PROVO Art lovers in Victorian England (1837-1901) knew no dearth of excellent art. During the annual summer public exhibitions at London's Royal Academy, hundreds of thousands of visitors perused scenes drawn from mythology and literature, ancient history and contemporary life. Patrons marveled at each piece's technical virtuosity, sumptuous colors and narrative power.
"Masterworks of Victorian Art from the Collection of John H. Schaeffer," on display at Brigham Young University Museum of Art through Aug. 16, gives visitors a rare opportunity to see and experience 29 works of art from the private collection of Australian businessman Schaeffer.
"We just feel so fortunate to have one of the great collections in the world of Victorian art available to us at this time," said Paul Anderson, museum curator.
Composed of paintings, sculpture and works on paper, the exhibit includes such artists as William Holdman Hunt (1827-1910), Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-98), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82), John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) and George Frederic Watts (1817-1904). Many of the pieces have never been shown in the United States previously.
The work in the show is grouped into five thematic categories: religious works, paintings depicting mythology, literature and history, paintings of everyday life, paintings by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and works by other European artists.
Several exhibition pieces will awe patrons, such as "Mariamne" by Waterhouse. Regarded as one of the artist's masterpieces, the painting depicts the tragic story of Mariamne, the young wife of King Herod, who is leaving his throne room after being sentenced to death based on false accusations of infidelity. At 105 inches by 72 inches, this dramatic painting is imposing and flawlessly rendered.
Another excellent work is Anthony Frederick August Sandys' "Love's Shadow." This intense portrait depicts a young beauty biting distractedly on a small bouquet of forget-me-nots, anguished and furious over a love affair gone wrong.
Sandys' Pre-Raphaelite painting has all the elements of the Brotherhood's concept of woman: a victim. She is alone, left to bear the brunt of shared sexual transgressions, cast out into an uncaring world. Here the sensuous softness of the woman's unbound hair and the smoothness of her skin contrast with the fierceness of her expression.
"A lot of Victorian art was intended to be didactic," Anderson said. "It was trying to teach lessons about moral and religious values."
"Till Death Do Us Part," by Edmund Blair Leighton (1853-1922), is touching in a slightly humorous fashion. A prosperous older gentleman and his much younger bride walk up the aisle of a church after their wedding. Several members of the congregation regard them with a variety of stares, such as a former suitor who watches in dejection. The bride, drooping already with regret, is in stark contrast to the groom who appears oblivious to it all. It somehow seems quite modern and full of social comment.
"The British actually were very good in carrying these moral and social messages in their pictures of everyday life," said Anderson, "which was one of the things that really developed in the Victorian era."
James Archer's (1823-1904) "The Betrothal of Robert Burns and Highland Mary" portrays Scotland's most famous poet standing on the banks of the River Ayr with Mary Campbell, a local dairymaid. In the cap at Burn's feet is a Bible, which he intends to exchange for Mary's Bible, a Scottish betrothal custom.
In "Worn Out," by Thomas Faed (1826-1900), we witness a father's tender devotion to his son. The man has been at the youngster's bedside throughout the night, now daylight finds them both completely exhausted.
While both of these previously mentioned paintings are exquisitely rendered, they are somewhat sentimental, a criticism leveled at nearly all Victorian art with the dawning of Modernism in the early 20th century.
"Victorian art," Anderson said, "was accused of being overly sentimental and preachy. That's part of the reason it became so unfashionable."
Only in the past 30 or 40 years has Victorian art received a growing appreciation, partly due to feminine scholars and post-modernist scholars who view the artwork as reflective of the values of the period; they are seen more as historical documents.
The art market has also demonstrated a change of heart. "Pieces that were virtually worthless are now seen as very, very valuable and avidly collected by museums and big-time collectors."
However, for the average viewer, Anderson believes Victorian art is now more than acceptable because "people are just struck by its beauty. It's hard to deny that even if you're sort of preprogrammed not to like them."
What: Masterworks of Victorian Art From the Collection of John H. Schaeffer
Where: BYU Museum of Art, 404 N. Campus Drive, BYU, Provo
When: Through Aug. 18
Museum hours: Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Saturday, noon-5 p.m.; Sunday, closed
How much: Free
E-mail: [email protected]