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In the following essay Malcom Warner argued that for Leighton, Moore and Watts "the 'rediscovery' of Greece was that of an aesthetic ideal" unlike those earlier artists "who were concerned with Greece as a landscape or as a political issue." [GPL]

The Elgin Marbles

The key source of inspiration here is of course the sculpture from the Parthenon, now in the British Museum, which Lord Elgin shipped to England in the early years of the last century and which was bought from him by the nation in 1816. Initial reactions to the 'Elgin Marbles' were mixed. Connoisseurs whose conception of Greek Art was formed on more graceful, freestanding Hellenistic works such as the Apollo Belvedere found them unpalatably severe. Artists were generally more open-minded. Flaxman pronounced the Apollo Belvedere 'a mere dancing master' in comparison with the 'Theseus', Haydon felt upon seeing the Marbles 'as if a divine truth had blazed inwardly upon my mind', and Fuseli exclaimed that 'The Greeks were gods! The Marbles inspired tremendous enthusiasm, and countless artists and students from Haydon onwards reverently made drawings of them. Some, including Etty and Landseer, even made visual allusions to them in their paintings, but, perhaps surprisingly, there was no general Greek Revival in early 19th-century painting as there was in contemporary architecture.

Classical Art and the Aesthetic Movement

In the 1860s, however, the 'Aesthetic Movement' which led painters to discover the art of Japan also fostered a revaluation of Greek sculpture. This was made possible by a shift in attitude which was expressed in theoretical terms by the leading 'aesthetic' writer on art, Walter Pater, when he spoke of the Greeks as having been concerned with beauty rather than truth. Since the mid eighteenth century and before, classical art had generally been viewed as both noble and ennobling; now it was reinterpreted as an art of pure visual delight, free from any moral or didactic content. The latter view informs the use of quotation from the Elgin Marbles and other classical sources which is so widespread in the work of Leighton, Moore and Watts.


Another development which contributed to the assimilation of the Greek influence in painting was the discovery that Greek architecture and sculpture including the Parthenon, were originally polychromatic. When the Crystal Palace was reopened at Sydenham in 1854, the Greek Court there contained a vividly coloured cast of the Parthenon frieze, 'executed under the direction of Mr. Owen Jones, the golden hair and the several tints being founded on analogous remains of ancient Greek art. In the following year, the Elgin Marbles were themselves installed in a new Graeco-Roman Saloon at the British Museum, which had bright red walls and polychromatic mouldings and ceilings. The idea was carried over into contemporary sculpture in the form of John Gibson's Tinted Venus (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), which attracted a great deal of attention at the International Exhibition of 1862. For painters, the importance of polychromy was that it undermined the old view of Greek art as stark and linear; this made it more clearly relevant to colourists like G. F. Watts. It seemed more possible that a painting could be, to borrow the subtitle of own of Watts' own pictures, 'a translation from the Greek.'

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Last modified 6 June 2007