William Powell Frith painted the social scene of the Victorian era in a telling light. With paintings featuring popular pastimes, settings and people of the period, he’s now dubbed the ‘Dad’ of British social scene painting.
Ok, fine; we’re the only ones who call him that.
“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”
― Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island
Born in 1819, Frith experienced firsthand the many charms and… other aspects of the Victorian era, a period as long-lived as the great Queen it was named after.
His work in the arts reflected his own complex understanding of the period’s pride and perils. Interwoven masterfully into his depictions are clear jabs at the struggles of 19th century British in a rapidly-changing, widely-contrasting societal situation.
“Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.”
― Leonardo da Vinci
Frith often highlighted the contrast between wealth and poverty in his work. However, he was also prone to depicting persons through the lens of physiognomy – telling their type by face and clothing – and he worked such a perspective into marvelous social panorama paintings.
In “the Derby Day,” as an example, nearly 100 social types were represented, all as easily deduced by their dress and expressions as by their depicted actions within the scene.
In “A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881,” Frith accomplishes a similar feat, albeit with genuine popular figures in society at the time. You might notice a few familiar faces (HINT: Oscar Wilde’s on the right).
Frith’s incredible paintings involved years of dedicated work and substantial study to complete. Well worth the effort, the results speak volumes on a memorable period in history not quite so long gone.