Decorative Initial Although contemporary Victorian reviews admittedly have little to tell us directly about the visual elements in the paintings they notice, they nonetheless provide much useful information for students of art and historians of taste. In addition to giving an idea of what the Victorian public read about the arts, these periodical writings indicate broad trends that affect the taste of artist and audience alike. Frequent complaints about the prevalence of portraiture, for example, indicate the relative importance of this genre at Royal Academy exhibitions, while other remarks also suggest the relative importance of landscape, history painting, and scenes of domestic life. The opening sections of the annual reviews usually contain such comments on the century's changing views of realism, Pre-Raphaelitism, symbolism, and other major issues, and [132/133] occasionally a writer will use an individual work as a stepping-off place for such theoretical criticism. For example, when praising Edward Poynter's Return of the Prodigal Son in 1869, the critic for the Illustrated London News took the opportunity to attack Holman Hunt and his defenders, among whom one can number Ruskin, Stephens, and W. M. Rossetti. According to the reviewer,

some highly respectable persons are very likely, by plausible theories and partisan propagandists, brought to believe that this promising young painter nor any master, ancient or modern, has any right whatever to deal with this often-painted episode before us, without having previously informed himself of the precise shape, measurement, pattern, and material, if not also the market price of the textile fabric made up into abbah, the under garments, and the potah, or continuation, if any, worn by the excellent parent of the Gospel narrative, on the particular day of his hopeful younger son's return. [Illustrated London News 54 (1869): 484]

Thus, having effectively parodied Hunt's realistic methods, the critic can claim that a more idealized style makes the point of the parable with equal force.

Perhaps the most important use of such periodical notices is as a depository of valuable, if incomplete, records of particular subjects and themes. When dealing with a painter like Holman Hunt, who placed a great deal of importance upon original subject, it is useful to discover notices that show his Awakening Conscience, was preceded by two similarly titled pictures. T. Brook's The Awakened Conscience, in which a family of tramps remorsefully look at a young child saying his prayers, was noticed by the Art-Joural, 15 (1853), 150, and both noticed and engraved by the Illustrated London News, 22 (1853): 388-89. Richard Redgrave's identically titled painting of a drunkard was described in Art-Journal, 11 (1849): 172.

Occasionally the reviewer himself will do the art historian's task, pointing out possible analogues and influences. Thus, after praising Poynter's version of the prodigal son theme, the reviewer remarks that William Gale and W. F. Poole exhibited similar subjects the same year; and turning to the notices of the 1861 exhibition we discover ourselves that J. C. Horsley had painted a well-received painting on the same theme.

Reviews thus furnish particularly valuable assistance when we try to gauge the popularity and influence of Millais. After the young member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painted his interpretation of Tennyson's "Mariana" in 1851, he was followed by one R. S. Cahill four years later, about whose efforts the Art-Journal only remarked: "Mariana is one of the hacknied subjects of which we now see yearly. When one artist . . . opens a new vein, it is not only soon exhausted by others who do not read for themselves, but it continues to be reproduced long after it has ceased to interest" (Art-Journal, 17 [1855]: 177). Three years later in 1858, this periodical again [133/134] complained that if one painter "is original-by accident, all the others follow in Indian file. One paints Evangeline, the Lady of Shallott, or some other conception of equal pungency, when, lo! there is a creation of fifty Evangelines and Ladies of Shallott; and so it is with every vein of thought" (20 [1858]: 161.).

These comments upon the way lesser painters reacted to the demands of the Victorian art market are perhaps nowhere better demonstrated than in the Art-Journal's own notice of a Miss A. Burgess, who in 1860 exhibited not only yet another Mariana and an Evangeline but also a picture of children freeing a bird from a cage, which she entitled The Order of Release, thus alluding wittily to another of Millais's important works (20 [1858]: 161).


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Last modified 8 December 2006