- Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists by Jan Marsh and Pamela Gerrish Nunn, and: The Victorians: British Painting 1837-1901 by Malcolm Warner (review)
- Victorian Review
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 24, Number 2, Winter 1998
- pp. 207-209
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Reviews207 Jan Marsh and Pamela Gerrish Nunn. Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists. Manchester City Art Galleries, 1997. Malcolm Warner. The Victorians: British Painting 1837-1901. National Gallery of Art, 1997. In his introduction to the National Gallery catalogue, Malcolm Warner positions himself in opposition to much of the recent scholarship in the field of Victorian art history, taking issue with what he sees as the recent tendency to "assign to pictures that illustrate painters' lives, facts of social life, or aspects of popular taste an importance out of scale to their quality" (14). A disregard for "quality" is Warner's chief gripe. According to him, art historians have been reluctant "to engage directly in the interpretation and criticism ofVictorian paintings as works ofart" and have held on "to solid biographical and sociological justifications for their interest" (my italics) (14). A few sentences later, Warner takes a more direct shot at those scholars with whom he has a problem, "feminist scholars and historians of die wider visual culture" he writes, "have singled out artists and pictures on grounds other than artistic ones, many of them regarding die whole notion of quality in art with distaste" (14). In contrast, Warner contends (radier disingenuously it seems), that unlike other scholars in the field, die curators for the National gallery exhibition (including himself) "did not approach the task from any particular theoretical or thematic angle" (14). Their goal, he claims, was only "high artistic quality," and the desire "to represent Victorian painting by its greatest works" (14), although he is at pains to define exactly what he means by this. Leaving aside the issue of quality (which I don't have space to debate here), and the problem of fitting Victorian painting (with its emphasis on narrative and sentiment) into modernism's definition of quality, I fail to see how Warner's selection was chosen with distinctly different criteria than those used by many other scholars in the field. The usual artists make their appearance, including those that have always been in the canon, like Millais, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Turner, and Whistler; but so do other artists who have been resurrected by revisionist art history, like William Powell Frith and William Maw Egley. What Warner is really disturbed about is, of course, die effect of feminist interventions in the discipline of art history over the last twenty-five years. These interventions have precisely attempted to shift die objectives of the discipline away from die study of beautiful objects which reveal (male) genius to the study of (among otiier things) the ideological work performed by artistic production and by the discipline of art history itself. In die field of Victorian art history, feminist art 208Victorian Review historians have been especially active. In the past ten years or so scholars such as Deborah Cherry, Lynda Nead, Pamela Gerrish Nunn, Jan Marsh, Griselda Pollock, and Susan Casteras (among others) have changed (or so we thought) the face of Victorian art history. The feminist interventions in art history have, however, not reached the highest echelons of our cultural institutions, institutions like the National Gallery. The upshot of Warner's "non-theoretical" position is the near total absence of women artists from the exhibition (only one woman is included, Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler) and the conspicuous absence of the influence of feminist scholarship from the introduction and catalogue entries. Susan Casteras's influential and ground-breaking exhibition and catalogue, The Substance or the Shadow: Images of Victorian Womanhood (1982), for example, is omitted from the survey of American exhibitions of Victorian art that Warner outlines in his introduction. The National Gallery catalogue entries (by Warner, Anne Helmreich and Charles Brock), while thorough and useful in their way, don't address some important issues which have been raised by some of the foremost scholars in the field. Take, for example, the entry by Warner on William Holman Hunt's famous painting The Awakening Conscience which presents a "kept woman" who recognizes the sinfulness of her position when her lover plays a song to her on the piano that reminds her of her childhood. Warner writes simply that the image is indebted to Dickens and other Victorian writers "in its frank, sympathetic...