The Victorian era was an age of peace and prosperity in Great Britain.
The Victorian style is developed mainly in Great Britain during the reign of Queen Victoria, who became queen at the age of 18 years old. This movement takes place during the peak of the Industrial Revolution, in this moment, the science, as well as every other aspect of the society, were suffering big changes, with technological advances and a loss on the moral and religious values. This brought a search of rising the social dignity and tried to integrate all the arts in this harmonious and beautiful environment. The Victorian Era begins in 1837 and ends by the beginning of the 20th Century.
The Victorian art is eclectic, it gathers the best of other styles, coming back to the Medieval. It uses richly ornamented objects and it has a taste for the naturalist inspired motifs, with great excess and saturation on the forms. A great interest for the daily spaces emerges, specially the dining room, for being a meeting point. The medieval themes are frequently used, full of knights and damsels, and comes back to the representation of religious scenes.
Regarding to the painting, the Victorian era is a cult to the classical beauty, to counter the ugly modern world, result of an industrial revolution, where several topics are used, from the religious to the historical, and where the representation of women is recurrent.
During the Victorian era, several artists tried to imitate the big former artists, previous the Industrial Revolution. The pre-Raphaelite movement is one of the most important of this period, formed by Dante Gabriel Rosetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, mainly. The pre-Raphaelite tried to fight the teaching on the academies, and all the bad that the Industrial Revolution brought, wanting to recover a more spontaneous art, searching for inspiration on the natural, looking up to the big Reinassance artists. The Lady of Shalott, painted in 1888 by John William Waterhouse is a representative painting of this time. This oil on canvas is held nowadays at the Tate in London. This painting tells the story of Elena, the lady of Shalott, who was confined in a tower where she wove day and night. One day, a whisper announced that a terrible curse will await her if she ever looked at Camelot. In this painting we see Elena in a boat on her way to Camelot. The artist shows us a defenceless young lady, wearing a white tunic. She seems exhausted, a woman who has assumed her faith and her death, with a lost gaze and her arms lay in a surrender position. In the boat, Elena is carrying some of her fabrics, in these fabrics we can observe the adventures of the Knights of the Round Table, as well as the love she feels for Lancelot. The English landscape on the background is reduced to simple strokes. The rich colours and details are used to highlight the central figure. Waterhouse gives importance to the atmosphere, giving less importance to the design. It is a composition of isolation and despair. Waterhouse creates a balance in the composition by opposing the pale figure of the woman on one side of the painting with the horizon on the other. He uses warm and autumnal colours, maybe as a symbolism of Elena’s imminent death. Waterhouse captures a sense of sorrow, giving Elena a bewildered look, a woman with no control in her life, a possible nod to the political power of women at the time.
Victorian society was especially harsh on its female subjects, particularly regarding issues of sexuality and chastity. For instance, Augustus Egg’s oil, Misfortune, caused a big shock when it was shown for the first time in 1858 at the Royal Academy. This painting is part of a triptych, which tells us the story of an infidelity and the consequences it had for a woman at the time. The subject of this painting was not only controversial but contemporary and topical. The scene happens in the living room, the husband is holding a letter, evidence of his wife’s affair. He is looking to his wife, who is laying on the floor, she is wearing two bracelets in both arms that seem like handcuffs, maybe a symbolism of what the marriage supposed to her. There is religious symbolism as well, there is an apple cut in two, placed in two different spheres of the painting, one half on the floor next to the mother, and the other half by the knife on the table next to the father. On the left side of the painting, we see the two children playing with cards, they built a tower which is falling apart, symbolism of the marriage of their parents, only the big sister seems to acknowledge what is happening. We can also see a novel of Balzac at the base of the girls, as well as four small significant paintings on the wall, Adam and Eve expelled from the paradise hanging over the wife’s portrait, and one of a shipwreck hanging over the husband’s portrait. We can observe a pair of scissors on the table, maybe as a symbolism for the break up. The brushwork is precise, paying attention to the details. Dark colours are predominant in this painting, and the light comes from the left side of the painting, tenuously enlightening the room. Augustus Egg represents the deception of the fallen women, which became almost a trademark of the Victorian period, ex.: The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt, in which we find similitudes such as the mirror in both scenes. The mirror in Egg’s painting shows us an open door, through which the mother will soon leave. The mirror gives a sensation of depth by showing us the rest of the room.
The Victorian era can be summed up in a series of changes caused by the Industrial Revolution. For many people this period represented a step back of all what had been achieved by the time, that will take artists to romanticize previous times, when everything seemed to be simpler, it was a fight against the progress and the unknown, marked by artistic tendencies which searched for a balance between the what it is beautiful and the new, resulting in a greater richness on the design. These two paintings are a representation of the artistic movement during the Victorian era. They both use recurring topics of the period.
Rosenblum, R. Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friederich to Rothko, Icon (Harpe), 1977.
Rothenstein, J. Moder English Painters, Arrow Books, 1962.
Treble, R. “London: Victorian Paintings.” The Burlington Magazine 122, no. 925 (1980): 274-77.