VICTORIAN FAIRY PAINTING
(with 8 cuts)
NEW YORK CITY -- Attracting record crowds in British and American venues,
"Victorian Fairy Painting" continues at the Frick Collection.
This is the first comprehensive exhibition ever devoted to this distinctly
British genre, which was critically and commercially popular from the early
Nineteenth Century through the beginning of World War I.
The 34 paintings, works on paper, and objects were selected by Edgar Munhall,
curator of the Frick Collection, from the original, larger touring exhibition,
which was organized by the University of Iowa Museum of Art and the Royal
Academy of Arts, London.
Fairy painting brought together many opposing elements in the collective
psyche and artistic sensibility of its time: rich subject-matter, an escape
from the grim elements of an industrial society, an indulgence of new
attitudes towards sex, a passion for the unknown, and a denial of the
exactitude of photography.
Drawing on literary inspiration from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream
to Sir Walter Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, as well as the
theater, the dance, and music, fairy painters exercised their magic with the
precision of the Pre-Raphaelites, aided too by experiments with drugs and
spiritualism. Artists represented in the exhibition include such acknowledged
masters of fairy painting as Richard Dadd, John Anster Fitzgerald, Daniel
Maclise, and Sir Joseph Noel Paton, but also such surprises as Sir Edwin
Landseer, Sir John Everett Millais and J.M.W. Turner. The works are drawn from
private collections, museums, and other institutions throughout England and
the United States.
Literary and Theatrical Influences
Although fairies made frequent appearances in British literature from as early
as the Fourteenth Century, it was the writing of Shakespeare that provided the
richest source of subject-matter. His plays A Midsummer Night's Dream and The
Tempest both figure into the exhibition's many examples of
Shakespeare-inspired paintings. Spenser's Faerie Queen (1596), Pope's Rape of
the Lock (1714), Drayton's Nimphidia (1627) and Shelley's Queen Mabb (1813)
served as other sources of the genre.
While literature provided much thematic material, the visual impact of
contemporary pantomime, theater, ballet, and opera was paramount as well. The
early 1830s to the late 1840s in London saw the emergence of Romantic ballet,
a most influential source of imagery to the fairy painter. Romantic ballet was
in itself a revolt against the stiff classical ballet's obsession with form.
One of its main themes was the supernatural, in which a spirit forms a
relationship with a mortal, with dramatic consequences.
Stage productions in the Nineteenth Century were truly spectacular, owing much
to startling effects, the splendor of the scenery, as well as to the new
gaslight. As early as 1823 prancing steeds and cascades of real water were not
uncommon. One of the most memorable productions was of Shakespeare's A
Midsummer Night's Dream, starring the eight-year-old Ellen Terry as Puck,
making her debut on a mechanical mushroom. The production ran 250 nights. A
version of The Tempest featuring Kate Terry (Ellen's sister) sailing on a
dolphin's back and riding on a bat, also stunned audiences.
A Passion For The Unknown
Among various forces at work on the Victorian psyche was the awareness of an
emerging industrial society. Confidence in the continuous economic expansion
and scientific and technological progress of the century existed alongside an
anxiety over the rapid changes brought by the very same developments.
Prompted by a desire to escape this conflict, there flourished a passion for
the unknown. Spiritualism was one powerful and widely influential trend of the
period. Modern spiritualism was born in the 1840s with the remarkable
publicity attending the Fox sisters of Hydesville, N.Y. The sisters posed
questions to an unseen "rapper" and received apparently cogent answers.
Shortly thereafter, the sisters embarked on careers as mediums.
In 1852, the first American medium arrived in England and the new interest
became a rapidly spreading craze, and one that offered much ground for artists
and public alike to explore. Also expressed in Victorian fairy painting were
allusions -- overt at times -- to changing attitudes about sex and to the
contemporary use of drugs such as opium and laudanum.
One of the greatest masters of the genre were Richard Dadd (1817-1886), whose
work "The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke" is the most well-known of the
paintings in the exhibition, owing to the circumstances of its creation. As a
promising young artist Dadd toured Egypt and the Near East and returned in a
state of madness, with the delusion that he was descended from the Egyptian
god Osiris. Believing himself under the instructions of this deity, Dadd
murdered his father. He was found to be criminally insane and spent the rest
of his life in mental hospitals, where his doctors encouraged him to paint.
This work of nine years, though not entirely finished, is one of his
extraordinary achievements. An extremely disturbing image, its static,
close-up view of the natural world is painstakingly filled in with color, and
its quaint figures are almost invisible to naked eye.
J.M.W. Turner's only excursion into the genre is "Queen Mab's Cave," one of a
number of pictures in which he explored the world of the imaginary and
supernatural. It was described by a reviewer at the time as a "daylight dream
in all the wantonness of gorgeous, bright, and positive color, not painted but
apparently flung at the canvas in kaleidoscopic confusion." A "daylight dream"
is a perceptive description, as the work may have no literary source. No cave
is mentioned in standard literary references to her, such as Shelley's poem
"Queen Mab" and Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet."
Legends of fairy abductions and sightings lingered on longest in Scotland,
Ireland, and Wales, and it is no coincidence that several of the best painters
of the genre came from those countries. Daniel Maclise (1806-1870) was a
portrait and historical painter and an illustrator. In "The Disenchantment of
Bottom" (1832), Maclise adopted Fuseli's device of weaving episodic vignettes
into a larger composition, which was based on a Shakespearian theme.
The Scottish painter Sir Joseph Noel Paton (1821-1901) was known as much for
his melodramatic paintings on religious themes as for his fairy subjects. For
the fairy realm, Paton drew frequently upon Walter Scott's Minstrelsy of the
Scottish Borders as well as A Midsummer Night's Dream. Companion pieces "The
Quarrel of Oberon and Titania" and "The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania"
of 1847 were highly acclaimed, the latter establishing his reputation when it
took a prize in competition.
John Anster Fitzgerald (1823-1906), also of Irish descent and a specialist in
the genre, was referred to by friends as "fairy Fitzgerald" for his obsession
with the subject. Visitors to the exhibition will find on view more works by
this little-known artist than by any other hand, in fact. His works are
characteristically small, detailed scenes, usually painted in bright colors
and often depicting what might be called the "domestic life of the fairy."
Fitzgerald's series of dream paintings, in which sleepers are plagued by
hideous creatures from fairyland, is overtly reflective of drug-induced
An illustrated scholarly catalogue complements the exhibition. Victorian Fairy
Painting features essays on the fairy phenomenon by several authors, including
the late Jeremy Maas, Charlotte Gere, and Pamela White Trimpe. Topics include
fairies in literature, music, the theater, and the Nineteenth Century study of
folklore and fairytales. The catalogue describes the painters and their work
and examines the reasons for the Victorian fascination with fairyland.
Published by Merrel Holberton, the catalogue is available in the museum shop
of the Frick Collection in soft cover for $29.95.
The original exhibition was curated by Pamela White Trimpe, curator of
painting and sculpture and assistant director, the University of Iowa Museum
of Art; Jane Martineau, curator, Royal Academy of Arts; and Charlotte Gere.
The late Jeremy Maas was deeply involved in the planning of the exhibition.
The exhibition was organized by the University of Iowa Museum of Art and the
Royal Academy of Arts, London. Edgar Munhall, curator of the Frick Collection,
coordinated the exhibition's presentation at the Frick Collection.
The collection is at 1 East 70th Street, near Fifth Avenue. Museum hours are
10 am to 6 pm, Tuesdays through Saturdays, and from 1 to 6 pm on Sundays.