The Song by Sophie Anderson (1823-1903). 1881. Oil on canvas. H 145 x W 200.5 cm. Collection: Wolverhampton Art Gallery. Source: The Athenaeum online art gallery.
In 1880, Sophie Anderson presented gallery-goers with a new line of work, when she showed two canvases under the title of Bather at the Academy exhibition and a third, obviously related, called The Bathers at the Grosvenor Gallery. All three featured female figures draped Grecian style in academic tradition, posed in anonymous, wooded settings. These were well received by the critics, and appear in hindsight to have been testing the water for her much more ambitious exhibit in the same vein the following year. The Song, measuring nearly 5 feet by six-and-half feet (145 x 200.5 cms) elaborated the elements deployed in her bathers into an outdoor scene of Arcadian grace and beauty, with two young women listening raptly to the singing of a third who accompanies herself on a lyre, the whole scene presented in a heavily wooded grove.
This was the kind of thing that was by this time appearing both at the Academy and the Grosvenor Gallery: it could be argued that it was the latter's endorsement of Aestheticism that had modified the classical mode so as to allow for this kind of vehicle, which offered beauty without history, myth or improving lesson. Exhibition at the Grosvenor was by invitation, and Anderson had been showing there since its second exhibition in 1878, while continuing her almost annual presence at the Academy. In this respect she can be grouped with painters such as Albert Moore, Laurens Alma-Tadema, Frederic Leighton and Edward Poynter who wrought an adroit renovation of the classical tradition out of the Academy's need to withstand the independent, bohemian and rather glamorous competition that the Grosvenor presented.
Several other canvases relating to The Song, currently known by sale-room titles since they have not been identified with any exhibited works, include Birdsong, which replicates the left-hand side of The Song; At the Well, a full-length female figure in similar drapery seated in a similar wooded setting waiting for her pitcher to fill from a spring; and Reverie, a close-up head-and-shoulders study of the same figure leaning on her arms.
Judging by size alone, Anderson intended The Song to make a major statement and signal a turn of direction. It was shown in Liverpool, Birmingham and Glasgow after its debut at the Academy, and Kate Nichols' research has revealed it was bought by a Yorkshire collector, who in 1885 offered it for sale to the Wolverhampton Art Gallery. But this scale and ambition of work carried a high price tag and, although The Song was purchased for the gallery-goers of Wolverhampton in 1886, it does not look as if this new vein of work was endorsed sufficiently by her public for Anderson to devote herself to it thereafter, as she may have wished. Despite later equally impressive essays in the aestheticised classical mode such as Happy Days (1884) and Julia banished, Capri (1888; erroneously known since 1978 as The Studio), she continued to present the gallery-going and print-buying public with examples of the small, inconsequential "fancy picture" with which she had made her living since the middle of the century.
Casteras, Susan P. and Colleen Denney. The Grosvenor Gallery: a palace of art in Victorian England. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.
Newall, Christopher. The Grosvenor Gallery Exhibitions: change and continuity in the Victorian art world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Nichols, Kate. "Sophie Anderson, a cosmopolitan Victorian Artist in the Midlands". Midlands Art Papers. Birmingham: University of Birmingham, 2018.
The Song. The Athenaeum. Web. 27 May 2022.
Created 27 May 2022