Victorian painting

The Impact of Changing Attitudes to Sexuality on Victorian Fairy Painting.


The new patron

Victorian painting is often characterized as the art of the middle classes. As merchants and industrialists became important art patrons, it is assumed that art in nineteenth century illustrated their ideology.[1] It was essential for the middle class to maintain its supremacy and to distinguish it from the nobility and the proletariat. They wished to establish their position through the moral values such as dignity of work, respectability and individual initiative.[2] They also recognized that through art patronage they would be able to show their wealth and confidence. They felt that the domestic scenes painted by contemporary British artists spoke the best about the moral life of the nation. Narrative scenes, drawn from literature and contemporary life, were familiar and affordable.[3] High culture in the form of art exhibition was held in high regards in Victorian Britain. As Lynda Nead points out, it was the place ‘in which class and national identities were proposed, and where definitions of normality and deviancy were shaped.' The Royal Academy of Arts was at the centre of official art production of the period. Annual exhibitions at RA therefore were bringing the middle classes together through the making of common interests and values.[4]

Supporters of the academic tradition of high art were blaming the middle class for lowering the standards of British art. The new patrons were lacking the education and the refinement of the aristocracy and landed classes, which resulted in rather poor taste.[5]

Origins and influences of fairy painting

National school of art was committed to representing the qualities of English moral life. Although history painting was at the top of the hierarchy of genre, it was actually the smaller and more familiar images of daily life that the English painters were best at. Lynda Need points out that the development and encouragement of domestic genre painting must be recognised as part of the formation of domestic ideology.[6] And that, on the other hand, Victorian art was frequently accused of being sentimental and glossing over the more disturbing elements of nineteenth century society: ‘a distortion in the mirror of art in which ideological interests prevent a true reflection of the real world.'[7]

Fairy painting also reached for wider audience, by experimenting with new kind of literary narrative painting, popular subject matter taken from Shakespeare's plays, fairy tales and British folklore. Fairy painting became a replacement for the subject matter, motifs and themes unavailable or unacceptable in the top categories of the academic hierarchy painting.

The golden age of fairy painting lasted from about 1840 to 1870, but it can be traced to the work of Blake and Fuseli in the late eighteenth century. Fairies lived on after 1870, mainly in the world of children's books and their illustrations. The fairy painting could hardly be described as a movement itself. For most artists it was an occasional choice of subject, before moving on to other things.[8]

According to Christopher Wood, fairy pictures provided a valuable outlet whereby the Victorians could glimpse a fantasy world where those forbidden subjects like sex, nudity, violence, dreams, and nightmares, could obtain the respectable aura of art.[9]

In Victorian Painters, Jeremy Maas talks about origins and influences of fairy painting. According to him, the ‘escapism from the drear hardships of daily existence' belongs to the most significant ones.[10] Nicola Bown agrees: by looking at fairies, the Victorians could imagine themselves as being still in the world they gave up for modernity. They shaped fairyland into the negative image of their own disenchanted world, and saw themselves transfigured in the shape of the fairy.[11]

A passion for the unseen seemed to also have a great influence. In the 1840s spiritualism was born, when the Fox sisters of Hydesville, New York, who asked some a ghost of a ‘rapper' some questions and even received convincing answers. Later on the sisters became mediums. In 1852 the first American medium arrived in England and the new interest became a rapidly spreading fashion. The Victorians were fascinated by ghosts and vampires, spirits of the dead, angels and the gods of other cultures. However, fairies were not representations of the dead. They ware local rather that exotic, and work only minor magic.[12]

The Victorians revolted against the accuracy of photography, advances in science and technology. But on the other hand, what makes Victorian fairy paintings unique is that Victorian painters, for the first time, attempted to combine fairy painting with ‘truth to nature'. Under the influence of Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, they tried to paint fairies realistically, and accurately, with the greatest possible attention to detail.[13]

The literature of the Romantic era, especially Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest influenced fairy painting greatly. Fairies often appeared in British literature from as early as fourteenth century but it was Shakespeare who provided the biggest source of subject matter. The two plays I have mentioned, dealt with creatures of the imagination, creating a pretext under which the wildest fantasy could be introduced onto canvases otherwise dedicated to antique figure drawing. The artists who repeatedly portrayed the meeting of Oberon and Titania were quite indifferent to any visual clues in the text; instead they explore a strange, repressed convention by which the central figures are tall, graceful classical nudes, while on the outskirts of the painting there are beings more grotesque and diminutive, who do violent and sexual things half-hidden under the leaves.

Also very influential were tales from brothers Grimm. John Ruskin in 1868 wrote an introduction to the reissue of the book German Popular Stories. He praised the tales for possessing ‘true historical value; - historical at least in so far as it has naturally arisen out of the mind of a people under special circumstances, and risen not without meaning, nor removed altogether from their sphere of religious faith'.[14]

Themes taken from Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock, Walter Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, Drayton's Nimphidia and Shelley's Queen Mab were also popular among fairy painters.

Finally, as a major influence on fairy painting, Jeremy Maas points at Victorians' new attitudes towards sex, stifled by religious dogma.

