the coxcombs move on

The late Victorian period for the Royal Academy was really the end , succumbing after a long and chronic respiratory illness. Frith’s The Private View from 1881, showed that the Summer Exhibition could still take a hold on the public, but the moment was approaching  where an immense fund of hatred and contempt for the Royal Academy was no longer denied by anyone in the art world. There was a complete breakdown of the Academy’s function as a negotiator between new art and the public. In 1860 Whistler’s On The Piano was not only accepted by the R.A. , and hung on the line, but bought by a member of the hanging committee. By the time John Ruskin wrote his famous pasting of Whistler in 1877: I never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face; the artist was showing at the new Grosvenor gallery.

Read More:—A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881 is a painting by the English artist William Powell Frith exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts (London) in 1883. It depicts a group of distinguished Victorians visiting the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1881, just after the death of the Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, whose portrait by John Everett Millais was included on a screen at the special request of Queen Victoria. It is visible in the archway at the back of the room.—

So rapid was the movement of taste that even Holman Hunt, the Academy’s stern critic, had been left behind and could only say that Whistler’s work, ” shows a defiant slovenliness which he could not have intended to be taken seriously.” The Academy was now in the realm of just another place in which an artist could show his work and the historic monopoly had been blown asunder by an advancing society both socially and technologically. The climate of art had changed, and it was now possible for a small group of friends and allies to hold out undismayed against the R.A. and all it stood for. It is hard to believe today, as Joshua Reynolds did, that a career in art, institutionalized, could grow steadily as an oak.

Read More: —”At the Piano”, Whistler’s first major work, reflects the bourgeois environment in which he was raised. Yet the standard subject matter of the drawing room piano is dynamized by the composition. Whistler consciously imitated the optical effect provided by the stereoscopes popular during his day. Note the two definitively separate focal points of mother and daughter; it is impossible to focus on both simultaneously. The shallow pictorial depth pulls the viewer into the canvas, which exaggerates this stereoptical effect. It feels almost as if you were holding a book so close to your face that you can’t read the words. Compositionally, Whistler keeps the picture from flying apart by the use of strong verticals and horizontals in the picture frames and dado. Even in this early work, Whistler has achieved an intimacy between the formal structure and the subject. In most pictures of this genre, the subjects are seated side-by-side happily sharing a musical experience. In “At the Piano”, mother and daughter are separated by an impassable abyss caused by Whistler’s dual focal points. The impression is one of estrangement and isolation. When we learn that mother and daughter are dressed in mourning (white being the appropriate mourning attire for a Victorian child), we can appreciate how Whistler utilized a novel compositional concept to express and accentuate the gravity of his subject matter.—

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