Are you braced?
Here we go then...
|The Annunciation (1876-79) Edward Burne-Jones
|The entrance of the Grosvenor Gallery, 1877
|Inside the west gallery in the Grosvenor Gallery, May 1877
The first reviews arrived around 2nd May and unlike the year before, which had been successful, these were not so glowing. The Leeds Mercury started the ball rolling: 'Sir Coutts Lindsay can hardly be congratulated on the collection of pictures which he has brought together for the Summer Exhibition at his gallery'. There was a profusion of 'positively bad work' and paintings that were only interesting because they were damn right weird. The pictures were full of 'soulless creatures who gaze vacantly from so many canvases' who only inspired the viewer to depression. The majority of the artists displaying works come in for criticism, from Alma Tadema and Lord Leighton to Whistler and Holman Hunt, but the final words are saved for Edward Burne-Jones and the five pictures he submitted to the exhibition. The Annunciation has 'all the peculiarities of the artist's style', and the Pygmalion series are shown in 'a thoroughly original manner, but not in a way to disarm criticism'.
|Pygmalion and Galatea: The Godhead Fires (1878) Edward Burne-Jones
It wasn't all good news in the Era review. Pygmalion got the thumbs up for its 'remarkable power and originality' but The Annunciation was dismissed in one line - 'No.166, The Annunciation, must certainly be considered a failure'. There was no explanation, just that one line.
|Punch's cartoon of an aesthetic poster (1881)
By 12th May, discussion had gathered pace and The Standard weighed in with their review which alluded to the situation: 'Mr Burne-Jones's work at the Grosvenor Gallery is far too thoughtful and individual to be dismissed with a few disparaging words, but it is also far too deficient in some of the most necessary qualities of noble art to be held, by a quite reasonable judgment, as worthy of unmodified ecstasy.' His work is filled with 'serious thought' and 'ordered beauty' but their concern was in his use of 'the worn and wasted type' of model he had used in his art and was present in the form of the Virgin (modelled for by Julia Stephen, niece of Julia Margaret Cameron) and the figure of Venus in the Pygmalion series. It seemed to be the first time a review mentioned the two figures specifically as being the problems in the works, but it certainly wasn't the last.
As for Pygmalion, their attack centred on the feet of Venus: 'It would do the rhapsodist critic good if he will scan that bit of drawing [the foot of Venus], recollecting that the great toe is not meant for a tinker's thumb; but that the whole foot - with those hideous nails imbedded in the flesh, and every line bearing testimony to congenital bad form distorted by tight boots - is the foot of the Goddess of Beauty.' In concluding, the writer states that you will find 'nothing so revoltingly bad as Venus's foot', although the rest is pretty awful.
Three days later came another response, this time from 'S.C.' who suggests that rather than asking any random man off the street if their feet are nicer than Burne-Jones can paint, three foreign artists who are well known in England should be asked their opinion of Burne-Jones in general and The Annunciation in particular. The Pall Mall followed the letter with the response that no three artists could be found because 'Every Christian knows that the Annunciation ought not to be treated as a deplorable event, and no artistic training is necessary to perceive that Venus ought not to be represented with a foot that the least sensitive of kitchen-maids would be ashamed to reveal.'
The Pall Mall Gazette were mistaken as less than a week later just such a letter arrived from Alphonse Legros, William Blake Richmond and Sidney Colvin, three Slade Professors of Art, and well-known artists, and all willing to give their approval to Burne-Jones and his Annunciation which they felt to be 'of the very highest order both of imaginative and technical power'. You'd think that would be an end of it but obviously the Pall Mall Gazette could have the last word in response to the letter. They maintained that dozens of artists would be happy to come forward to disagree with the three Slade professors and anyway the professors didn't say in full that the Annunciation was a sad event and that Venus's feet should look like that so their letter was pointless. So there.
The letter from the Professors drew even more attention to the argument, as reported in the Evening Telegraph, the letter quoted in full without comment. Furthermore when Colvin wrote a longer piece explaining why exactly he felt Burne-Jones was justified in portraying the annunciation in whatever manner he wanted, the Pall Mall Gazette were quick to respond. All of a sudden expressing your opinion in full was akin to bullying, according to the PMG, and they literally quoted chapter and verse, stating that Burne-Jones reflected nothing that appeared in the Bible, just his 'same expression of woebegone weariness' and that Professor Colvin was nothing but 'disingenuous' to quote scripture. So there. Again.
|A Private View (1883) William Powell Frith
"Beyond the desire of recording for posterity the aesthetic craze as regards dress, I wished to hit the folly of listening to self-elected critics in matters of taste, whether in dress or art. I therefore planned a group, consisting of a well-known apostle of the beautiful, with a herd of eager worshippers surrounding him."He seems to be expressing the prevailing feeling that one man, a self-elected critic in the matter of taste, is only followed by the foolish (and mainly female, like Savile's young aesthetic maiden).
Interestingly, the gallery Frith chose to show in 1883 was the Royal Academy. Don't tell the Pall Mall Gazette...