fantasy Figure: Painting the Imagination  (Routledge, 2017), p. 19. Found online here: https://books.google.com/books?id=lCgxDwAAQBAJ&lpg=PP19&ots=Ao2piIFUCW&dq=fragonard%20posthumous%20reputation&pg=PP19#v=onepage&q&f=false

2 Ibid.

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Wiley and Morris at the St Louis Art Museum

Screen Shot 2018-12-19 at 11.28.59 AM

The radio silence on my blog has been deafening for me, but luckily I’ve been able to do some writing over the past few months. The William Morris Society in the United States contacted me a few months ago, after reading my 2016 post on Kehinde Wiley and William Morris. I expanded this initial post into a new one for their “News from Anywhere” webpage with updated information about a current Kehinde Wiley show at the Saint Louis Art Museum. And check out the gorgeous catalog cover for the exhibition!

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Observing Flowers: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites

Jan Van Eyck, "Arnolfini Portrait, 1434. Oil on panel, 2′ 8″ x 2′ 0″. National Gallery of Art (London)

Jan Van Eyck, “Arnolfini Portrait, 1434. Oil on panel, 2′ 8″ x 2′ 0″. National Gallery of Art (London)

I am really sad that I am unable to see the exhibition Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites that is going on at the National Gallery in London right now (until April 2, 2018). This show has some of my favorite artists and works of art, including Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, which is one of the first works of art that I came to love as a teenage student. I also love thematic exhibitions that link works of art by their content (such as symbols and subject matter): this exhibition revolves around the inclusion of the convex mirror in both Van Eyck’s and the Pre-Raphalites’ art. What a fun and novel idea for a show! Even though I can’t travel to England for this exhibition, I look forward to reading the catalog.

The basic premise of the show explores how the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was inspired by the art of Jan Van Eyck. The Arnolfini Portrait was acquired by the National Gallery in 1842. Just six years later, in 1848, the Pre-Raphalite Brotherhood formed. Despite their name and connection to an Italian artist (Raphael), this group of artists were not very familiar with Italian art. Instead, they looked to early artistic examples that were available to them, such as medieval art or the including the newly-acquired painting by Van Eyck. As an Early Northern Renaissance painter, Van Eyck embodied art that was anti-classical or un-classical, which is what the Brotherhood strove to depict in their art. Furthermore, the Pre-Raphaelites were inspired by the rich colors and extreme detail for which Van Eyck was famous, even during his own lifetime. I love this video that the National Gallery created to promote the exhibition:

I think this connection to Van Eyck is a really great way for students to understand how the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood style is unique and different from the other art produced in Britain in the 19th century, not only in terms of subject matter but also style. Van Eyck’s art is highly detailed and has very bright, saturated colors; such features are also a hallmark of Pre-Raphaelite art. As a Northern artist, Van Eyck was influenced by the Aristotelian mindset that places value on finding knowledge through empirical observation. This parallels with how the Pre-Raphaelites, as influenced by the art critic John Ruskin, sought to depict truth and find a moral, virtuous foundation by studying nature. All of these artists were compelled to look closely at the world around them.

As a gardener, I especially like to think about how Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites are similar in how they studied the natural world through plants and flowers. One of my favorite Pre-Raphaelite paintings is Millais’ Ophelia (1851-52), and a Smarthistory video includes amusing anecdotes about the practical frustrations that Millais experienced by going into nature to paint this scene.

John Everett Millais, "Ophelia," 1851-52. Oil on canvas, 76 x 112. Tate

John Everett Millais, “Ophelia,” 1851-52. Oil on canvas, 76 x 112. Tate

This painting has a lot of very specific flowers included therein, which are part of the Shakespearean story of Ophelia from the play “Hamlet.” Millais took special pains to make sure that all of the plants were identifiable, especially since they each held symbolic value. Millais even furthered the floral motif by depicting his model in an embroidered floral dress which he bought specifically for inclusion in the painting.

