BYU
"Mariamne," one of the Victorian artworks on display at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art.

PROVO — A new exhibition at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art captures the prosperous Victorian age from 1837-1901.

"Masterworks of Victorian Art" depicts an era that transformed the British art world from a small group of artists who painted for nobility into a robust community of artists free to create paintings that depicted powerful stories from ancient history and contemporary life. Their art is noted for its richness of color and wealth of detail.

The private collection of Australian businessman and entrepreneur John H. Schaeffer is in the Warren and Alice Jones and Paul and Betty Boshard galleries on the museum's lower level.

It consists of paintings, sculpture and works on paper by such Victorian luminaries as William Holman Hunt, Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John William Waterhouse and George Frederic Watts.

Many of these pieces have never been shown before in the United States.

"There is a storytelling aspect to these works that makes them interesting to nearly everyone, and they are painted with the most dazzling craftsmanship. Each one of these paintings is intriguing in some way," said curator Paul Anderson. "Beyond that, these works offer a window into an era of British history that is important to the development of our own history and culture. In this historical moment — the beginning of the industrial world — artists are trying to find a way to deal with the newness and complexities of modern life."

The museum has grouped the works into five themes: religious works, paintings depicting mythology, literature and history, paintings of everyday life, paintings by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and works by other European artists.

Religious works depict biblical accounts or symbolic representations of religious ideas, while epic depictions of stories from mythology, literature and history were considered "high art" by some Victorian artists.

For example, the 9-foot-tall "Mariamne" by J.W. Waterhouse depicts the tragic story of Mariamne, the young wife of King Herod. She is pictured leaving his throne room after being sentenced to death based on false accusations of infidelity. Herod sits on his throne, torn between his love for his wife and his jealous fury. The painting captures the solemn drama of the occasion, with the innocent woman dressed in white silhouetted against the darkly sumptuous palace.

Paintings that depicted scenes from everyday life, called social realism, were considered "low art" at the time. Many of them contained overt critiques of contemporary life that still resonate in today's world.

A century ago the new modernist movement replaced Victorian art, which was then considered by many as overly sentimental, garish, cluttered and fussy. But the 1960s brought a re-emergence of Victorian art with it surfacing on calendars, note cards and book covers.

Additionally, the museum will display six Victorian paintings from its permanent collection in the J. Herbert Milburn gallery, next to the "Masterworks of Victorian Art" exhibition gallery. Included are two paintings by Lawrence Alma-Tadema and a painting titled "Return of the Prodigal" by Sir Edward John Poynter that the museum purchased from Schaeffer in 2006. The display will also include preliminary sketches of the Poynter work from the Schaeffer collection.

Tours are conducted during regular museum hours and must be scheduled at least one week in advance. Tours usually last about one hour.

Free podcast audio tours are also available for download for this exhibition from the museum's Web site and at the museum's information desk.


If you go . . .

What: "Masterworks of Victorian Art"

Where: BYU Museum of Art, BYU campus, Provo

When: Feb. 15-Aug. 16 (Valentine's Day party 7-9 p.m. Feb. 14)

Cost: free

Phone: 422-1140