Wednesday, August 18, 2010
John William Waterhouse - Mariamne
Mariamne, wife of King Herod the Great, going forth to execution after her trial for the false charges brought against her by the jealousy of Salome, the King's sister, his mother, and others of his family. After Mariamne's trial and condemnation by the judges appointed by her husband, Herod, who had been passionately attached to his wife, was about to commute the sentence to imprisonment for life, but was urged by Salome to have the sentence carried out, which was accordingly done' - see Josephus
Price Realized £666,650
signed and dated 'J.W. Waterhouse/1887' (lower right)
oil on canvas
105¼ x 72¼ in. (267 x 183.5 cm.)
The Royal Academy of Arts in the Age of Queen Victoria
In April 1837, two months before the eighteen-year-old Victoria ascended the throne, the Royal Academy of Arts moved into the east wing of William Wilkins's recently completed National Gallery, situated on the north side of Trafalgar Square. The move brought to a close fifty-seven years' residence in Somerset House on the Strand, the Royal Academy's first permanent home, and ushered in thirty years co-habitation with the National Gallery. A growing national collection and an increasing demand for additional temporary exhibition space forced the government in 1867 to conclude, after much deliberation, that the Royal Academy should move to Burlington House, Piccadilly. Here, with the benefit of newly constructed exhibition galleries, a suite of studios and additional galleries for the display of its own collections, paid for out of its own resources, the Royal Academy was to manage its fortunes over the closing three decades of the nineteenth century.
By 1837, the Royal Academy had established an almost impregnable position in the visual arts in the United Kingdom. Created through an Instrument of Foundation by George III in December 1768 as a body of thirty-four Foundation Members consisting of practising painters, sculptors, architects and engravers under the presidency of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the Royal Academy had been charged with two specific responsibilities: to hold an Annual Exhibition of work by living artists, and to establish a school for the professional training of artists. The first Annual Exhibition had been held in 1769 (it changed its name to the 'Summer Exhibition' in 1870). Receipts from entrance tickets and catalogues ensured that by 1771 the institution was self-financing and independent of both government and royal subvention.
Despite the subsequent creation of other exhibiting bodies such as the British Institution (1805) and the two professional societies of painters in watercolour (1804 and 1832), the Annual Exhibition had remained, over the first sixty years of the Royal Academy's existence, the undisputed primary venue for artists to display their talent and to sell their work. Likewise, its membership had included such distinguished artists of the British school as Fuseli, JMW Turner, Constable, Wilkie and Lawrence, Soane, Wyatt, and Cockerell, and Flaxman, Westmacott and Chantrey. Furthermore, given its assumed position as national arbiter of artistic and aesthetic matters, its opinion was sought on such issues as the monuments erected in St Paul's Cathedral, the proposed acquisition by the government of the Elgin Marbles, and the decoration of the new Palace of Westminster, designed by Charles Barry following the fire of 1834.
By 1901, the year of Queen Victoria's death, the Royal Academy's apparently impregnable position seemed to have been eroded. To be sure, the physical infrastructure provided by its new accommodation in Burlington House ensured not only that its original functions of the Annual Exhibition and the training of professional artists could readily be fulfilled but that the extensive exhibition galleries could be used, from 1870, to house Winter Loan Exhibitions of Old Masters, a responsibility taken over by the Royal Academy following the demise of the British Institution in 1867. However, change both within and beyond the Royal Academy during the period of Victoria's reign presented the institution with a number of challenges, to which it responded with varying degrees of success.
From its inception, the Royal Academy had been engaged in the establishment, nurture and continual assessment of a national, or British, school of art. This obligation was carried out through the Annual Exhibition and the professional training of successive generations of artists. The extent to which the Royal Academy continued satisfactorily to fulfil this function was regularly challenged during the course of this period to the extent that its earlier monopolistic position was considerably shaken. The reasons for this were definitional, structural and institutional.
