Birth of a Notion

Another first, which was also part of the Lindsays' sophisticated approach to public relations, was the invention of the glittering opening reception. But every bit as important as all this hype was the new approach to art presentation first put forward at the Grosvenor. The Lindsays broke with the tradition of salon-style hanging, in which paintings were displayed in a dense floor-to-ceiling arrangement. Instead, paintings at the Grosvenor were hung with plenty of room between them to better facilitate viewing. And if the show at the DAM is any indication, these were fabulous pictures to view.

Some of the most interesting work in the show comes from the Pre- Raphaelites and their followers. These fine paintings illustrate the artists' interest not only in early Italian art, but in other exotic topics that were part and parcel of the Aesthetic movement, then the avant-garde in British art. Aestheticism in turn anticipated symbolism, a genuine precursor to modernism--and symbolism is surely what the Pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt was concerned with in his magnificent oil painting (in an unbelievably beautiful frame) "Afterglow in Egypt." This oil on canvas, painted between 1854 and 1863, was exhibited when the Grosvenor first opened in 1877.

The breathtaking "Laus Veneris," a gigantic oil on canvas from 1872-73 by second-generation Pre-Raphaelite Sir Edward Burne-Jones, stops viewers in their tracks as they exit the elevator on the museum's top floor. The semi-recumbent Venus is not the ripe love goddess we might expect but a tired and melancholy woman apparently worn out by her duties. The romance of suffering was certainly in the air during the nineteenth century, and painters like Burne-Jones were among its chief proponents. Sir John Melhuish Strudwick, a former studio assistant of Burne-Jones, takes the same approach in "Isabella," an 1879 oil on canvas.

Despite the description of the Pre-Raphaelites as a brotherhood, many women were among the movement's adherents, and the Grosvenor took a special interest in their work--a radical idea at the time. "An Unprofessional Beauty," an 1880 oil on canvas by Valentine Prinsep, is not just a painting of a woman by a woman but an expression of the new values that the women associated with the movement championed. The title refers to the fact that the seated woman in the portrait has dispensed with the corsets and bustles of the age and adorned herself instead with unstructured garments of velvet and lace--the Victorian version of bra-burning.

Among the other talented women whose work appears in the show at the DAM are Marie Spartali Stillman and Evelyn Pickering De Morgan. De Morgan is responsible for one of the show-stoppers here, a large oil on canvas from 1879 entitled "Night and Sleep," which depicts two intertwined figures floating through the sky and dropping poppies to the ground--just like the witch in The Wizard of Oz, curator Denney points out.

Of course, the Grosvenor didn't just focus on the Pre-Raphaelite movement and its progeny. Also represented were various other currents in the British art of the day, including naturalism and impressionism. It is perhaps a hybrid of these two that best describes the work of the most famous of the Grosvenor artists, the American painter James MacNeill Whistler, who was then living in London. In an oil on canvas like "Thames--Nocturne in Blue and Silver," from 1872-78, Whistler's imprecise approach to detail stands in stark contrast to the fanatical realism of the Pre-Raphaelites. It's not surprising to find that Burne-Jones was no admirer of Whistler.

The Grosvenor closed in 1890, the victim of financial difficulties only fourteen years after it had opened. The collapse came just a few years after the Lindsays' divorce, which according to Denney was the product of Sir Coutts's legendary womanizing. When Lady Lindsay left, taking her Rothschild fortune with her, the gallery's failure was more or less ensured. But in the short time it lasted, the Grosvenor changed the course of art appreciation. Many of the changes it imparted are today the ubiquitous features of the art world--all the way from London to right here in Denver.

The Grosvenor Gallery, through August 24 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway,640-2789.

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