Victorian sexuality

The formation of separate gender roles and the ideologies of home and family were part of the creation of a middle-class moral and cultural identity. Family and sexual order were metaphors for social order. The domestic ideal was an expression of class confidence, signalling the moral dominance of the bourgeoisie in comparison with the immorality of the aristocracy and the working-classes.[15]

The Victorian bourgeois, as growing social and political force, chose sexuality as the basis for distinguishing their identity from the aristocracy and working classes. The Victorian era became dominated by the belief than an individual's sex and sexuality form basic core of their identity, social standing and freedom. During the nineteenth moral and cultural values were drawn together; ethics and aesthetics defined respectable values and the classified acceptable and non-acceptable social codes.[16] Respectability was organized around a complex set of social rules and moral codes which regulated gender and class identities. It meant different things for men and women. For women it was classified in terms of their location within the domestic sphere resulting in sexual morality.[17]

According to middle class morality, men should treat women with veneration and protection, in order to shield them from the harsh public life, upheld their fragility and, elevated them to superior position.[18] It was widely believed that the respectable, stay-at home women were naturally weak and delicate as oppose to the healthy and tough working women. They were also seen as a cause of infection and disease. Work then effects female sexuality and the family. Female employment led to moral degradation and the destruction of the family life.[19]

The ideal woman was defined in terms of her roles at the home: as wife, mother, and daughter. Women, sweet and supportive, increasingly became domestic beings, whilst strong and creative men were associated with the public sphere, the world of business and politics. Together they create a perfect social item.[20]

In the nineteenth century the new medical profession was established. The new specialists asserted that women were entirely dominated by their reproductive systems. Many experts agreed that if a respectable woman at all experienced any sexual drives, it would have been only for the sake of reproduction and satisfying her partner. The man, on the other hand, had a natural and healthy desire for sex.[21]

Women's duty was to make home comfortable and to keep out vice and danger. The home was defined by “normal” and "respectable" sexuality. All abnormality was created on the public streets: ‘the domain of the fallen, the promiscuous, the diseased and immoral'.[22]

In the nineteenth century the prostitute became for many a representation of the biggest social fears and anxieties. The Lancet medical journal in 1887 estimated that there were approximately 80,000 prostitutes in London. “Whoring”, alongside blasphemy, drunkenness and other public disorder was for long regarded as damaging to the Empire. In Victorian times (moral panic was at its height in the 1850s and early 1860s) it was elevated to the state of “social evil”. Partly, because visible female freedom from social control. As daughters, employees or servants, young women were subject to male authority. Working on the streets, they were economically and personally in dependent.

Prostitutes were also perceived as a thread because of their visibility. People could see them everywhere from London night shows to the obscene prints sold on the streets.[23] Prostitutes were perceived as a folk evil, bringing disruption, disorder and, above all, disease, specifically venereal.[24]

The Naked Fairy

The Victorians were not only eager to describe and stifle sexuality, but were also involved in the creation of sexuality as a central part of human existence, that could and should be subjected to reasoned examination. Similarly, there was a great deal of anxiety about nudity in the Victorian era, but it was also a period of vast acceleration in the production of images of the nude.[25]

The latter part of the nineteenth saw a shift in religious attitudes, a growing cultural awareness due to empire and travel or the rise of the mechanical printing press. These factors challenged the popular notion that the female nude was a rarefied subject, surrounded by prudery and sexual repressiveness. In England the nude form had not been developed, understood or appreciated as it was in Europe. It was Evangelicism with its negative view of the flesh and suspicion of idolatry, which was often held responsible for prejudices against the subject.[26] Nineteenth century representations of the nude had to be publicly acceptable. This was achieved through an idealization formula, which placed the nude within the safety of a classical or literary tale.

The accession of Queen Victoria in 1837 was significant in development of a national tradition of the nude; her practice of giving Albert nudes as birthday gifts was regarded as a pure gesture that also fostered high art. By the late 1840s the royal couple has assembles an impressive collection of nude works that communicated the message of national supremacy by exemplifying the idea of pastoral harmony and female virtue.[27] The female figure was seen to embody the purity and innocence of a timeless British Arcadia, and it was man's duty to honour this ideal by maintaining a chivalric code of conduct based on self-discipline and pure uncorrupted gaze.[28]

As Alison Smith points out, the paradox of the ‘English nude' was that it had to respond to the European stylistic canon and in the same time be distinctive in national and moral terms. British literature helped to formulate of a female type that was native to the British Isles: fair, with generalised features and modest gestures. The concept of the union of literary and visual imagery helped legitimise the nude by foregrounding (?) the literary traditions on which it was often based. The blend of pagan and Christian elements the Faerie Queene for example allowed for the representation of violence while providing a moral framework for viewing the nude.

In his major study The Nude, written in 1956, Kenneth Clark dismissed the Victorians for their neo-classical and otherwise unorthodox representations of the genre. Recent perspectives in art history have thrown new light on the Victorian nude, highlighting the social and economic context in which images of the nude were produced, and the complex class and gender power relations of the Victorian society to which they were ultimately linked.

Kenneth Clark distinguishes the naked body from the nude, stating that ‘[t]o be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word 'nude,' on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. Within the context of Victorian morality, the aesthetic approach provides a reassuring moral viewpoint for the Bourgeois audiences presented with naked figures at the Royal Academy exhibits or in illustrated newspapers. The issue of public nakedness had been highly contentious throughout the nineteenth century, any depiction of a naked figure being prone to assault by moral objectors.

