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The Colour of Anxiety: Race, Sexuality, and Disorder in Victorian Sculpture

25 November 2022 – 26 February 2023

Henry Moore Institute, Leeds

  • Guest curated by Dr Nicola Jennings (Director, Athena Art Foundation and Associate Lecturer at the Courtauld Institute of Art from 2015–21) and Dr Adrienne L. Childs (Adjunct Curator at the Phillips Collection, Washington D.C. and independent scholar), The Colour of Anxiety explores the introduction of colour and new materials into sculptural processes in the Victorian period, relating it to the social, political and scientific changes of the time.
  • This historical exhibition brings together sculptures exhibited and collected in Britain between 1850 and 1900 which either incorporate colour directly – through the use of materials such as silver, gold, ivory, tinted waxes, enamels and paint – or imply it by means of subject matter and titles.
  • Important works by major white male artists of the nineteenth century will be re-interpreted for a contemporary audience, reflecting on historical attitudes towards women and people of colour.

This winter the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds will present The Colour of Anxiety: Race, Sexuality and Disorder in Victorian Sculpture, bringing into focus sculpture exhibited and collected in Britain between 1850 and 1900, a rich yet largely overlooked body of work. The exhibition examines objects that introduced colour and new materials into the sculptural process, situating them within the context of the anxiety which often weighed upon Victorian society in the face of social change and scientific advances.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, British sculptors began to move away from the whiteness of Neoclassical marble and started to incorporate colour into their work, using bronze, silver, gold, ivory and porcelain as well as semi-precious stones, tinted waxes, enamels and paint. The adoption of these materials has typically been attributed to the renewed interest in medieval history and craftsmanship, discoveries about the polychromy of ancient sculpture, the allure of exoticism in the visual arts and the introduction of new industrial processes. Anxieties about rapid social change, developments in science, threats to the established patriarchal order and imperial rule have been highlighted by many literary and social historians but have received less attention from art historians.

The Colour of Anxiety examines the rise of colour in nineteenth-century sculpture by focusing on how male artists responded to, and reinforced, a concept of the cis female body influenced by anxieties of the time. Despite Victorian ideals of virginity and chastity, the representation of women in sculpture was increasingly sexualised, reflecting fears regarding the changing role of women, Black female sexuality and racial intermingling. Bringing together sculptures that either incorporate colour directly or imply it by means of subject matter and titles, the exhibition considers the fascination with colouring people and people of colour as a response to the perceived anxieties of the Victorian age.

The exhibition opens with works in white marble including Antonio Canova’s Venus (The Hope Venus) 1817–20 which symbolise Neoclassical ideals of femininity, purity and motherhood. These works refer both to the eighteenth-century historian Johan Joachim Winkelmann’s (1717–78) glorification of the sculpture of the ancient Greeks and to the underlying conviction that absence of colour was the sign of a civilisation capable of abstract thought and moral rectitude, in contrast to the painted figures of animist and pagan societies.

John Bell, 'The Manacled Slave / On the Sea Shore' 1877 bronze statuette. © Aberystwyth University School of Art Museum and Galleries.
Sir George Frampton RA, 'Lamia' 1899-1900. Ivory, bronze, opals, glass. © Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photo: Paul Highnam.

Depictions of women of colour also drove the use of new materials, with leading sculptors actively choosing to represent women of African descent and mixed race, particularly enslaved women who embodied the complex and sexualised trope of the African or Black Venus. Fascination with the Middle East, the Holy Land and North Africa – known now as Orientalism – was another driver, with Black figures functioning as indexes of the exotic and racialised nature of the Orient, counterpoints to British whiteness and imperial power. Colourful and dark, Charles Cordier’s Femme Africaine 1857 was the ultimate ‘other’ in this complex topography at the time, signifying sexuality, servitude, barbarism and ethnographic degeneration, embodied in a luxurious decorative figure.

Racial mixing embedded in the image of the sexualised Black female slave was a further source of considerable anxiety during the nineteenth century. Sexual relations (mostly forced) between white men and Black enslaved women were a common but controversial practice that led to generations of slaves and former slaves who existed at an impossible crossroads.

