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Engrossing paintings in Cheekwood exhibit help tell the story of 19th-century British life

Engrossing paintings in Cheekwood exhibit help tell the story of 19th-century British life

The Defining Moment: Victorian Narrative

Paintings from the FORBES Magazine Collection

Through Aug. 6

Cheekwood Museum of Art

1200 Forrest Park Dr.

Hours: 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mon.-Sat.; 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Sun.

Gate fee: $8 adults, $7 seniors and college students, $5 ages 6-17, free to children under 6

For information, call 356-8000

In Victorian narrative painting, what you see is only part of what you get. While such paintings offer a strong story line in realistic detail, they leave much to the viewer’s imagination. In the 50 paintings on view at Cheekwood, the chief pleasure for the viewer today is the same as when these works were created over 100 years ago—to finish the story the paintings only begin.

In Edmund Blair Leighton’s “Till Death Do Us Part,” for example, a very solemn bride proceeds down the aisle on the arm of her much older groom while a handsome young man glowers at them from a nearby pew. Is he the rejected lover, and is she about to enter into a loveless marriage that will save her family from financial ruin? Or is the young man actually the cad who wronged the bride’s virtue and the old gentleman the kindly savior she may come to appreciate and love in time?

James Collinson’s “To Let” challenges us to fill in the blanks in the same way. In this work, a bold-looking woman is standing at a window. Is she a prostitute offering herself along with the room that’s advertised by the “to let” sign glimpsed through the window? Or is she a defiant widow who must resort to renting rooms to support herself and her four fatherless children? Or is she just a pretty girl pausing at a window?

“You don’t know how the story is going to end in these paintings,” says Lisa Porter, Cheekwood’s assistant curator of decorative arts who also oversaw the Victorian travel photo and furnishing displays that complement the painting exhibition. “That’s the fun part for the viewer. But when we see these paintings today, we look at them in a sentimental fashion that’s informed by modern trends, while the Victorians...would have picked up on the symbols and references to culture and class.”

What we see as gender stereotyping today, then, was seen in Queen Victoria’s day as a celebration of womanhood and the cult of masculinity. A woman may have ruled the most powerful empire on earth, but a woman’s place in Victorian England was absolutely at home waiting on or for her man (as in Rebecca Solomon’s “The Love Letter”). A man’s place, on the other hand, was hanging off cliffs in pursuit of wild prey (as in James Clarke Hook’s “The Gull Catcher”) or raising a toast to the queen while defending some empire outpost (as in John Evan Hodgson’s “The Queen, God Bless Her!”).

While many works in the show depict pleasant, even idealized slices of ordinary life, most turn on, to quote the exhibit title, a “defining moment”—some critical or dramatic event from history or real life designed to grab viewers and engage them emotionally. “There is a little bit of voyeurism at work in these paintings,” Porter admits.

In Alice Walker’s “Wounded,” for example, we watch with guilty fascination as a young woman’s world comes crashing down when she glimpses her faithless soldier lover flirting with another woman at a ball. In Thomas Brooks’ “Resignation” we are privy to a young upper-class mother’s grief as she keeps vigil at the bedside of a dying child, while in Frank Holl’s “Doubtful Hope,” an impoverished mother waits for the apothecary to mix a potion we somehow know will hold no remedy for the infant she cradles in her arms.

The narrative painting flourished in Great Britain during Queen Victoria’s 64-year reign (1837-1901), an age when art was becoming accessible to the rising middle class. During this period, the Royal Academy had established a great annual art exhibition and sale that featured paintings from contemporary artists. By the 1880s, some 400,000 people were flocking to the annual Academy exhibitions, held in London from early May to late August. If they came to savor the entertaining moments of truth captured on canvas, they also came to admire the skills of the artists themselves. Even to a modern audience, those skills are considerable.

In Kate Hayller’s “A Thing of Beauty Is a Joy Forever,” one of the few works in the show that is a pure still life, the minute detail, rich colors, and balanced composition create an extraordinary effect. Besides its sheer loveliness, the work captures a slice of female life in Victorian times by depicting the objects found in the corner of a well-appointed home. The rich, exotic patterns and colors in the work also suggest the far reach of the British Empire, which brought Oriental, Indian, and African influences into the sphere of an everyday housewife.

“There was a rising middle class due to the Industrial Revolution, and they had more income,” Porter says. “Artists therefore had a more ready market, and everyone was collecting marble sculptures, Italian paintings, and Japanese ceramics. The Victorians were big consumers, and they were filling their houses with stuff.” Visitors to the Cheekwood painting exhibition can see some of that stuff in a gallery filled with Victorian decorative arts from Cheekwood’s own collection. Included are a vintage dress, two paintings, furniture, and a display of hair jewelry, that peculiar Victorian accessory line that turned woven human hair into bracelets, brooches, and other baubles.

Each painting in the show is accompanied by a brief but thought-provoking text panel written by guest curator Dr. Susan P. Casteras, a professor of art history at the University of Washington and former curator of paintings at the Yale Center for British Art. Tidbits about flower symbolism or death imagery are included in Casteras’ text as well as some suggestions about the story line of each painting. “The labels are excellent, because we really don’t speak the Victorians’ language anymore,” Porter says.

In a way, the entire exhibition is like a good foreign film, which succeeds in telling its story and touching the emotions even if the viewer must rely on English subtitles—or in this case, text panels—for complete understanding. As the viewer passes by scene after scene of Victorian high drama or idyllic everyday life, what emerges is a very human picture of an era that still has quite a story to tell.

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