As Linda Nead pointed out, this is a typical twentieth century view stereotyping the Victorians as repressed individuals who covered up the legs of pianos in fear of embarrassment[29]. In reality, pictures such as Etty's Female Nude, standing, evoking the Venus Pudica's pose with a distinct element of female self-consciousness, were made as commissions, notably from Queen Victoria, and William Frost's erotic nudes also achieved official success and patronage. After the passing of the Obscene Publications Act of 1857, marking the gap between what constituted art and obscenity, and during the Social Purity Movement of the 1880s, aesthetic and moral conventions had to be continually negotiated if artists were to avoid critical protests[30]. The Obscene Publications Act of 1857 gave the terms ‘pornography' and ‘obscenity' greater currency. ‘Pornography' was identified more precisely in terms of what was culturally taboo. ‘Obscenity' was defined in opposition to the pure creations of art.[31]

This, I would argue, rather than a prude and philistine Victorian attitude, was the reason behind the neo-classical disguise of the nude. The rapid development of printing and photographic technologies and the growing expansion of the marketplace increased the availability of licentious materials, and this had a negative impact of the overall view of the naked body during the Victorian era.

The definition of ideal forms of masculinity and femininity was an essential element for the construction of a powerful Victorian middle-class identity, distinct from the unregulated behaviour of the aristocracy and from the low, non-respectable working classes. The artist's model was generally from a low-background, and her body became the place where, not only the gender issue, but also the class power relations would be made visible.

Nead goes further and talks of a ‘deep-seated fear and disgust of the female body and of femininity within patriarchal culture and of a construction of masculinity around the related fear of the contamination and dissolution of the male ego.' Contrasting the well-formed male torso or cuirasse esthetique so admired by Clark and the undisciplined female form in her ‘vegetable' condition, she states that the female nude has come to symbolise the transformation of matter/nature into the elevated forms of spirit/culture. In The Nude, the nineteenth century Venus has been ‘falsified', ‘fragmented' and robed of her ‘radiant entirety'[32].

Thus, the Victorian nude, whose history is linked to the visual representation of the female nude in the nineteenth century, is at the heart of the patriarchal system, which fixed the boundaries of gender, of art and obscenity, and of what is permissible or not in representation[33].

The Victorian nude contains deeper class and gender issues that have been made evident in the recent social and feminist critical reappraisals of the genre. As the history of the nude in the nineteenth century is predominantly the history of the female nude and is closely linked to the history of heterosexual pornography, Clark's assumptions reveal the aesthete's constant policing efforts along the shifting boundary between the erotic and the obscene - and his difficult attempts to legitimise sexual representations through the category of erotic art.

The kind of a fairy which populated Victorian imagination was a figure associated with nature, magic and romance. It was tiny and beautiful, with butterfly wings.[34] The fairies live in a state of effortless leisure. The Victorians could find comfort in imagining fairies because fairies were a perfect vision of themselves on a scale small enough to confirm their own dominance.[35] Many of fairy paintings created in Victorian times show them also completely naked.

(>>)Sexual overtones owe an integral part of myth and legend and this is easily detected in fairy painting. Modern interpretation has produced such an extensive catalogue of sexual acts and suggestion in these works that the question must arise as to whether they were painted for a special audience in the 18c. Henry Fusili's erotic treatment of the attendant figures in the Shakespearean scenes, intended for private patrons, contrast with the toned-down decorative figures in the published engravings. The situation with Victorian fairy pictures is less straightforward. Contemporary critics appeared not to have noticed the teasing and allusive signs of sexual activity that strike us so glaringly (>> Charlotte Gere in Fairyland, in Victorian Fairy Painting, p.68)

Henry Fuseli recognized the potential for fairy painting to both entertain and educate British public. ‘Nudity in fairy painting ranged from the grotesquely erotic in Fuseli to the idealised visions of Huskisson and Simmons. Prim-lipped prudery was only too ready to stalk the corridors of the Victorian consciousness. But it was a prudery that was inconsistent and easily disarmed by a change of context. The world of fairy provided a beguiling and seemingly innocent carapace behind which naked nymphs and statuesque Titanias could be depicted without a risk of censure. It even enabled Huskisson, in an innocuous dilution of the sacred and the profane, to people his Madonna and Child - inspired The Mother's Blessing with naked fairies.

Joseph Noel Paton. The Scottish Pre-Raphaelite, painted only a small number of fairy subjects, but they are among the masterpieces of the genre. Subject from A Midsummer Night's Dream, for example, teems with incidents of pursuit and encounter. However The Reconciliation… and The Quarrel…. were designed respectively for decoration of the New Palace of Westminster and as a diploma work for admission to The Royal Academy of Scotland. The thinly veiled sexual treatments seem to have been acceptable to the Victorian establishment. Purging the fairy world of all sexual implications would have diminished its mythic force, as was to happen in the following century, and this may have been implicit but unacknowledged. It has been argued, that both painters and the public conspired in a kind of cosmic unawareness of the erotic content of these otherworldly couplings, probably because they were set ‘elsewhere', safely distant from the real world. (>> Charlotte Gere in Fairyland, in Victorian Fairy Painting, p.68)

Joseph Noel Paton, was a Scottish, melodramatic painter of religious scenes. Stylistically, his work is comparable to that of Maclise and Huskisson, but he outclassed them both in his technique and the richness of his imagination. The erotic element is most conscious in the paintings of Paton's, which is odd as he was otherwise celebrated for portraits of Church of Scotland dignitaries. Instead we are taken to densely populated undergrowth where, again and again, rough dark males overpower half-reluctant half-dressed females, while their friends peep delightedly at it from behind a leaf.

