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Course: Europe 1800 - 1900 > Unit 4

Lesson 2: The Pre-Raphaelites and mid-Victorian art

Wallis, Chatterton

Henry Wallis, Chatterton, 1856, oil on canvas, 622 x 933 cm (Tate Britain, London). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(lively music) Dr. Harris: We're in Tate Britain and we're looking at Henry Wallis' Chatterton from 1856. Dr. Zucker: Chatterton was an 18th century writer who killed himself when he was 17 years old with arsenic and that's what being depicted here. Dr. Harris: Chatterton was a very popular figure among romantic writers. He was the misunderstood genius who was exploited and underpaid for his craft. Dr. Zucker: Chatterton would have a relatively, successful commercial career as a writer in London. That's not to say that he was well paid but he was well published. Dr. Harris: When his account book was looked at after his death, it turns out that Chatterton had been really underpaid for his writing. Dr. Zucker: But what's most interesting is not so much the life of Chatterton, the subject but the treatment that Chatterton receives in the 19th century. Dr. Harris: I think that one reason for his popularity among the romantics was this idea of the misunderstood and underpaid artist who I think many artists of the 19th century could relate to. Dr. Zucker: Let's take a look at Wallis' treatment. You have that figure backlit. Light coming in from the small window in this garret. A small attic like space that would be let out to the less fortunate. Dr. Harris: And you can see outside, a view of Saint Paul's, the city of London where Chatterton lived. And then other signs of poverty. A small wooden table, a very spare candleholder where the candle's been completely burned down. You can just make out the smoke rising. Dr. Zucker: And of course, there's symbolism there. The candle has burned down, suggests the end of his life. Dr. Harris: We also see a rose that has similar significance. It's dying there. Its petals are accumulating on the window. So, it doesn't have much longer. Dr. Zucker: But none of this is generalized. All this is extraordinarily specific. The handling, the rendering is so much in the Pre-Raphaelite style. There is a strong linear quality and particularity. Look for instance at the vividness of the shadows cast by the knots on the bed spread. There is this recognition of the value of this precise handling of the most seemingly, insignificant element of this room. Dr. Harris: We also see a lot of precision in the torn up writings that we see on the left and the gleaming metal of the latch of that trunk and the way that light just shines slightly on the interior. Dr. Zucker: There's also a very unusual use of color from mid-19th century painting. Look at his red hair against the greenish cast of his skin or the way that the artist is playing light and deep blues against the purples in his breeches. Dr. Harris: And those colors come alive even more because of that brown coverlet. Dr. Zucker: And the fact that Wallis, like other Pre-Raphaelites is painting on white ground rather than painting on a dark ground. The painting is full of specific anecdotes of the story. You can see down by his hand, not only his shoe has been cast off but you can see the bottle of arsenic. Dr. Harris: And he's very much in the pose of a pieta. So, we can really think of him as an artist martyr like Christ Himself. I think that idea that it was a difficult time for artists, is an important one. It's now the general public that is the audience and the patron for artists and that put artists in a really precarious position. Dr. Zucker: Well, this is interesting. Because in the history of art, the patrons had been the church and then the aristocracy but here now, in our new industrial society, art is one more commodity. And there was an interest in what that meant for somebody who was a creative genius. (lively music)