Wednesday, June 9, 2010
William Powell Frith - A Private View at the Royal Academy
A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881 is a painting by the English artist William Powell Frith exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts (London) in 1883. It depicts a group of distinguished Victorians visiting the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1881, just after the death of the Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, whose portrait by John Everett Millais was included on a screen at the special request of Queen Victoria. It is visible in the archway at the back of the room.
Meaning and content
The subject of the painting is the contrast between lasting historical achievements and ephemeral fads. The portrait of Disraeli represents the former, and the influence of the Aesthetic movement in dress represents the latter. Aesthetic dress is exemplified by the principal female figures in green, pink and orange clothing. Oscar Wilde, one of the main proponents of Aestheticism, is depicted at the right behind the boy in the green suit, surrounded by female admirers. Behind him, further to the right, a group of opponents glare disapprovingly at him as he speaks. Among them are the journalist G.A. Sala and the artist Philip Calderon.
At the left of the painting, Anthony Trollope is portrayed gazing at an "aesthetic" family. In the centre of the composition Frederic Leighton, President of the Academy, talks to a seated woman. William Thomson, the archbishop of York, stands beside him wearing a top hat. Lillie Langtry appears nearby in a white dress. Other famous figures of the day depicted include Robert Browning, Thomas Huxley, William Ewart Gladstone and Mary Braddon. The actors Ellen Terry and Henry Irving are visible standing behind Wilde.
The paintings on the wall accurately reproduce the exhibits of the year. A second portrait of Disraeli is visible on the wall behind Langtry. On the wall at the right, above Wilde's opponents, is the similarly angry-looking central figure in John Collier's Last Voyage of Henry Hudson. Millais at the extreme right is looking at Lawrence Alma-Tadema's painting Sappho and Alcaeus, accompanied by a myopic connoisseur.
Watteau, L'Enseigne de Gersaint (1720)Frith was inspired by the satirical cartoons of George du Maurier (whose head is visible between the orange and green attired aesthetes at the left) and by Gilbert and Sullivan's popular operetta Patience, first performed in 1881. The aesthetic costumes are characterised by features such as gigot sleeves and the "Watteau pleats" seen in the figure to the left of Wilde, wearing pink. The women in the centre along with the one to the right of Wilde with the child represent normal fashionable clothing of the day. These aspects of dress and pose, along with the myopic figure next to Millais, show the influence of Watteau's painting L'Enseigne de Gersaint.
A Private View was exhibited on tour. At Harrogate, North Yorkshire, Frith's childhood home. It went on show at Messrs A & J Polak's, with visitors paying one shilling to see "W P Frith's Last Great Picture". Frith's study for A Private View, 1881, is in the Mercer Art Gallery in Harrogate. This sketch offers a rare insight into the artist's working methods and also provides a snapshot of the buzz and excitement of the flourishing Victorian art world. The painting returned to Harrogate in 2007 for the first major exhibition of Frith's work since the artist's death.
^ Mary Cowling, Frith and his Followers, William Powell Frith: Painting the Victorian Age, 2007, p. 70
^ Edwina Ehrman, Frith and Fashion, William Powell Frith: Painting the Victorian Age, 2007, pp. 111–129
^ "Study for The Private View" in the Mercer Art Gallery Collection, Harrogate
at 5:00 PM