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1877 New Venues, New Visions

Traditionally, the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition at Burlington House had enjoyed a privileged status “as a manifestation—a visible record—of the state of British Art.”1 In 1877, however, the authority of this prestigious institution began to ebb. The judging panel came under a considerable amount of fire for rejecting a large number of good works—decisions that The Art-Journal looked upon with “distressed astonishment”.2 It had been a “massacre of the innocents”, wrote one critic, and there were “serious symptoms of revolt”.3 

Disgruntlement regarding the decisions of the Academy was not in itself new or unusual. Such was the level of grievance this year, though, that artists were reportedly discussing the possibility of establishing an alternative venue, “which will so far compete in public estimation with the Royal Academy as to render the acceptance or rejectance [sic] of a work by that body a matter of less importance than it is now.”4 Mutinous feeling of this sort would eventually lead to the founding of the New English Art Club in 1886, an exhibiting society of British artists who were influenced by recent trends in French art, such as Impressionism, and whose work thus ran counter to the aesthetic strictures of the Academy.

Yet the authority of Burlington House was already waning in 1877. This was the year that the Grosvenor Gallery—founded on Bond Street to showcase artists who chose not to exhibit at the Academy or whose work had been rejected—mounted its own inaugural Summer Exhibition, with even some Royal Academicians contributing their “best” work to this new show.5 Consequently, the Academy’s famous Annual Exhibition was haunted by an alternative summertime display of British art; critics duly made note of key absentee painters, like James Tissot, who exhibited “nothing at Burlington house, having supported the Grosvenor gallery”.6 This latter venue embodied a radical new ethos of “art for art’s sake”, whereby beauty was prized above moral messages, historicism, or narrative. Significant works by George Frederic Watts, Albert Moore, and a host of other artists committed to the ideals of the rising Aesthetic Movement were thus exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery rather than at Burlington House. The Academy’s grip on the national art scene had started to loosen.

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Still, for all this, the academic style characteristic of Burlington House maintained its capacity to innovate and impress. Frederic Leighton—who, as a firm member of the academic establishment, would go on to be elected the President of the Royal Academy in the following year—won great praise in 1877 with his sculpture An Athlete Wrestling with a Python (Fig. 1). A response to Laocoön and His Sons—the famous marble sculpture of antiquity showing a Trojan priest and his children overwhelmed by multiple serpents—Leighton’s striking bronze statue shows a male nude wrapped in intense, undulating conflict with a single python. Unlike the doomed Laocoön, Leighton’s figure is an anonymous classical type rather than a particular mythological character; and his battle with the snake is not already lost, but is captured at a moment of unresolved dramatic tension. The strenuous physicality of the struggle is registered by Leighton’s extraordinary attentiveness to the details of the athlete’s taut musculature.

An Athlete Wrestling with a Python was a virtuoso foray into a new medium for Leighton; it helped him show off his aesthetic range and lay claim to a distinguished artistic heritage. “Hitherto, this artist has only been known as a painter,” wrote one critic, “and this desire to emulate Michael Angelo, Leonardo, and other artists of the Italian renaissance is at once creditable and successful.”7 Indeed, The Art-Journal believed that Leighton had achieved “a success in sculpture unprecedented in the history of Art in this country”.8 The work’s impact was such that the piece was immediately acquired by the Academy using the Chantrey Bequest.9 Leighton’s Athlete—showing at the Summer Exhibition at a moment when the institution’s authority was in question—formed a sculptural dialogue with an illustrious art history and helped claim the cultural prestige of the classical tradition for Burlington House.

However, Athlete also signalled a critical modern departure for British sculpture. While “nobly classic in feeling”,10 the statue’s emphasis on the naturalistic modelling of the human body—Athlete is above all a libidinal study in strained ligaments and protruding veins—helped to inaugurate what came to be termed the New Sculpture, a movement that deployed realism to reinvigorate the academic tradition, moving beyond the staid conventions of Neoclassicism that had held sway since the eighteenth century.11 Thus, while Leighton had also contributed three paintings to the comparatively radical aestheticist display at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, the new style of sculpture he unveiled at Burlington House that same year positioned the Academy not merely as the guardian of tradition, but also as a cradle of artistic innovation. 

Leighton and his output would remain key to maintaining the distinction of the Summer Exhibition throughout the rest of the century. Upon being elected as President of the Royal Academy in 1878, the artist became a staunch advocate of the institution’s pre-eminence over competing bodies, ensuring its continued relevance by courting those artists, like Edward Burne-Jones, who were associated with the Aestheticism of the Grosvenor Gallery.12 The stakes were high: as one critic put it in 1877, “It would seem as if there were not enough artistic talent in England to supply both galleries.”13

  1. The Art-Journal 39 (1877): 185.↩︎

  2. The Art-Journal 39 (1877): 185.↩︎

  3. The Manchester Courier and Lancaster Advertiser, 7 May 1877, 6.↩︎

  4. The Manchester Courier and Lancaster Advertiser, 7 May 1877, 6.↩︎

  5. South Wales Daily News, 8 May 1877, 2.↩︎

  6. Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 13 May 1877.↩︎

  7. The Glasgow Herald, 5 May 1877.↩︎

  8. The Art-Journal 39 (1877): 185.↩︎

  9. John Bull, 5 May 1877, 281.↩︎

  10. The Art-Journal 39 (1877): 185.↩︎

  11. Keren Rosa Hammerschlag, Frederic Leighton: “Death, Mortality, Resurrection” (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015), 186.↩︎

  12. Helen Valentine (ed.), Art in the Age of Queen Victoria: Treasures from the Royal Academy of Arts Permanent Collection (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 56.↩︎

  13. South Wales Daily News, 8 May 1877, 2.↩︎

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Explore the 1877 catalogue