There began to be a great talking about the Fine Arts. It was a tempting time for ambitious ignorance. If the knowing had failed to instruct, why should not others try their hand? There was little difficulty in setting about it. Every quack was an example; — abuse all the old and the regular bred of the faculty. Do as a celebrated one did; — rub a good itching disorder into the backs of people, and tell them boldly that's the way to get health and a sound taste.... If possible, be "a graduate," and be sure to repeat the title upon every occasion. — "The Fine Arts and Public Taste in l853,"Blackwood's 74 (1853), 92.

The writer here is the Reverend John Eagles of Blackwood's, and that troublesome graduate, of course, is John Ruskin, the giant of Victorian art criticism whose long shadow cast many such competitors into the shade. Eagles's attack upon the author of Modern Painters furnishes a convenient point of departure for a brief exploratory voyage through Victorian art criticism, reminding us, first of all, of its essentially polemical nature and, second, of the central importance of both Ruskin and periodical reviewing.

Their importance derives from the increasing democratization of the art public in Victorian England. As the conservative Blackwood's pointed out in 1862, "Patronage is now not solely in the sovereignty of the state or in the power of the church, but in the hands of the people. Palaces and churches in these days call for fewer pictures than the private dwellings of merchants and manufacturers" ([J. B. Atkinson], "Pictures British and Foreign: International Exhibition," Blackwood's 92 (1862): 360.) This movement of patronage downward in the social scale had major effects upon the nature of the [125/126] painter's audience, his relation to it, and the kind of art he consequently produced. Although the relation of the artist to patron did not change either as rapidly or as decisively as did that of the English author to his public, one can nonetheless note obvious parallels between the situation in each art.

Eighteenth-Century Changes in Literary Patronage

Shortly after the middle of the eighteenth century Dr. Johnson had announced the decline of the literary patron, whom he had defined for Lord Chesterfield as "one who looks with unconcern on a Man struggling for life in the Water and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help." Although chapbooks and broadsides had" existed to supply ephemeral reading matter for the lower and middle classes for more than a century, serious literature generally required a generous sponsor to defer the cost of publication. One of the most important changes in the relation of the writer to his public is thus signaled when writers, like Dr. Johnson himself, publish works by subscription, for this mode of printing and distribution divides the power of a single wealthy, usually aristocratic patron among several hundred sponsors.

A far more drastic enlargement of the reading public occurs in the next century: repeal of repressive taxation on periodicals allowed the rapid growth of magazines and newspapers, while the growth of large lending libraries, such as Mudie's, effectively subsidized publication of novels and other literature. Students of the Victorian age increasingly call it a second English Renaissance — and with reason, for during these years the movement down the social scale of financial and political power was accompanied by a rapid expansion of the English reading public, which by the second half of the century already included many members of the working class; this greatly enlarged audience, in turn, called forth and magnificently sustained the golden age of the English novel.

The Decline of Church and Other Institutional Patronage for Artists

One may doubt to what extent the situation in Victorian art can resemble that in literature, because the nature of painting makes it so difficult for a work to reach a large number of people. In particular, since oil painting is a medium which produces a single work at a time, a work in an edition of one, it cannot ever be quite as popular as a novel which can be printed in an edition of thousands or even tens of thousands. Nonetheless, despite these essential difficulties, similar changes in the relation of artist to audience did take place. First of all, as Blackwood's emphasized, most Victorian commissions came not from church, state, or aristocracy but from merchants and manufacturers. But to attract this new, expanding group of potential buyers the artist had to make them [126] aware of his works, and this he could only do by exhibiting them in public. Such public display of paintings in turn produces periodical criticism [see note 1 at left]: periodical art reviews require periodic exhibitions, a practice which begins in England with the first annual summer show of the Royal Academy in 1769. Throughout most of the nineteenth century this exhibition remained the major event of the art world, for if an artist wished to establish his reputation and command good prices for his creations, he usually had to make his mark at this show.

