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This summer, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza is presenting Alma-Tadema and Victorian Painting in the Pérez Simón Collection, an exhibition that will include paintings by some of the leading names in 19th-century English painting. The works of Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Frederic Leighton, Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Albert. J. Moore and John William Waterhouse express the values that these painters had partly inherited from the Pre-Raphaelites, presenting a strong contrast with the predominantly moralising attitude of the day. Instead, they focused on classical antiquity, the cult of female beauty and a quest for visual harmony, all located in sumptuous settings and with a frequent use of medieval, Greek and Roman themes. Commissioned by Véronique Gerard-Powell, honorary professor at the Université Paris-Sorbonne, the exhibition comprises fifty works from the private Pérez Simón Collection, one of the most important holdings of Victorian painting in the world. This exhibition has been shown in Paris and Rome before reaching Madrid, after which it will travel to London. The display of the works is organised into six thematic sections: The Eclecticism of an Era; Ideal Beauty, Classical Beauty; Alma-Tadema: Between Historical Reconstruction and Fantasy; The Face, Mirror of Beauty; From the Pre-Raphaelites to Symbolism; and Between Tradition and Modernity. 

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Over the  past thirty  years Juan  Antonio  Pérez  Simón  has revealed  a  particular  interest  in  British painting created during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837‐1901) and her son Edward VII (1901‐1910), a period  in  art  that  despite  its  popularity  at  the  time  has  been  largely  ignored  by  museums  and collectors for almost a century. However, this period forms one of the principal focus points of Juan Antonio Pérez Simón’s wide‐ranging collection and includes works of the importance of Greek Girls picking up Pebbles on the Beach by Leighton, The Quartet. A Painter’s Tribute to the Art of Music by Moore, Andromeda by Poynter, The Crystal Ball by Waterhouse and The Roses of Heliogabalus by Alma‐Tadema. The latter is extensively represented in both the collection and in this exhibition, which includes thirteen works by the artist.  

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The  exhibition spans  a  chronological  period  that  begins  in  1860  with  the  break‐up  of  the  Pre‐Raphaelite Brotherhood and concludes fifty years later with the outbreak of World War I, which would radically modify British taste. The display of the works in the exhibition is organised into six thematic sections: The Eclecticism of an Era; Ideal Beauty, Classical Beauty; Alma‐Tadema: Between Historical Reconstruction and Fantasy; The Face, Mirror of Beauty; From the Pre‐Raphaelites to Symbolism; and Between Tradition and Modernity. 

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By the 1860s the Pre‐Raphaelite movement had declined while a wide‐ranging cultural and  artistic trend  known  as the Aesthetic Movement  emerged  in  Britain.  Painters turned  their  gaze  to  the  masters  of  the painters,  gaining  inspiration  from  Greco‐Roman  classical  culture  and the medieval Arthurian legends that had been rethought and  updated  in  contemporary  poetry.  All these artists shared a celebration of female beauty,  depicting  it  according  to  classical canons. 

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Women became the preeminent figures in these paintings. Depicted as contemplative, amorous, day‐dreaming, bountiful, lascivious or wicked, they are transformed into heroines of antiquity or the Middle Ages. This cult of the woman moved towards the dreamlike nature and magic of the Symbolist movement that was currently emerging in Europe. Natural settings or grandiose palaces became the backdrops for scenes that largely evoke imaginary settings and in which the female body is presented as evoking sensual pleasure, desire and mystery. 

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The Royal Academy, new galleries, dealers and collectors 

The selection  of  works  in  the  exhibition  will  allow  visitors  to discover how 19th‐century British art followed a different model to that of the rest of Europe. At this period London was a leading cultural capital in which the increasing activity of collectors and dealers encouraged the growth of the art market. An authentic renaissance  took  place  between 1860  and  1880  when  artists began to reflect on their own practice.  

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The Royal Academy  in  London  enjoyed  a high point during the period  covered by this exhibition, directed by  Frederic Leighton (1878‐1896), then  briefly  by John  Everett  Millais  and finally  by Edward John Poynter (1896‐1917). It held two exhibitions a year, a summer  and  a winter one.  For the former,  a  committee  chose from works presented by artists who had the opportunity to show their  most  recent  creations  and  to  promote  themselves professionally.  The  winter exhibition  consisted  of  works  lent directly by their owners.  

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In  contrast  to  the  hegemony  of  the  Royal  Academy  and  its selection process, which was based on extremely conservative criteria, there were various attempts to broaden the  panorama  of  exhibitions  led  by the more individualistic  artists such  as Whistler  and Burne‐Jones. Unhappy with the Academy’s stance in relation to the new pictorial trends, these new exhibition spaces opening up in London provided them with venues to exhibit their works. This was the case with the Grosvenor Gallery and its successor the New Gallery, where artists including Burne‐Jones, Strudwick, Poynter and Leighton exhibited. 

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In  addition,  there  were  also  painters  who presented their works both to the Academy and to  the  new  galleries, including  Alma‐Tadema, Millais and Moore, made possible by the fact that Leighton facilitated the participation of followers of  pure  Aestheticism  in  the  Academy’s exhibitions. 

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The  second  half  of  the  19th  century  was  also marked by the arrival of dealers in London who then  opened  branches  of  their  galleries  in Liverpool,  Manchester,  Birmingham  and  other provincial  cities.  These  galleries  acted  as intermediaries  between  London  vendors  and clients in the north of England. 

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While the  art market  was  largely  based  in  London, many  of the  works  now  in the  Pérez  Simón Collection were owned by entrepreneurs and businessmen in Britain’s new industrial and commercial centres, who bought or commissioned works directly from artists. In addition, the artists themselves gave  or sold their  works to  each  other  or to their  friends  and  patrons  without the  presence  of intermediaries. 

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