Weguelin was one of the many late Victorian artists who explored the area between classical subjects, aesthetic idealism, and domestic genre. He was born in 1849 at South Stoke, near Arundel, where his father, the Rev. William Andrew Weguelin, was rector. His early boyhood was spent in Italy, mainly in Rome, and the fact that he received his formal education at Cardinal Newman's Oratory School at Edgbaston, Birmingham, suggests that this may have had something to do with a conversion to Roman Catholicism on the part of his father. This was just the time when conversions were rife in the wake of Newman's own secession in 1845. Whatever the case, according to A.L. Baldry in an article published in the Studio in 1905, our principal source of information about Weguelin's career, the experience of living in Italy as a child developed the artist's lifelong feeling for classical and pagan themes. In 1870, rather surprisingly, Weguelin became an underwriter at Lloyds (perhaps there was money in the family), but in 1873, when he was twenty-four, he finally took up the study of art by entering the Slade, then under the directorship of Edward Poynter. There he remained some years, also benefitting from the teaching of Alphonse Legros, who succeeded Poynter as Slade Professor in 1876.
Weguelin began his career as an exhibiting artist in 1877, when he sent a watercolour to the Dudley Gallery in the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly. A year later he made his debut both at the Royal Academy and at the Grosvenor Gallery, the more liberal, 'aesthetic' alternative to the RA which had opened with great éclat in 1877. He was also to support the Grosvenor's successor, the New Gallery, the Society of British Artists, and the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours, of which he became an associate in 1893 and a full member four years later. This, together with the fact that he ceased to exhibit at the Academy in 1897, signalled an important change of artistic direction. After his early appearance at the Dudley Gallery, which specialised in watercolours, he had painted mainly in oils; but from 1893 he became primarily a watercolour painter, handling the medium with dexterity and panache.
'It is by no means an easy matter', wrote A.L. Baldry in the Studio article, 'to define exactly the place which Mr J.R. Weguelin occupies among present day artists. At one time... he might have been ranked with the classicists, ... (but) as his art has matured the tendency of it to insist upon beauty for beauty's sake has become more pronounced, ... (and) he can best be discussed today as a painter of classic abstractions.'
The prevailing influence on Weguelin's early work was the archaeological classicism of Alma-Tadema. The picture he showed at the Dudley in 1877 was The Death of the First-born, a subject that Alma-Tadema had treated twice, first in 1859 and then again in a picture shown at the RA in 1872 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) that Weguelin may well have seen. In a work such as Old Love Renewed (illustrated in Baldry's article, p. 193), Weguelin followed his hero in exploiting the sentimental possibilities of the ancient world, but at other times (again like Alma-Tadema) he shows himself alert to its more disturbing aspects. Examples are Herodias and her Daughter (RA 1884), which was on the London art market some years ago, or The Obsequies of an Egyptian Cat (RA 1886), an old reproduction of which is in the Witt Library. Most sinister and creepy of all is Yes or No - Speak! - Is there another Life?, in which a philosopher questions a severed head produced by a Roman executioner. For this gem, too, we are indebted to the Witt.
During the late 1880s, Alma-Tadema's influence declined and Weguelin developed a breezier and more idyllic idiom, in which nymphs, dryads, mermaids and the like cavort in a world of pagan fantasy. Formally, there is also dramatic change, the tightness of his early work giving way to a freer and more experimental approach, both in terms of brushwork and composition. The bold aysmmetry of these later designs perhaps owes something to Art Nouveau. Certainly Weguelin's concept of the female nude betrays his early contact with the French academic tradition at the Slade. One might even imagine that, inspired by the example of younger contemporaries, he had taken a 'refresher course' in one of the Paris ateliers, but there is no hint of this in the admittedly meagre records. Perhaps the most original aspects of Weguelin's work were his interest in movement, which sometimes led him to depict figures in swings, and his intense awareness of light. This was marked in his early paintings, but acquired an even greater dominance in his later and more open style. His gradual progession from oil to watercolour was entirely logical.
