Accounting for the popularity of the problem picture in the Victorian and Edwardian period

April 3, 2011

The Popularity of The Problem Picture in The Victorian and Edwardian Period

In Narrating Modernity: The British Problem Picture Pamela M. Fletcher describes how the concept of the problem picture ‘worked successfully as a form of publicly engaged modern art’[1] in the Victorian era. Throughout this essay, primarily by analysing contemporary and historical sources, it is my intention to explore not only how problem pictures were popular as printed illustrations, but also how Victorian society reacted to, and reflected towards, the various Realist themes which began to take form during this period.

Furthermore, by focusing the research upon the social and cultural climate from which these new painting concepts took inspiration, one can further understand how this movement, one which stood as a contrast to previous artistic traditions, evolved and became well known in Edwardian society.

Before analysing the popularity of these images one must first appreciate the context in which they were created. Images commenting on society or corruption existed prior to the Victorian era. Only a century previously, William Hogarth painted corruptions of society; involving a dark sense of humour and irony. This sense of awareness through illustration, and later through painting, was not only influenced by the French Realists but also by the newly available illustrated press. These problem pictures which were made public through mass printing in newspapers and magazines (like The Illustrated London News, The Graphic and Punch) were critiquing on society, revealing the harsh and grim reality of everyday life. This was made possible by new engraving and printing techniques. On occasion these illustrations were carried through to Victorian painting, offering onlookers a new, clearer perspective of the society in which they lived. Illustrators turned painters such as William Hunt, Luke Fildes, Frank Holl, and Hubert Von Herkomer had something in common with Modern and Postmodern artists of the 20th century; who set out to comment on social traditions and expectations.

The volume of documentation through both novels and real life accounts, illustrate to us the common hardships of the Victorian era. Henry Mayhew conducted poverty surveys and written documentaries after interviewing people living on the streets. These were published with illustrations in book form, in London Labour and the London Poor in 1851. As awareness of poverty increased, the problem picture became more regularly featured in newspapers and magazines, and also began to comment on politics and gender roles within society. Victorian writers such as Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, and even crime novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle provide us with an insight into corrupted Victorian values, gender expectations, ideals and living conditions; all of which were inspirations of problem pictures.

Analysing the popularity of problem pictures in the Victorian era is both an intricate and complicated process. The concept and intention of the problem picture evolved, in the same way as artistic tastes of the period. These images were revolutionary, although they did not always receive critical acclaim. In reaction to this, one must ask oneself which specific aspects of problem pictures, positive or negative, appealed to the Victorians. Society based itself upon strict family values. These problem pictures could be controversial but at the same time were refreshing, as such images of current affairs had never been so available. The images of poverty in particular would have been informative, as many people were living in ignorance.

The majority of paintings before mid Victorian Realism were more inspired by Renaissance ideals, taking subjects such as religion, mythology, history, or portraits of rich and important people. These images presented and made available through print, were of everyday people in everyday situations. These situations were often of a distressing nature, and while making the Victorian audience aware of current affairs, they also inspired artists to further represent these moral corruptions in painted versions of their illustrations. Not all problem pictures were popular with Victorian audiences. This was perhaps because of the particular problems addressed, or down to changing attitudes towards Realism themes in Victorian art and illustrated current affairs.

The image below, of Queen Victoria and The Royal Family painted in 1846 follows a long tradition of Royal portraiture. The monarchs are placed centrally in the painting highlighting their power and significance. Albert sits tall and proud, reiterating his status as man. Two of the princesses gaze at their younger sibling tenderly; illustrating their maternal instincts and their destiny as mothers in the future. This image conveys a sense of harmony and hierarchy in which everyone accepts their role. Crucially although Victoria was Queen, Albert was portrayed as the more dominant figure, a direct result of him being a man.

