Birth of a Notion

When people think today of the Victorian era--if they think of it at all--they imagine a Dickensian world populated with polite yet insufferable prigs and upright if ignorant street urchins. But the latter half of the nineteenth century also marked the emergence of modern and social science--everything from physics to art history--as well as the codification of the modern art gallery and, as a consequence, the modern art museum.

More than anywhere else in the world, it was in London that the new approach to the exhibition of art was launched, in a spectacular building billed as "a palace of art." That London "palace" is now the subject of The Grosvenor Gallery, an extremely intelligent and beautiful traveling exhibit at the Denver Art Museum.

The show, which originated at the prestigious Yale Center for British Art, is the product of more than six years of research. The idea for it originated with the exhibit's co-organizer, Colleen Denney, a professor of art history and women's studies at the University of Wyoming whose relative proximity is the reason Denver is the only stop other than New Haven for this show. Along with Susan Casteras, a curator from Yale, Denney went not only to collections throughout this country, but also to those in Canada, England and Scotland to gather together paintings that were originally shown at the Grosvenor. (Denney cautions that in some cases the record is unclear, so there may be a painting or two in the show that, though produced by an artist who regularly exhibited at the Grosvenor, may never have actually hung there.)

The Grosvenor was founded in 1877 by a pair of aristocrats, Sir Coutts Lindsay and his wife, Blanche--Lady Lindsay to you. Sir Coutts, a baronet from Scotland, had been raised by his parents, according to written remarks by Denney, to have a "devotional reverence for art and beauty." And like many of the wealthy in Great Britain at the time, Sir Coutts followed this mandate for art appreciation by traveling to Italy repeatedly throughout his life, the first time when he was only fourteen. Later he returned with his cousin Alexander, a respected expert on Italian art history.

Sir Coutts fell in easily with the fashionable British-exile community in Rome, and when he was forced in 1855 by his father's death to return to the family castle, Balcarres, in Fife, Scotland, the thirty-something baronet escaped as often as possible to London, where many of his Roman friends also maintained homes. It was among the smart set in London that Sir Coutts came in contact with the artists known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the most advanced English painters of the day. As the name implies, these painters sought to emulate Italian artists who worked before the High Renaissance--that is, before Raphael.

It was also in these cultured circles that Sir Coutts was introduced to his future wife, Blanche Fitzroy. Fitzroy was a wealthy young woman who was a Rothschild on her mother's side and thus Jewish; but despite the prevalence of anti-Semitism at the time, she had many friends among Britain's royalty. Then, as now, money was apparently the great equalizer. Blanche Fitzroy soon became Lady Lindsay, and her wealth and social connections were even more important than Sir Coutts's in terms of the future success of the Grosvenor.

Both the Lindsays were amateur artists of some fame and accomplishment, but their work was often rejected from London's main venue for contemporary art in the 1860s and '70s, the Royal Academy's annual summer exhibition. At the time, the academy was paralyzed with conservativism, and not only were worthwhile amateurs like the Lindsays routinely denied entry, but so, too, were the most important contemporary artists then working in London. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, for example, the most important of the Pre-Raphaelites, was rejected from the Royal Academy in the 1850s and refused to exhibit his work in public for the rest of his life. (Ironically, the academy mounted a memorial exhibit of his work shortly after he died in 1882, snatching it away from the more appropriate Grosvenor.)

The opening of the Grosvenor was primarily a reaction by the Lindsays to the Royal Academy's neglect of them and the artists they admired. And perhaps to complete the defiant gesture, they chose to build the gallery from the ground up just around the corner from the Royal Academy. They commissioned London architect William Thomas Sams to design it under Sir Coutts's direct guidance. According to Denney, Sir Coutts's aim was to provide a building that would recall in its space and its opulence a Renaissance palazzo. Just two months after it opened, the success of Sir Coutts's ambition was indicated by a description of the Grosvenor in the London press as a "palace of art."

The Lindsays' commitment to contemporary art was just one of a number of firsts the Grosvenor presented. The Lindsays pioneered the press release and the press preview, understanding from the beginning how to use the media as a tool to promote the gallery. This resulted in the Grosvenor becoming hugely famous, the subject of lampoons and praise from Punch and Gilbert and Sullivan--and from that other precursor of modernity, Oscar Wilde, who declared in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray that "the Grosvenor's the only place."

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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