For the first time in France, the Désirs & Volupté exhibition at the Jacquemart-André Museum
invites the general public to discover famous British artists of the reign of Queen Victoria, among them Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), Sir Frederic Leighton (1830-1896), Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) and Albert Moore (1841-1893). The fifty paintings exhibited reflect the common desire of the artists to pay homage to the cult of beauty .
As the leading world power in the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), Great Britain paved the way for extensive economic and social upheaval. The artists expressed a sensual aesthetic with paintings offering a sharp contrast to the severity and moralising attitudes of the day: a return to Antiquity, interest in the nude, sumptuous decorative paintings, poetic as well as literary expression with medieval topics, a legacy from the Pre-Raphaelites.
The very essence of these artists work, who made beauty an absolute and an art of living, was to seek aesthetical beauty. Women were the main subject of this artistic style known as the Aesthetic Movement. Their bodies were no longer hampered as they were in everyday life but naked, symbolising a form of sensuous pleasure and feminine desire. Portrayed in a reinvented living environment, women are transformed into heroines from Antiquity or medieval times. Nature in all its abundance and sumptuous palaces serve as decors for these sublime, lascivious, sensual, amorous, kindly or evil women. Painting becomes a waking dream, with an abundance of symbols.
The paintings on show at the Jacquemart-André Museum, some of which are true icons of British art (The Roses of Heliogabalus by Alma-Tadema, Greek Girls Picking up Pebbles by the Sea by Leighton, The Quartet by Albert Moore, Andromeda by Poynter, etc.), are part of one of the most important private collections of Victorian paintings: the Pérez Simón collection .
Painters Lawrence Alma Tadema, Edward Burne Jones, John William Godward, Frederick Goodall, Arthur Hughes, Talbot Hughes, Frederic Leighton, Edwin Long, John Everett Millais, Albert Moore, Henry Payne, Charles Edward Perugini, Edward John Poynter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Emma Sandys, Simeon Solomon, John Strudwick, John William Waterhouse and William Clarke Wontner, emblematic of this Victorian period are represented through this exhibition.
At a time when British museums are rediscovering their Victorian painting collections, the Jacquemart-André Museum has also chosen to pay tribute to the great artists of this period through their celebration of feminine beauty. Offering a wide overview of British painting from the 1860s until the eve of the First World War, they all come from the Pérez Simón collection, which contains one of the finest panoramas of privately owned Victorian art.
Room 1 - Antiquity revisited
Centred on the emblematic figure of Lawrence Alma-Tadema, the first room in the exhibition reflects the strong enthusiasm for Antiquity shared by the Victorian élite. Thriving on extensive classical culture, the upper middle classes of the time had a passion for the archaeological discoveries made in Greece and Italy. The finest pieces arrived to enrich the British Museum collections and delight the London public. The extreme refinement of the decors revealed by the major excavation sites in Rome and Pompeii nurtured nostalgia for a golden age, an ancient world full of luxury and pleasure in landscapes enshrouded in sunlight. The artists who sought to bring this fantasy ancient world to life were therefore very successful.
As a result, Alma-Tadema became a favourite with collectors and was the most successful painter of his era. Of Dutch origin, he trained in Belgium where he acquired a taste for precision. He discovered Pompeii in 1863 and developed an enthusiasm for this new repertoire reflecting Antiquity that he reproduced to perfection (Returning Home from Market 1865), influenced by the French academicism and, above all by Jean-Léon Gérôme whom he met in Paris in 1864. Noticed by the very active Ernest Gambart, a Belgian dealer based in London, Alma-Tadema left Brussels for London in 1870.
Thanks to the historic accuracy of his reconstitutions, his sense of theatre and taste for decorative details, he was quickly very successful among the Victorian élite, captivated by the elegance and refinement of his paintings. He thus became one of the most active members of artistic society in London. While he mostly painted small size for the middle-class interiors of his contemporaries (Greek Wine, 1873), Alma-Tadema also painted a few exceptionally large paintings for his richest customers from 1885 onwards (The Roses of Heliogabalus, 1888).