While poverty in the Victorian era was a widespread issue amongst the working classes, repression of women occurred throughout Victorian society. The Yellow Wallpaper first published in 1891 was a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman that echoed her personal struggles and depression caused by the misogyny around her. Even for a late 19th century publication, Gilman’s short story was revolutionary, as it challenged many accepted aspects of attitudes and values towards women of the time. The narrator of the story is trapped in a domestic conflict due to the lack of freedom to express herself. Her physician husband and brother dictated her life to her ‘Personally, I disagree with their ideas…but what can one do?’[2] This leads to her insanity and the belief of a woman being trapped within the rotting yellow wallpaper; a metaphor for her own repression. Franz Xavier Winterhalter’s image of Victoria and her family was an ideal that Gilman and 19th century women generally were expected to accept.

The first problem picture in question is Past and Present by Augustus Leopold Egg. The 3 canvases work together as a series, contrasting dramatically with Winterhalter’s idealised Royal Family portrait telling a story of adultery and corruption of family values. The first image shows the man sitting at the table holding a letter from his wife’s lover, after he has struck her to the ground. Like Prince Albert in Winterhalter’s painting he is the dominant figure, it is his wife however who does not fit the family ideal. The symbolism of the apple halved represents the wife’s fall. One half is on the floor, while the other on the table, pierced by a knife suggests a broken heart. Additionally the apples symbolise of the fall of Eve in the Garden of Eden. The following canvases see the two daughters reintroduced as grown women deeply afflicted, the absence of their parents is symbolised by their photos in shadow. Their father has died, while their mother must look after her illegitimate child and resort to prostitution. This painting embodies the role of women in Victorian society, and their possible fate if they did not conform to misogynistic expectations.

The mother in the series committed adultery; therefore under the moral code of Victorian society disgraced her husband. If her husband however conducted himself in the same manor, according to The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 the wife would have to ‘prove adultery coupled with incest, bigamy, cruelty or alternatively rape’[3] to have the same grounds to a divorce. While problem pictures of poverty and famine were informative to the Victorians, poverty was not an issue that touched everyone. Injustice in marriage and gender repression were problems often encountered during this period, which were however neither acknowledged nor discussed openly for fear of ridicule. These hardships infringed upon Victorian morals, and questioned the same unity shown in Winterhalter’s vision of The Royal Family. The subject of this series was described as ‘too poignant for a series of paintings’ by a critic at the Academy. In each painting of the series, Egg encompasses fundamental issues of the era, despite the controversy that this caused.

Like Gilman, the woman in this painting expressed herself in the same way as a man would, and she was punished and reviled publicly for this. The Victorian audience, who accepted newspaper illustrations and paintings of famine and poverty, were unable to accept this image of moral corruption and domestic conflict. The sexist inequality of the Victorian era made domestic conflicts in most cases, inevitable. Family and gender ideals of social thinker, and art critic John Ruskin reflected upon the social perspective of that time.

‘The man’s power is active, progressive, defensive. He is eminently the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender…. But the woman’s power is for sweet ordering… She must be enduringly, incorruptibly good… not that she may set herself above her husband, but that she many never fail from his side.’[4] – John Ruskin

Egg’s painting contradicted Ruskin’s ideal, in that the woman pursued her own selfish desires later facing the consequences. A critic of the literary magazine the Athenaeum proclaimed ‘there must be a line drawn as to where the horrors that should be painted for public and innocent sight begin, and we think Mr. Egg has put one foot at least beyond this line’[5] It is interesting to imagine Egg’s intent, and that which he aimed to achieve through these paintings. To the Victorian audience, he was depicting a woman in an unacceptable role, his trilogy criticised as ‘unhealthy as he deliberately challenged orthodox assumptions in showing sympathy for the unfortunate woman….’[6] Egg never divulged on these paintings, and even though they were exhibited in The Royal Academy, they were unnamed and unsold until long after his death.

The next problem picture in question was painted by Hubert Von Herkomer, and has not only many parallels but also many differences between Past and Present. Herkomer first achieved prominence in the 1870s with his illustrations for Graphic; it was his painting On Strike however that secured Herkomer’s membership to The Academy. This painting, although showing domestic conflict, was accepted and not criticised like Past and Present painted 33 years previously. This was perhaps not only due to changing attitudes and the problem picture being accepted as a Victorian tradition; but also because the family in Herkomer’s image take their expected roles. If Ruskin’s ideals truly reflected on society, this society would have approved of On Strike.

