On the Brink by Alfred Elmore

On the Brink by Alfred Elmore (1865)

Today I am featuring a work of narrative art.  Narrative art is one that tells a story and has been very popular in Western art.  It often depicts stories from the Bible, mythological tales and legends and were often pictorial recordings of great moments in history.  In the seventeenth century we began to see such narrative works in the paintings of subjects from everyday life, which were known as genre paintings.  They originated in the main in Holland with scenes of peasant life and drinking scenes in taverns.  In England in the sixteenth century the artist William Hogarth invented the Modern Moral Subject paintings which brilliantly brought to our attention and lampooned the manners and morals in his day.  I featured a set of these paintings in My Daily Art Display (May 4th to May 9th 2011).  Before I talk about today’s painting, I will briefly tell you a little about the life of Alfred Elmore.  In the meantime, I want you to look at the painting and see if you can surmise what is going on and why the artist chose the title of On the Brink.

Today featured work is a Victorian narrative painting by English painter of Irish birth, Alfred Elmore.  Elmore was a Victorian history and genre painter, who was born in Cork in Southern Ireland.  His father, John Richard Elmore was a retired surgeon from the British Army.   His family moved to London and Alfred attended the Royal Academy Schools in 1832.  Whilst at the Academy he briefly associated with a group of fellow art students who had just formed a sketching society which they called The Clique.  It was described as the first group of British artists to combine for greater strength and to announce that the great backward-looking tradition of the Academy was not relevant to the requirements of contemporary art.

In the late 1830’s Elmore studied at French atelier and then from 1840 to 1844 travelled extensively through Europe visiting Munich Venice, Bologna, and Florence and spent two years in Rome.  In 1844 he exhibited his work entitled Rienzi in the Forum at the Royal Academy and this led to him becoming an Associate of the Royal Academy (ARA) the following year.  He became a Royal Academician in 1857.  Elmore painted a number of literary subjects, especially depicting scenes from the plays of Shakespeare but many of his later works were historical narrative works, some of which were wholly anti-Catholic in spirit.  Elmore’s reputation was at its height in the 1850’s but he suffered a lapse into comparative obscurity during the latter portion of his life.  He died of cancer in 1881, aged sixty-five.

And so I return to today’s painting entitled On the Brink which Alfred Elmore painted in 1865 and was probably his best known work.  It is termed a moral genre painting which may give you a clue to what is happening in the painted scene.  What do you make of the title of the painting?  Have you any idea why Elmore would give the work such a name?  I suppose to discover the answers to these questions one has to first identify what we are looking at.  We are standing outside a house and looking through an open window into a room which is the venue for some sort of gaming.  A man leans out of the window and is talking to an unhappy-looking woman who is seated outside.  That is the scene and the man and the woman are the main characters.

This painting, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1865, clearly embellishes the concerns Victorian people had about gambling, especially when it involved young women. The artist has created a striking sense of depth within the painting. There is a great contrast in the colours used for the interior and the exterior.   In the foreground we have the outside tranquillity and paleness of the moonlight which contrasts with the dazzling red and gold gaudiness of the hustle and bustle going on inside the room.   Look at the garish colours of the gaming room.  The red wallpaper is lit by a chandelier and candles, which are reflected in gilt mirrors around the walls. A throng of people lean over a gaming table, totally absorbed in the action, which contrasts with the sorrowful state of the woman in the foreground. If we look to the left background we can see a curtained-archway which leads to another well-lit gaming room full of people.  We are almost certain we know the setting for this painting for there is a one word inscription, Homburg, on the reverse of the canvas.  In 1842, the German town of Bad Homburg had a casino and spa and had attracted a wealthy and cosmopolitan clientele to its gaming tables, of which many were British.

The woman with a decision to make.

The young woman, we see before us, sits unhappily outside in the darkness of the evening. Her figure is illuminated by the white light coming from the moon. We can only see one side of her face which is deathly white whilst the other side is hidden in the darkness of the night.  Her clothes are of a rich quality and the height of fashion.  Our first clue as to what the painting is all about is the empty purse which dangles from her right hand and a torn gaming card which lies discarded at her feet. From these clues we now know why she is in such a state – she has lost all her money at the gaming tables which we can see through the open window behind her.

The seducer

Still we haven’t reconciled the title of the painting but if we look at the shadowy figure of a man leaning out of the window talking to her all will be resolved.  His figure, apart from his hands, is neither illuminated by the light from the room nor the moonlight.  The way the young man is depicted, almost devil-like, adds a certain air of foreboding and menace and we feel that he is not a good companion for this lady.  It is interesting to see how the artist compares this mismatch with the couple in the middle ground.  They are standing in the room directly behind the shadowy figure and face each other in a loving stance.

The title of the painting can be understood a little better if we look at the flowers which are next to the woman.  There are two types of flower.  One is a white lily which symbolises purity whilst the other is the purple passion flower.  In the Punch magazine in the May of the year the painting was exhibited, an anonymous poet had written, about the scene and what we were looking at:

E’s [for] Mr. Elmore. She’s tempted to sin;
She’s fair. Will the lily or the passion flower win?

According to the poet’s understanding of the painting, it was all about the choice faced by the unfortunate young female who had just gambled away all her money and was now being propositioned by an unseemly man.   The question she is on the brink of answering is, should she retain her virtue and face the consequences of her new found poverty, or does she earn the money she needs to repay her debts by submitting to the proposition of the young man who is offering money for her body.  As we look at her she is “on the brink” of making her decision.  So we now know that the title of the painting derives from the situation in which a young woman s ‘on the brink’ of responding to the blandishments of a seducer, who is depicted as a Satan-like figure, luridly bathed in red light, and whispering corrupting thoughts in her ear.

There were a number of Victorian paintings which depicted “fallen women” and I will look at another in a few days time.  This one by Elmore, which he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1865, was to greatly enhance his reputation as a Victorian artist.

The painting is presently housed in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.