In definitional terms, the presence of a political system more liberal than the centralising autocracies that existed on the Continent appears to have encouraged the development of an aesthetic empiricism that lauded variety and diversity in both subject matter and technique rather than theory-laden academicism. This was an aesthetic condition which was certainly deemed preferable by critic the Art Journal writing in June 1865: 'Yet in England, where each person has the privilege of thinking as he likes, the artist will naturally paint as he pleases. Hence the endless variety seen upon the walls of our Academy. The contrariety of creeds in religion, the opposition of opinions in politics, even the conflict of theories in the metaphysics of the mind or in the philosophy of outward nature, all tend to that truly catholic and universal Art which is as tolerant as it is extended...The liberty of our national arts has grown up year by year by the side of that freedom that is fittingly called constitutional, because part of very life and blood of the body politic. And thus it is that the arts of England beat into the pulse of the people, and the cries of the multitude are echoed within the walls of our exhibitions.'
This explanation of the diverse character of the British school helps to explain the inclusion on the walls of the Royal Academy within a five-year period (1835 - 1840) of Sir Charles Eastlake's careful homage to early cinquecento art in The Salutation of the Aged Friar, the Venetian exuberance of William Etty's Phaedria and Cymochles on the Idle Lake and a bovine pietà conveyed through the silken, Rubeniste glazes of Edwin Landseer's The Death of the Wild Bull: A Scene in Chillingham Park: Portrait of Lord Ossulton. Such stylistic and iconographic variety persisted throughout the century, as is seen in the co-existence of the realist precision of landscape and marine painters such as Leader and Henry Moore, as opposed to the more painterly treatment of historical and mythological subjects by Waterhouse and Dicksee.
Structural factors compounded this absence of definitional unity. The Annual Exhibition was regarded as the benchmark for the on-going evaluation of the health of the British school. However, its contents inevitably changed from one year to the next. Unlike in France, where a museum of works by living French artists had been established in 1818 to complement the Louvre, there was no permanent national repository of British art where the cumulative achievements of the British school could be studied and reviewed. To be sure, certain individuals such as Sheepshanks, Gillott and Vernon, had created collections of British art, but these inevitably reflected individual taste rather than providing an objective review of the development of British Art. This situation was only resolved with the foundation of the Tate Gallery in 1898, although the Royal Academy clung to its role as the arbiter of excellence in the British school well into the twentieth century through its control of the Chantrey Bequest for the purchase for the Nation of works by living artists residing within the United Kingdom.
Institutional developments during the Victorian era both reflected the diversity of artistic expression contained within the Royal Academy and exerted increasing pressure upon its position as the pre-eminent arts institution in the land. This was reflected in the fortunes both of the RA Schools and the Annual Exhibition itself.
In 1837 the monopoly in the professional training of artists which the Royal Academy had claimed its foundation in 1768 had been on investigated by the Select Committee on Art and Manufactures (1835-6) and questioned by the establishment of the South Kensington Schools. The reputation of the RA Schools during the course of the subsequent sixty years was uneven, due in part to fluctuating commitment to pedagogic good practice on the part of the Academicians whose task it was to direct them. On the one hand, this generated further concern on the part of the Government. It questioned, amongst other things, the Royal Academy Schools' anomalous position within the educational structure created by the fact that they were perceived as 'national' yet remained private, leading it to set up a Royal Commission to report 'on the Present Condition of the Royal Academy' in 1863. On the other hand, potential students the RA Schools increasingly chose to study elsewhere, either at the seemingly far more professionally, and liberally, run Slade School of Art, established in 1873, or abroad, notably at the official art schools of Antwerp and Paris and at the 'private' Parisian academies such as the Acadèmie Julian, the Atelier Cormon and the Academie Colorossi.
Exposure to alternative teaching and, in the case of study on the Continent, to novel styles of art not regularly presented within the UK, coupled with the powerful aesthetic control of the Annual Exhibition by Academicians through the Selection and Hanging Committees and the growing number of professionally trained artists who demanded space on the walls of Burlington House, fuelled the emergence of alternative exhibition spaces that presented both direct and indirect competition to the Royal Academy. The last three decades of the nineteenth century saw the establishment of such potential rivals as the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, the New English Art Club in 1886, and the International Society, under the presidency of that sworn enemy of the Royal Academy James McNeill Whistler, in 1897. Coupled with the proliferation both of such specialist media-based exhibiting bodies as the Royal Society of Painter-Engravers (founded 1880) and the Pastel Society (founded 1898) and of commercial galleries in the wake of the opening of a London branch by Thomas Agnew in 1860, it became increasingly clear, as Henry James observed, that the Annual or Summer Exhibition might no longer display the most distinguished products of the British school. 'I suspect', he wrote in a review in the Nation, 'that there is little doubt that the exhibition of 1878 is decidedly weak. It is not an exhibition from which it would be agreeable to the indigenous mind to think that a Frenchman, a German, or even an Italian, should derive his ultimate impression of contemporary English art.'
