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1846 William Dyce as a Successful Artist Scorned by the Critics

Critics responding to the Royal Academy’s 1846 Summer Exhibition repeatedly lauded two English artists: William Mulready and Edwin Landseer. The latter’s Stag at Bay, celebrated by one writer as containing “poetry of a very high order”, occasioned emotive descriptions of the impending doom of this “lordly creature”.1 The painting—acquired by John Campbell, 2nd Marquess of Breadalbane—was the inspiration for engravings, with advertisements in September reminding readers of the “really magnificent and truly noble” picture’s inclusion in the Exhibition and noting plans for the painting to “to be sent shortly to the principal towns of the kingdom, for the gratifications of those who have not had the opportunity of viewing it in the metropolis.”2 Even more highly extolled was Mulready’s Choosing the Wedding Gown (Fig. 1), which gave form and colour to the opening lines of Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield (Mulready had supplied a related image for the 1843 edition of the novel, so audiences were well prepared). Critics pronounced it the “belle of the season”, “the gem of the exhibition”, a work “beyond praise”, proof of Mulready’s reliability: “we are content to follow Mulready, in perfect faith, wherever he will lead us.”3

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Another artist regularly mentioned in the reviews of the Exhibition, the Scotsman William Dyce, was, by contrast, singled out as practising a deeply misguided, archaic approach to painting. His The Madonna and Child (Fig. 2) was associated by critics with the German Nazarenes, and while some praised the picture’s “technical mastery”,4 the consensus was grim: “Dyce has taken his place as a resuscitator of the dead forms of early Christian art”5 as demonstrated by his “unfortunate piece of ‘Dead Alive Germanism’”.6 Another found in the picture, “a lifeless, soulless, rigid, reproduction of an obsolete mannerism.”7 Critics understood there were multiple layers of historical mediation in Dyce’s work: a growing appreciation of fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Italian paintings, contemporary German revivals of those aesthetic (and religious) ideals, and—closer to home—John Ruskin’s challenges to long-established standards of taste (the second volume of Ruskin’s Modern Painters, had appeared in the spring of 1846). But for most reviewers, these layers posed only problems. In the words of one writer, Dyce’s

work is an imitation of the ultra-old Italian school, so perfect, that if a little smoke-dried it might be mistaken for an original. We should much prefer paintings of Mr. Dyce’s own … Has Mr. Dyce been reading the second volume of the Oxford Graduate [Ruskin], or has the Graduate been listening to Mr. Dyce?8

What makes this reception particularly interesting is the stark contrast between Dyce’s fortunes in the press and his wider success as an artist. For just as he was enduring the scorn of critics for being too German, he had secured the loyal patronage of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, who admired Dyce for precisely his handling of past and present on the canvas. The Madonna and Child—as it hung in the Academy galleries at Trafalgar Square in 1846—was already part of the Royal Collection: Albert had purchased it for £80 in August of the previous year.9 The picture particularly resonated with Victoria, who recorded seeing it, soon after it first arrived at Buckingham Palace: “a most beautiful picture of the Madonna & Child, by Dyce, quite like an old Master, & in the style of Raphael—so chaste & exquisitely painted.”10 It subsequently hung in the Queen’s bedroom at Osborne House, and she herself made a copy of the painting in pastel.11

Two other royal commissions for Dyce date to the summer of 1846. Albert commissioned a fresco for the staircase at Osborne depicting Neptune Resigning to Britannia the Empire of the Sea. The artist had by then made at least four trips to the Continent, the first to Rome in 1825 and the next three to German cities in 1827, 1832, and 1845 (when he seems to have met members of the Nazarene community).12 This last trip included study of the technical aspects of fresco painting, which the Nazarenes had helped revive several decades earlier. Having already earned a spot among the painters producing frescos for the new Palace of Westminster, Dyce worked on the Osborne project from August 1846 until October 1847. The work for the House of Lords would occupy him until his death in 1864.13