Millais, "Ophelia," 1851-52 (details of violets, forget-me-nots, daisies, and wild roses)

Millais, “Ophelia,” 1851-52 (details of violets, forget-me-nots, daisies, and wild roses)

The Rag Rose blogger, a fabric florist named Ruth, has identified the different plants and flowers found in this painting. One of my favorite flowers in the painting is the poppy (a symbol of sleep and therefore death), placed in the water near Ophelia’s hand. I also like the small pansy laying on her dress, since Ophelia says in the play that pansies represent thoughts:

Millais, "Ophelia," 1851-52, detail of red poppy

Millais, “Ophelia,” 1851-52, detail of red poppy

Millais, "Ophelia," 1851-52. Detail of pansy

Millais, “Ophelia,” 1851-52. Detail of pansy

Like Millais, Van Eyck also paid strict attention to detail when he painted his flowers, which emphasizes that he keenly looked toward nature when painting. Although flowers aren’t depicted in the Arnolfini Portrait, there are other identifiable flowers included in another famous work of art by Jan Van Eyck and his brother Hubert Van Eyck: the Ghent Altarpiece. In fact, Van Eycks’ attention to botanical detail is so striking that a few years ago an exhibition was dedicated to the plants shown in the Ghent Altarpiece. Here are two details of some of my favorite flowers in this painting, including lilies, irises, roses and columbine:

Jan and Hubert Van Eyck, Ghent altarpiece (Adoration of the Mystic Lamb), 1432. Oil on wood panels

Jan and Hubert Van Eyck, Ghent altarpiece (Adoration of the Mystic Lamb), 1432. Oil on wood panels.

Jan and Hubert Van Eyck, the Ghent altarpiece ("Adoration of the Mystic Lamb"), detail of the Virgin's crown

Jan and Hubert Van Eyck, the Ghent altarpiece (“Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”), 1432. Detail of the Virgin’s crown

As with Millais, Van Eyck included flowers for symbolic purposes, and many of them relate to the Virgin. For example, white lilies are associated with the Virgin because they are a symbol of purity. Roses are associated with the Virgin: her virginity was compared to an enclosed garden and she was known as by titles such as the Mystical Rose.

Although these artists were separated by about 400 years, there are some definite similarities in their art. Millais and Van Eyck had a love for depicting fine details, a similar interest in using symbols to depict literary or biblical themes, and a devotion to accurately depicting nature. If anything, I think that Millais had an easier time depicting nature than Van Eyck, since the recent invention of oil paint in tubes enabled Millais to go outdoors to paint. As I myself sit indoors and impatiently wait for spring to begin, I especially love these vibrant, detailed paintings because they help keep flowers alive for me all year long.

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The Kritios Boy, Perserschutt, and the Early Classical Style

Kritios Boy, c. 480 BCE. Archaeological Museum, Athens. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Kritios Boy, c. 480 BCE. Archaeological Museum, Athens. Image courtesy Wikipedia via user Tetrakys

When I saw the Kritios Boy on display in Athens (back in 2003, in the old version of the Acropolis Museum), I was struck by how the statue was smaller than I anticipated. I naturally assumed that the scale of the sculpture was akin to the large size of the reproductions I had seen in my editions of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. However, this work of art, which had loomed so large in my mind as an undergraduate, is only 3’10” (1.17 m) tall.

In truth, though, the Kritios Boy’s role in art history has been anything but small. This figure dominates many canonical art history books as the forefront example of the Early Classical period (also called the Severe Style). And, in some ways, we know more about the start of the Early Classical period because of the Kritios Boy.

This sculpture is an example of “Perserschutt” (meaning “Persian debris”). This sculpture, along with several others sculptures, form part of the sculptural “debris” that resulted from when the Persians burned and sacked the Athenian acropolis in conjunction with the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE.1 Some think that head of the Kritios Boy might have been lopped off during this same time, perhaps as a way for the Persians to symbolically express their anger toward and desired conquest over the Greeks.Another theory is that this head was intentionally decapitated by an Athenian, perhaps for something as elevated as a religious sacrifice, or something as mundane as prepping the sculpture to be packing material for the acropolis.3

Kritios Boy, back of the head, c. 480 BCE

Kritios Boy, back of the head, c. 480 BCE

At some point after the sack of the acropolis, the Greeks took the damaged sculptural rubble, including the Kritios Boy and other sculptures, and buried it in pits underneath surface of the religious complex. The placement of this Perserschutt may have happened as soon as 479 BCE, or it could have taken place incrementally until the rebuilding of the acropolis by Pericles in c. 447-432 BCE. Regardless, the Kritios Boy was hidden from the world for well over two thousand years, and it finally was unearthed long after art history was established as a discipline. The body of the Kritios Boy was discovered in 1865, although its decapitated head was not discovered until 1888.2

The Calf-Bearer and the Kritios Boy Shortly After Exhumation on the Acropolis, with the Danseuse du Temple de Bacchus, ca. 1865. Albumen silver print from glass negative. Public domain image courtesy http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/283139

The Calf-Bearer and the Kritios Boy Shortly After Exhumation on the Acropolis, with the Danseuse du Temple de Bacchus, ca. 1865. Albumen silver print from glass negative. Public domain image courtesy http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/283139