Alma-Tadema stands out for the clarity of his compositions and his impressive technique. Whether representing episodes from history (Agrippina with the Ashes of Germanicus, 1866) to daily life (An Exedra, 1871), he constructed very structured scenes, playing on architecture and areas of shadow and light. A virtuoso, he devoted particular attention to the effect achieved when laying down paint and his ability to depict the brilliance of marble or the transparency of alabaster is unsurpassed (The Question, 1877 and An Earthly Paradise, 1891). With The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888), he painted a masterpiece, the power of which resides in the combination of extensively rich decoration with strong dramatic tension.
Room 2 - Classical beauty
While Alma-Tadema successfully made use of a repertoire depicting Antiquity, other painters, such as Frederick Goodall (1822-1904) also devoted themselves to this theme, choosing to place representation of woman at the core of their artistic work. Their interest in Antiquity which they discovered during travel in Greece or Italy was reflected in their painting by a search for formal perfection.
While Alma-Tadema was excited by Greek and Roman Antiquity, Goodalls passion was Ancient Egypt, discovered during a stay in Cairo from 1858-1859. He returned there in 1870-1871 and his entire career was to be dominated by the representation of scenes from Egyptian life, nurtured with historic or biblical references. The Finding of Moses, which accurately depicts the architecture and decor of Egyptian temples as well as the flora and fauna of the Nile, is a magnificent example of his painting.
With their work echoing the theoretical debates taking place on the British artistic scene of the time, Frederic Leighton and Albert Moore stand out for the force and beauty of their compositions.
Frederic Leighton occupies a unique position among the artists of his generation. After training in Germany and Rome, he spent three years in Paris. Much impressed by the art of Ingres and academic painting in Europe, his work was entirely devoted to the search of formal beauty. He drew inspiration from a classical repertoire for his Greek Girls Picking up Pebbles by the Sea (1871), giving them a canon reminiscent of Roman scultpure. The dancing rhythm of his composition, the folds of fabric artificially lifted by the wind and the clever use of soft colours accentuate the decorative scope of the painting. In Antigone (c.1882), the palette is thicker. The artist emphasizes the sculptural nature of the composition by the twist of the bust and neck, giving the representation strong tragic intensity, directly inspired by classical Roman sculpture.
A solitary figure, Albert Moore was first of all influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Extensive study of Greek and Roman sculpture in the British Museum led him in around 1865 to develop a purely decorative style of painting, inspired by the Greco-Roman antiquity but without overly seeking historic truth. Drawing inspiration from Greek sculpture models, he upheld art for arts sake and painted women with supple bodies, clothed in diaphanous drapes, emphasising their harmonious proportions (Shells, 1875). With the Quartet (1868), he devised his canvas as a painters tribute to music and, in an unusual manner, associated a Greek background with contemporary instruments. He thus developed an intellectual approach to painting, giving his composition a musical rhythm, visually suggesting a score and musical harmony.
Room 3 - Muses and Models
Despite the considerable influence of themes, the artists inspiration came also from the women, muses or models in their immediate circle.
Burne-Jones was part of the second Pre-Raphaelite movement but quickly set himself apart. Strongly inspired early on by literature, the artist cultivated a very personal style and a pronounced taste for English beauties with red hair, chiselled faces and long, graceful figures. This British charm had greatly captivated the Pre-Raphaelites and remained very popular with artists, as can be seen by the milky skin and leonine hair of the dreaming woman represented by Emma Sandys (1843-1876).
The figure of Pygmalion, to which Burne-Jones devoted several works, became an allegory of the artist for whom the ideal woman is one who inspires him, poses for him and is reinvented by him on canvas. Bessie Keene was one of the most important models for Burne-Jones. In the early sixties, he also used his wife Georgiana as the model as can be seen in Fatima. This practically unknown painting concentrated many of the sources of inspiration of Burne-Jones: the young woman with red hair and a very youthful face is wearing a Renaissance style dress, not unlike those that Burne-Jones discovered during his stay in Venice. True to his taste for a blend of the sublime and macabre, here the artist is illustrating the story of Bluebeard. He has grasped the crucial moment when the young girl is about to open the forbidden door. The soft calm of her face further highlights the dramatic power of the scene and arouses fear in the spectator, who knows how many bodies the young wife is about to discover.
