Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2008 Issue

Victorian Portraits on Display at the Grolier Club in New York

Ap08wilde

Max Beerbohm's unflattering look at Oscar Wilde.


An exhibition that connects images, art and the written word will be continuing at the Grolier Club in New York from now through April 26. Facing the Late Victorians: Portraits of Writers and Artists from the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, allows visitors to come face to face with many of the great British Victorian era poets, painters, novelists, playwrights and illustrators through their portraits. The timing is perfect for a side excursion for anyone coming to New York for the New York Antiquarian Book Fair or the West Side Antiquarian Book and Ephemera Fair during the first weekend of April.

The Grolier Club explains, "this exhibition will take audiences back more than one hundred years to explore a phenomenon that will seem astonishingly modern and familiar. Like the world we know now, Britain at the end of the nineteenth century was a nation filled with images. Whether circulating by means of posters, books, newspapers, magazines, cards, and advertisements, or hanging on the walls of art galleries and of private homes, images were everywhere. As is true today, what people most wanted to see then were images of faces and bodies, especially those of celebrities. A visual industry arose in the late Victorian period to satisfy the demand for portraits in every medium, from photographs to drawings and paintings, and to reproduce these on a mass scale. Pictures of monarchs and stage performers, of course, were in great demand; more surprisingly, so were portraits of what we might call cultural celebrities, that is, writers and artists. Figures such as Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson, Aubrey Beardsley, J. M. Whistler, W. B. Yeats, "George Eliot," and the feminist "New Women" writers were as famous for the way they looked and dressed as for anything they created.

"Just as the twenty-first century requires us to decode images, so life in the late Victorian age required portrait literacy. The public learned to read representations of faces for their social meaning, in order to glean information about the class, the economic success, the degree of masculinity or femininity, and the special temperamental qualities of the persons depicted. When looking at pictures of writers and artists, however, what spectators hoped most to find was visual evidence of that elusive thing called "genius." It was up to the makers of the images, therefore, to provide what audiences wanted and to create visible signs of genius, just as it was up to the subjects of the portraits to compose themselves and their surroundings in a way that would send desirable messages. Writers and artists trafficked in commodities, and they became commodities. Their portraits also provided material for other workers in this industry, such as caricaturists, who knew that the public took just as great a delight in seeing its cultural heroes skewered as idealized. These caricature artists, in turn, became celebrities themselves thanks to the "New Journalism," which was eager to circulate unflattering images of the same poets and painters it made famous.

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