Thursday, July 20, 2000

Art exhibit reveals life in Victorian age

By Owen Findsen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        If art history is our guide, we shouldn't like the Victorian art at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

        These paintings — dark scenes of drama and romance, of exotic settings and rural tranquility — are the antithesis of the lesson that art history teaches.

  • What: Art in the Age of Queen Victoria: Treasures From the Royal Academy of Arts Permanent Collection.
Where: The Cincinnati Art Museum, Eden Park.
  • When: Through Sept. 24.
  • Information: Museum hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and noon-6 p.m. Sunday. Museum is free through Oct. 31. 721-2787;
        Art in the Age of Queen Victoria is art from the Royal Academy of Arts in London, the academic establishment that resisted progress and innovation, or so the story goes.

        Heroes of art history are the rebels who fought the establishment and broke from the old order to discover new directions in art. We love the French Impressionists, who turned rejection from the French Academy into a cause. The word “academic,” is rarely used in a positive sense in the pages of art history books.

        This is the art that is almost always called stodgy, stuffy, pompous, pretentious, maudlin. It's the art the Victorians liked, and not the art that art history books tell us they should have liked.

        But now, after much more than a century of rebellious art, there seems to be a truce. The old order is too old now to be threatening, and the new order, of modern and contemporary art, has introduced little but confusion to the general public. You should love Jackson Pollock and hate Norman Rockwell, but, if a vote were taken . . .

        Art in the Age of Queen Victoria, which opened Saturday, is a study in social history, of the art that reinforced Victorian values.

        The Royal Academy of Arts was founded in 1768 by King George III. Its first president was Sir Joshua Reynolds; its second was Benjamin West, an American.

        Americans who are “Honorary Academicians” today include Frank Gehry, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella and Andrew Wyeth, all of whom are better known, in this country at least, than the best-known Victorian painters in the exhibition: Sir John Everett Millais, Frederic, Lord Leighton and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

        The exhibition spans the Victorian era, a period that is not as rigid as we may imagine. These Victorian Academecians painted for a different, less aristocratic clientele than their predecessors. They struggled to revive technical standards and aesthetic ideals of the Renaissance. This often led them into the mannerist trap. Mannerism is an art style in which artists work “in the manner of” a previous artist. There are paintings here in the manner of Bellini, Velasquez, Poussin among others. The craft is superb, though derivative.

        In the Victorian era, women were not members of the Royal Academy of Arts. They were subjects of the male artists' moral sermons in paint. One woman, “A Lute Player,” by Edwin Austin Abbey, an American member, is a study in virtue. Another lady with a lute has finished her tune, spilled her wine and, the symbolism implies, surrendered her virtue. Painted by Edward John Gregory, it is called “Apres?” In English it could be called “Now What?”

        There is even a scene (“The Outcast” by Richard Redgrave) of a father throwing his daughter, with her fatherless baby, out into the snow, while the wife and siblings beg forgiveness.

        It is difficult to take Victorian melodrama seriously. In Philip Hermogenes Calderon's “Whither?” a medieval nobleman leads his daughter across a drawbridge, defended with barriers and spikes. The father leads her from this bastion of chastity to inevitable matrimony. He carries a sword to defend her honor and she carries a small ivory box, symbolic of her virginity. Father shows a visage of determination. She expresses anxiety at the unknown that awaits.

        Victorian maidens probably shed a tear as they looked upon the painting. We chuckle in amusement that an artist would invest such care and detail in such a silly scenario.

        But there is also a large and admirable painting by Sir Hubert von Herkomer showing the distress of a laborer and his family when his factory goes on strike. It is the one painting whose message we can still sympathize with.

        In one way or another, these are all storytelling works. Many of the paintings seem to be illustrations for dramatic novels by artists such as Sir Walter Scott. The names, “The Dying Warrior,” “The Faithful Hound,” tell it all.

        Some paintings are pure fantasy. John William Waterhouse's “A Mermaid” and Solomon Joseph Solomon's “St. George,” both painted in the early 20th century, suggest that the Academics had surrendered to the lure of book illustration, and they're charming for it.

        It is amusing to discover that there were artists, such as Charles Napier Hemy and James Clark Hook, whose paintings could be mistaken for those of the American artist Winslow Homer, a major artist, considered an innovator and never accused of being academic.

        To appreciate Art in the Age of Queen Victoria, imagine yourself with top hat and cane or bustle and bonnet, and share the sentiments of the Victorian Age. The pictures don't tell what the Victorian Age was really like, but they do show us the way Victorians wanted to be seen.


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