One of the contributory factors to the emergence of alternative and indeed potentially competitive exhibition venues to the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition in the second half of the nineteenth century was a conflict inherent in its founding objectives. As David Solkin has argued, from its inception the Annual Exhibition encompassed two contradictory roles, the maintenance of national aesthetic standards and a need to respond to the market. On the one hand, the Annual Exhibition, having been created by artists who sought the freedom to present their work to the public outside the control of their patrons, provided a neutral window for the appreciation of the stylistic and iconographic variety and of the artistic achievements of contemporary practitioners. On the other hand this public display of works invited its audiences to become familiar with and ultimately to become the patrons of the exhibiting artists. In effect, therefore, the Annual Exhibitions were concerned with both the high ground of aesthetic excellence and the more lowly terrain of commerce. However, given that the Royal Academy received no state subvention, its Schools and charitable responsibilities had in large measure to be financed through receipts from its Annual, and then Summer, Exhibitions. As the Industrial Revolution created new wealth and an expanding middle class, these financial obligations meant that the reality of commercial considerations tended increasingly to dominate the ideals of aesthetic standards, a situation commented upon with considerable regret by the critic J. B Atkinson in Blackwood's Magazine, 1869: 'In fact, one of the uses of an Academy is to sustain academic dignity and decorum; and we trust that the time may come when the unwashed democracy of art will be disinherited, and that which is truly regal and noble be established and endowed. It is certainly an evil that in this country the patronage of art has passed from an aristocracy of birth to an aristocracy not even of talent and education, but of vulgar wealth; and there is hardly an exhibition which does not afford melancholy proof that artists paint down to the market.'
The Royal Academy was consistently mindful of the need to meet this new market for art created by 'vulgar wealth' in the works that were selected for inclusion in the Annual Exhibitions. Works had to be both explicit in their meaning and technically brilliant. Hence, at the beginning of the century, Wilkie's detailed assemblage of guests in The Penny Wedding so patently met these expectations when it was shown at the RA in 1813 that a barrier had to be constructed for its protection, a course of action which had to be repeated for his Chelsea Pensioners in 1822, for Frith's Derby Day in 1858, and for Lady Butler's Last Roll Call in 1874. Such legibility of subject was certainly praised by the critic on the Art Journal in respect of P.H. Calderon's Moonlight Serenade when it was shown at the RA in 1873: 'The incidents are so well set forth that any point is intelligible'. It was works such as these that ensured that the receipts from the sales of tickets and catalogues continued to grow from an average of £10,000 in the last ten years of the Royal Academy's occupancy of the east wing of the National Gallery to an average of £20,000 within ten years of its residence in Burlington House. Likewise, the distinction of being an Academician brought with it the potential for considerable financial success. Both Frith and Herkomer, for example, sold for £1,500 their immensely popular paintings Derby Day (1858) and The Last Muster (1875) prior to exhibition earning a further £1,500 each for the engraving rights. At the height of the Royal Academy's Victorian heyday, income generated through regular exhibition at the Royal Academy could underwrite the construction of magnificent purpose-built houses for such Academicians as Leighton, Watts, Fildes, Marcus Stone and Alma-Tadema.
