The classical nude
Solomon Joseph Solomon (1860-1927), The Judgement of Paris, 1891. Oil on canvas. 96 x 66 in. (243.8 x 167.6 cm.) Estimate: £100,000-150,000. This work is offered in the Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art sale on 16 December at Christie’s London
Victorian attitudes to painting the nude were complex, and artists had to tread a careful line between acceptability and provocation. English painting lacked a tradition of tackling the nude — portraits, landscapes and still-lives being preferred in cooler Protestant climes.
The Art Journal of 1867 noted that ‘fortunately for the morals of our people, and the good manners of society… English pictures are for the most part decently draped’. It could not resist the observation however that ‘the French do not even pretend to delicacy’.
In the 1860s, many British artists started to train on the continent, and imported a tradition of painting classical nudes in the manner of Ingres: flawless, sculptural, and unreal in their perfection. Solomon’s Aphrodite belongs to this tradition, acceptable on the walls of the Royal Academy as purity of body was then thought to indicate purity of soul, innocent of carnal knowledge. Solomon tantalises his audience however, by giving Aphrodite a very contemporary Edwardian coiffure, and the possibility that she might, Pygmalion-like, step through the picture plane.
Victorians in togas
John William Godward (1861-1922), A mouse in the work basket, 1893. Oil on canvas. 25.1/4 x 10 in. (64 x 25.4 cm.) Estimate: £50,000-80,000. This work is offered in the Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art sale on 16 December at Christie’s London
Godward, following in the footsteps of Alma-Tadema, also liked to tease his audience by suggesting that life in Ancient Rome was not so dissimilar to their own. Here, a mouse has been disturbed in the work basket. The girl’s fright and phobia have caused her to stand on a chair, wrapping her flimsy skirt round her, thereby showing not only a glimpse of ankle but also a shapely silhouette.
Contemporary audiences would have allowed themselves to be both amused and gently titillated by such a scene, their morals unoffended by the sanitizing effect of classical as opposed to contemporary dress.
Sir Edward John Poynter, Bt., P.R.A., R.W.S. (1826-1919), Zenobia Captive, 1878. Oil on canvas. 28.1/2 x 21.1/2 in. (72 x 54.5 cm.) Estimate: £250,000-350,000. This work is offered in the Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art sale on 16 December at Christie’s London
One of the greatest proponents of classicism in Victorian Art, Sir Edward Poynter was a polymath who ran both the Royal Academy and the National Gallery, as well as exhibiting prolifically.
Here, he has chosen an eastern subject, Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, who had declared herself Empress, but been defeated by Aurelian and led bejewelled, and enchained, through the streets of Rome. Poynter has chosen his heroine as a means of depicting virtue: in Zenobia’s case courage, fortitude and resilience.
Married to one of the remarkable Macdonald sisters, Poynter became brother in law to Burne-Jones, and uncle to Rudyard Kipling and the future prime minister, Stanley Baldwin. In an era before female suffrage and widespread employment, he was well placed to reflect on female ability.
The society portrait
Philip Alexius de László (1869-1937), Mrs Wilfrid Ashley, later Lady Mount Temple, née Miss Muriel (Molly) Spencer and formerly the Hon. Mrs Forbes-Sempill, 1920. Oil on canvas. 31.3/4 x 25.7/8 in. (80.7 x 65.8 cm.) Estimate: £40,000-60,000. This work is offered in the Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art sale on 16 December at Christie’s London
De Laszlo worked in a lighter vein, and flattered his sitters with bravura brushwork. In this portrait of Lady Mount-Temple he has taken dress to daring new limits. Echoing Sargent’s famous portrait of Madame X, Lady Mount-Temple’s costume is daringly off the shoulder, while her character is reflected in the jauntiness of her cap.
Her husband was delighted, writing to the artist, ‘The portraits in this house by Van Dyck, Reynolds and Lawrence will welcome so distinguished an addition to their company’. De Laszlo inherited Sargent’s mantle as one of the most sought after portraitists of the age. He painted almost all European royalty, and most of its aristocracy, travelling incessantly to fulfil commissions.
Images from Greek mythology
Henry Treffry Dunn (1838-1899), Proserpine. Inscribed and dated ‘PROSERPINE after D.G. ROSSETTI 1883’ . Coloured chalks on paper. 46.1/4 x 21.1/4 in. (117.5 x 54 cm.) Estimate: £150,000-250,000. This work is offered in the Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art sale on 16 December at Christie’s London
The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood announced themselves to the London art world in 1848, determined to challenge and change the look and subject matter of Victorian academic painting, which they considered saccharine and derivative.
By the 1870s they had all embraced different aesthetics. Rossetti arguably the most original and poetic of them all, explored images of heroic women from the past, famous figures of ancient history and literature — Proserpine was the beautiful empress of Hades condemned to live in the darkness of the underworld.
Here, the figure of Proserpine, with her luxuriant tresses, angular face with its sensual mouth and haunting pale blue eyes, dominates the composition. The model was Jane Morris, with whom Rossetti conducted an affair for over 10 years; he was infatuated with her beauty, and she was the inspiration for many of his most celebrated works.
Proserpine is interpreted as a coded comment on Jane’s entrapment in a loveless marriage to Rossetti’s friend William Morris, (founder of the Arts and Crafts movement), and is Rossetti’s most iconic image, to the extent that he was commissioned to do many versions by his patrons. These he did with the aid of his Cornish studio assistant Henry Dunn who worked with him from 1867 until his death. Rossetti died before he could complete the version shown here so Dunn completed it himself in 1883, months after Rossetti’s death.
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