As a result, it would be easy to assume that we pretty specific date for the Kritios Boy: it is possible that this sculpture was made before 480 BCE, which is when the Persians sacked the acropolis. This is based on the assumption that the Perserschutt is a homogeneous deposit of items made on or before 480 BCE. However, not everyone agrees with this date or theory, though. Here are two arguments regarding the dating of the Kritios Boy, and the ramifications of adopting either argument:

1) Argument that the Kritios Boy was made on or before 480 BCE:

One of the assumptions that the Kritios Boy was made before Persian attacks is that the body was found with other works of art in the Archaic style. If this is the case, then the Kritios Boy was a leader in introducing the Classical Style. This can segue into a discussion of pinpointing the beginning of the Early Classical period: before the Kritios Boy was excavated in 1865, the popular starting date for the Early Classical period was 480 BC. Winckelmann’s Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums (1764) pinpointed the Persian Wars of 480-479 BCE as the starting point for the Early Classical periods, since the victorious Greeks would have felt a sense of self-confidence, capability, and worth.

However, if the Kritios Boy predates 480 BCE and therefore was attacked in the Persian sack of the acropolis, this means that the shift in artistic style took place before the time that Winckelmann pinpointed. Instead, it seems more likely that the Early Classical period should be pinpointed to the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE, in which the Greeks won a decisive victory over the Persians.

2) Argument that the Kritios Boy was made after 480 BCE:

Hurwit finds that the statue is not in good enough condition to have been made, broken by the Persians, and then buried with the rest of the Perserschutt, all within a matter of years. Moreover, he thinks that this sculpture may have been made, perhaps as a copy, after a bronze sculpture. The smaller scale of the statue (roughly two-thirds or three-fourths life size) is typical for bronze, and the fine attention hair strands and curly wisps on the neck suggest the plastic capabilities of the bronze medium.6 Furthermore, Hurwit points out that the hair ornament, a ring, around the Kritios Boy’s head are uncommon before 480. Furthermore, the looped curls around the hair ring only comes into fashion on and after 480 BCE.7

Hurwit finds stylistic similarities with a head of Harmodios (original Greek versions of 477-476 BCE) and suggests that the Kritios Boy may not only post-date 479 BCE, but perhaps specifically post-date this sculpture between 475-470.8

There are other nuances to this argument as well, which are discussed by Hurwit and Stewart. However, overall one can say that this post-Persian argument places the Kritios Boy not as an instigator of the Early Classical style, but within a greater continuum of (and likely as a response to) vanguard stylistic elements that appeared in other works of art. If this is the case, I wonder if textbooks should rethink the way that the Kritios Boy is introduced to art history students? One has to be careful to make stress that the Kritios Boy is indicative of these changes in style, but our loss of extant examples and a truly clear understanding of Perserschutt chronology prevent us from knowing whether the Kritios boy was an instigator or follower of the nascent Severe Style.

1 “The Calf-Bearer and the Kritios Boy Shortly After Exhumation on the Acropolis, with the Danseuse du Temple de Bacchus,” accessed 14 November 2016, available online at: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/283139

2 Rachel Kousser, “Who Killed the Kritios Boy,” CHS Research Bulletin, 13 December 2010. Accessed 14 November 2016, available online at: http://www.chs-fellows.org/2010/12/13/who-killed-the-kritios-boy/

3 Jeffrey M. Hurwit, “Kritios Boy: Discovery, Reconstruction, and Date,” American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 93, No. 1 (Jan., 1989): 61-62.

4 From 1865-1888, the Kritios Boy’s body was attached to the head of a youth, known as Acropolis 699. To see an image of this inaccurate reconstruction,  see Jeffrey M. Hurwit, “Kritios Boy: Discovery, Reconstruction, and Date,” American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 93, No. 1 (Jan., 1989): 51. It could be that the head conjoined with the Kritios Boy today is not the original head, but a head that served as an ancient repair for the original head; such a theory supports why both the body and head both are chiseled away, to allow for as neat of a fit as possible. Hurwit argues that the head is original and always was meant to be with the body, since there is not evidence of tool marks or recutting on the broken sides of the head and body. See Hurwit, p. 56-59.

5 Ibid., p. 56.

6 Ibid., p. 67.

7 Ibid., p. 74.

8 Hurwit, p. 68. See also Andrew Stewart, “The Persian and Carthaginian Invasions of 480 B.C.E. and the Beginning of the Classical Style,” American Journal of Archaeology 112 (2008): 391-392. Available online here: http://arthistory.wisc.edu/ah302/articles/Stewart,_Beginning_of_the_Classical_Style_1.pdf

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.