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1854 Modern-Life Subjects

Two subjects of contemporary life—William Powell Frith’s Life at the Seaside (Ramsgate Sands) and William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience—were exhibited at the Summer Exhibition of 1854, leading critics to recognise a new kind of subject matter in British art, and setting the stage for the explosion of modern-life subjects over the next decade. Ramsgate Sands depicted the popular seaside resort in Kent, a beach filled with families on holiday, entertainers, and multiple small dramas of everyday life (Fig. 1). The Awakening Conscience brings us into the domestic interior, capturing a moment of repentance and enlightenment as a “fallen woman” takes her first step out of sin (Fig. 2). Other artists also took up such subjects: Rebecca Solomon exhibited The Governess and her brother Abraham contributed a two-part drama of railway travel, First Class—The Meeting and Second Class—The Parting. Together, the pictures suggested that drama and pathos could be found in the contemporary lives of ordinary middle-class people.

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While genre paintings of everyday life were a familiar form, artists and critics alike seem to have considered these modern-life subjects a novelty. A four-part review of the Academy in Punch provides the clearest statement of this sense that a new kind of painting was emerging:

I fancy that I can see, in the Exhibition of this year, that our painters are beginning to show an apprehension of this truth—that for Art to be a living thing amongst us, she must deal with subjects and themes from life.1

In making his case that painters should take their subjects from the life around them, the Punch critic admitted that all works of art should be judged by their ability to arouse emotion, but went on to argue that painters of contemporary life were more likely to meet this standard, as modern life’s “forms and outward garnishings are less tempting and splendid, so the painter, in treating it, is likely to be urged more to inward significance and expression”.2 It is according to this standard that the critic recognised in Ramsgate Sands and Awakening Conscience a shared new sensibility, a fact that suggests that the difference of modern-life subjects lay not only in the move to treating middle-class urban experience rather than rural life, but in the emotional content and impact of such depictions.

The potential emotional power of modern-life subjects had become an increasingly common refrain in art writing of the late 1840s and early 1850s, as young artists in particular came to feel that subjects drawn from literature and history had become ossified and conventional. The young Pre-Raphaelites were particularly vocal about this feeling, and one of their members, the critic Frederic George Stephens included a call for a new type of subject matter in their short-lived journal The Germ

if a modern Poet or Artist (the latter much more culpably errs) seeks a subject exemplifying charity, he rambles into ancient Greece or Rome, awakening not one half the sympathy in the spectator, as do such incidents as may be seen in the streets every day.3

Frith and Hunt, at least retrospectively, also identified this as a defining moment in their careers. Recalling the late 1840s and early 1850s in his Autobiography (1888), Frith wrote, “I now approach the time when the desire to represent every-day life took an irresistible hold upon me.”4 Earlier in the text he had explained his hesitation:

Fear of modern-life subjects still possessed me. The hat and trousers pictures that I had seen attempted had all been dismal failures; and I felt sure, or thought I did, that unless a subject of tremendous human interest could be found—such an interest as should make the spectator forget the dresses of the actors in it—modern life was impossible.5

Hunt and his fellow Pre-Raphaelites also viewed this type of subject as new and even risky. Rossetti seems to have written a disgruntled letter to John Ruskin lamenting the fact that Hunt pre-empted him in exhibiting a modern subject, to which the critic replied consolingly:

as to the original suggestion of the power which there is in modern life if honestly treated, I firmly believe that, to whomsoever it may belong in priority of time, it belongs to all three of you rightly in right of possession.6

But not everyone agreed about the value of modern-life subjects. The Art Journal criticised almost every painting with a modern-life theme in 1854: dismissing Abraham Solomon’s First Class—the Meeting as a “vulgar” subject; labelling Hunt’s Awakening Conscience an example of “bad taste”; and encouraging Frith to henceforth chose “themes more worthy of commemoration and preservation by Art” than the “unpropitious materials” of Ramsgate Sands.7 

The simultaneous pressure to paint modern life and anxiety about its ugliness (or vulgarity) that we see in artists’ and critics’ struggles over the question of painting everyday subjects in the early 1850s suggests the challenges and risks of trying to make quotidian events into art. On the one hand, such subjects could easily collapse back into ordinary genre painting without a more elevated claim to serious purpose and emotional power. On the other hand, there was always a risk of coming too close to the emotions of real life, depicting scenes that were too painful or too powerful in their impact on viewers.

While critical opinion varied as to how successful Hunt and Frith had been in achieving this balance, both pictures received significant notice in the press. Ramsgate Sands was praised as the popular favourite of the Exhibition, and its fame was ensured when it was purchased by the queen. Hunt’s status almost the only “high priest” of Pre-Raphaelitism in the Exhibition ensured that the Awakening Conscience received ample comment, but it was often quite critical, both because of the picture’s specific subject matter and the more general continuing critical disapproval of Pre-Raphaelitism.8 Over the course of the next decade, paintings of modern life would become a popular and much remarked feature of each year’s Summer Exhibition, including many of the Victorian paintings most familiar to us today, such as John Everett Millais’s The Rescue (1855), Emily Mary Osborn’s Nameless and Friendless (1857), Augustus Egg’s Past and Present (1858), and Frith’s Derby Day (1858).

  1. “Punch Among the Painters, No. 3”, Punch, 27 May 1854, 222.↩︎

  2. “Our Critic Among the Painters, No. 4”, Punch, 3 June 1854, 229.↩︎

  3. Laura Savage [F.G. Stephens], “Modern Giants”, The Germ (May 1850): 170.↩︎

  4. William Powell Frith, My Autobiography and Reminiscences, Vol. 1 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1888), 153.↩︎

  5. Frith, Autobiography, Vol. 1, 130.↩︎

  6. John Ruskin to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 15 June 1854; reprinted in William Michael Rossetti, Ruskin; Rossetti; Pre-Raphaelitism. Papers 1854–1862 (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company; London: George Allen, 1899), 11–12.↩︎

  7. “The Royal Academy”, The Art Journal, June 1854, 164, 165, 161.↩︎

  8. “The Royal Academy”, 158.↩︎

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