Art Wednesday: Art during the Victorian age

If I asked you to describe the art of the Victorian age, what would you say?

Does it look something like the two paintings below?  Artists of the Victoria era have left us with a treasure trove of beautiful imagines of women sitting peacefully, happy families and joyful children frolicking in the garden. I have shared with you many of these paintings. BUT, these are an illusion of the Victorian age.  These were the paintings that were bought by the rich, but they did not show the real Victorian Britain.  These were the paintings the Victorians wanted around them, it made them feel safe and secure. They loved these paintings as much as we do now.
Those artists who did paint what they saw - the "truth" caused shock and horror and their works didn't sell quite so well or at all. Who wanted a painting of a slum in their grand house. For the new rich, in particular the factory owners, they wanted to fill their homes with beauty and happiness - the factories which they owned were far from this - in fact they were miserable and joyless and they didn't want to be reminded of this misery in their homes.

Below are a few examples of Victorian paintings that tell another story of life during this period - these are sad paintings that present a powerful message of the Victorian Age. 

Applications for admission to a Casual Ward, 1874 painting by Luke Files
Originally created in 1869 as a print, this image was intended to elicit sympathy and feelings of social conscience from the viewer. Under the Houseless Poor Act, individuals, no matter what their social class, could apply for a ticket that entitled them to a night’s free food and shelter in the casual ward of a workhouse. As no individual or group was singled out, the painting’s intended message was one of sympathy and outrage. This painting was not welcome at the Academy - it revealed home truths the Victorians didn't want to know about. It portrays a tragic group of people, from the very old to a baby in arms. There is nothing pretty about this painting.

Gustave Dore captures the nightmare that was the Slums of London during the Victoria era.  It was so polluted that the clean washing on the line would be dirty by the time it was dry.  Below Dore shows us life at the Workhouse, a hellish experience and once you entered it was difficult to leave. Husbands and wives, parents and children were separated and forbidden to speak to one another and could only receive visitors in front of the matron.

The population of Britain was 9 million in 1801, rising to 14 million 100 years later - this rapid increase in population had dire consequences - in particular in the cities.  Many rural families moved to the city in hope of work, but instead they ended up living on the street, starving.

The Awakening Conscience by Holman Hunt
During the Victorian age it was very common for Victorian middle and upper class men to have affairs/mistresses.  It wasn't talked about and many of the mistresses were hidden away, out of sight.  The Victorians on the surface were strong moral upstanding people, but draw back the curtain and this was just an image.  In the mid 1800's there was one prostitute to every 25 men, they were kept very busy.  One painter, Hunt, painted a man with his mistress, it was viewed with shock and horror (in fact with such shock that that later Hunt altered the face of woman so she didn't look so distressed) and  yes, by the very men who were likely to be having affairs.  They didn't want to see their seedy behaviour on display.
 Found drowned by George Fredrick Watts
Sexually fallen women (often pregnant) were shunned by society and not wanted. It was quite common for an unmarried woman who became pregnant to be disowned by her family - kicked out of the home (no Christian charity for these women) and many chose to kill themselves.  Sadly, the sexual sins of women were not forgiven within Victorian society however all those men who had affairs and visited the prostitute were seen as ok (as long as they didn't talk about it in polite society).  Watts wanted the British to know what was really happening to these poor women, in one week alone five women drown in the Thames after jumping off a bridge.  The newspapers would report "Found drowned. . . . " and this is where the title of the painting is from. Just another very sad statistics. This is not a joyful painting, it is one of great sadness.
Many happy returns of the day by William Powell Firth
This particular painting of Firth and his family was held up as the "perfect" example of a Victorian family - and don't they all look happy. Prints of this painting could be found in many a Victorian home.  But, what no one knew, including Mrs Firth was the "Other family", the mistress and all her children. kept quietly in another home.  This was no perfect family at all - another illusion of the Victorian age. And this wasn't uncommon at all.
Her firstborn by Frank Holl
It wasn't unusual for painters to paint grieving families and the dying and dead children - many thousands of children died during the 19th century and painters captured these moments. Even though a grim subject, these paintings were quite popular in the Victorian home.  Death was so common that having a painting of a funeral was not viewed in the same light as it would be today.

These are just a small sample of paintings from the Victorian age that illustrates what life was really like and I am thankful that some artists were willing to paint the ugly and tragic side of Britain even if the art didn't sell. Without photography, these are the only images of the real Britain.  Grim and sad but true, you only need to pick up a Charles Dickens novel to see this. 



  1. It's easy to think of the Victorian era in the light THEY wanted it to be seen... Perfect, sophisticated, rich in good things. It's very sad to look behind the scenes and see that they were sinners just like everyone, and that many many were poor and in need.
    One thing I think was good is the fact that they didn't like the bad aspects to be flaunted. I wish more people spoke, and acted, in a more refined manner today. I realise only the rich acted like that in those days - but in western society, we're all rich today (compared with times past), so if we all acted in a more refined way in public, it would be kinda nice - if that makes sense!! Then I wouldn't have to be so afraid of what my children would see and hear when we're in public places!

  2. Somber...

    I do prefer the top two, really.

  3. When you start delving into family history research you begin to get a good picture of the hardships most of our ancestors endured.
    You are right, Jo.
    Life was certainly not a bed of roses for most Victorian people.
    It seems one of my great-grandfathers actually died in an establishment for the poor.
    Kinda brings it home!

    3I like the paintings that show the underdogs and battlers as much as the more affluent subjects.

  4. I have a print copy of the picture at the top of this page (the lady reading in an orangery) and am trying to obtain another but do not know the artist or name of the picture. Can you please tell me any details.
    Geoffrey Clark.

    1. The artists name is Charles Edward Perugini and I am pretty sure it is called "Girl reading"


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