The other commission from 1846 was notably more intimate. On 25 May, Albert paid Dyce £80 to paint a picture of Saint Joseph as a companion to The Madonna and Child. As communicated to Dyce in March 1847, the Prince found Saint Joseph even more satisfying than the Madonna picture, and it also hung in the Queen’s bedroom. Albert loaned The Madonna and Child to the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris, where it hung with works by John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt (in the same year, the Saint Joseph was loaned to the Royal Scottish Academy), and The Madonna and Child was included in The Royal Gallery of Art, Ancient and Modern: Engravings from the Private Collections of Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness Prince Albert (1858–59).14

Among the Summer Exhibition crowds—the artists, the critics, the regular viewers jostling to see—it is sometimes easy to forget the monarchy. In fact, the monarchy was visible in numerous moments: literally (with visits from Victoria and Albert to the exhibitions, which were widely covered in the press) and figuratively (in portraits, which also were regularly commented upon in the press).15But perhaps more interesting are the less obvious points of contact, connections exemplified in the royal patronage extended to William Dyce.

Any reasonable standard applied to evaluating Dyce’s career as an artist around 1846 would surely rank him as immensely accomplished. He was newly busy with a State project at Westminster. He had earned a fresco commission for a royal residence. A painting recently acquired by Albert—and beloved by Victoria—had resulted in a successful companion commission. One is struck by just how differently Dyce’s critics responded to his The Madonna and Child than his royal patrons did. It is a useful reminder of the challenges of reading art criticism, and of the varied interests that could come to bear at the Summer Exhibition.

  1. The Examiner, 9 May 1846; also see The Illustrated London News, 16 May 1846, 319. I have been unable to trace Landseer’s painting, though prints are widely available.↩︎

  2. The Publishers’ Circular, 24 September 1846.↩︎

  3. The Examiner, 9 May 1846; The English Gentleman, 9 May 1846, 294; also see The Sunday Times, 10 May 1846, 2. More generally, see Kathryn Moore Heleniak, William Mulready (London: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 1980), 140–144.↩︎

  4. The Daily News, 11 May 1846.↩︎

  5. The Illustrated London News, 9 May 1846, 311.↩︎

  6. The Illustrated London News, 23 May 1846, 338.↩︎

  7. The Spectator, 16 May 1846, 18, as quoted in Deborah Clarke and Vanessa Remington, Scottish Artists, 1750–1900: From Caledonia to the Continent (London: Royal Collection Trust, 2015), 106.↩︎

  8. The Daily News, 11 May 1846.↩︎

  9. Oliver Millar, The Victorian Pictures in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen, 2 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), Vol. 1, 63.↩︎

  10. From Victoria’s Journal, as quoted in Millar, The Victorian Pictures in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen, Vol. 1, 63.↩︎

  11. The pastel, a detail of the painting, dates to 1851; see Clarke and Remington, Scottish Artists, 1750–1900, 106.↩︎

  12. Keith Andrews, The Nazarenes: A Brotherhood of German Painters in Rome (New York: Hacker Art Books, 1988), 81–85.↩︎

  13. Millar, The Victorian Pictures in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen, Vol. 1, 63.↩︎

  14. Millar, The Victorian Pictures in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen, Vol. 1, 64.↩︎

  15. In 1846, for example, Victoria’s and Albert’s visit to the Exhibition on 27 July was reported in the next day’s Morning Post, 28 July 1840), 5. Portraits of the Queen and Prince by Francis Grant were exhibited in 1846 and commented upon in a review for The English Gentleman, 9 May 1846, 294: "It is our duty, however, as loyal subjects, to break through this course in favor of Mr. Grant’s pictures of the Queen and her Illustrious Consort. The portrait of the Queen is agreed to be the best that has yet been done of Her Majesty. With the horse we think Mr. Grant has not been so successful; it is too much like a statue, and contrasts very unfavorably with Prince Albert’s charger in the opposite picture, which is most admirably painted."↩︎

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