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1867 The Pains of a Mass Audience

What were the responsibilities of the Royal Academy towards the public? From 1862 onwards, evening opening times with reduced entry fees aimed to encourage a wider audience of working-class people, and a total of 235,497 visitors was recorded in 1867, representing a significant increase in numbers from preceding years.1 In 1867, two controversial works raised questions about the social and political impact of mass art viewing at what one concerned reviewer called “the most public rooms in England”: Edwin Landseer’s Her Majesty at Osborne in 1866 (Fig. 1, now known as Queen Victoria at Osborne in 1866) and Frederic Leighton’s Venus Disrobing for the Bath (Fig. 2).2

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Shrouded in black mourning dress and mounted on a black horse,  Landseer’s Queen Victoria cuts a maudlin figure. She is accompanied by two black dogs, and the dark tartan clad ghillie John Brown, as she listlessly reads and discards her post. Even the heavy grey sky seems to sob. The painting had been positioned in place of honour behind the President’s chair at the Academy banquet, and not raised any hackles.3 But when it was exhibited to the public in the Great Room at Trafalgar Square, it attracted considerable negative attention. After Prince Albert’s death in 1861, Victoria had withdrawn from public life. New portraiture of the Queen almost entirely disappeared; between 1862 and 1866, only two portraits of Victoria were displayed at the Summer Exhibition.4 Her sudden reappearance at the Academy in sombre painted form—and on such a large scale (the painting measures nearly one and a half by two metres)—was a cause for significant concern. Several reviewers refused even to describe or discuss it in any detail: “the picture is painful, and we will say no more about it”; “not a theme for criticism. We pass it by.”5 Elsewhere, the press spilt considerably more ink in condemning both Landseer and the Academy for exhibiting the painting to the public. The sight of the grieving monarch was not just emotionally painful for her loyal, empathetic subjects, it was also considered to be damaging to her reputation and national standing—especially when Victoria was, as The Times noted, just beginning to return to public life.6 This painting put her most private grief on exhibit before the nation:

If any one will stand by this picture for a quarter of an hour and listen to the comments of visitors he will learn how great an imprudence has been committed in the exhibition of it … when Sir Edwin Landseer puts the Queen and her black favourites into what are, during the season, the most public rooms in England, he does more harm to her popularity than he imagines.7

The public space of the Academy made this both a violation of Royal privacy (“altogether a picture for her Majesty’s private apartments”), and a threat to public approval of the monarch.8 The display of Queen Victoria at Osborne made manifest the power of individual art works, but more particularly, the significance of the endorsement and platform given to them by exhibition at the Academy. Contemporaries held that neither artist nor Academy had properly considered their responsibilities to the public, to the monarch—or indeed to the political establishment.

That year, another painting depicting a powerful woman likewise garnered concerns about public reactions to art, but for rather different reasons. Frederic Leighton’s Venus Disrobing for the Bath was the first large-scale painted female nude to command attention at the Academy since the 1840s. A single standing figure in a Doric temple, Venus is larger than life, with the painting just over two metres tall. The picture received almost universal acclaim in the press. It was praised for its refinement and purity, “conceived in the purest artistic spirit”, “eminently chaste”.9 Reviewers tied themselves in knots to point out how decisively this unclothed body was divorced from sensuality.10 Whereas the dark gloom of Landseer’s painting made it an inappropriately passionate image of the Queen, Venus’ marble white skin was the source of her legitimacy, rendering her “ideal” not “real”, and distant from any inappropriate passion.11

Reviewers pre-emptively cloaked the painting in the language of moral respectability because it was on show to a mass audience, “a grave responsibility”.12 The public needed to be taught (or, to paraphrase the Pall Mall Gazette, “edified”) that it was possible to view the nude in a purely aesthetic, non-sensual manner.13 In 1867, however, there does not seem to have been any outcry; the only textual records of anxiety about Venus Disrobing for the Bath were those championing its “bravery” and “courage” in the art press.14 It was not until the Academy Exhibition of 1885, as Alison Smith has explored, that the morality of the artistic nude came under widespread scrutiny.15 Epitomised in The Art-Journal’s claim that a socially acceptable nude should “exalt beauty as to silence passion”, these laudatory but intensely nervous reviews of 1867 foreground the contested early history of the nude-in-public.16 They demonstrate that far from being a natural, given category that sits self-contained in opposition to the “naked”, the nude is constantly in the process of being created, policed, explained, and legitimised.17

These two examples suggest a dissonance between the Academy and its varied publics. The Academy’s selection appears considerably more radical and experimental than the press that reviewed it, prioritising (in some instances) form over content, not recognising or worrying that Landseer’s painting might be a cause of national concern, or that Leighton’s Venus might ignite moralising anxieties. The appearance of Leighton’s Venus demonstrates the role of the Exhibition in legitimising new directions in image-making, while responses to Landseer’s painting suggest how seriously the Academy was taken as a place in which public opinion might be formed. Both attest to the perceived social and political power of art works assembled for public consumption at the late 1860s exhibition.

  1. The Summer Exhibition opened from 7–10pm, Monday to Wednesday, with evening fees of sixpence. Sidney C. Hutchison, History of the Royal Academy 1768–1986 (London: Robert Royce, 1986), 102.↩︎

  2. “Pictures of the Year”, Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art, 18 May 1867, 629.↩︎

  3. “Banquet at the Royal Academy”, The Illustrated London News, 11 May 1867, 479.↩︎

  4. These were G.H. Thomas, The Queen and Prince Consort at Aldershot in 1859 (1859–64), exhibited at the Academy in 1866, and E.A. Inglefield, Portraits of the Queen and Princess Royal (1865), exhibited at the Academy in 1865.↩︎

  5. “The Royal Academy”, Anti-Teapot Review, 1 May 1867, 26; “The Royal Academy”, The Art-Journal, 1 June 1867, 144. See also “The Royal Academy and Other Exhibitions”, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 1 July 1867, 91.↩︎

  6. “Exhibition of the Royal Academy”, The Times, 4 May 1867, 12; “Fine Arts”, The Illustrated London News, 11 May 1867, 478.↩︎

  7. “Pictures of the Year”, Saturday Review, 629.↩︎

  8. “Fine Arts”, The Daily News, 9 May 1867, 3.↩︎

  9. “Pictures of the Year”, Saturday Review, 628; “Royal Academy”, The Art-Journal, 141.↩︎

  10. “Royal Academy and Other Exhibitions”, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 85.↩︎

  11. “Royal Academy”, The Athenaeum, 4 May 1867, 594.↩︎

  12. “Royal Academy”, The Art-Journal, 141.↩︎

  13. “The Royal Academy Exhibition”, The Pall Mall Gazette, 11 May 1867, 10; “Fine Arts”, The Illustrated London News, 18 May 1867, 487.↩︎

  14. “The Royal Academy Exhibition”, The Pall Mall Gazette, 11 May 1867, 10; “Royal Academy”, The Art-Journal, 141.↩︎

  15. Alison Smith, “The ‘British Matron’ and the Body Beautiful: The Nude Debate of 1885”, in Elizabeth Prettejohn (ed.), After the Pre-Raphaelites: Art and Aestheticism in Victorian England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), 217–239.↩︎

  16. “Royal Academy”, The Art-Journal, 141.↩︎

  17. See Lynda Nead, The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality (London: Routledge, 1992).↩︎

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