Cue the 19th century, where British art sees a shift from the pomp and grandeur of the previous years to more complex and emotional artistic expressions. This is a time when modern science is beginning to captivate the human imagination and technologies like engravings and photographs are allowing images to be disseminated to a public far and wide.
One of the great painters of this time is Joseph Mallord William Turner, an icon of the Tate collection and of British art as a whole. Turner counts among the Romantics, a group of writers, artists, and thinkers who rebelled against the rational thinking of the Enlightenment by championing intense emotion and feeling as the truest form of aesthetic experience. You can get a sense of this by looking at Turner's The Field of Waterloo below.
Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Field of Waterloo, 1818, oil on canvas, 147 x 238 cm (Tate)
The heavens churn, darkness smothers the scene, and dead bodies litter the ground–it's a scene fraught with emotion. After more than twenty years at war, Britain had finally defeated France at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. But instead of painting a glorious celebration of victory, Turner chose to show the aftermath. Shrouding the battlefield in gloom and illuminating only the dead and their searching loved ones, Turner emphasises the realities of war–suffering and grief–rather than fleeting victory. What do you think this might say about the role of the artist at the time? Perhaps some artists wanted to go beyond documentation and use their work to convey a message.
William Blake, The Ghost of a Flea, 1819, tempera and gold on mahogany, 21 x 16 cm (Tate)
William Blake, another central figure of 19th century British art, had his own Romantic visions–quite literally. In The Ghost of a Flea, Blake paints a strange animal-human hybrid that is said to have come to the artist in a spiritual vision. This figure is the soul of a man–but because of its bloodthirstiness, this soul has been condemned to reside in the body of a flea. Painted thickly with gold and tempera, this fantastical being is at once familiar and strange. A poet as well as a painter, Blake was a prime example of the Romantic artist, believing in the power of the imagination and the ability of art to convey profound ideas and emotions.
In the meantime, Queen Victoria was on the throne and the Victorian Era (1837–1901) was in full swing. This was a period of relative peace and prosperity in Britain, and with it came advancements in technology and in the pace of life. London's Great Exhibition of 1851, for example, shared the milestones of industry and culture with the British public and revitalised an interest in the arts.
Many British artists took time to study in Paris, later dubbed the "capital of the 19th century" by German thinker Walter Benjamin for its rich cultural and artistic atmosphere. Economic and social stability in London, however, offered greater opportunities for patronage and drew in artists from France and Europe. In the wake of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-1 and its aftermath, London saw an even greater number of French artists settle within its borders and contribute to diversifying its artistic output.
Some artists like Emily Mary Osborn, whose 1857 painting Nameless and Friendless shows the struggles of a single woman looking for work, took the opportunity to use their art as a tool for encouraging discussion about social issues. Osborn went on to campaign for the rights of women to attend art academies and to sell their paintings. Other artists took the opposite route and became fully absorbed in creating intense aesthetic effects. James Abbott McNeill Whistler, for example, painted a series of Nocturnes, their moonlit scenes referring not only to a nighttime setting but also to the lyrical musical form of the same name, aiming to engage with the viewer through colour, harmony, and rhythm. Whistler was among the proponents of "art for art's sake," or art that divorced itself from any utilitarian function. The fact that he was an American by birth only made his persona even more shocking to the establishment.
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea, 1871, oil on wood, 50 x 60 cm (Tate)
As the 1800s drew to a close, British artists continued to explore the styles of the century while adapting them to ancient and mythical themes. Sculptures in particular began to showcase qualities like movement and abandonment, and extravagant poses that pushed their materials to the limit. And as Britain looked to a new century, art anticipated the dynamic atmosphere of the coming years in its bold, changing forms.
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