We usually hit the history books for clues to what happened in the past, but now we hit the art museum, for some eyewitness accounts.
When Queen Victoria came to the English throne in 1837, much of her kingdom was impoverished...sickness and disease rampant, children condemned to the coal mines or sweatshops.
By the time Victoria died 64 years later, bringing the era named for her to a close, her country was a vastly different place.
Charles Shepard, with the Fort Wayne Museum of Art says, “You see an idealism, a romanticism, a sense of noble beauty and an inner sense of spirituality in the person.”
Victorian Visions, the current exhibit of drawings and watercolors at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, is a magnificent sampling of the Victorian era as seen through the eyes of that age's greatest artists.
The industrial revolution was the defining Victorian event, and the explosion in productivity it produced sparked a similar explosion of creativity in literature and the arts.
Religion provided much of the inspiration, and many of the rare drawings in this exhibit are studies for larger projects...stained glass windows or other religious artworks.
Many Victorian artists were suspicious of strides modern industry was taking.
They turned to the land for comfort, reminding those fleeing to jobs in booming cities of the bucolic landscapes they were leaving behind.
Ancient ruins were popular Victorian subjects, the lesson here being nature is supreme...the creations of man temporary.
But not all Victorian artists were soured by social change.
During her 64-year reign, Queen Victoria insisted on improving the lives of her subjects and sharing the wealth created by the industrial revolution.
Young faces once smudged by coal soot now wore expressions of hope.
Shepard says, “The labor laws have made the working conditions better. Children are not working in mines and factories, they're in schools...so the first of the Industrial Revolution has actually come back to help us.”
But in the Victorian, as at other times, it is nature that inspires the loveliest images...from the humblest apple blossom to the solitary rose, overlooking nature’s other triumph, the final resting place of man.
Victorian Visions is on loan from the National Museums and Galleries of Wales.
It will soon head home…back across the ocean, back to the people whose stories inspired it.
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