The Artist as Anthropologist: The Representation of Type and Character in Victorian Art by Mary Cowling, and: Worlds of Art: Painters in Victorian Society by Paula Gillett (review)
- Victorian Review
- Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada
- Volume 16, Number 2, Winter 1990
- pp. 72-77
- View Citation
- Additional Information
72Victorian Review For this long-delayed righting of the record we are indebted to the research of I. S. MacLaren and the generosity of TheAmerican ArtJournal for devoting an entire issue to an essentially Canadian subject Kane ' s journal, now the property of die Stark Museum of Art, Texas, is published in its original form for the first time. Accompanying it is a much-needed glossary of common words and a guide to people and places, both prepared by MacLaren. There are also black-and-white reproductions of maps, sketches, and finished oils, and three haunting studio photographs of Kane himself, die eyes seeming to focus inward as if anticipating his future blindness. Not least of die treasures in the issue is I. S. MacLaren ' s exceUent introductory essay. Lively, pithy, and ofjust the right length, it is the sort of introduction, one senses, that Paul Kane might have approved of—and aspired to, had he been able to speU and construct sentences. Ronald Rees University of Saskatchewan Mary Cowling. The Artist as Anthropologist: The Representation of Type and Character in Victorian Art. Cambridge. Cambridge UP, 1989. xxii + 391. $69.50 US (cloth). Paula GiUett. Worlds of Art: Painters in Victorian Society. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1990. xüi + 299. $35.00 US (cloth). Mary Cowling and Paula GiUett both address the theme mat art and artists were sites of change and conflict throughout die Victorian period. CowUng's in-depth study scans the overlapping Victorian cultures of physiognomy and phrenology to demonstrate their functions and meanings in Victorian paintings focusing on WiUiam Powell Frith ' s The Railway Station (1862), Derby Day (c. 1867), and Ramsgate Sands (1854). Richly iUustrated, her book provides a facsimile of Victorian visual culture, including many illustrations from the popular press. The Victorian artist and pubUc stratified and re-ordered images of chaotic urban Ufe through their shared detaüed reading of faces and bodies which also signified social economic, and moral quaUties. Cowling contextualizes and expUcates Victorian spectatorship inscribed by economic anxieties and social prejudices as a culturally permeable activity; spectators brought to Reviews73 art an empirical attention to detail and biases about classes and "races" (which broadly referred to national and ethnic groups, as well as to criminals). Victorian reading habits were marked by a literalness in which images were equated with reaUty; out of this literalness they extended their readings of body types and facial expressions to read class and character symbolicaUy. As Cowling demonstrates across the cultural spectrum, Victorians were obsessed with difference. Victorian painting was a site of conflict fed by social and economic uncertainties, as well as by a changing horizon of expectation of art ' s role from idealizing past history to archeologizing the present. Frith' s paintings were immensely satisfying to Victorians' fascination with class differences and moraljudgments (4). Frith inhabited one role of the artist: to confirm public prejudices and calm anxieties created by a still-new urban mixture of classes enhanced by the mobüity and levelling of the railroad, the central symbol in or behind Frith ' s three epic paintings. His paintings embodies Victorians ' desire to create entire cosmologies (e. g., Dickens ' s novels, Derby Day, Kew Gardens) and to represent themselves as a miniature, ordered, hierarchic conglomerate of the world they were appropriating through industrialism and colonialism. They ideologized changes and diversity by insisting that British class distinctions were stable and congenial and that their hierarchy was untyrannical. They hoped that, armed with this ideology, they might protect themselves against Continental social upheavals. As Lady Eastlake pointed out, Victorians read faces to protect themselves "from the most bewildering confusions and fatal mistakes" (63), meaning social and economic blunders. Phrenology books promised readers help in determining marriage and business partners. Physiognomic sciences also imbricated the debate over heredity versus environment, with practitioners taking both sides, some in favor of breeding, others arguing for a meritocracy. Partisans on either side believed that moral behavior left physical traits—that one ' s face and children ' s faces would be marked by one's behavior. Cowling's first two chapters, detailing images of noses, mouths, and head morphologies, explore ideas and images perpetrated by these "sciences," although Cowling does...