The advance in science and scholarship in the Victorian era and the impact of the publication of writings and engravings about ancient civilisations, in particular the archeaological discoveries of Pompeii and Herculaneum, gave an enormous stimulus to public interest in historical events, and ability to relate to them. This gave impetus to the historical-antiquarian painters as well as to the revival of neo-classicism. Neo-classicism was always present in the English School owing to its prestige abroad and its incorporation into the teaching of art (e.g. the study of the Elgin Marbles) in England. It made its strong emergence again to fulfil the need for a genre of painting which could express the power and aspirations of a fast-expanding and increasingly wealthy nation.
History-painting had never been very strong as a genre in this country, despite the growing need for a heroic vehicle. Leighton and Poynter, influenced as they were by European painting, chose neo-classicism as the vehicle for their figure-painting, and the deed was done. They were closely followed by Alma-Tadema, who, however, managed to convert the genre out of its usual heroic path into an extension of genre painting. Yet the uncertainties of the age crept even into this genre, and the paintings of Leighton and Poynter are often of a gentler, more Virgilian character, or as sophisticated as a Prudhom or a Pellegrini. In the case of Alma-Tadema, genre subjects were clothed in classical garments and fulfilled much the same function of consolidation and affirmation of society as contemporary subject genre, dignified by historical association. The genre of neo-classicism was established by about 1866 and continued into the late 1880s. Leighton's personality and elevation as PRA and into the Peerage secured the position of the genre as Britain's High Art. -- Anthea Brooke
Brooke, Anthea. Victorian Painting. Catalogue for exhibition November-December 1977. London: Fine Art Society, 1977.
Wood, Christopher. Olympian Dreamers: Victorian Classical Painters. London: Constable, 1983.
Last modified 5 November 2004