Victorian Art

The Victorian era (1837–1901) in Great Britain marked the advent of a new kind of childhood, at least for the privileged classes, and when compared with the less child-friendly eighteenth century. The period witnessed a significant increase in the volume of paintings, books, toys, advice manuals, and other things designed specifically with children in mind. In the realm of the fine arts, Victorian images appeared mostly as prints, paintings, and illustrations in magazines and books. Countless artists tackled the theme of childhood, which was popular throughout Queen Victoria's long reign and especially during the years 1850–1880. Their range of subjects– from the sentimentalized girl to the young urban worker– was quite vast. Among the most significant painters of the time was the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais, who produced numerous landmark images of young protagonists such as My First Sermon (1863), a pair titled Sleeping and Waking (c. 1867), and Cherry Ripe (1879). In addition, numerous illustrators–particularly KATE GREENAWAY, BEATRIX POTTER, Arthur Rackham, and Walter Crane– achieved fame for their contributions to a flourishing market in CHILDREN'S LITERATURE.

Demure Girls and Mischievous Boys

Underlying these representations of young protagonists were adult values that clearly demarcated and endorsed gendered constructions of childhood, whether of demure girls or mischievous boys. Genre paintings capitalized upon themes inspired by contemporary daily life, and many scenes depicted fictionalized domesticity while reinforcing middle-class beliefs. Such didacticism is particularly evident in the paintings by the Irish artist William Mulready, which include Train Up a Child (1841) and A Mother Teaching Her Son (1859). Their titles alone communicate the signal importance placed on educating a child to exemplify high moral and religious conduct.

Many modern stereotypes of gender owe their origin visually to the separate spheres and expectations produced in Victorian imagery. Due to the inventions of photography and various photomechanical means of reproduction, the Victorian era was flooded with prints, books, and paintings, all of which circulated countless images of decorative, pious, and pretty girls who obediently served the needs of males. There was a darker side to Victorian images of young girls, as evidenced in the photographs and paintings of unclothed girls found in the possession of LEWIS CARROLL, who is perhaps best known as the author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Modern viewers often perceive repressed sexuality in these images, with the ideal middle- and upper-class Victorian girl viewed as womanly and the perfect adult female seen as girlish and innocent. In paintings by William Powell Frith, Sophie Anderson, and James Collinson often girls are cast as mother surrogates, peacemakers, and observers, their passivity in contrast with the stereotyping of boys, who are more typically shown as feisty, independent, and contentious. Schoolrooms and schoolyards are two common sites of male misconduct, aggression, and bravado in works by Collinson, John Faed, and John Morgan, to name a few. In many of these images there are acts of physical violence that remind modern viewers about how accepted corporal punishment was in the Victorian era and how brutality sometimes reached sadistic levels in elite British private schools. More idealized images, by such artists as Edward Ward, Charles Compton, and William Dyce, feature the "boy hero," who preserves highly differentiated masculine modes of behavior; girls in these works appear merely as admiring bystanders in the presence of precocious young male geniuses.


Occasionally images of "calf love," or young courtship, appeared in Victorian art, but SEXUALITY of a more explicit nature was limited to fairy paintings, where prepubescent winged fairies of both sexes (as well as some androgynous ones) cavort, commingle, and pursue one another with a degree of abandonment, aggressiveness, and sensual gratification rare in any pictures on other subjects. This was undoubtedly because many fairies were both nonhuman as well as innocuously childlike in appearance; thus, in works by artists who specialized in this genre–among them John Anster Fitzgerald and Richard Doyle, creator of the popular book In Fairyland (1869–1870)–fairies could behave in illicit ways, flaunting their nudity and sometimes performing quite sadistic acts, while retaining an aura of innocence and otherworldliness.

Depictions of the Lower Class

Victorian portrayals of lower- and working-class children in both urban and rural contexts were somewhat different. The lower-class female might be incredibly rosy-cheeked, tidy, and sweet, whether as a farm lass, peasant, or street vendor. All such girls were perceived essentially as objects of pity or amusement, with little sense of the sordid and oppressive social conditions that impoverished children endured. Boy urchins, whether in the pages of Punch magazine or in Royal Academy paintings, were sanitized into healthy, scruffy, and unthreatening children.

The dead or dying child appeared frequently in Victorian era paintings as well, reflecting the high mortality rates (compared with modern statistics) among all classes. Many scenarios–by George Hicks, Thomas Faed, and Thomas Brooks–feature parental bedside vigils in which the need for Christian faith and fortitude are endorsed. As in the literary realm, the picturesque appeal of the helpless orphan, especially vulnerable female ones–as in the paintings of Emily Mary Osborn, George Storey, and Philip Calderon–also was favored by Victorian audiences.

Modern audiences have been inculcated with Victorian notions of childhood by a variety of sources, from an endless proliferation of Kate Greenaway-decorated items to contemporary magazines that combine nostalgia for the past with gauzy finery and images of female decorativeness, passivity, leisure, and conspicuous consumerism. The Victorian literary characters Alice, of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and PETER PAN, of James Barrie's 1904 novel Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up, have earned permanent places in the public imagination, due to DISNEY films and to the enduring appeal of the girl seeking authority over her fantasies and the boy escaping the responsibilities of adulthood by refusing to grow up.

See also: ABC Books; Boyhood; Girlhood; ; Madonna, Religious; Madonna, Secular; Photographs of Children; Theories of Childhood.


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