Puck and the Fairy is a small scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream, the subject that inspired Paton's two greatest pictures. This not seem to be a specific incident in the play, but shows Puck lunging towards a beautiful, Pre-Raphaelite fairy who covers her nakedness with long blond hair. (Wood fairy 86)

The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania established Paton as one of the most distinguished fairy painters of the mid-nineteenth century. , The Recon… and The Quarrel… were among the most popular fairy paintings of the periods. His fairy paintings made his name and launched his career; he was courted by collectors wanting him to produce fairy pictures.' (Bowen 91)The work was painted in response to the competition announced by The Commission for the Decoration of the Palace of Westminster, which invited artists to submit scenes from Shakespeare, Spenser and Milton, as well as subjects from British history. Paton selected the episode from Act IV, scene I of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which Oberon and Titania, having resolved their quarrel over the changeling, stand before the sleeping mortals in whose dreams this airy fantasy is envisioned. With this grand compositions Paton offered his contribution towards the development of romantic literary art in Britain, working in tradition of Fuseli, Etty and Frost, with the added novelty of microscopic detail. (NUDE 63)

The Reconciliation was conceived as a dream scene imagined by two sleeping lovers who are depicted as life size. Titania on the left, and Bottom in the centre. In the centre stand the partially naked figures of Oberon and Titania. Above their heads is a ring of naked fairies circling, a device used by Maclise, Huskisson and Dadd. The rest of the picture is filled with a host of fairies, mostly naked female figures, and smaller goblins, elves, animals and other tiny figures. The presence of so many naked females generates a highly erotic charge, and it seems amazing that mid-Victorian prudery did not condemn Paton for this. In the cleft tree on the right is what appears to be a fairy bordello; by the tree to the left a naked nymph is carried off by a youth. Clearly such explicit scenes were pardonable in the fairy world, and were not therefore seen as a threat to public morals. (Wood fairy 89) Paton's figures owe a considerable debt to work of William Etty, and even more to his follower, William Edward Frost. Both Etty and Frost had been painting classical and allegorical subjects, involving large numbers of nude figures for years. Frost's pictures were always regarded as entirely proper, and one critic even complained that one of his female nudes looked as if ‘she had been compressed by the stay'. (wood fairies 89)

The predominance of sylph-like fairy type around mid-century had been encouraged by romantic ballets such as La Sylphide (performed in London in 1832), in which Marie Taglioni epitomised the fairy ideal with her delicate gliding movements. This neo-gothic drama set in an elf-inhabited Scotland may have influenced Paton's compositions, where fairy figures weave gracefully through the woodland glade. The believe that the fairies dwelt in a luminal realm of consciousness or in remote regions of the British Isles may have emboldened Paton in his decision to introduce erotic playfulness, notably the unrestrained movements of the fairies and their intricate couplings. Orientalist features such as the harp and head-dress f the musicians reinforce the overall feeling of exoticism and fantasy. Such elements would have been considered inappropriate in more conventional Spenserian or classical subjects, but buy multiplying the details and embedding them within the picture surface, Paton invited a close reading of his subject. Lewis Caroll counted 165 fairies in the pendant picture of the Quarrel when e viewed it in Edinburgh in 1857.

Despite the revelry, the figures in The Reconciliation are treated with a miniature grace in keeping with the nude females of Frost and Pickersgill: the addition of gauze wings and wispy drapes adds to the sense of propriety. This dramatic centrifugal composition is moreover stabilised as its centre by the classically posed Oberon and Titania, who with their white statuesque bodies draw attention away from the grotesque rampant creatures which surround the sleeping humans. Although Paton was prised for his refined treatment, the theme of reckless abandon was not considered appropriate for the seat of government, as the Spectator confirmed: ‘Art is always vagabond and lawless, because its essential laws must fallow elementary laws of human nature, and not those of custom or Parliament; and all true artists will show something of the wild estate' (3 Aug. 1850, p. 732) (The Victorian nude, 64)

The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania (exhibited at Royal Scottish Academy in 1847, its companion The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania was shown in RSA in 1850).

Only Paton took notice of the old tales of his country, and it was because they could be seen through a double mask of distance, being both elfin and Celtic.

Encouraged by his success, Paton went to even more audacious lengths with his next fairy picture, The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania, completed in 1849. With this he went backwards in the play, to Act II, scene I. In the centre stand the same two figures of Oberon and Titania, with the Indian boy covering behind Titania. Above her head a circle of nymphs floats away, very similar in style to groups of female figures painted by Frost. The rest of the picture is a riot of naked fairies, both male and female, and the erotic temperature is raised even higher by the fact that numerous amorous incidents and fairy couplings are taking place. In particular on the right, under a statue of Pan with his pipes, naked couples are embracing and lolling on the ground in a highly suggestive way. Amazingly, none of those attracted criticism; on the contrary, the picture was a great success. In addition to the naked fairies, Paton filled the picture with other strange figures of elves, goblins and imps. (wood fairies 90)

