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1844 Patrick Macdowell's Love Triumphant

At the 1844 Exhibition, the Sculpture Room was cramped and awkwardly arranged as usual. Objects appeared to be “stowed away” in the semicircular chamber, making the space more like a catacomb than a display of contemporary art.1 Rows of portrait busts—“pale, bodiless heads”—looked down on visitors from narrow shelves as if decapitated by the guillotine.2 Out of the 142 sculptures exhibited that year, almost two-thirds were some kind of portrait. The dearth of imaginative, large-scale groups added to the deadened feel of the room. Many practitioners were fed up with the Royal Academy’s clear disregard for the exhibition of their art, choosing instead to submit their recent works to Westminster Hall. There, just down Whitehall, a “strikingly beautiful” display of British sculpture was open to the public, organised by the Fine Arts Committee.3

It was not a total boycott. A few prominent sculptors were willing to have their creations installed in the chamber.4 Edward Hodges Baily submitted a total of seven works. John Gibson offered his life-size marble group of The Hunter and Dog and a large statue of the statesman William Huskisson—a work that today can be seen in Pimlico Gardens. John Graham Lough’s Hebe Banished was also on view, although it was criticised for its clashing influences: traces of John Flaxman and Giambologna allegedly suffused the portrayals of Hebe and Mercury respectively.5 But there was one sculpture that stood out above the rest, not only for its size but also for its distinctive subject matter. Consisting of two adults and one infant form, Patrick Macdowell’s The Triumph of Love was the largest group in the room (Fig. 1).6 With no conventional mythological narrative, it struck a chord with critics eager to encounter designs that were fresh and novel. While the subject—a variation of the Virgilian tag omnia vincit amor— had recurred in art ever since the sixteenth century, never before had two anonymous individuals been mobilised to represent it, let alone in life-size marble. The sculpture was iconographically unique.

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Critics concurred that Love Triumphant was a masterly work that would bolster Macdowell’s reputation. Yet they disagreed over whether the sculpture successfully communicated its meaning. Writing for The Art-Union, one journalist applauded the skilful composition of the group and its “passages of infinite beauty”, yet complained that the “story is not very clear”; the “adult figures look like a shepherd and nymph”—indeed the male has a crook—but one cannot be certain.7 Another described the group as “a sort of Arcadian pastoral”.8 It “tells a story—though not in the best language”, and although “the figures are boldly cut and well poised”, their action “free and spirited, the tread light and elastic, and the faces bright and joyous” there was something lacking.9 With its simpler composition and instantly recognizable meaning, Gibson’s Hunter and Dog was considered more successful in this respect. This group offered the perfect example of an autonomous work of art, one that “tells of its own story, so that every man can at once read it, while no two could read it differently”.10 Macdowell’s group on the other hand, “fails in sentiment” concludes the same critic; “The allegory seems … defective. The tale of love which it tells, is told in the words that breathe, but do not burn.”11 Explaining their qualms, the critic makes the case that if the couple are so in love, surely they ought to be gazing into each other’s eyes rather than up at Cupid: “the connexion between the lovers is … wanting … The intellect is addressed … but not the heart.”12

This was no arbitrary aspect of the sculpture. The decision to portray the couple looking up rather than across at each other said much about Macdowell’s intentions. By now, such pyramidal groups stood as a statement of the sculptor’s ambition. Several decades earlier, Antonio Canova’s Three Graces set the precedent for complex three-figured works. In this celebrated sculpture, a version of which was then part of the Duke of Bedford’s collection at Woburn Abbey, the upward-turning heads of the two peripheral figures gaze towards the tallest Grace at the vertex of the composition. Likewise, in Gibson’s first Three Graces-inspired work, his Psyche Borne Aloft by the Zephyrs exhibited in 1827, the two personifications of the wind look up towards the mortal maiden carried on their shoulders (Fig. 2). While Gibson claimed that he was encouraged by Canova, his mentor in Rome, to execute Psyche Borne Aloft by the Zephyrs, Macdowell’s Love Triumphant was directly influenced by Gibson. Like Gibson’s Zephyrs, Macdowell’s nameless couple stride forward, their leading legs aligning at the front of the sculpture’s base. Hoisted above them, Cupid takes the place of Psyche. With right arm raised, the Cupid in Love Triumphant also bears a similarity to the same infant god in Gibson’s Three Graces and Cupid.13 As a British sculptor of the next generation, Macdowell worked in Gibson’s wake, at best, or shadow, at worst. No other artists, at the 1844 Exhibition or indeed during the period, attempted the life-size pyramidal group.

