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: Eliezer of Damascus by William Dyce


Allen Staley



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The name of William Dyce is hardly a household word for the American public; indeed, the painting of Eliezer of Damascus,1 recently acquired by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, is the first painting by this artist to enter the collection of an American museum. Nonetheless, Dyce's vast significance in the development of 19th-century art in Great Britain is becoming increasingly recognized by students of the period, and his best known picture, the hauntingly beautiful Pegwell Bay in the Tate Gallery in London, appears in most every book on 19th-century British art as a landmark of mid-Victorian painting.Dyce was born in Aberdeen, in Scotland, in 1806. He attended and graduated from Marichal College in his native city. Among Victorian artists he was one of the very few to have had a thorough education, and throughout his career the depth and breadth of his learning remained a conspicuous feature. In 1829 he won a prize for an essay on electricity and magnetism (it is perhaps worth noting that he was a relative by marriage of James Clerk Maxwell, the distinguished Victorian physicist); he was an important figure in the High Church movement; and he published numerous essays and tracts on theological subjects and on the revival of early church music. He visited Italy four times during his life and probably had a more thorough knowledge of Italian art of the 14th and 15th centuries than any other English artist. On his first trip to Italy in 1825, he seems mainly to have been interested in artists such as Titian and Poussin, and the most important picture painted after his return, Bacchus Nursed by the Nymphs of Nysa (now lost, but known through various sketches), reflects their influence. However, on his second trip, in 1827, he fell in with a community of German artists, the Nazarenes, who had been essaying in their art a revival of both the style and subjects of early Renaissance painting. It is said that a Madonna painted by Dyce so impressed the Germans that they took up a subscription to buy the picture, thus allowing Dyce to remain in Rome when poverty was about to force his return to Scotland. When Dyce did return home, he found no market for this kind of painting, and, like so many British artists, he had to support himself by painting portraits. These are quite accomplished, but in a conventional style based on Raeburn and Lawrence, and, for an artist who had so recently been in the midst of the international avant-garde in Rome, this employment must have seemed like a dreary comedown.In 1837 Dyce's fortunes began to change. He was appointed Master of the Trustees Academy in Edinburgh, the chief art school in Scotland, and in the same year he travelled abroad on behalf of the newly formed Schools of Design in London to study methods of education in France and Germany. In 1838 he became Superintendent of the Schools of Design, where he played a prime role in pioneering a curriculum that has been of importance for all subsequent art schools in Britain and America.Dyce's tenure at the Schools of Design, in a sea of artists, educators, and civil servants, was stormy, and he was forced out of his position in 1843, but by then the project of decorating the newly built Houses of Parliament was under way. As the building designed by Sir James Barry, to replace the one destroyed by the great fire of 1834, began to rise, it was decided that it should be decorated with monumental frescoes. This was an undertaking without precedent in England, and one for which most English artists were singularly unequipped. However, for Dyce, who was familiar both with early Italian fresco-painting and its revival in the hands of the German Nazarenes, it came as an opportunity singularly appropriate to his background and abilities. Indeed, when the English commissioners solicited Peter Cornelius, the most respected German artist of the day, he is supposed to have replied: “What need have you of Cornelius to come over and paint your walls when you have got Mr. Dyce?” Dyce was one of the witnessed in the Parliamentary hearings that established the project; in 1845 he received his first commission for a fresco in the House of Lords; in the following winter he was sent to Italy to study fresco techniques; and in 1847 he received the much larger commission of painting a cycle of frescoes based on the Arthurian legends in the Queen's Robing Room in the new building. This project occupied him for the rest of his life and was left uncompleted at his death in 1864.During the 1840s Dyce's star was in the ascendant. He was elected an Associate of Royal Academy in 1844 and a full member four years later. He was clearly the favorite artist of Prince Albert, who was chairman of the commission responsible for the Parliament frescoes, and from the Prince he received commissions for a fresco in a garden pavilion in the grounds of Buckingham Palace (now destroyed), for a large fresco, Neptune Resigning to Britannia the Empire of the Sea, at Osborne House in the Isle of Wight, and for pictures of the Madonna and Child and of St. Joseph, now also at Osborne House. And by the end of the decade Dyce also had had thrust upon his shoulders the role of father, or grandfather, of an acknowledged revolution, that of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The Italianate and Germanic elements in Dyce's style were of obvious importance for the young Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti when they formed their group in 1848. In