In her essay “Chic—English, French and American,” Nancy Mitford tells a story of Queen Victoria. “When the Empress Eugénie paid a state visit to England she went with Queen Victoria to the opera. The Londoners sighed a little…the beauty in her Paris clothes, beside chubby little red-faced Victoria. Then the time came for them to take their seats. The Empress, with a graceful movement, looked round at her chair, but Queen Victoria dumped straight down, thus proving unmistakably that she was of Royal birth and upbringing.”
Her Majesty Victoria’s subjects found something infinitely superior in her self-confidence. We feel the same way looking at Alfred Gilbert’s famous bust of Queen Victoria in the opening foyer of “Sculpture Victorious.” There she is, all jowls and severity: neither the many folds of lace nor the pearls can soften the dowdiness of the Queen. We almost overlook the bust of a young, fresh-faced woman, no older than nineteen, right in front of her.
Then we realize that this, too, is Queen Victoria. It’s a marvelous contrast, and an elegant start to “Sculpture Victorious,” the Yale Center for British Art’s exhibition on sculpture of the Victorian era, which runs from September 11 through November 30.
What follows is as imposing and hefty as the Queen herself. “Sculpture Victorious” is one of the YCBA’s most ambitious undertakings to date, billed as “the first exhibition, on either side of the Atlantic, to offer a thorough account of Victorian sculpture” (“Director’s Forward to the Catalogue,” Amy Meyers, Penelope Curtis). Many of the works have rarely, if ever, been shown outside of the United Kingdom, chief among these “Saher, Earl of Winchester,” which comes to us from the House of Lords, and “American Slave” by John Bell.
Bell’s sculpture merits particular attention. It is one of the centerpieces of the exhibition, despite being a generally forgotten piece of abolitionist artwork. The curators have included “American Slave” alongside Hiram Powers’s “Greek Slave” and Harriet Hosmer’s “Zinobia in Chains.” Bell is the only Englishman among the three; Powers and Hosmer are both Americans. This circumstance would no doubt raise some eyebrows were it not for the strength of the juxtaposition. “Greek Slave” is a Venus de Milo in chains, “Zinobia” much the same. Alongside these smooth marble beauties stands Bell’s bronze “American Slave.” Intended as a critique of Powers’s idealized depiction of the slave-girl, “American Slave” is a “reminder that slavery is about real bodies, shackled and transported,” as curator Michael Hatt puts it. While “Greek Slave” is poised and ethereal, in Bell’s piece, the black woman’s eyes are downcast, her shackles metal instead of marble. It is a testament to the deeply felt moralism of the Victorian era, which coexisted with the pursuit of wealth and empire.
The trifecta hints at the Victorians’ admiration of the Greeks, which is explored further in the rest of the exhibition. Sometimes this comes off as overdone imitation, sometimes exquisite borrowing. See for instance, the strange “Perseus and the Three Griaie”—a Greek scene painted in English style. Perseus, clad in Arthurian armor, floats above the blind women and grabs the one eye shared among the sisters. His pale and rosy complexion, the softness of his manner and the silver of his chainmail, subtly portray English gentility mixed with classical beauty.
The curators showcase the many facades of the Victorians. These variations excite the imagination and please the eye. They start a lively political dialogue, which continues throughout the exhibition. “Even as one marvels,” Hatt says, “one has to retain a critical perspective and consider what was at stake . . . the political, imperial and social purposes” of Victorian art. From a balcony facing the YCBA’s courtyard, one can see a polychrome earthenware elephant, that most famous symbol of British-colonized India.
The curators have taken pains to show the consumerist nature of Victorian art as well. A room entitled “Sculpture on Display” shows “Greek Slave” in its many reproduced forms—a daguerreotype, a print in a book, a miniature copy to be kept in a home or on a mantelpiece.
These many currents attest to the curatorial richness of “Sculpture Victorious,” which brings together items from many corners of the former British Empire and from settings as diverse as churches, schools and government buildings. The exhibition has the luxury of ranging over the wide and sometimes questionable taste of the Victorian era, making it truthful, if not always dazzling. The broad sensibility of the curation allows the viewer to understand the beast we call “Victoria’s British Empire,” all the while presided over by its chubby little red-faced Queen.
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