Room 4 - Femmes fatales
A topic developed by Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelites, the subject of the femme fatale, captivating, cruel, falsely ingenuous but a true enchantress is a frequent theme in British literature, starting with Shakespeare and brought back into fashion with the Gothic novel and poems of Tennyson. In painting, it was at its peak at the very end of the century, with its greatest representative, John William Waterhouse (1849-1917).
In the mid-1880s, Waterhouse endeavoured to revive Pre-Raphaelite themes, without however adopting their technique and keeping to a more academic approach. Fascinated by the myth of enchantresses, he created a very specific type of feminine beauty, with a long, angular face, slanting eyes and thick hair kept in place with a band. He used this feminine archetype in over thirty paintings, the subjects of which are drawn from Medieval literature, from Antiquity and medieval literature to Shakespeare. The expression of the girl, always distant, reflects the ambiguity of the character. In The Love Philtre, the woman, probably Medea, is questioning the spectator as she pours the poison into the cup. This sketch for a painting now lost, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1914, reflects the combination of an eminently classical theme with a free, very modern touch.
Room 5 - Romantic heroines
As well as in France, the Middle Ages were a subject very much in fashion in British 19th century literature, both in the Walter Scotts novels (1771-1832) and in the lyrical poetry of Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892). In the 1850s, the Pre-Raphaelites made British classical or contemporary literature one of their main sources of inspiration. The artists of the next generation were, in turn, also to draw inspiration from it to develop a new aesthetic repertoire.
John Everett Millais (1829-1896) was one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. After the Pre-Raphaelite group split up, he remained true to some of their themes, giving a romantic feeling to his compositions, such as in The Crown of Love (1875). Here, his subject is taken from a poem by George Meredith (1828-1909) published in 1851, inspired by the tradition of courteous love. Millais, a great lover of Scotland, situated this episode in a typically Scottish autumnal landscape which intensified the romantic scope of the subject.
Alongside Millais, Arthur Hughes (1832-1915) enthusiastically adopted the artistic programme of the members of the young Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood whom he met in 1850. Throughout his career, he remained true to the subjects of the first generation of Pre-Raphaelites, such as the Arthurian tales. In 1862, he took inspiration from The Marriage of Geraint, a poem by Tennyson, to paint Enid and Geraint which relates the story of a knight at the Court of King Arthur who made a love match when he married the daughter of a ruined lord.
Shakespearian plays were also a source of inspiration for Victorian artists. Choosing a verse from A Midsummer Nights Dream as the title, Talbot Hughes (1869-1842), in The Path of True Love Never Did Run Smooth (1896) gave his work exceptional delicacy, both in the shades of colour used and the gracefully melancholic aspect of the young woman.
Another disciple of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, John Melhuish Strudwick (1849-1937) maintained the poetic approach at the core of the Pre-Raphaelite movement for an audience still interested in this type of work. He drew inspiration from a poem by Tennyson to give a unique vision of the figure from King Arthur, Elaine. But his sources of inspiration are varied and he also did not hesitate to dip into British 16th century painting and contemporary music for his Song without Words (1875).
Room 6 - Ideal harmony
Strudwick worked for a long time in the studio of Burne-Jones. The two artists shared the same taste for literary or allegoric figures and refined, poetic compositions. Strudwick worked on each of his paintings for a very long time and favoured complex iconography (The Ramparts of Gods House, 1889).
