File:Albert Joseph Moore - A Summer Night - Google Art Project.jpg
Moore, A Summer Night (1887, Walker Art Gallery)

Robyn Asleson’s piece on Albert Moore is part of the Art After the Pre-Raphaelites collection edited by Elizabeth Prettejohn (1997).[1] Asleson’s article on Moore as an exponent of Aestheticism is an interesting unravelling about an artist who was, and remains still, rather unreachable and mysterious. Moore deliberately created a wall beyond which he hid, a wall of pale muted colours, expressionless figures, and coded musical harmonies in paint. He consciously created a sense of separation and distance and we have been left with the task of attempting to overcome Moore’s ‘poverty of words’.[1]

Moore was loathe to interview, write down, record or intimate his inspirations, sources or thoughts, considering them ‘a waste of precious time’.[2] He determined to remain independent and his views were perhaps a little too strident, strident enough to keep him only at the stage of candidature at the R.A.

Although schooled in landscape painting, Moore’s art is known for his depictions of languorous female figures, such as can be found in the below supplement from the Illustrated News (details of the Grafton Gallery, 1894 catalogue from the British Museum collection). Their often vacant, expressionless faces are set against extravagant, yet calming depictions of the classical world. Works such as Shuttlecock, Seashells, or A Reader, are harmonious and soothing in their palette and are a far cry from the landscapes of Moore’s brothers’ art, for they were respected landscape painters.

Supplement to 'Illustrated London News'. four pages (1 sheet folded) with portrait of the artist and reproductions of fifteen of his paintings,

Moore’s artistic manifesto (which he once thought to write) ultimately died along with him, and aside from the notes written by his perhaps friendly but biased biographer and one time student, Alfred Lys Baldry, little is known about Moore. Fortunately, the V&A has many of Moore’s preparatory drawings and these are where he is not silent, and where critics such as Asleson are able to better assess Moore’s work.

Asleson’s article discusses this distance and sees it as a self-conscious styling. The main premise of Asleson’s essay though is in establishing the gap between Pre-Raphaelite naturalism (in the sense of Ruskinian earnestness, and ‘truth to nature’) and Aestheticism. Asleson fills the critical gap in understanding ‘the transition from one mode to the other’.[3]

Albert Moore, by Sydney Prior Hall, 1887 -NPG 2375 - © National Portrait Gallery, London
Sydney Prior Hall, Albert Joseph Moore (1887, NPG)

Born at York on 4th September 1841, Moore was the thirteenth son and fourteenth child of the then well-known portrait-painter William Moore and his second wife, Sarah Collingham. His brother Henry Moore, R.A. was a well-known sea painter, and some of his other brothers also painted. Moore himself, was schooled in drawing and painting by his father, before spending time at the School of Art founded by William Etty in 1842. In 1853, Moore gained a medal from the Department of Science and Art at Kensington before he had even had his twelfth birthday.

His father died in 1851, and after that, his brother, John Collingham Moore, took over both artistic and parental roles to some extent. Arriving in London in 1855, he attended school until 1858 when he attended the R.A. By 1857 he had exhibited, not works of a figurative nature, but natural Ruskinian works, e.g. A Goldfinch.

Whilst some of Moore’s early works show Ruskin’s influence, unsurprisingly at this period of the nineteenth century, Asleson’s article shows how Moore only ever went so far with his Ruskinian earnestness. For example, his image of an ivy covered tree trunk does not embrace Ruskin’s full line and narrative of the tree, but, in Asleson’s view, condenses the scene and crops the work into an abstraction of the line.[4]

By 1861, Moore ventured into sacred subjects, e.g.  The Mother of Sisera looked out of a Window, and Elijah running to Jezreel before Ahab’s Chariot. But the 1860s was the age of aestheticism and it was at this time, that Moore began designing tiles, wallpaper and generally riding along the wave of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. His Elijah’s Sacrifice (1863) embraced the influence of Ford Madox Brown and yet despite the rather medieval influence of Brown, Moore’s works took on this distinctly neo-classical character, not least because of studying the Elgin marbles (as Burne-Jones also did). Moore also seems to have absorbed the works he saw in Rome during 1862 – 1863. Like Whistler, and Swinburne, Moore’s concern for form and colour and effect began to overtake his desire for subject, and his paintings became increasingly harmonised into his own interpretation of Aestheticism. Asleson’s article demonstrates Moore’s interpretation of Aestheticism distinctly, suggesting that some of this perhaps stemmed from an important friendship with William Eden Nesfield, who he toured round Northern France with in 1859.  It seems to have been the combination of Moore’s mathematical ability (he achieved the highest mark in his grammar school) and geometry, his exposure to Greek and French art, as well as to the Japanese, Persian, Indian and Greek collections of his friend Nesfield, his desire for natural abstraction, and pursuit of drawing from life models, all combined to create what Asleson calls an ‘inevitability’ for figurative decoration.[5]

In 1863, Moore produced an untraced fresco entitled The Seasons which garnered attention, and was ‘pivotal in his transition from mural design to easel painting’.[6] The following year, Moore exhibited The Marble Seat (1865) which was the first of a long series of what became Moore’s distinctive style, his purely decorative pictures where narrative was removed or ‘could be read in terms of an imagined narrative’.[7] The Hellenic spirit of Moore’s works became a mainstay of his oeuvre, and by 1866, Asleson reports his figures as being ‘physically interchangeable and psychologically remote’. His figures are classical, pale, marble-like, and distant. They are swathed in drapery, diaphanous gowns which emphasise their classical purity but stripped of symbolism and narrative, they are purely visual. Form is the key to Moore’s compositions.