Hunt's memoirs Dyce is singled out as one of the few older artists for whom they felt strong sympathy, and, in turn, he was one of the very few to give them active encouragement; in fact, it was Dyce who first made Ruskin, later the movement's most vocal defender, look seriously at a Pre-Raphaelite picture. However, the interests of Hunt, Millais, and their associates during the 1850s soon became centered on the minutely realistic description of the natural world. This orientation was fostered by Ruskin, who in 1855 attacked Dyce as a representative of a false branch of Pre-Raphaelitism which imitated early paintings rather than studying nature. Perhaps provoked by this criticism, Dyce did, in the last few years of his life, follow the lead of the younger artists in his scrupulous attention to natural detail, and his best-known works are the microscopically precise landscapes, such as Pegwell Bay, which he painted after 1855 during his holidays, while his main energies were still concentrated on the frescoes for the Houses of Parliament.The painting of Eliezer of Damascus, signed with a monogram and dated 1860, is one of these late works. As Dyce's health began to fail badly around 1860, Eliezer of Damascus seems, in fact, to be one of his last paintings. The chronology of Dyce's easel paintings, however, is not absolutely clear; no other of his late works bears dates, and, therefore, we have had to rely primarily on the evidence of when pictures were exhibited at the Royal Academy for dating them. The last pictures so exhibited were George Herbert at Bemerton, now in the Guildhall Art Gallery, London, and a picture simply listed as Portrait, which Dyce sent to the Academy in the spring of 1861. Eliezer of Damascus apparently was not exhibited, and like many of these late works it found a purchaser within the family of Dyce's father-in-law, James Brand. Although the picture was thus probably seen only by the members of Dyce's family and their friends, it was listed by Lionel Cust in his article on Dyce in the Dictionary of National Biography as one of his notable easel pictures.We know that Dyce visited Wales for six weeks in 1860, and the painting probably dates from this trip. The rocky landscape in the background is similar to that shown in a Welsh Landscape in the collection of Sir David Scott. The anachronism of placing a Biblical figure in what is obviously Britain does not seem to have disturbed Dyce at all, and there exist several other pictures by him showing Biblical figures wandering in the Scottish Highlands. Following the Pre-Raphaelite lead, he apparently chose to paint with absolute precision and he had actually seen rather than to construct an imaginary Biblical landscape.Eliezer of Damascus, who is mentioned in Genesis as Abraham's Syrian steward, is one of the less prominent characters in the Bible, and why Dyce chose to paint a picture of him is not clear. The obscure subject reflects Dyce's Biblical scholarship, but it seems likely that Dyce set out to paint a picture of Abraham's steward than that he started to paint a picture of a man in Eastern garb and then hit upon Eliezer as an appropriate subject. The picture does reflect a widespread interest among Victorian artists in Biblical subjects reconstructed with as much precision and accuracy as the artist could command. This figure of Eliezer is comparable to several of the Jewish elders in Holman Hunt's Finding of Christ in the Temple, upon which that artist had worked from 1854 to 1860, and which was then exhibited with great success in a special exhibition in Bond Street in London during the spring of 1860. This interest reflects not only the piety of the Victorians, but also their love of historical reconstruction, and a lingering romantic fascination with the exotic East, from which the Victorians managed to exclude those sensuous delights that fill the canvases of Delacroix. However, if Dyce, like Ingres, could not help being touched by many of the romantic currently of his century, his art, like that of Ingres, is always dominated by discipline, clarity, and sobriety. Dyce's paintings are among the quietest of 19th-century England, but as seen in a picture such as Eliezer of Damascus they possess a disciplined strength which makes them among the most distinctive examples of the high quality achieved in much of the painting of the often maligned Victorian era.For further reading see:T. S. R. Boase, “The Cecoration of the New Palace of Westminster, 1841-1863,” Journal of the Warbug and Courtauld Institutes, XVII (1954), 319-358.Quentin Bell, The Schools of Design (London, 1963).Allen Staley, “William Dyce and Outdoor Naturalism,” The Burlington Magazine, CV (1963), 470-476.Keith Andrews, The Nazarenes: A Brotherhood of German painters in Rome (Oxford, 1964).Centenary Exhibition of the Work of William Dyce, R. A. (1806-1864), Aberdeen Art Gallery and Thos Agnew & Sons, London (1964). (Exhibition catalogue compiled with introduction by Charles Carter.)Allen Staley, one of whose scholarly interests is English painting of the first half of the 19th century, is assistant curator of paintings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.Endnotes
  1. 67.51. The Putnam Dana McMillan Fund. Oil on canvas, 24” x 20”.
Referenced Work of Art
  1. William Dyce. English (1806-1864). Eliezer of Damascus, 1860. Oil on canvas, 24” x 20”. The Putnam Dana McMillan Fund, 67.51.
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Source: Allen Staley, "Eliezer of Damascus by William Dyce," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 56 (1967): 16-21.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009