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Painting and politics at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1832 Elliot, Bridget Jane


The Royal Academy exhibition of 1832 opened in London in the midst of a political crisis over the passage of the Great Reform Bill. An analysis of the critical response to four of the leading pictures in the exhibition: A Family Portrait by C.R. Leslie, The Preaching of Knox by David Wilkie, The Destroying Angel by William Etty, and Chiide Harold's Pilgrimage - Italy by J.M.W. Turner, provides evidence that the ongoing political conflict permeated the Academy exhibition. In an atmosphere of increasing tension caused by parliamentary deadlock and street rioting, art critics argued about the pictures' quality and meaning in highly politicized terms. This investigation focuses upon these four pictures and their critical reception, in order to probe the extent to which art and politics were connected at that specific historical moment. Documentary evidence of viewer responses is provided by anonymous reviews of the pictures which were published in ten major London newspapers and journals during the weeks following the opening of the show. The bias of each publication is carefully examined since, during the 1830's, most publications were highly partisan affairs, often receiving direct subsidies from particular interest groups. The analysis of these paintings offers a new perspective on the tensions, alignments, shifts, and ambiguities of British social classes and political parties in 1832. While the reception of Leslie's portrait points out the short-term divisions between Whigs and Tories over the issue of parliamentary reform, that of Wilkie1s history painting demonstrates that despite their differences, these two groups were united by a shared fear of the radical working class. Etty's academic sketch provides an example of how members of the conservative upper class rationalized rejecting the notion of reform, while Turner's landscape reveals how progressive middle-class reformers challenged tradition with a positive assertion of modernity. By examining the response to these pictures, one finds there is no clear separation between political and artistic spheres.

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