Frank Dicksee was an intriguing British artist who combined carefully crafted technical skills, developed over a number of years at the Royal Academy, with a desire to draw inspiration from his own imagination.
The artist would fall in and out of favour during his career, due to the changing artistic environment around him, rather than any new directions that he followed himself. His style could be seen as both charming and out-dated, depending on the tastes of those viewing his work.
The modern era is much more welcoming to different artistic approaches and we can now enjoy his oeuvre from a more open-minded perspective, where he can be placed in context within the overall development of European art over the past few centuries.
Faithful to traditions
Rather than pander to these changing tastes, Dicksee would actually preach about the merits of his work and the traditional approaches of some members of the Royal Academy and positively display animosity to the newer, more modern styles coming through. This was a position that could only be held onto for a period of time before the seas of change would wash over him.
In order to summarise the content of the artist's work, you would be best to separate it into two categories, namely history paintings and his more standard portraits. The unusual aspect to Dicksee's work with history paintings is that many of them were actually based on his own imagination (see Two Crowns as an example), rather than pulled directly from real historic events.
This was not seen in many related artists, such as the Pre-Raphaelites, who would draw on specific tales from mythology or more recent British literature. This ensured that Dicksee's content was original and that he was not constrained by following the details laid out in the earlier texts.
That said, he would certainly take inspiration from them in terms of settings, fashion and the overall themes of his work during that period. He would also bear some similarities with others in the way that he put together these elements in his paintings, though more of a mix of different influences rather than a single specific artist.
One could argue that Dicksee was a realist artist who drew inspiration for content from the Pre-Raphaelites, just as Ford Madox Brown had done the same within his own approach which aimed to provide a message on society, along the lines of William Hogarth's earlier engravings.
The use of pale-skinned, slim young women to model in alluring poses was very much in line with the Pre-Raphaelite movement, whilst some of the classical backgrounds to these scenes would more remind us of artists such as Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Edward Poynter. Realist artists such as Dicksee were soon derided by academics as being too formulaic and old fashioned but their careers have, ultimately, stood the test of time.
There is still a place for classic portraiture too, after an onslaught of momentum which fell behind the Impressionist movement initially, followed by the abstract and expressionist styles that emerged from Germany and the United States. We can now enjoy all of these different approaches and understand how each would lead onto the next, with room allowed for an enjoyment and respect of each of their respective strengths.
During his own lifetime, the artist reached his peak of academic popularity during his earlier years, when the transition away from realism had not yet fully begun. He received a number of prestigious awards both in the UK and also in France. At this point his career was in a particularly healthy state and one might have imagined his reputation to have remained as strong as the key members of the Pre-Raphaelites and Aesthetic movements, but sadly over time he has become more of a fringe figure in British art.
Research into his life and career
That said, he still remains revered by many and a number of large-scale research projects have been completed in his life and career. Indeed, the Art Renewal Center recently put together an impressive publications about his achievements, perhaps the most in-depth and professional published piece yet. There has also been a growing interest in the Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic movements worldwide which has also increased focus on those who worked on the fringes of these groups, such as Dicksee himself.
As with most artists of the past, there have been various opinions delivered on the artists work, as well as the personality behind them. Some have argued that he did not respect the women in his work as equals, in contrast to some of the other related artists around at this time. His political views were also known to have shifted to the right as he got older, embracing some of the concerning developments in Europe during the early 20th century.
Perhaps this merely ran in line with his beliefs and love of the traditional, both in terms of art and also moral values. One must also remember that to judge someone from the past by modern values is fraught with danger and inaccurate conclusions, though appears to be happening more and more in the present day as minority groups aim to rewrite history with their own agendas better served.
Additionally, we are focusing on just a few opinions and theories, rather than a proven narrative which we would be able to examine more confidently. There are many different opinions on the quality of an artist's work and we wouldn’t just believe the first ones that we read, so should not do so here either.
It is perhaps hard to accept an artist as being politically right wing when he produced such beauty on the canvas, and how might a misogynist depict women so attentively and seemingly with such love and care for each of his models? Thankfully, these rumours have never allowed us to be distracted from the stunning balance of realism and imagination which delivered over one hundred significant paintings during his career, as well as a number of contributions in other mediums too.
Art as a business
Dicksee was able to financially support himself through his two different themes of work, with his imagined history artworks drawing in the occasional award and also attracting the state to step in and purchase several of his best works for large bounties. His depictions of fashionable women was another growing sideline that strengthened his client base as well as providing regular income to cover his larger projects.
Any spare time would then be spent drawing figurative portraits by pencil which enabled the artist to refine his technical ability in this famously challenging genre. Even the greatest names in anatomical drawing felt the need to practice endlessly, often focusing on specific elements of a larger composition in order to avoid having to amend a work in tempera or oils at a later date.
We can summarise Frank Dicksee as an artist who remains on the fringes of major British art history, but who still remains fondly remembered by a considerable number of academics and in the general public too. His reputation remains strongest in the two nations most interested in the related movement of the Pre-Raphaelites namely his native UK and also the US.
In line with this, most of his original paintings are now owned by provincial galleries across England, with the national institutions preferring to focus on the more famous contributors such as Millais, Waterhouse and Holman Hunt. As this overall period in British art continues to become more fashionable, so all of the artists in and around this period start to return to the public conscience, through a series of high profile publications as well as some prestigious exhibitions.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.