- Serialized Artists’ Biographies: A Culture Industry in Late Victorian Britain
The first book that J. M. Dent and his cohort Ernest Rhys chose for their Everyman’s Library was a biographical classic: “We had no trouble in deciding on the first volume of all—Boswell’s Life of Johnson.” 1 Victorians consumed mass quantities of biographies as collective lives, serialized biographies, dictionaries, and biographies in the periodical press under various titles: the “compilation,” “life and letters,” “reminiscences,” “memoirs.” 2 The trend culminated in such mammoth projects as the Dictionary of National Biography and The New Calendar of Great Men: Biographies of the 558 Worthies of All Ages and Nations in the Positivist Calendar of Auguste Comte (1892) by Frederic Harrison. One critic in 1884 boasted that “England had published more biographies than any other country.” 3 Michael Shortland and Richard Yeo describe Victorian biography as “one of the most popular and yet least studied forms of contemporary writing,” which encapsulated its writers’ and readers’ “moral and epistemological beliefs,” even as those beliefs were shifting. 4
Perhaps no single figure was more scrutinized and surveilled than the artist, whose production, daily life, personality, and role as bearer of national character were inextricably tied to the valuation of art works in particular and of cultural production in general. Artists appeared in every biographical form: press interviews, expensive two-volume family biographies, and popular biographical series. As Pierre Bourdieu argues, all writings about art contribute to art’s cultural meanings, especially the fundamental [End Page 94] misrecognition that art is purely aesthetic and unmotivated by economics. Public, artist, dealer, and critic must share this misrecognition to allow art its special claims to transcendental values. 5 This blind spot was central to artists’ biographies. What made artists worthy of biographical scrutiny was their material and social success, but what made them worthy of becoming cultural icons was a belief that they were motivated purely by Victorian ideals—moral purpose, beauty, faith, and nationalism. Shortland and Yeo describe biography as “a means of evoking an essential character and personality, an agent, in effect, of humanism.” In biography the “self becomes a precious object and possession” used to construct what James Clifford called a “narrative of transindividual occasions.” 6 Victorian biographers added up the sum of the lives of geniuses to project a meta-personality of a national artistic type.
The tremendous popularity of Victorian artists’ biographies was part of a larger process of acculturation of the middle and working classes. Publishers had long issued uniform reprints of the English literary classics. Art institutions feeding the public desire for “culture” included art lectures in Mechanics’ Institutes, public museums and galleries, mass publications on art history and techniques, a wide spectrum of art journals from the populist Magazine of Art to the elite periodicals of the 1890s, the voluminous trade in cheap prints, and the many anthologies, biographical histories, and series on art and architecture. 7
This drive to acculturation coincided with a growing obsession over national identity. Traits of individuality, self-help, domesticity, and masculinity were ascribed to English artists, as national identity was filtered through emerging cultural canons of art and literature at the very moment these canons themselves were under construction. Popular biographies shaped a lay canon, privileging well-known paintings and successful artists as representative of national culture and character. But in the process of constructing a digestible and inclusive national culture, public institutions and popular texts faced a set of emerging contradictions and contentions. With regard to the work of art, critics debated whether to assess its worth by aesthetic, moral, or economic measures. The nature of the artist was also a site of conflicts over whether the artist’s character affected (or infected) the work of art if the artist were the disreputable degenerate late-century psychologists described, or the anarchic Bohemian novelists popularized. Circumventing these stereotypes, Victorian biographies presented the artist as respectable, bourgeois, manly, and paterfamilial. This representation, however, still raised questions about economics as a measure of the artist’s character and the art work’s worth, the role of women artists in the construction of national identity, and the dissonance provoked by popular...