The present picture was exhibited at the New Gallery in 1888, and is one of Weguelin's finest works. The two facts are probably not unconnected. Weguelin had continued to show at the Grosvenor throughout the 1880s, partly, no doubt, because it was supported by Poynter, Legros and Alma-Tadema, while the invariable star of the exhibitions was Poynter's brother-in-law, Burne-Jones. By 1887, however, there was general dissatisfaction with the way the Gallery was being conducted by its proprietor, Sir Coutts Lindsay, and his two lieutenants, Joseph Comyns Carr and Charles Hallé, decided to set up their own gallery, the New Gallery, in Regent Street, to maintain the Grosvenor's original ideals. Burne-Jones promised his support and sent three important works, including two of the long-awaited Perseus series, to the opening exhibition, which was held in the summer of 1888 after the Gallery had been built at great speed the previous winter. Other artists, including Watts and Legros, also sent exceptional pictures, while Hallé, who was a practising artist as well as one of the Gallery's directors, contributed his masterpiece, Paolo and Francesca (sold in these Rooms in March 1992). It seems likely that Weguelin was also eager to appear in as good a light as possible, aware that the competition would be formidable. His picture was hung in the North Gallery, together with five works by Alma-Tadema and examples of Millais, Blake Richmond, Herkomer, Holl, Spencer Stanhope and others.
In the catalogue the picture was accompanied by four lines of anonymous verse. These have not been identified, and it is possible that when they are (assuming they were not made up by Weguelin himself), they will shed more light on the subject. At present, this seems a little eccentric. Bacchus is conceived conventionally enough, bedecked with vine leaves, holding his wand of 'thyrsis', a symbol of fertility, and reclining on a leopard skin. Leopards or tigers traditionally drew his triumphal car, a reflection of the popularity of his cult in Asia. The setting may well be the island of Naxos, where Bacchus came to the rescue of Ariadne after she had been abandoned there by Theseus. But why is he conducting a choir of nymphs? Bacchus is not normally associated with music; indeed acting as choirmaster would be a more appropriate role for Apollo, an accomplished performer on the lyre and viol whom Renaissance humanists saw as the direct antithesis of Bacchus, the one representing order and reason, the other licence and passion. Is Bacchus inspiring the young women - maenads, bacchantes or whatever - to take part in the orgies that his cult entailed, in which an animal was torn in pieces and consumed raw by the devotees as a symbolic eating of the god himself?
Critics, on the whole, liked the picture. 'As a classical study of nude figures', observed the Illustrated London News, 'Mr Weguelin's picture of "Bacchus and the Nymphs" has the interest belonging to a theme often treated with effect by artists of the Renaissance school.' Perhaps the writer was thinking of Titian's famous Bacchus and Ariadne in the National Gallery, although there is no correspondence between the two pictures apart from the island setting.
Other critics focused on Weguelin's relationship with Alma-Tadema. The Art Journal felt that both Bacchus and the Choir of Nymphs and Alma-Tadema's Venus and Mars (whereabouts unknown) were 'seriously studied', and gave 'a more or less true notion of the figure in its natural relation to the environment.' Hardly, perhaps, a profound comment, but it does draw attention to Weguelin's skill at painting figures in an outdoor setting, welding all parts of the picture together in terms of design and colour. The way he renders flesh, rocks and sea under the influence of strong natural light is particularly impressive. Maybe this is what the same critic meant when he said that Weguelin's colour was 'hard and cold' while Alma-Tadema's was 'mellow'.
A more decisive observation came from the critic on the Times, who remarked that Weguelin 'has till now followed Mr Alma-Tadema a little too closely; we are glad to see him in this picture stand alone.' Bacchus and the Choir of Nymphs is certainly a transitional work. Alma-Tadema's influence is almost completely outgrown. The female figures still owe much to Poynter, and the composition has not yet taken off into those realms of airy hedonism that sometimes make late Weguelin remind us of Charles Sims. But the idyllic mood is already present, combining with a firm academic structure and the artist's abiding interest in light to produce a picture of considerable charm and character. In spirit it may be deliberately light-hearted, even frivolous; but artistically speaking it is by no means without intelligence.