Still relevant after all these years Art: The Victorian paintings on show at the National Gallery suggest that the confusions and uncertainties of the last century have persisted into this one -- even if they're dressed differently now.

March 16, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

The British press received James Tissot's "On the Thames" coolly when he first showed it in London in 1876. "Questionable material," sniffed the Times. "Hardly nice in its suggestions," weighed in the Graphic. The Athenaeum -- shocked, shocked! -- called it "thoroughly and wilfully vulgar."

The painting shows a young man out with two ladies in a pleasure boat on the Thames. Presumably, he's going to ply them with the champagne shown in the painting's foreground and then

But we will draw a veil over the "and then" -- in keeping with the spirit of "The Victorians," the intriguing, worthwhile and often amusing National Gallery exhibit in which this painting appears.

In subject matter, "On the Thames" deals with moral issues of a society undergoing enormous economic and social changes. What makes this painting doubly interesting is its background scene. The river is cluttered with sailing ships and smoke-belching steamships -- symbols of the Industrial Revolution, which brought about the rise of cities and the middle class and unleashed enormous confusions and uncertainties that have never left us.

The continued relevance of these issues is one of the best reasons to see this show -- however hard it may be for modern viewers to take seriously depictions of adulterous mothers prostrate on the floor, or models lying around in pseudo-Greek costumes.

"You could make a connection between the United States now and Victorian England," says Malcolm Warner, curator of paintings at the Yale Center for British Art and author of the exhibit's catalog. "They were the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world, yet haunted by social divisions, poverty and a sense of decline. And those things existed alongside a certain amount of nationalism and optimism."

Some familiar, some not

There are many fine artists in this show. Some are well known to us -- notably the Americans James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent. Others, such as Edward Burne-Jones, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, deserve more note than they have received, at least on this side of the Atlantic.

While the works of these artists will never compete for our attention with those of their contemporaries of the French school -- from Manet, Monet and Degas to van Gogh, Gauguin and Cezanne -- one of the show's appeals is its freshness.

The show's 69 paintings are arranged in several sections, but thematically most of the work divides into two broad categories. One body of artists, those of "Modern Life" and the "Pre-Raphaelites," saw art as a way to explore modern issues and moral questions. On the other hand were the artists who saw art as an escape.

Some "Modern Life" works extolled the good life, such as Ford Madox Brown's "Work" (1852 and 1856-1863). The center of this large canvas shows laborers hard at physical toil. At the side stand historian and social critic Thomas Carlyle and the Christian Socialist F. D. Maurice. These men aren't doing anything physical, but according to the artist as quoted in the catalog, they are "brainworkers, the cause of well-ordained work and happiness in others."

Other works decried the bad life, and pictured its consequences. Augustus Leopold Egg's series of three paintings, "Past and Present" (about 1857-1858), deals with the consequences of adultery. In the first, the guilty wife lies on the floor pleading for mercy, while her unforgiving husband clutches the letter from her lover that has revealed her sin. In the corner, two children are distracted from their play by Mother's predicament. In the second picture, Mother gone and Father dead, the two children, somewhat older, live in a poor garret instead of their former middle-class home. And in the third picture, the mother, utterly fallen, crouches under a bridge clutching her illegitimate child.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, founded in 1848, eschewed the idealism of high Renaissance art as embodied by Raphael, and embraced an art that sought truth through realistic attention to detail. In his "Ophelia" (1851-1852), Millais placed the "Hamlet" heroine in a stream surrounded by minutely detailed vegetation.

The Pre-Raphaelites' works were heavy with moralizing symbolism. In Hunt's "The Awakening Conscience" (1853-1854), a fallen woman suddenly sees the light of redemption through a window and rises from her lover's embrace. On the floor a cat teases a bird it has caught, a reference to the man's responsibility for the woman's low state.

The Pre-Raphaelites saw moral value even in terms of technique. "The moral and religious understanding of work grew naturally, in the minds of earnest painters, into a moral and religious understanding of brushwork," writes Warner. "If it showed honest toil, it was good; if not, especially if it suggested some kind of sensual pleasure in paint as a material, it smacked of sin."

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