March 12, 2013


Back in 1997 (February 16 to May 11) the National Gallery of Art had an exhibition devoted to Victorian painting. Up until then I had thought about Victorian art as being moralistic, dull, and boring, an opinion that most people probably shared back then. Let's face it, the word "Victorian" is used as a term of opprobrium to mean that something is old-fashioned, uptight, hypocritical. This was followed by an exhibition devoted to Art Nouveau, which covers some of the same time period as the Victorian exhibition, from October 8, 2000 to January 28, 2001. Now while I would describe myself as a Victorianist when I was applying for academic jobs, that wasn't strictly true.* So the exhibitions, while they did not make me a fervent convert, did open my eyes to Victorian painting.

*I applied for a thousand jobs over a three year period, and was unanimously rejected by all. I described myself as a Victorianist because my author, George Bernard Shaw, was born in 1856 and died in 1950. So he spanned the Victorian era, and the Georgian, Edwardian, and other periods. It's not strictly true because while Shaw was in a sense a Victorian author, I was unfamiliar with people like Swinburne, Hardy, etc. Naturally I was also unfamiliar with Victorian era painting, outside of French Impressionism and post-Impressionism.

Some years back my wife and I spent the evenings reading Janson's big book on the history of art, and as I recall he passed over both Victorian and Art Nouveau, and went straight to Impressionism. While the line from Impressionism to Abstraction produced many great works, and works of great power and imagination, as the abstract expressionists died out, and the Pop Art and conceptual art, and the other schools of post-modern art arose, something was lost that had been in the Victorians and in the Pre-Raphaelites, and was in art for centuries before. That was a sense that there was a story behind the painting. Not just a narrative but a sense that there was a reality out there to which the picture pointed. That may be over-platonizing it, and it may be only partially true or even completely untrue, but I now think there was something lost when the Impressionists won the battle so completely.

While Dante Gabriel Rossetti is perhaps my favorite of the lot, Edward Burne-Jones is the subject of the two books at hand. The first is a biography of Burne-Jones. Unfortunately the lives of painters and writers, unlike the lives of generals, soldiers, and statesmen, are generally fairly dull.* We learn that Burne-Jones had an interest in Tractarianism, the religious movement associated with Oxford and Newman, but gradually lost it. He had an affair with one of his models, and he seems to have fixated on a number of young, adolescent girls, in what is presumably a non-sexual way. We learn about his relations with Ruskin and Rossetti, and his dealings with art dealers. There are a fair number of pictures throughout the text which show his pictures to good advantage.

*There are exceptions. Casanova managed to fill several volumes, about 4,000 pages, but his interests are notable for their lasciviousness. Henry Miller's books are supposedly fictionalized autobiography, but again are lascivious. Hemingway had perhaps the most interesting life of those who were primarily writers.

The second book is a catalog of an exhibit given in Germany a few years ago. It's a pricey volume, but worth having for the pictures. Much of the text is informative, but as with most current works of scholarship take comments with a grain, or even a kilo, of salt.

Next up, a book about the medical ailments of literary men, a history of the Tower of London, and a big, heavy book about Vauxhall Gardens in London where Becky Sharp had the notorious Vauxhall punch.*

*Unfortunately like the Tabard Inn, Mermaid Tavern, and the Crystal Palace, Vauxhall Gardens is no more. So don't go looking for them on your next visit to London.