“I see a lily on thy brow" - the English Victorian academic painter Sir Frank Dicksee

27 November 1853, the English Victorian academic painter Sir Frank Dicksee was born in London.

“I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.” (John Keats, “La Belle Dame sans Merci“)

Frank Dicksee’s interpretation of Keat’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci” from 1901, originally a signature tune for the image of the femme fatale Dicksee’s contemporaries so cherished during the fin de siècle.  

Sensuous salon sujets, thinly veiled under a historical or mythological pretence, enhancing Aristotle’s ideal of mimesis, imitation and representation of reality with strong Freudian undertones for the benefit of the paying public, was, more often than not, at the core of the much maligned academic art style. There were far easier ways of making money by playing on the Victorian and their Continental brethren’s suppressed sensitivities than becoming an academy-trained artist, though, painting goddesses in the altogether or half-clad damsels in distress. Education in an academy of art like Paris’ Académie des Beaux-Arts, the Royal Academy in London or the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg, was costly, time-consuming and comprehensively thorough. And, first and foremost, graduates tended to be highly skilled individuals, even if they saw the merit of a work of art in Aristotelian composition and meticulous execution rather than the capture of new-fangled perceptions and expressions. L'art pompier was not only a contradiction between artistic naturalistic means and techniques and a petty, inhibited mind, in short” kitsch”, but a Romantic reconstruction of a past and how it should have been according to the mindscape of the second half of the 19th century.

Frank Dicksee: "The Mirror" (1896)

In regards to the general outlook on art, Frank Dicksee was born twenty years too late. Like his teachers, Leighton and Alma-Tadema, Dicksee conjured images from legendary history, mythology, literature and religion, clothed the truth in lovelier garments and walked on a thin line between sublime artistic composition and expressive power and kitschy mawkishness by depicting topics the Romantics and Pre-Raphaelites had already handled with far more artistic aims and inspiration a generation or two before him. Dicksee looked over the fence towards his Symbolist artistic neighbours like his contemporary Waterhouse did, found them quite as unsuitable in their choice of unfathomably indecent motifs as well and remained the ultimate Victorian and his portrayals of legendary womenfolk all emit the rather subtle erotic of a high-necked dress, even more than Waterhouse’s. And the ultimate Victorian Dicksee would remain until his death in 1928, throughout all the years that saw the visual arts completely pass by the admittedly rather straightforward merits of l'art pompier.

Frank Dicksee: "The Two Crowns" (1900)

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