Under the reign of Queen Victoria, England experienced a fantastic growth in many ways. The Empire was expanding to all parts of the world. Industries were springing up everywhere and provided work for many people. Victorian's also started examining the world around them, which resulted in the questioning of traditional beliefs and theories in science and religion. The reign of Queen Victoria, the longest reign in British history, also gave a sense of stability and continuity to this time.
Even though Victorian times where full of exciting new developments, there was a dark side. Children were forced to work 10-12 hour days in factories and coal mines, and many never lived to be 20. The industries that were supplying so many jobs caused a great deal of pollution, resulting in poison fogs, all kinds of respiratory diseases, and a grimy, sooty film covering everything in the cities. The new observations in nature and science caused a crisis of beliefs, especially in religion.
How does this relate to art? The artists of the time were faced with many of these dilemmas. Their work reflects their times and attempts to offer solutions. Some artists believed that beautiful art could lift people's spirits enough to elevate their way of life. Other artists created idealistic paintings in which people could get lost. This theory offered people a way to escape the dark world they lived in, and for just a moment they could enjoy the Mediterranean sun or pristine nature. Other artists strove to awaken the conscience of the Victorian people, alerting them to the problems surrounding them physically, morally, and spiritually.
Does this sound like our world today? We are experiencing a technological revolution that is creating as much change as the Victorians' industrial revolution. The questions raised in Victorian times are still puzzling us today. Like the Victorians we idealize the past but push to a better future.
In my opinion, the art of this period exceeded anything before or since. The Victorians had fewer distraction than we do today, and art provided much of their entertainment. The role of the artist had newly emerged from government and religious sponsorship to an independent state that allowed them to create art for pleasure and for the public. When an artist exhibited a new work, there was tremendous immediate response from the public and critics. The best artists did not cater to the public, so much as respond to it. As Dr. Melinda Parsons said, "Art was big for these people-it was LIFE for these people!" Sadly, it is hard to imagine art having such a prominent part in our lives today. Much of our contemporary art echoes the isolation and incoherency that has become the theme of our times, whereas Victorian art celebrated beauty, literature, myth, and human emotions.
The Royal Academy and its president were the center of the British cultural society. The Royal Academy acted as an art school, club, and museum. Promising male students were admitted to the Royal Academy to learn and expand on techniques passed on and built upon since the Italian Renaissance. If you wanted to become an artist in England, the Royal Academy was THE place to go; the education anywhere else was considered preparatory. Studies at the "Academy" usually lasted about five years.
To become a member of the Academy you first had to be an Associate. Nominees were voted on by the 40 members of the Academy comprised of Associates and Academicians. After several years of excellent work and high public opinion, Associates could be considered for Academician status. The Academician nominees were voted on by the other Academicians, with a Diploma work as the final approval. The Academicians were also allowed to vote in the selection of a president for the Royal Academy.
Student and professional exhibitions where held throughout the year. Proceeds went to providing free instruction for the students and financial support for poor artists and their families. It was at these exhibitions that artists were able to create their reputation. Artists outside of the academy were mainly considered amateurs. These outside artists were rarely allowed to submit their work in the exhibitions at the Royal Academy and were forced to exhibit their work in smaller galleries.
The Academy was slow to accept new theories in art and truly clung to a proven tradition of excellence. When the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhoodformed, their works with vibrant colors and accurate reflections of nature created a stir in the Academy. They were harshly attacked but John Ruskin, the leading art critic of the time, came to their defense. He saw their new style as a breath of fresh air. In time, aspects of the Pre-Raphaelite style crept into the Academy. The result was a renewed interest in accurately reflecting nature and brilliant flashes of intense color, as well as the return of meaningful subject matter.
I truly hope you come to enjoy the pictures on this site as much as I do. I have added commentary on several of the paintings to explain the story that the artist is telling, because, next to beauty, a good story was what the Victorians enjoyed the most.