Stories of these tragic figures, who were doomed to destruction due to the stigma of being of mixed race, abounded in Victorian literature and theatre. John Bell’s Octoroon 1868 immortalised this character in white marble. Sculptors including Cordier, John Bell and Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux also used the image of the Black female body to commemorate the abolition of slavery.

On display in the exhibition are Bell and Elkington & Co. The Manacled Slave / On the Sea Shore 1877 (a bronze statuette of Bell’s earlier full-size American Slave 1853) and a gilt-bronzed plaster version of Carpeaux’s Why Born Enslaved! (modelled 1868, carved 1873) which, while ostensibly abolitionist, nonetheless both sentimentalise and sexualise the captive slave body through depicting nude women in chains.

Equally threatening to many men was the education of women and prospect of female emancipation. Education was seen as damaging to the female reproductive organs, threatening the survival of the human race. These fears manifested themselves through popular stories about female and lesbian vampires and in the image of the femme fatale, as in George Frampton’s Lamia 1899–1900, half-woman, half-snake and Harry Bates’ Pandora 1890. Artists such as Alfred Gilbert also produced serial images of sleeping or dead women, a theme which recurred in popular fairy tales such as Sleeping Beauty and was reflected in the taste for pale, consumptive women.

This historical exhibition will see significant works reinterpreted for the contemporary world. The Colour of Anxiety features largely white male artists who drove the art world in the nineteenth century. The narratives that their works embody have come into scrutiny in recent years by contemporary artists reconsidering a Western art history that reveals both racist and sexist attitudes and the exclusion of women and people of colour. To highlight the relevance of these debates in today’s critical landscape, the exhibition will also feature several recent works, including the late photographer Maud Sulter’s Calliope 1989, to question the power of the European classical tradition and the contested figure of the Black female in Victorian visual culture.

Henri Baron de Triqueti, 'Cleopatra Dying' 1859 carved ivory and cast bronze on a marble and ebony base, with traces of polychromy and gilding. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

A programme of research events, engagement activities and a special issue of the Institute’s Essays on Sculpture series will accompany the exhibition.

Notes to Editors

About the curators: Dr Nicola Jennings

Dr Nicola Jennings is Director of the Athena Art Foundation, a UK arts charity using digital platforms to engage new audiences with pre-twentieth century art. She is a former Associate Lecturer at the Courtauld Institute of Art where she did her PhD and taught from 2015 until 2021. In the same period, she was Director of the Colnaghi Foundation, having previously been Research and Curatorial Associate at Colnaghi Gallery with particular responsibility for sculpture.

Nicola’s teaching, research and publications have focused on art in Spain in the fifteenth, sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, with a special interest in polychrome sculpture in wood, stone and terracotta, Northern European craftsmen working in Spain, and the patronage of converted Jews.

She has recently co-edited several books – including Alonso Berruguete: Renaissance Sculptor (2017), Juan de Mesa: The Master of Passion (2018) and Gothic Architecture in Spain: Invention and Imitation (2020) – as well as contributing to chapters to others and reviewing for Apollo, The Burlington Magazine, Renaissance Quarterly and the London Review of Books. She will be leading the Courtauld’s Showcasing Art History Season in 2022-23.

About the curators: Dr Adrienne L. Childs

Dr Adrienne L. Childs is an independent art historian and curator. She is an adjunct curator at The Phillips Collection in Washington DC. She was the 2022 recipient of the Driskell Prize in African American Art awarded by the High Museum in Atlanta, Georgia. Childs curated the exhibition Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition at the Phillips Collection in 2020. The exhibition catalogue Riffs and Relations won the 2020 James A Porter and David C. Driskell Book Award in African American Art History.

Her current book project is Ornamental Blackness: The Black Figure in European Decorative Arts, forthcoming from Yale University Press. She has held fellowships at the Lunder Institute at the Colby College Museum of Art, the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA), The Hutchins Center at Harvard University, The Clark Art Institute and the David C. Driskell Center.

Her co-curated exhibitions have included The Black Figure in the European Imaginary at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College and Creative Spirit: The Art of David C. Driskell. She contributed to The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume V from Harvard University Press. Childs is co-editor of the book Blacks in European Art of the Long Nineteenth Century, Routledge. Her scholarly interests focus on the relationship between race and representation in European and American fine and decorative arts.

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