This kind of thing went down well with viewers of the utmost probity, including Lewis Carroll, who counted the fairies in Paton's Confrontation of Oberon and Titania (169 in total) without and apparent anxiety as to what they were up to. It has to be said that, like most Victorian nudes, the female fairies are made of some unfleshly composition as smooth and white as marble, probably as impenetrable too. NUDE 64)

When Paton's The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania was exhibited in 1850 Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland, noted enthusiastically that he had counted 165 individual fairies in the painting. The sheer number of fairies that could be crammed into a single composition was always an object of interest to painters of fairyland. ‘These pictures show that fairyland is a place where a lively elves play erotic games, and where nothing more is expected of them. It is a place where nature is harmonious, fruitful and beautiful, and where time and change have no dominion. Where the body is free from the constrains f corporeality, and at the same time given over to sensual pleasure; where fairies and their world are completely in scale, not dwarfed by power looms or factories, and it is a place dreamed by humans.' (Bowen 91)

‘The fairies mostly had given up to the sport of love. (…) The fairy train is a riot of abandoned sexual activity. There are several subsidiary details which reinforce the eroticisation of the scene: the figure of Pan, for example, who is associated with abandonment to the desires of the body; and the exaggerated efflorescence of the plants and fungi (especially on the tree trunk in The Quarrel), clearly a metaphor for sexual flowering. In fairyland, where grown-ups behave with becoming modesty even in the vicissitudes of jealousy and love, the children, (that is, the smaller fairies) manifest and act upon their desires pretty much as they please. Even the humans are implicated in this sexual playground where erotic fantasy appears to be given free rein, for in the narrative of which the paintings illustrate a part; they too follow their desires as they like. In the pictures themselves, it is the fact that the humans are asleep which implicated them, for they stand for the dreaming human spectator, arrested for the paintings' erotic spectacle. They metonymically connect the dream world, the fairy inside pictures, with the realm human world outside them. (bowen 95-96)

‘In fairyland, where life is play, and where lively elves give themselves wholly over to erotic pleasures, the small drudges of the factories and the half-naked working men and women can be seen in good form. The blighted landscape of the industrial towns is reimagined as a beautiful, unspoiled playground, where there are no cares, no responsibilities and no body limitation. (bowen 96)

John Ruskin's in his remarks on Home (Paton's 1856 painting of a wounded soldier who has just returned home and its attended by his sweetheart and his mother) suggest, with perhaps a hint of disapproval hat Paton surely must have taken a greater pleasure in Home than he did in “those fairy assemblies of his” (14.50). But Ruskin took little satisfaction in any of the multitude of fairy paintings of the nineteenth century. In a series of lectures entitled The Art of England (1883), in one lecture called Fairy Land he notes that it is “extremely rare to find a good painter condescending” to the fairy genre. “I believe Sir Noel Paton's pictures of the court of Titania, and Fairy Raid, are all we possess in which the accomplished skill of painting has been devoted to fairy subject”. His impression is, however, that Paton should be admired more for his display of “the exquisite power of minute delineation” than for his ability to “arrest… even momentary credence Ruskin's lecture on Paton's Fairy Land of 1883: ‘all we possess in which the accomplished skills of painting has been devoted to fairy subject'. But it also contains two provocative statements: firstly, he doesn't consider fairy to be history painting. Secondly, he criticizes Paton's work for its detailed realism and its damaging influence on the fantasy of the imagery. That seems contrary (as for the defender of Pre-Raphaelites) to his advice to: ‘rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing'. Thirdly, he places his finger on the very problem of fairy painting as viable academic subject. Paton, in his youthful enthusiasm, overstepped the fine line between what cultural historian Martin Meisel identifies as ‘giving concrete perceptual form to a literary text (realization) and that of interpretive recreation (illustration)'. (*Martin Meisel, Realizations: Narrative…p.32) Ruskin calls into question the thoroughness of the delineation because it denies the spectator any chance to exercise their imaginative excursions into fairyland.

Even in the Dreams in Fairyland surprisingly, it is naked fairies that feature in the dreams of a Victorian lady. Paton's Under the Sea I and Under the Sea II: fairies have always been associated with water, with rivers, lakes and the sea. Paton has here depicted two water nymphs, a favourite subject for Victorian painters wishing to paint the female nude. (wood, fairies, 96)

Richard Dadd, the most notorious of all the fairy painters, painted only about ten fairy pictures. He murdered his own father in 1843 believing hi was descended from the god Osiris and spent the rest of his life in mental hospitals. He belong to those painters who find their inspiration in Shakespeare (along with artists like Thomas Stothrd and Francis Danby)

Come unto these Yellow Sands (painted and exhibited at RA in 1842 with the lines from Arial's song in The Tempest:

Come unto these yellow sands

And then take hands

… Foot it featly here and there,

And, sweet sprites, the burden bear.

Dadd's paintings of fairies before the onset of his insanity have a lightness and ethereal sense of freedom, quite different from the intensely detailed and elaborately wrought delicacy of later paintings. Dadd has chosen to paint a ring of dancing naked sprites coming down from the sky, footing it featly through a rocky arch on a deserted coast, creating something original and fantastical. The spiralling group of cherubs and nymphs coming out of a dark, twilit sky was a brilliant touch, imitated later by Robert Huskisson.

