Book Review - Olympian Dreamers

by Erin on February 26, 2012

Recently, I decided to reread a book I had originally studied long ago. Don’t worry, the topic is indeed related to both art and mythology. Okay, I will stop teasing you now and tell you more about this book, which is called, compellingly, Olympian Dreamers. The subtitle is “Victorian Classical Painters 1860-1914″.

Let’s begin the review with some basics about the book. Olympian Dreamers was written by Christopher Wood. There is a concise biography of the author on the back flap. Along with a charming photo of the author, there is the following information : “Christopher Wood is England’s leading authority on Victorian painting, and the author of the standard work on the subject, A Dictionary of Victorian Painters, published in 1971.” Good to know.

As the subtitle indicates, the subject of Olympian Dreamers is Victorian Classicism in painting. Christopher Wood explains the significance of the classical world to Nineteenth century artists in the following statement :

“For Leighton, as for most Victorians, Greece and Rome were the revered ancestors of all European art and civilisation, but they were an inspiration, rather than something to be slavishly copied.” (p. 45)

This topic is explored through the works of select Nineteenth century artists, specially an elite group composed of the following painters : Lord Leighton, G.F. Watts, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Sir Edward John Poynter, Albert Moore, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, and John William Waterhouse. There are some other painters discussed in the book, although they are mostly minor artists who didn’t have an enormous impact on the history of art.

There are a fair amount of interesting biographical details from first hand accounts. These behind the scenes type comments help to make the artists as vibrant and real as their paintings.

It is also worth noting that there are a considerable number of references to to real people from the mid to late Nineteenth century, and many of them are artists as well. It’s kind of like art historical name dropping in a way. So in order to understand the context, it helps if you are at least somewhat familiar with some of the famous artists of the Victorian era. Names such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and James Abbott McNeill Whistler are scattered throughout the book.

Olympian Dreamers is mainly illustrated with black and white images of the various paintings described. There are a few color plates, notably of Leighton’s Flaming June and The Garden of the Hesperides. However, overall, the text is far more informative and impressive than the pictures.

Finally, the book features a concise Select Bibliography. Some of the references may be a bit hard to locate in the average library.

One of the most appealing qualities of Olympian Dreamers is author Christopher Wood’s writing style. He is lucid, which comes as a breath of fresh air after reading the work of so many art historians who drench their books in what can be best described as purple prose.

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