Asleson goes on to argue that architectural understanding informed much of Moore’s design and gives his designs for St. Alban’s Church, Rochdale (1865- 1866) as an example.

Image result for moore The Mother of Sisera looked out of a Window
Moore, Study of an Ash Trunk (1857)

The titles of the works came after the work’s completion, and, like Whistler, were perhaps more of an intellectual, self-conscious assignment, than a free expression of imagination or inspiration. Moore’s understanding of the frame and architectural barriers, boundaries, shapes and geometries carved out his understanding of pictures as panels. So much so, that he painted, as Baldry noted, that any panel ‘might well be made…the centre and starting point of a complete scheme of decoration’.[8]  Such was his success at this decorative way of viewing and composing his works, that Building News amongst many others, responded to his works and even suggested that when exhibited they would have been better placed with architectural drawings.[9] Asleson reads this ability to view art as decorative and to understand the end results as being informed by form, are merely another example of how Moore treated his Study of an Ash Trunk: by this she means, he is once again intersecting diagonals and overlaying verticals and horizontals.[10] Both Asleson, and also Baldry’s, claims are born out by his preliminary drawings. It was the sense of form, colour, and balance that informed the design throughout the canvas. Azaleas is given as an example of this, and Asleson quotes Swinburne’s response, given in 1868:

The melody of colour, the symphony of form is complete: one more beautiful thing is achieved one more delight is born into the world; and its meaning is beauty; and its reason for being is to be’.[11]

Image result for A Musician (1867)
Moore, A Musician (1867, Yale Centre for British Art)

This musicality within Moore’s works is further examined, e.g. his A Musician (1867, Yale Centre for British Art) is used to situate Asleson’s discussion about Moore and his brothers, and artist William Blake Richmond, discussing formal analogies between painting and music. Whilst Asleson refers this approach to Whistler’s own brand of Aestheticism, it called to mind Leighton’s Music Lesson (1877, Guildhall), and is a reminder that Aestheticism is hard to pin down and its threads appear in many forms and in many works of art, even sometimes those we do not label as ‘Aesthetes’.

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Leighton, Music Lesson (1877, Guildhall)

The rising fall and curves of Moore’s work ‘sing the melody’.[12] Asleson goes on to show that at the same time both Moore and Whistler were ‘developing musical in their paintings, Moore was also engaged in an intense study of Greek sculpture through which, according to Baldry, he found ‘a complete technical system’’.[13] Asleson quotes from the 1842 text by Ramsay Hay, The Natural Principles and Analogy of the Harmony of Form, and suggest this work is entirely underestimated in its contribution to Aesthetic thinking: Asleson further suggests that Hay’s harmonies of composition and proportion may well have influenced Moore.[14] The argument is rather convincing, particularly when applied to the Reconstruction of Albert Moore, Figures Study for Birds (1878, V&A). The key point to note is that expressing the parts ceased to satisfy as Moore felt ‘he still had to ‘understand the whole’. It is this which Asleson offers as way of answering her question about the transition from Pre-Raphaelite naturalism to Aestheticism. I am not sure the article really does answer this question about Moore’s transition, but it certainly offers many fascinating insights and genuinely exciting thinking about Moore’s art.

From 1877 onwards, Moore was a regular exhibitor at the Grosvenor Gallery and his popularity grew. He often sold works prior to completion although it was not until later on in life that he obtained the type of patronage that artists like Rossetti garnered. Moore’s career was successful because of the type of decorative harmonies and architectural geometries Asleson discussed: and all this, despite Moore being plagued by an incurable illness. His last picture The Loves of the Seasons and the Winds (1893, Blackburn Museum) is one of his most complex, and its bright colours and complex composition continues to inspires a whole new series of thinking and criticism for which there is no doubt, on the back of Asleson’s work, a great need.

The Loves of the Winds and the Seasons
Moore, The Loves of the Seasons and the Winds (1893, Blackburn Museum)

Further reading on Moore can be found here.

[1] Robyn Asleson, ‘Nature and abstraction in the aesthetic development of Albert Moore’, in After the Pre-Raphaelites Art and Aestheticism in Victorian England, ed., by Elizabeth Prettejohn (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), p. 115 – 134.

[2] Robyn Asleson, ‘Nature and abstraction in the aesthetic development of Albert Moore’, p. 115

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Asleson, p. 119 – 120.

[6] Asleson, p. 121. Asleson reports that letters show Moore was, during the 1850s, seeking to studying the nude, from life models.

[7] Asleson, p. 122.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Baldry, quoted in Asleson, p. 124.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid

[12] Algernon Swinburne, Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition, 1868, part 1, p32

[13] Asleson, p. 128

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.