The implications of this inevitable engagement with 'vulgar wealth' tended to dictate the allegiances of Royal Academicians during the nineteenth century to the different genres of art and the range of technical approaches. The emergence at the beginning of the nineteenth century of paintings that drew their subject matter from scenes of everyday life, as practised by Wilkie and Mulready, persisted within the membership throughout the century. To be sure, it would be subject to modification as new concerns within genre painting came to be embraced. Thus, the depiction of animals endowed with human virtues and sentiments marked both the animalier paintings of Landseer and Briton Riviere, moral lessons of respect and religious devotion were conveyed by Eastlake, and scenes from history or mythology were made more immediately accessible in the works of Yeames , Crofts, Lucas, Waterhouse and Alma-Tadema. In all these cases, it was the emphasis upon legible, plausible detail that provided the immediate sense of recognition and aesthetic enjoyment. This thirst for accurate detail was also found in the generation of landscape painters who succeeded Turner and Constable, including Vicat Cole, Leader and the marine painter Henry Moore. Rejecting the role of landscape painting as a celebration of nature's grandeur, these artists adopted a new definition of 'truth to nature' that called for the objective representation of the detail of its constituent parts. Even in the field of portraiture, a genre that was persistently represented within the ranks of Academicians from Martin Archer Shee and Francis Grant to Frank Holl, Herbert von Herkomer and Luke Fildes, it was the lucrative market of recently established plutocrats that provided regular income and, in the case of the latter three, drew them away from the social realist subjects of urban and rural poverty and the unemployed with which they had initially established their reputations.
Yet to understand the Royal Academy during the nineteenth century as bound exclusively to popular taste would be too simplistic a reading. It continued to encompass within its own membership, and hence upon the walls of its Annual Exhibitions, works by such individual artists an S. J. Solomon and William Blake Richmond, it welcomed a second generation of Pre-Raphaelites in the shape of Waterhouse and F.C. Cowper, it recognised the engagement of Alma-Tadema, Leighton and Poynter with 'art for art's sake' and the contribution to the eighteenth-century revival in the closing decades of the nineteenth century of the art of Orchardson and Marcus Stone and of the architecture of Norman Shaw. Similarly, while being the subject of regular government inquiries, the most important being the Royal Commission on the Present State of the Royal Academy held in 1863, it was not unaware of the need to introduce reform and to renew its artistic energies. While its financial independence freed it from any absolute obligation to introduce institutional changes proposed by the various government inquiries, it nonetheless considered, in the wake of the 1863 Commission report, that its Schools should undergo certain reforms and that its category of Associate Membership should be increased in number. It was mindful, too, of countering external competition that could threaten the financial and aesthetic dominance of its exhibitions. Thus when the Grosvernor Gallery opened its first exhibition in 1877, both the incumbent President, Francis Grant, and the artist who was to succeed him one year later, Frederic Leighton, considered it prudent to exhibit. Once elected President, Leighton laboured hard to ensure that members of the younger, more avant-garde groups of artists, such as those who had founded the New English Art Club in 1886, were drawn into the Royal Academy. Clausen (lot 126) a founder member of the NEAC, was elected an Associate Academician in 1890, followed shortly by Bramley, La Thangue (lot 19) and Stanhope Forbes. Similarly, Leighton managed a quiet rapprochement with the 'rebellious' generations of Pre-Raphaelites. J.E. Millais had already become a full Member in 1863. Burne-Jones permitted himself to be elected an Associate Member in 1885, although he did so reluctantly and resigned in 1893. Leighton also arranged for Dante Gabriel Rossetti's memorial exhibition to be held in the Main Galleries of Burlington House in 1883, even though Rossetti had never submitted a picture to the RA during his lifetime. Equally, within the field of sculpture, it was Leighton who initiated the shift from carving to modelling when he showed An Athlete wrestling with a Python, at the Summer Exhibition in 1877, thereby initiating the 'New Sculpture' movement that came to include such masters as Alfred Gilbert and George Frampton.
Leighton died in 1896. John Everett Millais succeeded him as President but he survived a mere two months. He was followed by Poynter, who remained in the post for twenty-two years. During the Victorian era the Royal Academy had remained solvent, had fought off the most radical demands from Government for its reform, and neutralised most of its potential competitors. However, a reluctance to embrace newer developments in both national and international art, due possibly to the relatively elderly nature of its membership, meant that, despite the introduction of a new class of Honorary Membership for foreign artists in 1868, it welcomed such academic figures as Meisonnier, Gerome, Knaus and Menzel rather than Courbet, the Impressionists and naturalist artists such as Liebermann. This underlines an insularity and a latent conservatism which was effectively to haunt the institution until the latter part of the twentieth century.
J. Christian, Burne-Jones and his Followers, London, 1987, illus. fig. 49. A. Hobson, J.W. Waterhouse, London, 1989, pp. 39-40, illus. pl. 26. Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies, New Series III: 2 Fall 1994, p. 58.
