Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 26, 1999
Dianne Sachko Macleod Art and the Victorian Middle Class: Money and the Making of Cultural Identity New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. 530 pp.; 8 color ills.; 74 b/w ills. Cloth $95.00 (0521550904)
Andrew Hemingway and William Vaughan, eds. Art in Bourgeois Society, 1790–1850 New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 386 pp.; 70 b/w ills. Cloth $69.95 (052155182X)
Thumbnail

These recent books from Cambridge take different approaches to a common topic. Both infuse new content into a category term: “bourgeois” or “middle-class” society, as it dominated the production of nineteenth-century art through private or state patronage, individual purchase, exhibitions, and the press. The fifteen essays collected and introduced by Andrew Hemingway and William Vaughan begin with Britain (five essays) but then turn to shorter sections on France (three essays), Germany (four essays) and the United States (three essays). The collection sketches a comparative picture of the status of the middle classes in each country and the varying forms of their influence on art in the first half of the century.

Dianne Satchko Macleod’s book focuses on England in the following half century. She begins with the ascendancy of middle-class buyers who turned away from old masters to buy contemporary British art in the 1830s and 40s, after the Reform Bill of 1832 gave political representation to a class whose claims to aesthetic citizenship had already become a significant factor in the preceding period (as Hemingway and Vaughan’s collection attests). Macleod’s book concludes with the Aesthetic Movement in the 1870s and early 80s, when landscapes, historical or modern-life genre paintings, and realistic social panoramas were displaced, for the knowing among bourgeois art lovers, by an art that turned its back on the moral lessons of Victorian realism to embrace highly stylized representations of Beautiful People in Medieval, Renaissance, Classical, or contemporary settings (e.g., Rossetti and Burne-Jones, Alma-Tadema and Leighton, Whistler and Sargent). Macleod’s massive empirical study of the individuals who comprised several generations of Victorian collectors builds its nuanced portrait of “bourgeois society” from close examination of particular collectors, their collections, and their relations with the artists they favored. She speculates about motives for collecting as these shifted by generations or varied according to the social and economic structures of different cities. Her insights, though informed by Bourdieu and Freud, are so in a suggestive rather than a rigorous way. As a crutch that may not have been needed, these citations might have been more often confined to endnotes. The impressive range and thoroughness of Macleod’s archival work, and her sure grasp of the stylistic, technical, or thematic aspects of the art collected (as demonstrated in a number of significant earlier essays), are the true ground for her often perceptive comments. The substantial appendix lists 146 collectors, with short biographies and summaries of each collector’s tastes, collection, and purchasing patterns, together with relevant sales, bequests, and printed and archival sources. Macleod’s book will be indispensable for future scholarship on Victorian art.

Hemingway and Vaughan offer a more rigorous discussion of theoretical models, introducing the case studies that form the body of their collection. Warning that “a theory of social and historical change is a prerequisite of any discourse that claims to engage with the historically specific circumstances involved in the generation of art objects or other cultural products” (p. xi), they frame their book with Hemingway’s critical survey of recent developments in the social history of art. Hemingway argues strongly against the premature dismissal of Marxism encouraged even before the collapse of Communism by Poststructuralist theory (faulted as insufficiently historical and political) . He advocates renewed attention to Marxism’s potential as “an emphatically historical, materialist, and totalizing approach to the study of societies” that might be deployed flexibly to be “anti-positivist and multi-causal” and “eschew any simple progressivism” (p. 3). The problems for art historians trying to make productive use of Marxist analyses are, as Hemingway recognizes, also multiple. He groups recent efforts as either re-interpretations of individual works that situate them in the social structures that produced them or analyses of the ideologies and institutions shaping art in a broader, if still historically specific, context. The studies that follow take primarily the latter approach, with cautious and on the whole sensitive treatment of the complexities of the interests at play in a specific discourse or institution. The shorter introductions to each of the four country sections (Vaughan on Germany, Hemingway on Britain, France, and America) stress the uneven progress of embourgeoisement, capitalism, and industrialism and the varying roles played by art for each country. Thanks in part to its origins in a conference session, to careful framing and, one suspects, close work with contributors by the editors, this collection is unusually unified, representing not just a topic but a coherent approach. It is noteworthy for the efforts by contributors and editors alike to give greater precision to terms like “bourgeois society.” The collection means to exemplify a demanding social history of art that accommodates complexities in historical languages and practices.

