Music, Muses and Divas in the Art of the Victorian Avant-Garde

Tomorrow, May 12, 2012, the Legion of Honor presents Music, Muses and Divas , public programs associated with The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860–1900 (on view through June 17). Premier scholars of Victorian art Tim Barringer and Peter Trippi lecture on the complmentary topics of music and theater in the context of the Aesthetic Movement. We asked our lecturers a few questions about their respective talks to provide insight into the day’s presentations.

Saint Cecilia

John William Waterhouse, Saint Cecilia, 1895, oil on canvas. Private Collection

Tim Barringer, Paul Mellon Professor of the History of Art at Yale University, takes a closer look at the music of the Victorian Avant-Garde in his lecture Aspiring to the Condition of Music: Sound and Vision in the Aesthetic Movement.

Is there a composer or specific piece of music you would suggest our visitors listen to before/while viewing the exhibition? What would you choose to listen to if you could organize a "soundtrack" for the exhibition?

The Aesthetic Movement was centered around the mantra that “All art constantly aspires to the condition of music.” Strangely enough, however, there is no composer directly associated with the movement. The piano music of Frédéric Chopin seems to have given the painter James McNeill Whistler the idea of calling his nighttime landscapes "nocturnes." If I were to listen to one nocturne to conjure up a Whistler mood, it would be Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturne No. 19 in E minor, Op. 72 No. 1.

Would you identify a selection of works in the exhibition that are, in your opinion, most closely aligned with Walter Pater's suggestion that art aspires "to the condition of music?"

Edward Burne-Jones's Laus Veneris is an intimate, lethargic view of the Hill of Venus, in which the Goddess of Love distractedly listens to an ensemble of her assistants playing musical instruments. The music provides an analogue for the other beautiful art forms visible in the work, including the tapestry, costume and furniture—and, of course, the beauty of the painting itself.

Laus Veneris

Edward Burne-Jones. Laus Veneris, 1873–1878. Oil with gold paint on canvas. Laing Art Gallery, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, Newcastle upon Tyne: B8145

Albert Moore's work all aspires to create color harmonies that parallel the harmonies of a musical composition. A Musician (1867) is a particularly relevant example, in which two young women respond rapturously to the playing of a lyre. Their response to the musician's harmonies is essentially the same as ours to the harmonies in Moore's painting, in which areas of yellow, flesh tones and grey are carefully matched and balanced.

A Musician

Albert Moore. A Musician, c. 1867. Oil on canvas. Paul Mellon Fund Yale Center for British Art, New Haven: B1980.7

Peter Trippi is the editor of Fine Art Connoisseur , the bimonthly magazine that serves collectors of historical and contemporary representational painting, sculpture, drawings and prints. His lecture is titled Stagestruck: Theatricality in Late Victorian Art.

Can you identify any examples of contemporary cultural personalities that resonate with your understanding of Victorian Avant-Garde artists?

Well, in terms of my focus on the great stage actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Ellen Terry, the best comparisons today are Madonna and Keira Knightley, respectively. Bernhardt/Madonna were/are perceived (at least) as strong and potentially dangerous, while Terry/Knightley are perceived more as an “English Rose,” strong and doing as they please, but somehow less voracious.

Ellen Terry

James Notman Studio (American, active 19th century). Dame Ellen Alicia Terry (1847– 1928), 1893. Albumen silver print. Gift of Robert Harshorn Shimshak and Marion Brenner. 1996.135.13


Which Victorian avant-garde personality would you most liked to have met?

Definitely Sarah Bernhardt. She must have been quite a character: illegitimate and half-Jewish in Catholic, anti-semitic France; running her own theater companies while liaising with/marrying whomever she liked (both men and women) in a man's world; exhibiting as a very talented sculptor, though much better known for her acting; and working right up into her 70s, into the age of film (a medium which had comparatively little use for her exaggerated gestures).

Sarah Bernhardt

Émile Tourtin (French, active 19th century). Sarah Bernhardt from the journal Galerie contemporaine, littéraire, artistique, ca. 1877. Woodburytype. Museum purchase, Mrs. Milton S. Latham Fund. 1992.139.73

Let your inner diva out for Music, Muses and Divas ! Join us at the Legion of Honor this Saturday, May 12, 2012 beginning at 1:00 p.m. in the Florence Gould Theater.