Five Victorian artists

Published 2 July 2014

Five of our favourite Victorian artists, and where to see their work.

1. Dante Gabriel Rossetti ​

Rossetti's Obsession, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool, until 21 September. Free to all

Marking the centenary year of Jane Morris's death, this exhibition uses works of painting, drawing and photography to explore her role as Dante Gabriel Rossetti's chief muse. Although she married designer and poet William Morris, Jane had a deep emotional attachment to Rossetti and they began a long affair shortly after her wedding. Key pieces from the gallery's collection of Pre-Raphaelite work – which is among the best of the world – reveal Rossetti's fixation with Jane; their relationship evidently serving as the inspiration for some of his most renowned work. On display are the studies for one of Rossetti's most famous pieces, Proserpine. Jane models as the mythological character (also known as Persephone) who was condemned to spend six months of the year in the underworld, during which time the land turned cold and dark, and crops did not prosper. On her return the world became bright and beautiful again. This tale was a painful parallel for Rossetti, who had just spent an idyllic summer with Morris but was about to be parted from her again for the winter.

2. George Frederic Watts

Ellen Terry: The Painter's Actress, Watts Gallery, Guildford, until 9 November. 50% off with National Art Pass

In 1863 Ellen Terry and her older sister Kate took on roles at London’s Haymarket Theatre. Kate's performance was met with great success and she was invited to sit for renowned portrait artist of the age, G.F. Watts. Ellen accompanied her on the visit and Watts decided he would paint both of them instead – The Sisters was the result. Over the following months Watts made Ellen the star of a series of paintings and drawings, which have been reunited for this exhibition. In 1864, aged just 16, Ellen married the 46-year-old artist. She said that the experience of sitting for Watts made the stage seem 'a poor place' and – as young actresses typically did upon marriage – she renounced her stage career and became his muse. Their relationship lasted for less than a year, but Watts’ paintings of Ellen have been described as 'his most glorious visions on canvas'. They include Watchman, What of the Night? in which he casts his young wife as Joan of Arc, and Choosing, where Ellen wears the brown silk wedding dress designed for her by William Holman Hunt.

3. John Ruskin ​

John Ruskin: Artist and Observer, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, 4 July – 29 September. 50% off with National Art Pass

Author of Modern Painters and passionate champion of JMW Turner and the Pre-Raphelite movement, John Ruskin is better known for writing about art than he is for producing it. But, as this exhibition sets out to reveal, he was in fact a talented draughtsman and watercolour painter who drew inspiration from across the natural world and architectural subjects. In his role as a critic, Ruskin expressed the view that the artist's principal concern should be a moral and material 'truth to nature' – a feat which he praises Turner for. It's an ideology that also permeates his own work, as demonstrated here through his highly detailed depictions of gothic palaces in Venice, wild Scottish and Alpine landscapes, and studies of birds and plants.

4. JMW Turner

Late Turner: Painting Set Free, Tate Britain, London, 10 September – 25 January . 50% off with National Art Pass

Dismissing notions of a diminishing, elderly artist, the display will bring together 150 works that reveal Turner's radical experimentation with technique, process and material in the years after his 60th birthday. While his contemporaries were exploring other priorities, he continued to champion the idea that art should reflect some kind of moral truth, rather than just a visual one. Far from falling foul of pessimism in his old age, Turner was visibly excited about the social, technological and scientific developments of modern life; demonstrated through works such as Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway. Remarkably, during his final period Turner also continued to widen his exposure in the marketplace. Producing a range of work during these years – from pictures of the whaling industry, to watercolours such as The Blue Rigi, Sunrise – he constantly sought to appeal to new admirers.

5. Frederic Lord Leighton

A Victorian Obsession, Leighton House, London, 14 November – 29 March 2015. 50% off with National Art Pass

Mexican collector Juan Antonio Pérez Simón owns a spectacular assortment of Victorian art, including four pictures by Frederic Lord Leighton. This autumn, they return to the house in which they were painted. Other celebrated artists of the era, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, John Everett Millais and John William Waterhouse, also feature. These men were friends of Leighton and attended events at his resplendent Kensington residence. One highlight is Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s The Roses of Heliogabalus, which is exhibited in London for the first time since 1913.

Leighton House is holding special evening viewings of the exhibition which will be free to National Art Pass holders. Please see the exhibition page for more details.

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