P. Trippi, J.W. Waterhouse, London, 2002, pp. 80-84, 87, 92, 145, 170, 205, 235, pl. 57.
Myth and Romance: The Art of JW Waterhouse, London, 1994, illus.
London, Royal Academy, 1887, no. 134.
Manchester, City Art Gallery, Royal Jubilee Exhibition, 1887.
Paris, Exposition Universelle, 1889, no. 155 (Bronze Medal), lent by W.C. Quilter.
Whitechapel, St Jude's School House, Spring Exhibition, 1890, no. 9, lent by W.C. Quilter.
Birmingham, Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, 1890, no. 497.
Chicago, World's Columbian Exhibition, 1893, no. 482, as 'Miriamne Leaving the Praetorium'.
Canning Town, West Ham Picture Exhibition, 1893, no. 275.
London, Guildhall, 1894, no. 20, lent by W.C. Quilter.
Brussels, Exposition Internationale, 1897, no. 146 (Gold Medal), lent by W. Cuthbert Quilter
Etching by James Dobie, published in Art Journal (frontispiece), 1888.
This magnificent picture, the largest Waterhouse ever painted, was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1887. It was a vintage year, Leighton was showing The Last Watch of Hero (Manchester), Albert Moore Midsummer (Bournemouth), Alma-Tadema The Women of Amphissa (private collection) and Sargent his seemingly revolutionary Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (Tate Gallery). Waterhouse had fierce competition as well as a reputation to maintain, having been elected ARA two years before. He was thirty-eight at the time.
Stylistically, the picture marks the climax of his early phase, characterised by a preference for classical subjects in the Alma-Tadema mode. The following year, 1888, saw a radical departure, when Waterhouse (as they say today) re-invented himself as an academic interpreter of the Pre-Raphaelite tradition. The picture which announced the change was The Lady of Shalott, exhibited at the RA that year. Few works, with the possible exception of Burne-Jones's King Cophetua (Tate Gallery), suffered more from Victorian art's long decades of eclipse. For years it was a subject of amusement or ridicule, languishing under such unofficial titles as After the May Ball. But revival brough rehabilitation, and it is now one of the most popular and widely reproduced images in the national collection.
Waterhouse found the subject of Mariamne in the Jewish Antiquities of the first-century historian Flavius Josephus, although it had also been handled by Byron in his poem Herod's Lament for Mariamne (1815). Mariamne was a princess renowned for her beauty who was married, as his second wife, to Herod the Great, king of Judaea (reigned 73-4BC). Falsely accused of adultery by the king's sister, Salome, and other members of his family, she was arrested and condemned to death. Herod, who had been passionately attached to his wife, wished to commute the sentence, but was urged by Salome to have it carried out, which was accordingly done. The painting shows Mariamne going to her execution. She turns to look at Herod, who is seated on the right in an agony of conflicting emotions, while Salome stands beside him, strengthening his resolve.
It should perhaps be mentioned that the Herod and Salome who figure in Mariamne are not the same as those in the story of John the Baptist. It was Herod the Great's son, Herod Antipas, who ordered John's execution, and his grand-daughter, the niece of Herod Antipas, also called Salome, who danced before her uncle and so obtained John's head on a charger. This was the subject which so appealed to the Symbolists, who saw in Salome a supreme example of the femme fatale. The cult was started by Gustave Moreau, whose famous painting The Apparition appeared at the Paris Salon in 1876 and was re-exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in London a year later. This was followed by Oscar Wilde's play with its Beardsley illustrations (1893), a masterpiece by Lovis Corinth (1897-1900), and the opera by Richard Strauss (1905). But although Waterhouse's subject is different, it is obviously related to the more famous story both historically and in terms of the strong element of sadism common to both. In fact at the time they seem to have been seen as almost interchangeable. In his catalogue of the Royal Academy Revisited exhibition, Christopher Forbes makes the interesting point that Kaiser Wilhelm originally suggested to Strauss that the subject of his opera should be Herod and Mariamne.