Titania Sleeping

Dadd's Titania Sleeping, exhibited in RA in 1841, must be the finest of his fairy pictures painted before his madness. The composition echoes both Giorgione's Adoration of Shepherds and Poussin's Bacchanals, showing that even Victorian fairy painting is part of the European tradition. (wood fairies 78). Dadd's work made a considerable impression on the critics, who praised his inventiveness and imagination. (bowen 78)

Richard Dadd: The Haunt of the Fairies

Dadd's Tha Haunt of the Fairies belongs to one of the small group of fairy pictures painted by Dadd in the early 1840s. These works show Dadd to have been a talented, if conventional, fairy painter. His madness was to transform him into the most remarkable of fairy painters. (wood, fairies, 80)

John Anster Fitzgerald specialised in images of young ladies dreaming of encounters with young men, egged on by bizarre goblins, while a drained phial of laudanum rests by their pillow. His contemporaries called him ‘Fairy' Fitzgerald - you could get away with that sort of thing then - and he created a parallel universe in which delicate elves make love, feast, hunt and sleep among brambles and birds' nests. There is even a Fairies' Funeral. Fitzgerald's weird world suggests a subliminal revenge against the Ruskinian discipline of truth to nature; sometimes as in Ariel, he begins by depicting a spray of hawthorn with meticulous realism and then throws everything to the winds by adding a wild-eyed spirit lying on the bark and carolling to a flock of impossible birds. Like all the other artists in this tradition, Fitzgerald lets his imagination play on the hidden daily life of fairyland - something quite different from the folk tradition which is interested first and foremost in human encounters with fairies.

John Fitzgerald broke loose from the literary source and deliberately eschewed the perennial favourites of fairy painters, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest. Instead, he took his subjects from folk tales or from his own fertile imagination and plunges us into the front rows of the stalls to reveal the sheer spectacle of the stage. (Maas, painting, 17).

In his paintings, any eroticism is discretely veiled and transmuted into suggestion of love and marriage (Maas, ing, 18)

Reproduction imprimée de The Captive Dreamer

The Captive Dreamer

Daniel Maclise was Irish. He adopted Fusili's device of weaning episodic vignettes into a larger composition, which was based on Shakespearean theme (as early as 1823).Undine was based on a story by a German writer La Motte Fouqué. The picture was bought by Queen Victoria as a birthday present for Prince Albert, who would clearly have appreciated its strong Germanic overtones. The young knight Huldbrand escorts his bride Undine through the forest, followed by a monk. He draws his sword to confront Kühleborn, the spirit of the waters and uncle of Undine, who bars their way. It was the most successful of Maclise's fairy paintings. ,Queen Victoria's taste was splendidly conventional, so her purchase of this picture demonstrates how popular the fairy painting was, at least among the middle classes who attended the annual exhibitions and bought the pictures exhibited there, or the engraved versions of them.'(bowen 72)

Undine (exhibited in RA in 1844)

Richard ‘Dicky' Doyle provided the epitome of cheeriness. His two-dimensional compositions feature nonsensical little gnomes marching round in solemn procession. This, too is a fairyland to escape from human concerns, although Doyle produced more suitable work; his Wood Elves Watching a Lady are a set of gawky, leering louts, hiding behind a tree as the woman emerges an a woodland path, and uncertain what to do with her. The fairy image forms a privileged medium for thinking about class as well as sex.

Robert Huskisson made a speciality of fairy subjects, although only a few of them survived. One of the finest is Come unto these yellow Sands, which shows Huskisson to be an artist of great lyrical and technical ability, and one of the best Victorian fairy painters. Stylistically, his paintings owe much to William Edward Frost and William Etty. Etty was a painter of a classical subjects rather than fairies, but Frost's pictures of nereids and wood nymphs undoubtedly had an influence on fairy painting, especially in the painting of female nudes. (wood fairies 70) Huskisson mast have seen Richard Dadd's version. Huskisson absorbed all these influences, and developed a minutely-detailed and highly polished style of his own. His colours are also highly distinctive, with the pearly flesh tones of the figures set against deep blue backgrounds. His lighting is also highly theatrical, seeming to spotlight the main figures in the composition, a feature which must reflect the influence of new developments in the theatre with the introduction of gas lamps and limelight. (wood fairies 73)

Huskisson's figures show the influence of William Etty, the most determined painter of the nude in the 1840s, and of Daniel Maclise. But he also looked very carefully at the work of Richard Dadd, who, in his short public career, was almost entirely identified as a fairy painter. (bowen 77)

Wood Elves Watching a Lady, by Richard Doyle

John Simmons,. Many of fairy painters are extremely little known, including the author of the above watercolour of remarkable quality. A Fairy among Convolvulus - this Victorian Venus, a typical Simmons pin-up - reposes among morning glory flowers. Such highly erotic images were possible for fairy painters, but otherwise be inadmissible in the mid-Victorian art world. (wood fairies 128) Simmons' The Evening Star is another Victorian Venus reposing among roses and honey-suckle. The artist's work is in general more concerned with ideal female beauty than with fairies. This however, was one of the functions of Victorian fairy painting (wood fairies, 129)

Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-93) , although predominantly painter of landscapes, town scenes and docks, he began painting romantic, figurative subjects in 1870s. Dame Autumn hath a Mornful Face (1871) shows a lightly draped nude figure, floating in a brilliant nimbus of light, set against a dark and atmospheric landscape background.


