Pre-Raphaelites in The City: Pre-Raphaelites in Paris

Dinah Roe

Pre-Raphaelites in Paris

In Paris recently, I was delighted to discover that the Musée d’Orsay was playing host to the Victoria & Albert Exhibition, ‘The Cult Of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement, 1860 – 1900.’ I’d already gotten my Pre-Raphaelite jollies from seeing the exhibition in London, but I was curious to see what the French would do differently. Famous Pre-Raphaelite haters, the French were bound to emphasize different aspects of Pre-Raphaelitism and Aestheticism. While the face of Frederick Leighton’s flirtatious Pavonia graced the poster for the English exhibition, Waterhouse’s full-length, drowsy Saint Cecile strained at her girdle in the Musée d’Orsay’s version. The stereotype-reinforcing French exhibition title made me chuckle. ‘Beauté, Morale, Volupté: dans l’Angleterre d’Oscar Wilde’ saw off the polite ‘Cult of Beauty’. The title also made it clear that this was more Oscar Wilde’s nineteenth century than Queen Victoria’s.

The walls were emblazoned with Wilde quotations (in French). When I went through, everyone seemed to be rushing past the Pre-Raphaelite offerings, such as Rossetti’s illustrations to Goblin Market and his Bocca Baciata, in order to reach the 1890s. Indeed, French art lovers jostled one another to get a closer look at the naughty Aubrey Beardsley illustrations, which featured be-wigged men displaying giant phalluses. A group of respectable-looking, elderly Parisian ladies were practically doubled over with laughter as they pointed at an illustration of a large, nude man bending over, his backside nominally concealed by a feathery fan. Among the paintings on display, it seemed that the Burne-Jones pictures, in particular Laus Veneris (In Praise of Venus), were drawing the biggest crowds, as well as Whistler’s Symphony In White, numbers 1 & 2. 

It was also interesting to see which items were selected for gift shop memorabilia. There were no tea-towels in evidence here, and the image singled out for both fridge magnets and pencils was the 1881 James Hadley Aesthetic teapot (which looks suspiciously like Algernon Charles Swinburne).
All in all, the French exhibition felt more interested in the irreverent and sensual side of the period. Click here to see the great Museum trailer for this exhibition.

The next stop on this exhibition’s tour is San Francisco, at the Legion of Honor in February 2012. If anyone goes to that one, please get in contact and let me know what you think. I notice that the Americans are steering clear of Volupté altogether, and are sticking with the English title, ‘The Cult of Beauty’. Mais oui.

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Pre-Raphaelites in the City

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This blog explores the thriving Victorian cities which inspired the Pre-Raphaelites, and were shaped by them in turn. While the Pre-Raphaelites produced poetry and art praising the natural world, most were born and raised in urban environments, and their work retained a cosmopolitan sensibility. Although this blog will sometimes take excursions into the countryside, its focus will remain on city life. If you want more information on images or sources, please get in touch.