The Victorian classical revival in painting had surprisingly little to do with ancient Greece or Rome. Although Britons identified with the ancient Greeks and Romans and admired their achievements, artists reinterpreted the great events of the classical past in light of their own modern experiences. The works of five of England's greatest classical painters — Leighton, Alma-Tadema, Poynter, Moore and Waterhouse — tell us a great deal more about Victorian England than the classical past from which they drew inspiration.

There is no simple definition of Victorian classicism in the context of art. Although the diversity of classical revival styles prevents easy generalizations, all of the artists mentioned leaned towards highly eclectic and aesthetic art. Leighton's ambitious classicism was geared towards uplifting England's artistic aspirations, Alma-Tadema domesticated imperial Rome for a most unroman, unclassical purpose, Poynter sought to identify a heroic ideal, Moore simply used classical figures for aesthetic ends, and Waterhouse mixed classical realism with poetic fantasy. "Inevitably," writes Christopher Wood, "[Victorian classicism] meant different things to different people; it was an influence, rather than a coherent body of opinion; a catalyst, rather than a clearly defined artistic movement" (Wood 16).

The purpose of this essay is to explore some of the different manifestations of Victorian classicism in painting. We shall see that the classical past was a common source of inspiration which lead to diverse conclusions.

Victorian Classicism in Painting: Common Inspiration with Eclectic Ends


Wood, Christopher. Olympian Dreamers: Victorian Classical Painters, 1860-1914. London: Constable, 1983.

Last modified 26 June 2020