When we think of the great events of classical history, it is hard not to think of paintings by Frederic Lord Leighton, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and Sir Edward Poynter. Of these three imminent Victorian Olympians we know the least about Poynter, in spite of the fact that he produced some of the most period's most revered paintings and was President of the Royal Academy for twenty-two years following Leighton's impressive tenure. According to Wood, Poynter has been neglected by historians because his reputation has been overshadowed by that of his mentor, Leighton, he did not possess a colorful personality, and although he was an able painter, lacked Leighton's vision and imagination (Wood, 131). Nevertheless, during Poynter's most creative period in the 1860s and '70s, he produced classical pictures that quickly became some of the most famous of all Victorian classical images, including Faithful unto Death and The Catapult.
Left: The Catapault. Right: Faithful unto Death. [Clock on thumbnails for larger images.]
Poynter's approach to Victorian classicism was unique, at least in the early part of his career. He combined historical accuracy with heroic action, thus creating what Barrow has called "morally imbued reconstructions of antiquity" (Barrow, 15). His style grew out of rigorous training on the Continent. Although Poynter had studied painting briefly in England, after visiting the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855, he became convinced French art and French teaching were superior to anything he could hope to find in his home country. He spent his three most formative years in Charles Gleyre's French studio imbibing the strict academic and classical precepts which Gleyre demanded. Like Leighton, Wood reports, "Poynter was trained in an atmosphere of heroic and romantic classicism" (Wood, 133).
In 1865 Poynter achieved public fame with Faithful unto Death, a figure of a soldier courageously defending his post as Mount Vesuvius rains volcanic fury upon Pompeii. The painting was a critical success at the Academy which was the only way to establish a reputation and hence make enough money to support oneself. Inspiration for the painting derived from the following passage in Edward Bulwer-Lytton's enormously popular and influential book, The Last Days of Pompeii:
The air was now still for a few minutes: the lamp from the gate streamed out far and clear: the fugitives hurried on — they gained the gate — they passed by the Roman sentry; the lightning flashed over his livid face and polished helmet, but his stern features were composed even in their awe! He remained erect and motionless at his post. That hour itself had not animated the machine of the ruthless majesty of Rome into the reasoning and self-acting man. There he stood, amidst the crashing elements: he had not received the permission to desert his station and escape. (Book V, Chapter VI)
In spite of his obvious trepidation, Poynter's Roman sentry stands honorably by his post. Coins and other belongings bathed in Vesuvius' red glow lie scattered on the ground. Behind the sentry rest the bodies of two victims while others attempt to save themselves and their possessions among the debris. The idea of stoic devotion to duty — a preeminent fixture in the pantheon of Victorian moral ideals — is captured well. What is more, the central motif of the painting, the soldier, is depicted with striking realism. His muscular sinews bulge prominently in his leg and forearm. His polished armor and helmet reflect the eerie glow of fire. Realism complements historical accuracy but it is the overarching theme of heroic action that completes the painting.
Three years later in 1868, Poynter produced another painting that combined historical accuracy and heroic action, The Catapult. Immediately hailed as a great success, the picture shows Roman soldiers manning a siege engine as they attack the walls of Carthage, an assault which ended with the destruction of the city in 146 BC. The famous command of Cato the Elder, "Delenda est Carthago," "Carthage must be destroyed," is carved prominently into the side of the catapult. Critics praised Poynter's preoccupation with archaeological accuracy and technical detail so similar to that of Alma-Tadema. Nearly all minutiae are given careful attention, from straps on the soldiers' sandals to the lion stamped on the standard in the background. Not only does this composition resemble the realism of Gerome, but the near-perfect nude male bodies owe a debt to Michelangelo, whom Poynter admired fervently (Wood, 138). Like Faithful unto Death, The Catapult is a unique Victorian brand of eclectic classicism.
Poynter rarely returned to the Roman subjects of his youth that brought him initial fame. Most of his paintings from the 1870s onwards, such as Aesculapius and A Corner of the Market Place were purely decorative. Though masterpieces in execution and popular, these paintings lack the emotional and dramatic force of his early, defining works. "From the 1880s onwards," writes Wood, "the spring of new creative ideas in Poynter seems steadily to dry up. Although still capable of good work, it represents a repetition of old ideas, rather than the development of new ideas" (Wood, 144). Even when laden with vivid color, Poynter preferred painting bland, serene, and restful scenes, boorishly similar to late Alma-Tademas.
Ironically, the style and subject of Poynter's groundbreaking works which also cemented his reputation were painted with less frequency than his genre scenes. Though set in classical dress with classical surroundings, the majority of his decorative works are just that, clearly lacking the monumental and tense elements that first distinguished Poynter as an Olympian.
Victorian Classicism in Painting: Common Inspiration with Eclectic Ends
- Frederic Lord Leighton — Aestheticism with a Hint of Didacticism
- Laurence Alma-Tadema — Where's the Story?
- Albert Joseph Moore — Beautifully Purposeless
- John William Waterhouse — Making Myth Real
Barrow, Robert. Lawrence Alma-Tadema. London, New York, 2001.
Wood, Christopher. Olympian Dreamers: Victorian Classical Painters, 1860-1914. London: Constable, 1983.
Last modified 15 May 2007