NEW HAVEN — All right, all you fans of “Downton Abbey”: Are you ready for a brisk slap around the cheeks? Some smelling salts to rouse you from your swoon? You admit you’re partial to a bit of upstairs-downstairs drama — but how much downstairs can you take? Want to know what it was like in the Edwardian coal mines and factories? Can you bear to discover what went into the making of those ostrich feather fans the leisured elite loved to shake about?
Relax. “Edwardian Opulence,” a wonderful survey of British art and society before the First World War at the Yale Center for British Art, is not overly concerned with rubbing your nose in reality. It’s a survey of high-end visual culture in the Edwardian age, roughly 1900 to 1914.
That means quite a few suave society portraits by the likes of John Singer Sargent and Giovanni Boldini; some stunning photographs of and by various members of the leisure classes; some overwrought but not uninteresting history painting; a smattering of modest landscapes; and some truly astounding fashion items. Among these are diamond-encrusted tiaras and coronets, fern spray brooches by Cartier, a House of Worth dress with Mughal-inspired embroidery worn by Lady Curzon; and an ostrich feather fan owned by Dolly Pinto, otherwise known as Mrs. James de Rothschild.
Less glamorous subjects are not entirely ignored: A long paragraph in the catalog, for instance, walks us through the process (it’s not pretty) of preparing South African ostrich feathers for use in fashionable fans, and reminds us that, by weight, these feathers were worth more than diamonds. But you won’t learn too much about labor unrest, rising militarism, table-turning developments in theoretical science, or any of the unseemlier aspects of imperial muscle-flexing.
The focus, instead, is on painting and sculpture and the decorative arts — which is to say, it’s on the art produced at the top end of Edwardian society.
Nonetheless, the show affords an intriguingly subtle view of the period’s preoccupations, both social and psychological. It may also remind us — in its cumulative portrait of a society enjoying immense material abundance even as it sleepwalks toward catastrophe — of ourselves.
England had enjoyed more than six decades of remarkable stability when Queen Victoria died in January 1901. The seemingly endless expansion of her empire, the largest the world has ever known, also boosted confidence, which tended to reinforce the complacent conservatism of her art.
“The taste for art in England,” lamented Henry James, “is at bottom a fashion, a need of luxury, a tribute . . . to propriety, not an outgush of productive power.” The diagnosis is typically acute, and reminds us that avant-garde art could not find the kind of foothold in England that it did in the more tumultuous societies of France, Germany, Austria, or Russia. A show surveying the most interesting art emerging in the same period from one of those countries would look very different, and it’s good to be conscious of this as you wander through “Edwardian Opulence.”
King Edward VII was on the throne for less than a decade. It’s a decade we tend to look back on as a sort of late summer afternoon of poignant innocence. When it was over (and it ended, for all practical purposes, not with the king’s death, but four years later, with the assassination of an obscure archduke in Sarajevo), it was over in ways that were shatteringly final.
“What,” asks Angus Trumble, who organized the show with Andrea Wolk Rager, “did Britain leave behind? To what did she bid farewell?” And why, we might add, did she seem to be bidding it farewell before it was even gone?
A pervasive nostalgia is one of the stranger characteristics of Edwardian art. (Even the word “nostalgia,” writes A. Cassandra Albinson in a catalog essay, was given its current, commonly accepted sense for the first time in 1900.) You see it in allegorical pictures that hark back to a long-ago epoch of chivalry and heroism. King Arthur and his knights are a recurring theme; the plays of Shakespeare are another.
You see it in the wistful landscapes that get a room to themselves in New Haven. And you see it in the playful, decorative sensibility that takes its lead from the rococo art of France’s Ancien Regime.
The delicate, pink-blushing inventions of Charles Conder, for instance, take their lead from Boucher and Watteau. Conder lived in Australia for eight years as a young man before returning to England and making a name for himself as a stylish bohemian.
