Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Victorian Painting (Part 1)

This afternoon I stopped by Sotheby's for a preview exhibition of British paintings. The works are owned by Sir David and Lady Scott, and the auction will take place on November 19 in London, the proceeds of which will benefit The Finnis Scott Foundation. Many of the 240 works to go up for auction are Victorian paintings, and it was a pleasure to see that among the works is the picture above, Emily Mary Osborn's Nameless and Friendless (1857).

This particular picture is often cited in studies of British art for its social message on the plight of women in Victorian England. It represents a young woman with her son attempting to sell works of art that she has painted. The facial reaction of art dealer gazing at the work shows his highly critical manner and apparent disregard for the work, while the gentlemen sitting on the left seem to be staring at the woman in shock as to her very presence in the gallery.

One of the reasons I appreciate Victorian paintings such as this one is because of the narrative structure. With a title such as Nameless and Friendless we are meant to pity this woman. She has no title or name, and she apparently has no friends or family to support her. For the Victorian audience, this type of picture not only told a story, but it also suggested a moral lesson. Why is she nameless and friendless? Because she had an illegitimate son? Because her husband abandoned her? Because she is a poor widow? Whatever the reason, one truth stand out: she is attempting to support her son and herself by selling pictures she paints.

The reality of Victorian life was that a woman such as the one depicted here would have suffered much if she remained unmarried. The same year this painting was made, laws began to change that assisted married women in the holding of property and investments, but it was a long time before women could not only support themselves but even hold property in their own name. (This inequality takes on greater irony when you consider it was happening under the reign of Queen Victoria, one of the most powerful women in the world.) The fact that a talented woman artist who exhibited at the Royal Academy for many years painted this work only drives home the empathy it is meant to conjure: a woman knowing the true feeling of being nameless and friendless in a male-dominated art world. For a brief biography on Emily Mary Osborne, visit ArtMagick.

Victorian painting is often criticized for being kitsch, but you have to admire its narrativity and social realism. What also fascinates me is that there is no such thing as one type of Victorian painting. It's impossible to put works by Frith, Rossetti, and Beardsley beside one another and say they are all "Victorian"--all three of these artists worked so differently from one another that it's erroneous to reduce Victorian painting to one mode of being. This is an area of art history that I study regularly, so you'll see future postings from me about Victorian art. I'm organizing (with the help of two colleagues) a symposium entitled Why Victorian Art? that will consider why Victorian art historically has been disregarded in the US in favor of French painting and Victorian literature. Stay tuned for more on the symposium in the months to come.

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