The conclusion that Waterhouse's picture belongs, at least in part, to this context, is reinforced by its theatricality. Many critics at the time were struck by this, as Peter Trippi observers in his recent monograph on the artist. George Bernard Shaw, in a review in The World, discussed the work in terms of stage production, with Mariamne advancing on her audience as if she was coming 'nearly straight-forward out of the frame.' Harry Quilter, formerly the art critic on the Times, wrote that Waterhouse presented 'a Sarah Bernhardt conception of the scene, the tragedy of a star actress surrounded by lay figures', and D.S. MacColl, in the Spectator, compared the picture to 'a tableau at the Porte St Martin [Sarah Bernhardt's theatre] or the Chatelet.'
The Gallic dimension which these comparisons suggest was underlined by the French academic style that Waterhouse had adopted. Although he himself had not studied abroad, many of his artistic associates had, including members of the Newlyn School, and there is a close relationship between their handling of paint - the so-called 'square brush' technique - and that seen in Mariamne. The sensational subject is also very French; as Trippi puts it, 'brooding queens were the stock-in-trade of such internationally-renowned French Academicians as Laurens and Cabanel.' In fact Waterhouse had attempted this mode before in St Eulalia (fig. 2), the picture which had earned him associateship of the RA two years earlier, but if anything Mariamne was an even more blatant example. In a rather jaundiced review in the Athenaeum, F.G. Stephens observed that the picture's 'background of a gilded semi-dome and lofty ambo, with mosaics in blue and gold, is quite worthy of one of the best of the third-rate French painters who supply the staple of every Salon.'
But Waterhouse was alive to influences nearer home. That 'gilded semi-dome and lofty ambo' is a little reminiscent of the famous Arab Hall that Leighton had added to his house in Holland Park Road, Kensington, in 1877-9, and it is not hard to imagine Waterhouse seeing this at some gathering to which the PRA had invited him following his election as an Associate in 1885. Trippi does not consider this possibility, but he does suggest a connection with the apsidal-ended studio that Alma-Tadema created for himself at his house in St John's Wood, completed and revealed to a fascinated public in 1886. Waterhouse, who was widely regarded as the Anglo-Dutch artist's follower, may well have been an early guest at one of his celebrated soirées, even though he himself was not to settle in St John's Wood, by then the ultimate must-have address for a successful Academician, until 1901.
Quite apart from any possible echo of this kind, contact with Alma-Tadema would have encouraged Waterhouse to see his picture in terms of theatre. The interior at 17 Grove End Road was intensely dramatic. Alma-Tadema's own work was nothing if not theatrical, and he was becoming increasingly involved in stage design. Although the great days of his collaboration with Irving and Beerbohm Tree still lay in the future, he had desinged Coriolanus for Irving as early as 1880, even if production was delayed for twenty years.
And yet, as Trippi observes, there is an 'English decorum' about Mariamne, a conceptual reserve that separates it decisively from the over-the-top theatricality, the often gruesome melodrama, in which Waterhouse's French contemporaries loved to indulge. We know that Waterhouse was profoundly impressed by the Millais retrospective that was held at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1886, and both Trippi and Anthony Hobson see a connection between Mariamne and Millais' Esther (private collection), 'a Hebrew heroine who triumphed where Mariamne failed', which appeared in this exhibition. First shown at the RA in 1865, Millais' picture personifies 'English decorum' in its restrained treatment of a powerfully dramatic theme.
Though everyone recognised the importance of Mariamne, press comment was mixed. For some, the picture was almost beyond criticism. 'For pathos, conception, and execution,' wrote the critic on the Illustrated London News, 'it is unsurpassed by any work in the present Exhibition.' In its concentration of interest in the central figure of the deeply-wronged wife, it surpasses even the work of Mr Waterhouse's master, Mr Alma-Tadema...Apart from the depth of feeling displayed in this work, too much praise can scarcely be awarded to the artist for his delicate treatment of the three tones of white - the cashmere dress, the marble steps, and the ivory throne - which form the basis of his scheme of colour.'
The Times was hardly less enthusiastic:
Mr J.W. Waterhouse...has turned to his Josephus and found in the blood-stained annals of the Herod family a subject for a fine picture...Mariamne herself...is a fine dramatic figure, animated but not exaggerated, and the work of a man who can paint human beings and not mere studio 'subjects'. Technically, the work is full of ability; Mr Waterhouse can both draw and paint. We should have much preferred the picture, however, had it been half the size.