Many artists in the exhibition, including Sargent, Whistler, George Lambert, and Edwin Austin Abbey, have international backgrounds — not surprisingly, given the interconnected nature of Britain’s Empire. But Conder is the only artist who gets a section of the show to himself. Conder could be very good, but the honor has less to do, you feel, with the quality of his work than with the sense that his beautiful, rarefied, cosmopolitan life, which came to a premature end (syphilis), somehow echoed, or represented, the era itself.
Even more memorable than Conder’s rococo panel designs, in watercolor on silk, produced on commission for a boudoir, is the accompanying wall text. It contains a quote from Arthur Symons’s memoir, “Confessions: A Study in Pathology”: “She showed me Conder’s paintings. Then she leaned on me suddenly, flung herself passionately into my arms, sobbed as if she was hysterical; then said in an imperative voice: ‘Arthur, you might make love to me!’ ”
Worthy of “Downton Abbey.”
It’s fun, after this, to see William Nicholson’s painting “The Conder Room,” a double portrait of an elegant gent and his stylishly dressed daughter, posing in a room installed with Conder paintings.
Nicholson was a more rewarding painter than Conder. The father of Ben Nicholson, the celebrated English abstract painter, he painted in a straightforward, modest, and to modern eyes fairly conservative idiom. He turned out portraits, landscapes, still lifes, urban scenes, and illustrations.
But he was preternaturally sensitive to color and loved to play with strong contrasts in light. The combination of delicacy and plain-spokenness in his work marks him out as one of the loveliest and least affected artists of the time.
There is only one work by Nicholson on public display in a US museum (the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Conn.), so the two Nicholsons in this show, though far from his best, are as good a reason as any to see it.
Nicholson himself is portrayed in two ambitious portraits by his friends, Augustus John and William Orpen, both pictures self-consciously influenced by Velazquez. Orpen’s picture, a family portrait, alludes specifically to Velazquez’s “Las Meninas,” with its mirror on the far wall, its contingent of carefully arrayed little people, and its somnolent family pet.
It’s interesting to think about why the great Spanish painter appealed so strongly to these artists. Technically, his nonchalant touch and mastery of tone had been inspiring great portraiture in Europe and America since Manet and before (Sargent and Whistler were both devotees). But for the Edwardians, it was just as much a question of style: Velazquez’s haughtiness, his confident, aristocratic demeanor as court painter to Spain’s Philip IV, was immensely appealing.
But perhaps this, too, was a question of nostalgia. Did privileged Edwardians already sense the ground shaking beneath them, just as Velazquez seems to have sensed that Spain’s 17th-century supremacy was destined shortly to end? (“You feel the shadow of life passing all the time,” said the painter Francis Bacon about Velazquez’s court portraits.)
They surely did. The signs were plentiful. There was the humiliating and costly Boer War, a long pummeling of British self-confidence. There was the menacing rise of Germany as a new nation with a big chip on its shoulder, and formidable military power. There were threats to the social order in the form of labor unrest and the movement for women’s rights. (It’s no accident that the trusty old theme of the femme fatale was given a particularly strenuous workout by nervous Edwardian male artists.)
There was, in short, a sense of accelerating change at almost every level of a society that had been inordinately accustomed to stability.
Of course all this made its way into Edwardian art. The wonder is really that it didn’t emerge more forcefully.
A clue as to why it didn’t is provided in a section of the show called “War, Sleep, and Death.” The various works in it are morbidly obsessed with inaction, a sense of mental and physical sinking, and an ambivalent longing for night, sleep, and burial. The theme connects Edwardian society with a sort of communal “death instinct” of the kind soon to be described in Freud’s “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” (1920).
The notion seems fanciful. It certainly conflicts with the picture of a busy, industrious, spectacle-adoring populace at the heart of a globe-encircling empire drawn in other sections of the show.
And yet clearly the themes of sleep, drowning, and beautiful surcease preoccupied a number of Edwardians. Trying to work out why, and what it all might signify, makes me feel unaccountably drowsy, . . . Not unlike that TV soap opera — you know the one I mean.Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.