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Victor: Victorians

A fallen generation of artists regains its lost luster in an exhibition at the National Gallery.

March 02, 1997|Stanley Meisler | Stanley Meisler is a Times staff writer

WASHINGTON — The successful artists of Victorian Britain basked in fame and fortune. Far from the cliched image of penniless painters desperate for patrons, most earned fees matched nowhere else in the 19th century. Few societies have ever honored their artists so well. But after their deaths, the 20th century did not treat the Victorian artists with kindness. Their reputations withered under scorn and neglect.

The Victorian Age struck the modern world as stuffy, hypocritical, ornate and boring. Victorian art was so ignored that one of its most prized works--"Flaming June" by Frederic Leighton, a painter so renowned in his day that the queen made him a lord--was found on sale in the stall of a Chelsea flea market in London in 1963 for 50 pounds (the equivalent that year of $140).

Since then, there has been a swelling revival of market interest in the art painted and admired by the Victorians. "Flaming June," owned by the Luis A. Ferre Foundation of Ponce in Puerto Rico, is valued in the millions of dollars.

In fact, this portrait of a sensuous sleeping woman draped in undulating folds of pink material is the featured work on the posters for an unprecedented exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The exhibition, called "The Victorians: British Painting in the Reign of Queen Victoria, 1837-1901," is the first major survey exhibition of Victorian art ever shown in the United States. Washington is the only venue: The exhibition, which opened Feb. 16 and closes May 11, shows nowhere else in the world.

The 68 paintings, most from British collections, are regarded as the finest paintings produced in Victorian Britain.

"Victorian art is not an easy sell," said Malcolm Warner, the curator of paintings and sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art, in a recent interview. "People have all kinds of prejudice against things Victorian. We had to have real knock-down masterpieces. We had to have the best of Victorian art."

Not all the artists are British; Americans John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler, Frenchman James Tissot and German Franz Xavier Winterhalter are included. But all painted in Britain and shared the mood of these Victorian times.

Warner, the curator of European art at the San Diego Museum of Art until last November, organized the exhibition with Nicolai Cikovsky Jr., the curator of American and British paintings at the National Gallery.

The 43-year-old Warner, part of a younger generation of British art historians rediscovering Victorian art, first came upon these painters in a book in a public library when he was a schoolboy. He soon found his attention fixed on an early group of Victorians with the strange name of Pre-Raphaelites.

"I loved the symbols," he said. "There was more to a painting than what you actually saw. Every object had a secret meaning. I love that kind of puzzle solving."

This fascination infuses the exhibition catalog, a model of clarity and narration that fixes the artists and their paintings in the sweep of the extraordinary Victorian era. It was written by Warner.

In the 63 years that Victoria reigned as queen, Britain was the richest and mightiest nation on Earth, its wealth and strength powered by the Industrial Revolution. Historian and critic Thomas Carlyle called those years "the Age of Machinery . . . the age which . . . forwards, teaches and practices the great art of adapting means to ends."

A new class of rich industrialists and businessmen dominated smoke-belching cities and flaunted an eagerness to pay high prices for art to adorn their homes and embellish their reputations. Since they knew little about the Old Masters, whether Italian, Dutch, Spanish or even British, they bought contemporary art produced nearby.

British contemporary artists were in a somewhat rebellious mood then. Three young painters--Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt--founded a movement in 1848 that they called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They wanted to break from the idealized, grand manner of traditional British artists who painted people and their surroundings with more nobility and elegance than warranted by reality.

Insisting that this type of painting had started with Italian Renaissance master Raphael, the rebels argued that artists should return to earlier days when painters did not idealize. That is why they called themselves Pre-Raphaelites.

Rossetti, Millais, Hunt and their followers wanted their paintings to reflect the real world, showing it neither more beautiful nor more ugly than it was.

"Pre-Raphaelism has but one principle," wrote art critic John Ruskin, their booster, "that of absolute, uncompromising truth in all that it does, obtained by working everything down to the most minute detail, from nature, and from nature only." Hunt even made four lengthy trips to Jerusalem so that the background to his religious paintings would be authentic.

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