Dream manfully and nobly, and thy dreams shall be prophets. — Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton
The Victorians' notions of ancient Rome formed a collective dream that saw the classical past serve as a mirror for British society. The dream embodied their cultural ideals — political, aesthetic and social — and art became the primary medium through which the dream was represented. This was the age in which monumental statues were erected to honour famous politicians and military heroes such as Sir Robert Peel and the Duke of Wellington, the Royal Academy's top painters, including the successful Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, chose almost exclusively classical subjects and some years before Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote his highly influential and popular historical novel The Last Days of Pompeii. To call the Victorian pre-occupation with Rome a dream reflects the highly self-conscious nature of their pursuits as well as their implicit faith that their visions had the power to become prophecy, to construct everyday life.
What greatness did the artists see in Rome? At the first instance the classically styled artists were merely reflecting their patrons' values and thus creating appealing artworks to be consumed by their audiences: art represented the collective dream, something apparent in the Victorian myth of the toga). Once Alma-Tadema's classical subject paintings had become popular, he followed the same formula of depicting scenes from Rome with great archeological accuracy throughout his illustrious career. He was a Dutch artist who moved to England, more than slightly altering his choice of subject to suit the local taste. Matthew Noble's 1834 sculpture of prime-minister Robert Peel alludes to Rome by placing Roman columns at his feet, portraying him as a timeless historical figure of Caesaresque proportions and this reflects the Roman manner in which politicians wanted to be seen by the public(link to essay on public monuments). The initial sales of Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii fed off the newly sparked public interest in Pompeii after the Italian volcano Vesuvius' recent activity had made it to the newspapers. The content of the novel with its copiously detailed descriptions of Roman rituals, including the notorious feasts and baths, not to mention its vivid images of Roman architecture and interiors, was designed to give the audience the Roman eyes they longed to have. The novel's obsession with historical detail (link to 'classic revel'), like Alma-Tadema's paintings, reflects the Victorians' highly sophisticated fascination with Rome.
If we want to ask what the collective ideal of Rome was we need to think of the Romantic because as a dream in the minds of the Victorians Rome was necessarily romanticized — extravagant, fanciful and dominated by idealism. The extravagance and fancifulness of the Romans can be seen in many of Alma-Tadema's paintings. The domestic scenes are painted in his characteristic lush but delicate style and together with the content of the paintings, which is mostly woman at leisure, this portrays Rome as a place of idle luxuriousness. In A Coign of Vantage, for example, two women are depicted with their servant; one of them leans over the balcony childishly, observing what is happening below her, and the other stretching lazily stares vacantly into the sky above. Both women's heads are adorned with richly rendered flowers and their voluminous costumes lend the painting a certain sumptuousness — a wholesome beauty — that we always seem to find in Alma-Tadema's classical subject paintings.
The Victorians were however very conscious of their own dreaming, of their idealization of Rome. The furthest development of this self-consciousness can be seen in the classicizing aesthetes such as Albert Moore who literally painted quite a few pictures of classicized scenes with women sleeping, implicitly or explicitly dreaming, as in his famous work Dreamers. Moore's paintings seem to suggest his realization that the extravagance of Rome which we see in Alma-Tadema's paintings is really a series of ideals aestheticised by an artistic consciousness and that life imitates art. But even before Moore, Alma-Tadema was aware of the ironic implications of appropriating Rome in classical artworks. Several of his paintings, including Entrance to a Roman Theatre and The Roses of Heliogabalus, which can be seen as a critique of both British and Roman societies, betray the contradictions inherent in Victorian idealization of themselves through images of Rome.
The Victorians as Olympian Dreamers: The 'Togification' of Britain
- 'Classic Revel': How Fiction Becomes Fact in Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii
- Whose Dream Is It Anyway?: The Myth of The Toga
- Hall of Mirrors: Critique, Contradiction and Irony in Lawrence Alma-Tadema
Wood, Christopher. Olympian Dreamers: Victorian Classical Painters, 1860-1914. London: Constable, 1983.
Last modified 26 June 2020