William Edward Frost Fairy lovers: for a human to fall in love with a beautiful fairy was always dangerous and usually had unhappy consequences. It represented an unattainable ideal, perfect love, but in the end was an illusion. Frost (1810-77) and his mentor William Etty, both influenced those fairy painters who specialised in female nudes, such as Robert Huskisson and John Simmons.

John George Naish, ‘Titania'. Titania asleep afforded many a Victorian artists the opportunity to paint beautiful naked girls, either sleeping or fluttering about. Titania is here shown asleep in a rose bush, surrounded by beautiful and mobile attendants. Naish turned to fairy subjects in 1840s and 50s. His style owes much to the example of Etty and Frost. (Wood fairy, 26)


The nude survived the mid-Victorian years because of the more liberal attitudes of the new, middle class patron. This class wasn't only interested in works which reinforced a strict morality. What constituted the high art was in the process of definition as two conflicting value systems competed for legitimacy and cultural supremacy: the aesthetic and the moral. While the former came to stand for specially cultivated taste, particularly in 1860s, the latter represented and alternative set of interests within high culture - interests associated with religion and Protestant tradition. Patronage of the nude was thus a sign of gentrification and assimilation on behalf of the newly rich, but also helped convey their own particular class interest (Smith 71)

As Lambourne rightly pointed out, fairy paintings represent not only the Victorian delight in the escapist fairy world in the most developed form, but also the need to fantasize about the existence of extra terrestrial beings - a recurrent feature on man's psyche, and one which finds its twentieth-century expression in science-fiction stories and films. (Lambourne 205)

While men were fascinated by fairies, women were largely indifferent to them. Among the hundreds of artists who wrote about painted fairies between the end of eighteen and the beginning of twentieth centuries, only a few were women. (bown 13) The masculine taste and feminine distaste for fairies can be explained simply. Fairies are mostly female, tiny and beautiful; the word ‘fairy-like' seems a perfect epithet for that ideal of Victorian femininity which required that women be diminutive in relation to men, magical in their unavailability, of delicate constitution, playful rather than earnest. Why should women be interested in a figure which offered then only an image of femininity from which so many were struggling to escape? (bown 14) Women dislike for fairies. Women were not simply rejecting what had became a female stereotype, but were responding to exactly those meanings, of the fairy which attracted men in the first place, only one of which was the fairy's use as a caricature of femininity. (BOWEN 14)


John Adlard, The Sports of Cruelty: Fairies, Folk-Songs, Charms, and Other Country Matters in the Works of William Blake, London: Cecil and Amelia Woolf, 1972;

Patricia Allderidge, The Late Richard Dadd, 1817-86, Tate Gallery;

Mary Bennett, An Early Drawing from ‘The Tempest' by Everett Millais, Burlington Magazine;

Nicola Bown, Fairies in the Nineteenth Century Art and History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001;

Nicola Bown, There are Fairies at the Bottom of our Garden, Fairies, Fantasy and Photography; Textual Practise, 10:1, 1996, pp. 57-86;

Nicola Bown, The Victorian Supernatural, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004;

Katherine Briggs, An Encyclopaedia of Fairies, New York: Pantheon Books, 1976;

Susan P. Casteras, Winged Fantasies: constructions of childhood, innocence, adolescence, and sexuality in Victorian Fairy Painting (dedicated in memory of Jeremy Maas) Aldershot, Burlington VT, Ashgate, 2002, pp. 128-48;

Kenneth Clark, The Nude, ……………………………………………………………………..

Frick Collection (

Gilles Perry, Gender and Art, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1999;

Michael Kimmelman, Art Review; Victorian Escapism and Denial with the Fascinating Fairies, New Your Times, 23 October, 1998;

George P. Landow, There Began to Be a Great Talking about Fine Arts (The Mind of Victorian England, ed. Joseph L. Altholz. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976) pp. 126-43;

Louise Lippincott, Murder and The Fine Arts; or, a Reassessment of Richard Dadd,

Jeremy Maas, Victorian Fairy Painting, ed. Jane Martineau, Royal Academy of Arts, London 1997;

Jeremy Maas, Victorian Painters, New York: Harrison House, 1969;

Martin Meisel, Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth Century England, Princeton University Press, 1983;

Jan Marsh, Gender, Health, Medicine & Sexuality in Victorian England

Lynda Nead, Female Nude. Art, Obscenity and Sexuality, London and New York: Routledge, 1992;

Lynn Nead, The Magdalen in Modern Times: The Mythology of the Fallen Woman in Pre-Raphaelite Painting, Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1, Correspondences (1984), pp. 26-37

Lynda Nead, Myths of Sexuality: representations of women in Victorian Britain, Oxford 1988;

John Charles Olmsted, Victorian Fairy Painting: Essays and Reviews 3 vols. New York: Garland, 1980-85;

Alex Owen, The Darkened Room: Women. Power and Spiritualism in Late 19 century England, London: Virago, 1989;

M.H. Noel-Paton and J.P. Campbell, Noel Paton, Edinburgh: Ramsay Head Press, 1990;

B. Phillipotts, Fairy Paintings, London: Ash and Grandt, 1978;

Royal Academy of Arts, Victorian Fairy Paintings, exhibition Catalogue, London 1997;

John Ruskin, The Works, Library Edition, ed. E.T. Cook and A. Weddr-Burn, 39 vols., London: Longmans, 1903-12;

