The Painting of a Murderess That Scandalized Victorian Audiences

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The Painting of a Murderess That Scandalized Victorian Audiences

John Collier, “The Laboratory” (1895), oil on canvas, 62 1/8 x 48 1/4 inches (image courtesy Arts of Imagination Foundation)

A 19th-century painting of a murderess concocting a poison to kill her husband’s lover has been acquired by a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that hopes to unravel its secrets. The Arts of Imagination Foundation, an organization dedicated to the preservation of culturally significant archetypal narrative artwork, purchased British portrait artist John Collier’s oil on canvas work “The Laboratory” (1895) via a Christie’s private sale for an undisclosed price.

A successful portraitist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Collier painted in a Pre-Raphaelite style and was especially drawn to illustrating scenes circulating around mysterious social narratives that encouraged speculation and fueled debate amongst audiences. Known as “problem pictures,” the paintings focused on characters caught in moral dilemmas that incited gossip amongst curious viewers as though they were real scenes. Notable examples of these works by Collier included “The Prodigal Daughter” (1903) and “A Fallen Idol” (1913), which both feature women caught in incomprehensible predicaments that inspired viewers to imagine possible explanations behind the perplexing scenes.

“These kinds of paintings were major draws at the annual Royal Academy summer exhibitions, designed to be sold, certainly, but also to attract popular and press attention,” art historian Pamela Fletcher told Hyperallergic. A professor of art history at Bowdoin College, Fletcher penned an essay about “The Prodigal Daughter” for the Royal Academy Chronicle.

“In the 1890s, Collier painted a number of fairly dramatic such scenes — ‘The Laboratory’ fits into this category, which also includes scenes of Clytemnestra, Cleopatra, the Borgias, and others,” she added.

John Collier, “The Prodigal Daughter” (1903), oil on canvas, 65 2/5 x 85 2/5 inches (image via Wikimedia Commons)

In “The Laboratory,” Collier illustrates a scene in which a woman and an apothecary prepare a fatal elixir for her husband’s lover. The painting is based on Robert Browning’s 1844 poem of the same name, which centers on the true story of French aristocrat Marie-Madeleine d’Aubray, Marquise de Brinvilliers, who was executed in 1676 for poisoning her father and two brothers and attempting to murder her husband. When “The Laboratory” was first unveiled in 1895, it stood out for its purposeful ambiguity, scandalous undertones, and Collier’s dramatic use of light, which he often employed as a device to intensify a scene’s moral enigma and suspense.

The Arts of Imagination Foundation was founded by writer and director Brady Schwind, who began tracking down the artwork behind Frank L. Baum’s Oz book series as part of his Lost Art of Oz initiative. The organization purchased the piece to commemorate the Gothic literary movement of Britain’s late Victorian period.

“As a theatre artist and storyteller, I have long understood that stories bring us together,” Schwind told Hyperallergic in a statement, explaining that he launched the nonprofit last year to commemorate archetypal stories and the art inspired by them. The nonprofit has created a virtual portal for viewers to learn more about “The Laboratory” and its backstory, as well as Collier and his work.

“Scholars have sometimes attributed the late 19th-century interest in such scenes of the ‘femme fatale’ to a reaction against the increasingly visible and powerful feminist movement of the period, as women activists worked to secure the vote and other forms of social and political equality,” Fletcher said.

But Collier’s paintings, she continued, “showed modern women in ambiguous narrative situations (often around issues of sexuality), inviting viewers to draw their own conclusions about the women’s motives, histories and moral choices.”

John Collier, “A Fallen Idol” (1913), oil on canvas, 66 x 54 inches (image via Wikimedia)

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