Albert Joseph Moore was something of an oddity among the Olympians. In complete contrast to Leighton, Poynter, or Burne-Jones, he was strictly a painter's painter. Acquiring the usual Victorian artist's life-style had little appeal for him. He was shy, introverted and lived in complete bohemian disorder in his Holland Park studio. What is more, he was thoroughly uninterested in cultivating patrons or pursuing worldly honor and wealth (Wood, 157).
Moore's art was as unique as his way of life. He fused the classical and aesthetic movement in a style that was completely his own. James Abbott McNeill Whistler was a close friend of Moore's and a key figure in the development of the aesthetic movement. "Like Whistler," writes Wood, "[Moore] believed that beauty, color, harmony and line were the only things that mattered in painting. Unlike Whistler, however, he was a great admirer of Greek sculpture in general, and the Elgin Marbles in particular" (Wood, 156). Girls clad in Grecian robes and men in togas are common features in his works, hence he has been branded a classicist. Yet, Moore's aestheticism overwhelms the normal concerns of his fellow classicists. Unlike Poynter and Alma-Tadema, Moore hardly cared about historical or archaeological accuracy. His paintings intentionally feature incongruous elements, such as Greeks clad in togas playing modern violins. Unlike Leighton, he disregarded classical myth and chose not to depict incidents of high drama or passion. Moore was satisfied painting subjects without a narrative provided they were beautiful.
In 1858 at the age of seventeen, Moore entered the Royal Academy Schools and fell under the potent influence of the Pre-Raphaelites. He found the Academy disciplines suffocating, however, and gradually moved to a more classical and aesthetic style. In 1859 he visited France and Rome with William Eden Nesfield, the architect and writer who later helped Moore secure several important commissions. After visiting Rome, Moore's interest in classical sculpture blossomed. Upon returning from the Continent, he spent long hours at the British Museum studying the Elgin Marbles closely, which inspired many of the faces, poses and draperies of his early work.
But it was Whistler who influenced Moore most. They met around 1865 when Whistler saw and admired Moore's Marble Seat at the RA. They became friends and mutual inspiration for one another. Moore touted the beauty of Greek sculpture and terracottas; Whistler indoctrinated Moore with his aesthetic principles and also introduced him to Japanese art. The result was two-fold according to Wood. "Firstly, [Moore] became lighter and his colors more delicate. Secondly, he became more concerned with all-over decorative effects and patterns" (Wood, 160). Moore's art became extraordinarily eclectic and purely aesthetic.
Once Moore had established the basic elements of his style his art changed little (Wood, 158). Completed in 1868, Azaleas was the first of many deliberately subjectless pictures, showing a single, classically clad figure, standing by an azalea bush in a Chinese vase, holding a porcelain bowl. The life-size work was to be the prototype of numerous female figures. Preparation for the Azaleas was extensive and his abstract methodology was complicated. First, in a generic resemblance to the academic methods favored on the Continent, Moore made numerous studies of the draped and nude figure. But in a modification completely his own deriving from previous experience in architectural design work, Moore applied a "system of line arrangement" by determining "the directions of the more prominent lines of the composition" and charting "a series of parallels to them throughout the drawing" (Cited in Asleson, 98). The objective, explains Robert Asleson, was "to accommodate the human body to an abstract, geometric armature, now generated internally by the composition itself, rather than imposed externally by surrounding architectural elements" (Asleson, 98). Moore oriented the figure in relation to these lines, adjusting the placement of the head in half a dozen alternative places before finally settling on what seemed to be the correct orientation.
Once he had settled on the final positioning, Moore transferred the nude cartoon to the final canvas. The outline was fleshed out in oil colors then laden with a full scale drapery cartoon, thus enhancing the appearance of transparency. In spite of the meticulous preparations for Azaleas, it has a remarkably fresh and spontaneous look. Moore accomplished this feat by attempting to make each stroke perfect and avoiding two passes of the brush where one would suffice. "Spend an hour if necessary thinking over a touch," he later advised his students, "but put it on in an instant as soon as you have made up you mind about it" (Cited in Asleson, 99). The long brush strokes of the robe gently contrast with the energetic brushwork of the azalea. In fact, the technique emulated the fresco, with which he had experimented with a few years earlier (Asleson, 99).
Although the woman's figure, pose, and drapery bear obvious classical Grecian inspiration, other aspects of the painting reveal Eastern influences. The carp bowl held in the woman's arms and the asymmetric geometric pattern of the azalea pot are reminiscent of Japanese art. Another Japanese element, the yellow butterflies flitting about, help integrate the woman's yellow dress into the predominately white background. The light colors are deliberately Whistlerish, and seem, to paraphrase Whistler, as if there were embroidered on the canvas, appearing here and there in the same way a thread appears in embroidery (Asleson, 99). In true Japanese fashion, repetition not contrast distinguishes Azaleas.
Although some critics received Azaleas with minimal enthusiasm, they grudging admitted the beauty of Moore's picture. Curious and devoid of any narrative, one critic still found it "brimful of undeniable talent — of genius almost — but daringly eccentric in design and execution" (Cited in Asleson 100). But it was the Pre-Raphaelites who proclaimed Azaleas one of the key pictures of the year. Rossetti dismissed critics who tried to evaluate its merits base on historical accuracy. They were missing the point. "Whether or not azaleas were known to Grecian ladies, whether or not they came from America," wrote Rossetti, "are questions not difficult of solution, but of sublime indifference to Mr. Moore" (Asleson, 100). But it was arch-aesthetic Swinburne who blazoned Azaleas as an instance of pure art-for-art's sake: "The melody of color, the symphony of form is complete: one more beautiful thing is achieved, one more delight is born into the world; and its meaning is beauty; and its reason for being is to be" (Asleson, 100). Moore thus reconciled the arts of Japan and Greece, and the aesthetic and classical, in a new Victorian combination.
Asleson, Robyn. Albert Moore. London: Phaidon Press, 2000.
Wood, Christopher. Olympian Dreamers: Victorian Classical Painters, 1860-1914. London: Constable, 1983.
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?
- Sir Edward Poynter — Action and Accuracy
- John William Waterhouse — Making Myth Real
Last modified 15 May 2007