FRAME|WORK: Love and the Maiden by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope

This week’s FRAME|WORK, featuring John Roddam Spencer Stanhope’s luscious Love and the Maiden, will serve as the first in a series of posts examining a variety of themes present throughout the special exhibition The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860–1900 (opening this Saturday, February 18). Stanhope’s allegorical painting will provide the backdrop for the discussion of topics ranging from artistic technique to the Aesthetic Movement’s color palette to the role of frames in the perception of an artwork.

Love and the Maiden

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (English, 1829–1908). Love and the Maiden, 1877. Tempera, gold paint and gold leaf on canvas. Museum purchase, European Art Trust Fund, Grover A. Magnin Bequest Fund and Dorothy Spreckels Munn Bequest Fund. 2002.176

Acknowledged to be Stanhope’s great masterpiece, Love and the Maiden represents the longings and aspirations of an artistic generation seeking relief from the grim realities of urban life created by the onslaught of the Industrial Revolution. The painting, which debuted in the opening exhibition of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, demonstrates the hallmarks of the Victorian style and utilizes artistic tropes found in antiquity and the Italian Renaissance (most notably referencing Botticelli’s Primavera). This intentionally anachronistic approach is in keeping with the Aesthetic Movement’s goal of relinquishing painting from its descriptive bonds in favor of art for art’s sake.

The painting clearly draws upon the myth of Cupid and Psyche in which the latter awakes from a comatose state after retrieving a casket from the underworld and opening it in direct disobedience to divine decree. In Stanhope’s composition, however, the artist has notably left out any allusion to the casket, and in so doing renders the subject generic. By stripping the painting of these narrative references and generalizing the title, Stanhope hoped to engender a synthesized experience that appealed to all the senses, rather than intellect alone. In this way, Love and the Maiden exemplifies the Aesthetic philosophy that beauty itself is a moral force, and its contemplation a catalyst to improve people and society at large.

A jewel of the Museums’ permanent collection, Stanhope’s Love and the Maiden will be featured in The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860–1900 from February 18 to June 17, 2012.

On Saturday, February 18 at the Legion of Honor, enjoy Art for Art’s Sake, a series of public programs celebrating the exhibition’s opening!

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Further reading: The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860–1900