If we compare Egg’s first canvas with On Strike both men take the dominant role. The women are submissive, and without the men are in helpless situations. In Past and Present the fallen wife can only resort to prostitution to survive, while in On Strike the woman pleading for her husband’s support could easily have been in the same predicament.

In the latter one finds the family taking on their expected roles; the woman is relying on the man to look after her and their children, and in this situation he may not be able to provide for his family. The man is striking against injustice, and although his family may go hungry he still appears heroic; he is fighting for what he believes in. The domestic conflict is more acceptable to a Victorian audience, perhaps because the family presented are still in touch with their family values. It also could attributed to the problem picture and realism generally being more accepted.

The Prodigal Daughter is markedly different from the paintings I have looked at so far due to its gender themes. Like most Edwardian problem pictures, there is more ambiguity of what exactly is transpiring in this painting. By the Edwardian era, the problem picture had been established for over 50 years. The specific term ‘problem picture’, although mostly unknown to people today, was clearly and commonly understood by Edwardian audiences.

‘Edwardian viewers responded enthusiastically debating the possible solutions to the pictures…in letters to the artists and in newspaper competitions’[7]. Rather than illustrations being purely to educate society, paintings were more ambiguous giving the onlooker an opportunity to use their imagination.

As we have already seen in prior paintings, the fallen woman reappears as the subject, but it is unclear if she is returning or leaving. She is the dominant figure, standing proudly and defiantly. Her expression illustrates her confidence to confront her family; she is standing strong by what she believes in. Unlike the woman of Past and Present she is not punished for it. The painting is ‘lacking the inexorable narrative fall from seduction to suicide, typical of earlier representations of the fallen woman’[8]. The moral message of the picture is uncertain; this illustrates the changing intent and concept of the problem picture from the Victorian to the Edwardian era.

In this essay the context in which the problem picture emerged, and its popularity in newspapers, magazines and illustrations, was considered. Problem pictures of poverty were discussed in order to compare how they were received in contrast to problem pictures of domestic conflict. The popularity of the problem picture was complex. Images of poverty were accepted, but Victorians of a different class (readers of the newspapers and poverty documentaries) did not directly experience the material presented to them. Although it was Mayhew’s intention to raise awareness through his documentaries, the readers could detach themselves from these images of poverty. Images of prostitution, corruption, and the deterioration of family values however, were not accepted, as these problem pictures brought into question the moral fibre of the middle and upper classes.

The roles by which women and men were defined during this period are highlighted in Winterhalter’s idealist Royalist portraiture. Although Past and Present was exhibited in the Royal Academy, the public response was unfavourable. This was because the ideals illustrated in the Royal portrait, and equally upheld by Victorian society were shattered. Problem pictures were accepted by Victorians on the basis that their content was not too controversial, or if the challenging themes were favourable to the audience. Although the Victorian audience was able to look at images of social deprivation, it could not accept these images of moral corruption; this was a ‘problem’ society was unwilling to face. On strike showed a family affected, not by corruption but by pride. It showed the ideal family in crisis, as opposed to the corrupted family conveyed in Past and Present. The Prodigal Daughter differed as an example of a problem picture, as rather than dictating morals to the audience; it gave onlookers the opportunity, to crucially, to solve the problem picture themselves.

Through the research of this essay and the analysis of the subject matter, it is clear that that the task of defining the popularity of the problem picture, with a single explanation, would not suffice in explaining such an intricate and complex question. As society evolved and modernised the problem picture as a concept progressed as a parallel. Each contributed to the development of the other.

Following the Edwardian period, the popularity of the problem picture diminished. The legacy of current affairs however, remained an integral part of artistic expression, and was a prominent and defining feature of the Avant-garde.

[1]. Fletcher, Pamela, Narrating Modernity: The British Problem Picture, p2

[2] Perkins Gilman, Charlotte, The Yellow Wallpaper, p10

[4] Twells, Alison, British Women’s History: A Documentary History from the Enlightenment to World War I, p31


[6] Treuherz, Julian, Victorian Painting, p114

[8] Peters, Corbett, Perry, English Art, 1860-1914: Modern Artists and Identity, p85


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