Arts Notice

At SAM’s Victorian Radicals Emphasis Lands Heavily on the Victorian

As history, the museum’s new exhibit is fascinating—so much so that the text can overwhelm the art.

By Stefan Milne June 19, 2019

A dress and a painting at Victorian Radicals

When I walked through Seattle Art Museum’s new exhibition, Victorian Radicals: From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts and Crafts Movement, a funny thing happened: I found myself looking to the text beside paintings before the paintings themselves, and often for longer. This is, in part, because the history behind much of this exhibit is fascinating. It’s also because, to most modern viewers, these paintings won’t appear radical.

Victorian Radicals focuses on Pre-Raphaelite artists like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais, and also on the Arts and Crafts movement which followed with artists like William Morris and Kate Bunce. Both were in different ways reacting to growing industrialization. The artists—in sculptures, dresses, tapestries, stained glass, jewelry, and paintings, among other items—emphasized human touch (an anti-machine quality). Some returned to medieval art styles. Some emphasized an intensity of color, made possible with new pigments. They also reacted to societal changes brought on by the new age—which mirror some contemporary problems. The Stone Breaker by Henry Wallis, for instance, fights the treatment of the poor in Victorian England.

La Donna della Finestra by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. 

Yet even though some of this qualified at the time as avant-garde, the exhibit still looks deeply Victorian. In the same way that, while Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was iconoclastic when published, it has since ceased to be. That isn’t any great critique of Victorian Radicals, but one promo image—one of the main promo images—had me hoping for something more disruptive.  

When I found it in the exhibition, it was the most striking in the room: Rossetti’s La Donna della Finestra. Nearly the whole canvas is cast in rustic strokes, touched with the lightest outline of a figure—only her face and hands in full detail, popping from the background. Rossetti wasn’t mounting some revolt against his fleshed-out peers, though, nor an attack against industrialized art. As I found reading the text beside it: The painting was simply unfinished.

Victorian Radicals: From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts and Crafts Movement
June 13–Sept 8, Seattle Art Museum, $29

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