Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Victorians Had Style (Lots of Them)

(Les Saisons by Art Nouveau artist Alfonse Mucha)
As somewhat of an art historian, I am only too happy to have the opportunity to brush up on all things Victorian for this blog.  From researching architecture for our Future Home of Victorian Swag series to discussing the cinematography of some of our favorite period pieces, I have found that I relish the opportunity to study Victorian art.  I think what has struck me most about it is not the continuity of the art and styles but the diversity.  The artists of the Victorian Era distinguished themselves from the artists of earlier time periods by the sheer multitude of different styles they created, used and adapted.  Between 1850 and 1910, artists were painting, sketching, sculpting, and building everything from neoclassical realism to post impressionism.  It was really the beginning of the "anything goes" philosophy among artists but still before the start of the modern movement (you know, when taste became questionable and tacky found its way into high-class art).  If you wanted to paint true-to-life, you painted it.  If you wanted to paint emotionally, you could do that too.  If you wanted to include three styles and four media into your portfolio, no problem!  Not only were there many styles, there was just plain a ton of style!  Needless to say, some of the most famous artworks in history were created during this period of unbridled creativity and artistic experimentation.  Don't worry readers, I really don't  wish to accidentally give an art history lesson on the blog today.  I would simply like to share with you a few of my favorite artists and a couple of examples of their particular styles, styles that solidified the Victorian Era as an era of quality taste as well as the prime time for diverse artistic expression.  

(The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse)
Neoclassicism and Romanticism
A certain romanticism surrounds the Classical and Middle Ages even today.  Greek and Roman gods and creatures, Knights in shining armor, beautiful young maidens, and tales of honor and bravery were appealing to industrializing societies during the first part of the last half of the 19th Century.  People were bewitched by a simpler age filled with myth and natural beauty.  The artists of the Victorian Era who painted and sculpted in the Neoclassical style brought these ancient myths, legends and classic stories to life with their work.  One of my favorite neoclassical artists in John William Waterhouse.  Whenever I think of King Arthur, I imagine that legendary world in the style of Waterhouse: delicate, embellished, and somehow, real. 
(Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse)
Art Nouveau
(Art Nouveau lady's broach)
While Neoclassicism and Romanticism were movements, I have to include a short explanation of a certain style within them: Art Nouveau (think Rivendell in Lord of the Rings).  I adore the decorative nature and the pure sensuality of the Art Nouveau style.  Its unique femininity embodies the romantic goals of the Victorians who utilized it, while its depth and complexity made it a telling style of the fast-paced developing societies of the late 19th Century.  It maintains the whimsy of the romantic style while tightening up the lines and streamlining the forms.  Wealth, poise, and exquisite taste were highly prized by Victorians and the Art Nouveau style is the embodiment of the opulent lifestyles of the Victorian upper-class.  Art Nouveau took Romanticism and made it three dimensional.  It brought whimsy and imagination to life in place of pure practicality of design.  While utilized in decorative arts as well as painting and sculpture, it was also used in popular advertising at the time.  Art Nouveau highly influenced Art Deco, another artistic obsession of mine (oh, hey there's a surprise Great Gatsby!). Czech artist Alfonse Mucha has always been one of my favorite Art Nouveau artists.  In fact, he is credited with creating/solidifying the style.  
(An advertisement for actress Sarah Bernhardt created by Mucha)
Then there were the rebels; those that scoffed at the Mannerists and who wanted to return to a true reflection of nature in their paintings.  They relied less on innovation than the Neoclassicists but also insisted on maintaining a classical subject focus.  While their style mimicked that of an earlier "artistically purer" era, the Romanticism of the Victorian era is evident in their work.  They may not have been interested in myth and whimsy for myth and whimsy's sake,  but these guys were talented artists expressing the logic and scientific tendencies of their time period through their art.  I particularly enjoy John Everett Millais and his paintings of Shakespearian characters.  
(Ophelia by John Everett Millais)
(Field of Poppies, by Claude Monet, 1880)
What is there to say about Impressionism?  Books and books have been written on this style, or anti-style as I generally believe it to be.  Let me just say that while I adore the detail and whimsy of the Neoclassicists and I can't get enough Art Nouveau, Impressionism - as a style - has been more broadly influential on the continued development of artistic styles than any of these others.  It is a beautiful way of expressing emotion on canvas.  Each impressionist is different.  There are no rules to adhere to concerning style, form or subject  matter.  You simply paint what you see how you feel it. While Art Nouveau tightened up the lines and the Pre-Raphaelites tightened up their subject matter, Impressionists broke all of the rules and made their own, letting their emotions and visions cover their canvases with scenes, not of legendary grandeur, but of natural beauty and daily life.  Let me gush for a moment over how much I love me some Monet, Renior, van Gogh and Cezanne (ok, so he was sort of a Post-Impressionist, cut me some slack).  
(Dancers by Auguste Renior)
(Starry Night over the Rhone, Vincent van Gogh) 
(Untitled landscape by Paul Cezanne, 1870)
Artists of the Victorian era took their new-found freedom (and sometimes their new self-imposed rules) and ran with it.  The period from 1850 to 1910 produced some of the most enduring artwork of all time in an incredibly diverse array of styles.  The artists of this time period and their work resonate strongly with me; I am certainly not the only one to appreciate the diversity and versatility of this amazing artwork.  

1 comment:

  1. Art Nouveau! Oh how I love Art Nouveau! But Impressionism will always be my favorite. I can never look at Monet the same after visiting Giverny! Ah!