The Royal Academy and Other Institutional Exhibitors

Furthermore, he could secure both his reputation and his financial position by gaining election to the Royal Academy, first as an associate and then as a full member of that powerful body. But because the art world was far less centralized in England than it was in France, where access to the salons was a matter of financial survival, painters, such as Hunt and Rossetti, could make their way outside of the Academy. Artists, for instance, could make use of exhibitions in Manchester, Liverpool, and other cities of the industrial north, while in London they could send pictures to the various watercolor societies, the British Institution (until 1867), the Society of Female Artists, and, later in the century, private galleries, such as the Grosvenor, which became increasingly important as ways to reach the public. To the dismay of many artistically and politically conservative critics, the new middle-class patron, who was apt to be independent-minded and unwilling to follow the lead of the art establishment, greatly weakened the authority of the Royal Academy. As F. G. Stephens, an original member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood turned art critic, pointed out in 1871,

The so-called middle-class of England has been that which has done the most for English art. While its social superiors 'praised' Pietro Perugino, neglected Turner, let Wilson starve, and gave as much for a Gaspar Poussin as for a Raphael, the merchant princes bought of Turner, William Hunt, Holman Hunt, and Rossetti" ["English Painters of the Present Day. XXI. — William Holman Hunt," Portfolio 2 (1871): 38. — for a late-nineteenth century discussion of these institutions, see "Victorian Art Institutions" (1897)

Artist-Organized Exhibitions

In addition to attracting individual patrons at the Royal Academy or similar shows, the artist could exhibit major works, either by himself or with the assistance of a dealer. By charging the public for admission to such a private show the painter effectively transferred his financial dependence from a single buyer to a large number of people. During the course of the nineteenth century one can occasionally observe painters both English and foreign, thus exhibiting their works in London, but the great master of this technique for reaching the middle-class public was [126-127] Holman Hunt, who after 1860 chose to show all his major productions in this manner. Turner, of course, long had his own exhibition gallery, and Haydon had charged for admission to exhibitions of single pictures. The American Ruskinian landscape painter, Frederick Church, and M. Munkacsy, a painter of large sacred histories, exemplify foreign competitors in the London exhibition scene. In 1860 Hunt exhibited his Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, in 1873 The Shadow of Death, and in 1885 The Triumph of the Innocents, and he continued the practice in later years. The many long reviews his works received demonstrate how effective a method of reaching his audience this exhibition of a single work had become.In part because these exhibitions remained relatively uncommon — to make a success of them the artist had already to have achieved his reputation — they had the further advantage of securing major periodical reviews, which provided necessary publicity.

The Rise of the Public Museum in the Late Nineteenth Century

The final adjustment of the art world to a mass audience occurred in the late decades of the century when the museum movement acknowledged that the lower classes also form part of the artist's public. As the Illustrated London News for November 28, 1885, pointed out, "It is only within" the last twenty or thirty years that the vital importance of an art education to our manufacturing classes has been recognised. But although the recognition is tardy, it is now very thorough.... Birmingham, one of the first towns to recognise the necessity for some such teaching, has just built a magnificent gallery for the housing of her treasures" (550).

Reproductive Steel-Engraving as a Way of Reaching an Audience

In addition to these changes in exhibition practice, there are other indications that painting was acquiring far larger audiences than ever before. For example, the practice of making engraved reproductions of important contemporary paintings, such as Hunt's Light of the World, simultaneously provided an important source of income to many Victorian artists while making available to the middle and lower classes works which they could not otherwise have afforded.

Turner, who perhaps earned more money from his art than any previous English painter, derived a large portion of his income from engravings after his works. The middle-class market for these editions of his works enabled him to paint as daringly as he wished. One must point out, however, that many of the engravings after Turner were taken from watercolors and drawings originally designed to be reproduced, whereas the later Victorian engravings were meant to make available to a large public major exhibited works that had demonstrated popularity. For valuable information about this practice, see Hilary Beck's Victorian Engravings, the catalogue of the 1973 exhibition at London's Bethnal Green Museum.

Wood-Engraving and Book Illustration

Finally, for those artists who did not wish — or could not afford — to restrict themselves to the more prestigious medium of oil painting, there was the opportunity to work in book and periodical illustration, an area in which the artist could match the writer as both acquired a mass audience. Many of the most important Victorian painters, including Millais, Hunt, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, and Hughes, provided designs for wood-engraving illustrations, and there was also a large group of excellent draftsmen (of whom the finest is perhaps Arthur Boyd Houghton) who devoted ost of their energies to this mode.

Last modified 30 April 2024