Significantly, Macdowell’s patron was Thomas Wentworth Beaumont, a wealthy politician who aspired to rank among the aristocracy. In 1841, Beaumont paid for the sculptor to travel to Rome—where Gibson had been based since 1817—to hone his craft. It is possible that the patron urged Macdowell to complete a pyramidal group in the vein of Canova and Gibson, artists whose works were coveted among the elite circles Beaumont wished to penetrate. Indeed Love Triumphant is far more attuned to advancements in modern sculpture than to the art of antiquity.

If the anonymous adult female had been pictured alone with Cupid in Love Triumphant, perhaps the figure might have been naked. The union of man and woman in the same mimetic space—moreover figures that are not grounded in classical myth or history—necessitated the covering of the female body. Male nakedness, by contrast, had the power to elevate the ideological bent of the work, disassociating it from the earthly dimension of love and locating it within the celestial. Yet despite its Platonic aspirations, Macdowell’s sculpture ends up as an ode to heterosexual partnership: the triumph of man and woman, bride and groom, mother and father. It was perfectly suited to the taste of the early Victorian period, when, as Michel Foucault argues, sexual desire “moved into the home”, where the “conjugal family took custody of it and absorbed it into the serious function of reproduction”, making the parents’ bedroom “the heart of every household” and the “single locus” of eroticism.14 Reproductions of Macdowell’s sculpture were certainly marketed to the emergent middle class Foucault had in mind. In 1850, six years after the public debut of the sculpture, William Callio Roffe’s steel stipple after the work was published in The Art-Journal; as with each of the periodical’s plates, subscribers could apply for a larger proof for framing in the home.

  1. “Fine Arts: Royal Academy, Sculpture Gallery”, The Athenaeum 866, 1 June 1844, 503.↩︎

  2. “Fine Arts: Royal Academy, Sculpture Gallery”, The Athenaeum 866, 1 June 1844, 503.↩︎

  3. The Illustrated London News, 12 July 1844, 21. The exhibition was part of an open competition to decorate the Palace of Westminster with contemporary British art.↩︎

  4. The Athenaeum 912, 19 April 1844, 394.↩︎

  5. The Art-Union (June 1844): 170. This work is untraced.↩︎

  6. This work is untraced.↩︎

  7. The Art-Union (June 1844): 170.↩︎

  8. “Royal Academy: Sculpture Gallery [Concluding Notice]”, The Athenaeum 867, 8 June 1844, 532–533.↩︎

  9. “Royal Academy: Sculpture Gallery [Concluding Notice]”, The Athenaeum 867, 8 June 1844, 532–533.↩︎

  10. “Royal Academy: Sculpture Gallery [Concluding Notice]”, The Athenaeum 867, 8 June 1844, 532.↩︎

  11. “Royal Academy: Sculpture Gallery [Concluding Notice]”, The Athenaeum 867, 8 June 1844, 533.↩︎

  12. “Royal Academy: Sculpture Gallery [Concluding Notice]”, The Athenaeum 867, 8 June 1844, 533.↩︎

  13. Both Gibson’s Psyche Borne Aloft by the Zephyrs and Three Graces and Cupid are in the collection of the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. There may be some confusion over the fact that Psyche Borne Aloft by the Zephyrs was purchased by Sir George Beaumont, of no relation to Wentworth Beaumont.↩︎

  14. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1998), 3.↩︎

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