While still influenced by the visual universe of Burne-Jones, Strudwick developed a very personal manner. He adopted a technique characterised by a linear style, reminiscent of the first Florentine Renaissance, and by a certain air of melancholy, almost palpable in In the Golden Days. He paid meticulous attention to detail, particularly to the sumptuous drapery and refined accessories. He sometimes chose a rich, deep range of colours but above all, liked to work with lighter shades, in a soft harmony of coloured greys.
Much appreciated in the Victorian era by critics as famous as George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), Strudwick remains forgotten for a long time before being rediscovered today by collectors, the most important of them being Juan Antonio Pérez Simón. Shaw particularly admired Passing Days, an allegory of the ages of life. The choice of subject, the melancholic, the impassibility of their characters and subtlety of the colours give this very personal work a symbolic resonance profoundly universal.
Room 7 - The delights of the nude
In the second half of the 19th century, the nude became a genre in its own right in English painting. The greatest artists devoted themselves to it and, as a result, the nude stood as a veritable discipline and no longer as a minor genre involving specialist painters. Paintings of naked women became prolific, mainly small sized works and the paintings from the Pérez Simón collection reflect all the nuances of the genre.
The tutelary figure of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, Gabriel Dante Rossetti (1828-1882) drew his inspiration more from Renaissance Italy for his Venus Verticordia (1867). This highly sensual feminine bust is not a portrait but an allegory of seductive love, as shown by the apple and arrow, highlighted by the russet tones of the pastel.
But the nudes were generally linked to the classical tradition and could take the form of an allegory or a scene from daily life in Italy, Greece or the ancient Orient. After a stay in France, Edward John Poynter (1836-1919), very influenced by Ingres, created a break with his Andromeda (1869), whose body is seen entirely naked.
With Crenaia, the Nymph of the Dargle (around 1880), Leighton, who had also spent time in Paris, once again took up the idea of a female nude set against a landscape, developed by Ingres in his Source. While influenced by this subject and by the formal translation proposed by French artists, he gives it a typically British touch. In the tradition of the English nude started in around 1840, he gave a real face to this young red-headed woman with a supple, sensual body, draped in long transparent pleats reminiscent of the movement of the water in the background waterfall.
John William Godward (1861-1922) excels in this type of sensual representation (In the Tepidarium, 1913); he favoured more intimate scenes where the full sensuality of the body is revealed.
Room 8 The cult of beauty
In Victorian society, all women had to be accomplished housewives. The woman who represented the ideal Beauty for this generation of artists, can only be seen in a universe dedicated to Beauty: her clothes, jewels and living environment must, by their elegance and refinement, reflect and sublimate her graces and virtues.
To meet the requirements of the industrial upper middle classes, architects designed and fitted out sumptuous interiors. The ornamental abundance characteristic of these homes was echoed by the major contemporary artists who, like Alma-Tadema or Leighton, decorated their houses with talent and profusion.
Elegantly clad and comfortably established in a magnificent décor, women escaped from daily life by dreams and romantic passion. These themes of heartache, longing and melancholy offered artists the means to combine poetry and painting by choosing a title for their works from quotations from Shakespeare or contemporary poets. Arthur Hughes and Charles Edward Perugini (1839-1918) favoured contemporary décors but Alma-Tadema on the other hand dreamed up imaginary interiors with a blend of ancient and contemporary details. These deliberate anachronisms give all their charm to paintings such as Vain Courtship, which, across the centuries, emphasises the eternal renaissance of romantic sentiment.
In a style close to that of Alma-Tadema, Godward also adapts the theme of feminine beauty to the classical ideal. His works are characterized by the classically clean drawing, harmony of the bright colours and precise way in which the paint is laid down (Classic Beauty, 1908 and Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder, 1912).
While Antiquity was still one of the major themes for Victorian artists, they also enjoyed exploring other topics. The representation of women was still their main subject but with infinite variations. The magic of the East attracted painters who yielded to its enchantment. Such as William Clarke Wontner (1857-1930) with his Soz Player (1903), they depict British beauties with milky skin and sensual attire in sumptuous décors. Literary society that dreamt of a fantasy world developed a passion for these highly decorative paintings.