For the first time in Switzerland, fans of 19th-century British painting have a chance to witness a unique collection – from Turner to Whistler via the Pre-Raphaelites – gathered in Lausanne from prestigious collections that rarely leave the British Isles.
“Nineteenth-century British painting is something that is not very well known here in Switzerland and in the rest of Europe,” explains curator William Hauptman. “With this exhibition, I wanted to show the originality and diversity of paintings produced during the Victorian period which people used to look down on as being rather difficult, of poor quality and not very interesting, but which are today seen in a different light.”
In recent years, Victorian-era paintings have come back in fashion and have been selling for high prices, like the Finding of Moses by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, which sold for $36 million (CHF35.8 million) in 2010, or Frederic Leighton’s Golden Hours, bought for 260 guineas in 1916, which went for £3 million (CHF3.9 million) in 2016.
“Here at the Hermitage we want to show that the 19th century is more than just the familiar names. It’s like in literature. If you think there’s only Balzac and Flaubert in France and Dickens and Thackeray in England, you miss quite a lot,” said Hauptman.
From February 1 until June 2 the Fondation de L’Hermitageexternal link in northern Lausanne is showing a collection of 60 paintings lent from major British institutions, including the Royal Collection belonging to Queen Elizabeth II, the Royal Academy of Art and regional museums.
“I wanted to avoid the clichés of the famous works you see in London at the Tate. Here is a choice of paintings which you don’t see that often, as not many people get to go to Sheffield, Exeter or Liverpool,” Hauptman noted.
The Hermitage showcases three generations of painters including JMW Turner, one of the most celebrated landscape artists of his day, and his shimmering seascapes. It shifts to the detailed natural art of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, founded in 1848 by students from the Royal Academy in London, including John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
The museum, housed in an 1850 villa, also has work from the Aesthetic Movement, headed by Edward Burne-Jones, who drew inspiration from mediaeval legends, literature, poetry and Antiquity.
Paintings by Frederick Waller, Augustus Mulready and Frank Holl depict the appalling poverty in 19th-century Britain and life among beggars and street children.
It concludes with the influential painters James Abbott McNeil Whistler and John Singer Sargent, artists of American origin who lived and worked in Britain. Together their work reflects the great upheavals of the Industrial Revolution and modern life during the Golden Age of the British Empire, from the expansion of cities and transport to growing social inequalities and the emergence of the middle classes.
“Who used to buy paintings at the time? Wealthy families and aristocrats, of course, but for the first time there was a middle class who had enough money and desire to hang paintings on their walls to increase their social status,” said Hauptman.
“But they didn’t want historical scenes or images from the Bible. They wanted paintings that were easy to understand showing realistic scenes from daily life.”