The editors also want to encourage comparative historical scholarship. Since, however, the section on Britain comes first and occupies most space (to offset the prominence of France or contemporary America elsewhere?), Britain becomes the reader’s and the editors’ point of reference. Two essays study alternative exhibiting institutions to the Royal Academy, the first organized by collectors, the second by artists, with particular attention to the conflicting interests that contributed to their success or failure: Anne Pullan’s “Public Goods or Private Interests?: The British Institution in the Early Nineteenth Century” and Greg Smith’s “The Watercolour as Commodity: The Exhibitions of the Society of Painters in Water Colours, 1805–1812.” Kay Dian Kriz’s more ambitious “French Glitter or English Nature?: Representing Englishness in Landscape Painting, ca. 1790–1820” less usually examines a discourse in paint, not words. She argues that the “visual rhetoric” of English landscape painting (with particular attention to Turner)—"bravura displays of painting technique—the use of broad and often loosely applied swatches of highly keyed colour, dramatic tonal contrasts" (p. 63)—is made to stand for a naturalized “Englishness” opposing “French glitter” despite the obvious appropriation of that same rhetoric from French painters. Thomas Gretton returns to texts in “‘Art is Cheaper and Goes Lower in France’: The Language of the Parliamentary Select Committee on the Arts and Principles of Design of 1835–1836,” detailing the fissures and differences in the testimonies collected by the committee as they sought to decide what “art” was and how to promote its advantageous effects on British commerce or social order. Alex Potts offers a comparative study of British and German obsessions with a Greek ideal, the former as articulated in British responses to the Parthenon sculpture (Hazlitt) and the latter in German aesthetic theory (Hegel). The essays on France (by Richard Wrigley, Helen Weston, and Andrew Shelton) necessarily pay more attention to the role of patronage by a bourgeois-orientated state. Those on Germany (by Frank Buttner, Werner Busch, and Françoise Forster-Hahn) are more engaged with the work of particular artists or painting projects. With the United States, institutions and landscape taste again assume center stage (Alan Wallach, “Long-Term Visions, Short-Term Failure: Art Institutions in the United States, 1800–1860”; Patricia Hills, “The American Art-Union as Patron for Expansionist Ideology in the 1840s”; Angela Miller, “Landscape Taste as an Indicator of Class Identity in Antebellum America.”).

Macleod’s book, though it lacks an articulated “theory of social and historical change” in the demanding sense that Hemingway and Vaughan’s volume proposes, nonetheless shares more than its focus on bourgeois society. Art and the Victorian Middle Class also relies heavily on sensitive analysis of written materials to build up a complex picture of middle-class art collecting. Macleod establishes a newly precise, detailed, and importantly revisionary profile of Victorian collectors of contemporary British art. They were not, as popularly imagined then and now, mostly nouveaux riches but men (rarely women) of second- or third-generation wealth and considerable education, though usually active in business or the professions. But Macleod is less interested than the contributors to Art in Bourgeois Society in the political or ideological work of Victorian bourgeois collecting. Instead she makes extensive use of correspondence—among collectors and their family members as well as between collectors and artists—to probe psychological as well as social or economic motives. She is able to give a particularly rich account of the responses by collectors to Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic art, an area where there are better collections of personal papers (which she has identified and exploited), where personal relations between collector and artist played an especially important role, and where the attractions of the art and its makers are consequently both more accessible and more amenable to psychological explanation. Macleod is reluctant to generalize individual preferences into patterns determined, no matter how multiple, by social and economic factors alone. Her commanding study of bourgeois art collecting rests on accumulating particular cases, which she does not try to integrate with a totalizing historical analysis.

Elizabeth Helsinger
University of Chicago

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.