Victorian Literature Visual Culture
Sophia Andres
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0084


Encompassing such diverse disciplines and fields as fine and applied arts, art, literature, science, photography, theater, and early cinema, Victorian visual culture is far ranging, complex, and multifaceted. The invention of illustrated press and photography disseminated information about the arts and sciences, England, and the colonies. Scholars such as Kate Flint (see Flint 2000, cited under General Overviews) explore the problematics of external and internal vision and their impact on representations and interpretations. A study of visual culture must take into consideration key Victorian figures who addressed the subject in several of their works as well as modern critics on Victorian artists, movements, and genres; representations of race and orientalism; modern visual technologies; visual perception; and psychology. General overviews of the subject include historical accounts of the Great Exhibition and the establishment of national galleries, while others deal with broad surveys of the visual arts and their impact on various aspects of Victorian culture. Theoretical perspectives on the subject vary from multidisciplinary approaches to poetry, science, art, architecture, politics, and history to discussions of the coalescence of the verbal and the visual in the novel and in poetry, as well as the significance of the relationship between text and illustrations. Covering the rise of literary painting, some works examine the market dynamics, periodical criticism, and poetic influences on Victorian art, while others examine the reciprocal forces that impacted literature and art or the interdisciplinary connections between images and words in illustration. Quite a few works are devoted to women artists, their works, their training, and the conditions they had to overcome to be accepted by mainstream culture. Yet other studies, devoted to landscape painting, explain the Victorian nature aesthetic or the problematic relationship between English landscape painting and socioeconomic changes during the Industrial Revolution. Visual culture and science is the topic of several recent studies ranging from the role of illustrations in the works of Charles Darwin to his relationship with artists and photographers as well as Darwin’s influence on literature, art, and culture. Attributing the origins of the cinema and the theater to the Victorian obsession with the visual, scholars also discuss the social concerns that these forms of visual culture represent.

General Overviews

General overviews of Victorian visual culture usually split into two camps: one, headed by the notable art historian Christopher Wood (see Wood 1999), traces the development of visual culture through the period and compares Victorian paintings and illustrations to other art movements across time and cultures. Spear 2002 is a useful contribution to this area of scholarship, as is Corbett and Perry 2001. Brosch and Pohl 2008, on the other hand, moves beyond painting to photography and emerging film technologies. The other grouping, notably influenced by Flint 2000, is more concerned with applying postmodern theoretical perspectives to Victorian visual culture. Flint 2000 is essential reading toward understanding how the Victorians understood sight and the imagination. Altholz 1976 is an early attempt at this kind of interdisciplinary approach. The Victorian Web is an excellent online resource and gives broad overviews of a variety of Victorian visual arts.

  • Altholz, Josef L., ed. The Mind and Art of Victorian England. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976.

    This collection of essays focuses on how the Victorian model of art, aesthetics, literature, and politics set the stage for British culture and had an influence that lasted beyond the turn of the 20th century. Poetry, science, art, architecture, politics, and history are examined with a multidisciplinary approach.

  • Brosch, Renate, and Rebecca Pohl, eds. Victorian Visual Culture. Heidelberg, Germany: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2008.

    Taking a broad survey of visual culture in the 19th century, this collection looks beyond painting to photography, theater, and emerging film technologies. The essays also attempt to explain how new methods of production revolutionized the way Victorians perceived the world and impacted political and ideological contexts.

  • Corbett, David Peters, and Lara Perry, eds. English Art, 1860–1914: Modern Artists and Identity. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

    Writers in this collection of essays argue that Victorian art can be defined as modern by its break with traditional subject matter and artistic practice and by its influence on French impressionism.

  • Flint, Kate. The Victorians and the Visual Imagination. Cambridge, UK: University of Cambridge Press, 2000.

    Flint uses Foucault’s reference to the Benthamite Panopticon to argue that Victorians made something visible not just to understand it but to control it. Contrasts the narrativizing impulse in mid-century painting with the Paterian divorce of visual art and the “poetical gift.”

  • Paxman, Jeremy. The Victorians: Britain through the Paintings of the Age. London: BBC Books, 2009.

    Paxman published this look at the Victorian age to coincide with the BBC series of the same title, which he also presented. By exploring various paintings and art movements of the Victorian period, Paxman is also able to analyze themes of family, industry, British colonialism, and urbanization.

  • Spear, Jeffrey. “The Other Arts: Victorian Visual Culture.” In A Companion to the Victorian Novel. Edited by Patrick Brantlinger and William B. Thesing, 189–206. Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002.

    In the comprehensive Blackwell Companion, Spear takes a broad look at how visual culture evolved over the 19th century. Topics are as diverse as the establishment of a national art gallery, Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic revolutions, and the impact of technological innovations in photography and the Great Exhibition.

  • Victorian Web.

    One of the best online resources on Victorian visual culture. Includes essays, book excerpts, illustrations, paintings, biographies, and bibliographies on subjects varying from painting and periodical engravings to architecture, fashion, and photography.

  • Wood, Christopher. Victorian Painting. London: Bulfinch, 1999.

    More sweeping than his The Pre-Raphaelites (New York: Crescent, 1994), Wood’s ambitious book devotes time to nearly every significant (and not-so-significant) Victorian painter and movement. Early chapters about major movements and painters cover familiar ground for seasoned scholars. Later chapters are more topical and interesting, devoted to such topics as medievalism and domesticity.

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