Carole G Silver, Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and the Victorian Consciousness, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000;

Alison Smith, The Victorian Nude. Sexuality, morality and art, Manchester University Press, 1996;

Exposed. The Victorian Nude, Alison Smith ed., Tate Publishing, London, 2001;

Tate Glossary ('Fairy Painting

Christopher Wood, Victorian Painting, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London 1999,

Christopher Wood, Fairies in Victorian Art, Woodbridge; Antique Collectors' Club; 2000;

Jack David Zipes, Victorian Fairy Tales, p. 13-14;


What makes Victorian fairy paintings unique is that Victorian painters, for the first time, attempted to combine fairy painting with ‘truth to nature'. Under the influence of Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, they tried to paint fairies realistically, and accurately, with the greatest possible attention to detail. (wood fairies, 9)

The cliché of Victorian prudery determined (until recently) what interpretation there was of the nude in the nineteenth-century British art. This was the view confirmed and given the greatest authority in Kenneth Clarks's 1956 study, The Nude. Clark's book established a highly influential framework for discussing the nude in art, which proposed a distinction between the ‘nude' and the ‘naked', the term he applied to the raw, perhaps awkward, reality of the unclothed body. For Clark, the nude may be erotically charged, but always be bounded and ordered by the sense of the aesthetic; real art simply could not be obscene. (EXP.28)

[1] Lynda Nead, Myths of Sexuality: representations of women in Victorian Britain, Oxford 1988, p. 165

[2] Alison Smith, The Victorian Nude. Sexuality, morality and art, Manchester University Press, 1996, p. 68

[3] Alison Smith, The Victorian Nude. Sexuality, morality and art, Manchester University Press, 1996, p. 69

[4] Lynda Nead, Myths of Sexuality: representations of women in Victorian Britain, Oxford 1988, p. 8

[5] Lynda Nead, Myths of Sexuality: representations of women in Victorian Britain, Oxford 1988, p. 166

[6] Lynn Nead, The Magdalen in Modern Times: The Mythology of the Fallen Woman in Pre-Raphaelite Painting, Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1, Correspondences (1984), p. 27

[7] Lynda Nead, Myths of Sexuality: representations of women in Victorian Britain, Oxford 1988, p. 7

[8] Christopher Wood, Fairies in Victorian Art, Woodbridge; Antique Collectors' Club; 2000, p.16

[9] Christopher Wood, Victorian Painting, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London 1999, p. 42

[10] Jeremy Maas, Victorian Painters, New York: Harrison House, 1969, 148

[11] Nicola Bown, Fairies in the Nineteenth Century Art and History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, p.1

[12] Nicola Bown, Fairies in the Nineteenth Century Art and History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, p.2

[13] Christopher Wood, Fairies in Victorian Art, Woodbridge; Antique Collectors' Club; 2000, p.9

[14] Jack David Zipes, Victorian Fairy Tales, p. 13-14

[15] Lynn Nead, The Magdalen in Modern Times: The Mythology of the Fallen Woman in Pre-Raphaelite Painting, Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1, Correspondences (1984), pp. 27

[16] Lynda Nead, Myths of Sexuality: representations of women in Victorian Britain, Oxford 1988, p. 9

[17] Lynda Nead, Myths of Sexuality: representations of women in Victorian Britain, Oxford 1988, p. 28

[18] Lynda Nead, Myths of Sexuality: representations of women in Victorian Britain, Oxford 1988, p. 29

[19] Lynda Nead, Myths of Sexuality: representations of women in Victorian Britain, Oxford 1988, p. 31

[20] Lynda Nead, Myths of Sexuality: representations of women in Victorian Britain, Oxford 1988, p. 32-34

[21]Lynn Nead, The Magdalen in Modern Times: The Mythology of the Fallen Woman in Pre-Raphaelite Painting, Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1, Correspondences (1984), pp. 26-37

[22] Lynn Nead, The Magdalen in Modern Times: The Mythology of the Fallen Woman in Pre-Raphaelite Painting, Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1, Correspondences (1984), p. 27

[23] Alison Smith, The Victorian Nude. Sexuality, morality and art, Manchester University Press, 1996, p. 48

[24] Lynn Nead, The Magdalen in Modern Times: The Mythology of the Fallen Woman in Pre-Raphaelite Painting, Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1, Correspondences (1984), p. 31

[25] Exposed. The Victorian Nude, Alison Smith ed., Tate Publishing, London, 2001, p.28

[26] Exposed. The Victorian Nude, Alison Smith ed., Tate Publishing, London, 2001, p. 12

[27] Exposed. The Victorian Nude, Alison Smith ed., Tate Publishing, London, 2001, p. 12

[28] Exposed. The Victorian Nude, Alison Smith ed., Tate Publishing, London, 2001, p.54

[29] Gilles Perry, Gender and Art, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1999, p.170

[30] Gilles Perry, Gender and Art, p.170

[31] Alison Smith, The Victorian Nude. Sexuality, morality and art, Manchester University Press, 1996, p. 63

[32] Kenneth Clark, The Nude, p.154

[33] Alison Smith, The Victorian Nude, p.135

[34] Nicola Bown, Fairies in the Nineteenth Century Art and History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, p.6

[35] Nicola Bown, Fairies in the Nineteenth Century Art and History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, p.70

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