The picture's scale bothered others, while some had deeper worries. One of F.G. Stephens's rather acid comments in the Athenaeum has already been quoted. He felt the artist showed 'real picture-making skill', but concluded that while he was 'greatly superior to Mr Long [i.e. Edwin Long], he has much to do before he will produce a truly noble, sound design.'
Stephens was also unhappy with the element of melodrama, which, he remarked drily, 'ought to prove popular with the British public.' Some of his distaste can be attributed to his Pre-Raphaelite background, but he was not alone in voicing doubts. For the Art Journal, Waterhouse had produced 'emphatically one of the pictures of the year, showing all this true artist's painstaking accuracy of detail, combined with poetic imagination.' And yet, the writer continued, 'somehow it does not quite satisfy; perhaps the canvas is too large, or else it wants placing on a low skirting-board, so that Mariamne's face could be better seen, or more probably the accessories are too pronounced, and the principal group of actors take too subordinate a position.'
A similar combination of general admiration and nit-picking criticism is found in Claude Phillips's review in the Academy. Having complained that Alma-Tadema's Women of Amphissa lacked some 'essential element,' a dramatic dimension which would have saved it from becoming merely 'an exquisite piece of classic genre,' he contined:
We cannot, in fairness, exampt from a measure of the same crticism, Mr. Waterhouse's important "Mariamne before Herod the Great". Here is shown the beautiful queen going from the presence of Herod to her death, at the moment when her condemnation has just been pronounced by her judges; she appears, as she turns to depart, with one parting look of half-repressed reproach and anguish cast at the hesitating king, into whose ear his sister Salome whispers poisonous counsels of hatred and revenge. The scene is laid in a curious half-Assyrian hall of marble, mosaic, and gold, the glittering semi-dome of which, sheltering the judges, has in form, though not in decoration, a Byzantine aspect that recalls the altar-pieces of Bellini and Carpaccio. Here, too, the execution is of the most solid, and in parts - such as the dome, the marble, and the rich accessories - of the most consummate kind. But the colour is not happily massed, or sufficiently bold for a work of such a type; it lacks both brilliancy and unity of general effect. As the presentment of a dramatic conception, requiring for its adequate realisation the most spontaneous energy combined with the greatest subtlety in the delineation of shades of character and of phases of fleeting passion, the work cannot be pronounced adequate. The figure of the white-robed queen, with its mingled expression of unconquered pride and mute appeal, with the clever suggestion of impending downward movement, is admirable; but the king and his evil counsellor are a group too trivial and too much effaced to form an adequate balance to the central personage, while the judges and the executioner are mere accessories, rather serving to fill up the canvas than forming, as they might be expected to do, necessary elements contributing to the unity and balance of a dramatic whole.
Victorian art critics were hard to please, but it is amazing today to see to what lengths they were prepared to go in discussing individual pictures, and how much space their editors allowed them. Their enormously long reviews, often couched in what now seems tediously pompous language, must reflect a genuine thirst on the part of the public.
The picture was bought by Cuthbert Quilter, the elder brother of Harry Quilter, the erstwhile art critic on the Times and the victim of Whistler's mercilessly caustic wit. Cuthbert Quilter was a wealthy corporate capitalist who invested in the nascent telephone system, entered Parliament, and was rewarded with a knighthood in 1897. He belonged to a well-known type of collector, buying large, well-reviewed pictures and being almost over-eager to lend them to exhibitions, well aware that this reflected advantageously on himself and enhanced the value of the work in question. Mariamne, with her dramatic, affecting subject and monumental scale, was perfectly tailored to big international exhibitions, and during his twenty-two years of ownership, Quilter allowed her to travel at least eighteen times across Europe and America. In the process, she collected medals at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1869, the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, and the Exposition Internationale in Brussels in 1897.
The picture fetched 480 guineas when Sir Cuthbert sold it in 1909, two years before his death, in a sale totalling £87,780 at Christie's, but the price had dropped to a mere 48 guineas when it came under the hammer again in 1938. The case is fairly typical of the reaction against the Victorians. Burne-Jones's Love leading the Pilgrim was bought for the Tate Gallery in 1943 for 90 guineas, and the pathetic neglect of Leighton's Flaming June between the 1930s and the early 1960s is legendary.
Labels: John William Waterhouse
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