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1860 Modernising Religious Painting

Many reviews of the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1860 conceded that the art world sensation of that year took place elsewhere: with the display of William Holman Hunt’s painting, The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, in the German Gallery, New Bond Street, run by the dealer Ernest Gambart. This single-picture exhibition was in direct competition with the Academy and it attracted huge crowds—reportedly up to a thousand a day—enabling Gambart to recoup within six months the purchase price of £5,500, then the highest sum ever paid for a contemporary painting.1 Clearly, there was public demand for serious religious painting.

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Within the Academy, too, were some notable experiments, smaller and less extravagantly publicised than Hunt’s blockbuster, yet evincing a similar urge to bring modern research and thinking to religious subject matter. The nineteenth century has often been described as one of increasing secularisation, when advances in science threatened traditional religious belief. That entrenched view has led to a neglect of religious painting in modern scholarship on nineteenth-century art. Yet it would be truer to say that a variety of research enterprises—including the critical study of Bible texts, the historical study of sites and peoples in the Holy Land (crucial to Hunt’s Finding), geology, biology, and other sciences—introduced new perspectives that excited rather than undermined contemporary interest in religious issues. While artists were hard at work on their Academy submissions for 1860, two books were published that explored such concerns in different ways: in November 1859, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, the classic exposition of his theory of evolution, and in March 1860, Essays and Reviews, a collection of essays on new approaches to biblical study and theology, co-authored by six Church of England theologians and a lay scholar. The latter volume sparked immediate controversy, while the former initiated a slower-burning debate. At issue in both cases, though, was the nature of material or visible evidence: this was an area where artists could make a contribution to the discussion.

To the Exhibition of 1860, William Dyce contributed two religious paintings and a landscape, Pegwell Bay, Kent, a Recollection of October 5, 1858. The date in that title refers to a recent event in astronomy, the appearance of Donati’s comet (just visible in the painted sky), and its specificity contrasts with the immensity of geological time represented by the rocky cliffs of the Bay.2 Astronomical space and geological time might seem here to threaten the traditional biblical account of the creation, yet recent scholarship suggests a religious dimension to this portrayal of the cosmic within everyday reality (the Kent coastline on a date just a year and a half ago).3 Dyce’s other contributions, St. John Leading Home his Adopted Mother and The Man of Sorrows (Fig. 1), have, like so many nineteenth-century religious paintings, received much less attention from art historians, yet the same issues are in play. The persons of divine revelation (St John, the Virgin, and Jesus Christ himself) are given literal and material reality, and set in recognisable landscapes rendered with scientific precision. Some critics, indeed, responded with indignation to Dyce’s portrayal of the Saviour in what they quickly identified as “a genuine Highland or Hebridean moorland”: “It will not do,” blustered The Times, “to unite mediaeval figure-treatment with literal modern landscape or local accompaniments.”4

Dyce, then, rejects the kind of historical accuracy for which Hunt strove when he journeyed to Jerusalem to research every detail of his Finding; he is more interested in the truths that we can see with our own eyes. As another critic observed, the apparent anachronism is introduced “probably from a desire to show the universality of the motive he illustrates”.5 A painting by Simeon Solomon also displayed in 1860, Moses, seems at first glance closer to Hunt in its attention to historically accurate details such as the decorated textiles and the ancient Egyptian harp (Fig. 2). Like Hunt, too, Solomon strove for ethnic or racial accuracy in the representation of his figures; himself a Jew, he may have had readier access than Hunt to models from the London Jewish community, and two beautiful, scrupulously detailed pencil drawings for the female figures survive.6 This, though, suggests a different kind of truth in Solomon’s painting: he aims at the faithful depiction of his own religious community.7 He, therefore, chooses a different moment in the story of the infant Moses from the standard scene of The Finding of Moses by Pharaoh’s daughter, with its typological correspondence to Hunt’s New Testament episode of The Finding of the Saviour. Instead, he shows the infant Moses within his Jewish family at the poignant moment when his mother and sister Jochebed take their last loving look before consigning him to the wicker basket under Jochebed’s arm. This is a distinctively Jewish interpretation of the subject and one that relates to the artist’s own sense of identity.

Truth to history, truth to science, truth to religious, or ethnic identity: the religious pictures of 1860 draw on (at least) three different kinds of visual or pictorial truth, each of them, moreover, a way of exploring the wider truth-claims of religious belief. Far from retreating before the advances of science and secularisation, religious painting allowed artists to engage with the most urgent concerns of their modern world.

  1. Jeremy Maas, Gambart: Prince of the Victorian Art World (London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1975), 118–122 and 126–127.↩︎

  2. Marcia Pointon, “The Representation of Time in Painting: A Study of William Dyce’s Pegwell Bay: A Recollection of October 5th, 1858”, Art History 1, no. 1 (March 1978): 99–103.↩︎

  3. Christiana Payne, “Art, Science and Religion”, in Christiana Payne (ed.), In Focus: Pegwell Bay, Kent—a Recollection of October 5th 1858 ?1858–60 by William Dyce (London: Tate Research Publication, 2016), (accessed 4 August 2017).↩︎

  4. The Times, 5 May 1860, 5.↩︎

  5. Macmillan’s Magazine 2 (June 1860): 158.↩︎

  6. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, PD.54-1959 and PD.55-1959.↩︎

  7. Norman L. Kleeblatt, “Jewish Stereotype and Christian Prototype: The Pre-Raphaelite and Early Renaissance Sources for Simeon Solomon’s Hebrew Pictures”, in Susan P. Casteras and Alicia Craig Faxon (eds), Pre-Raphaelite Art in Its European Context (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995), 119–121.↩︎

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Explore the 1860 catalogue