With the Little People

A fairy shoe was brought to America by an Irish writer in the 1920s. Examination under a microscope at Harvard revealed tiny hand stitches, and the leather was identified as mouseskin.

Sixty years earlier, an obscure Victorian artist, John Anster Fitzgerald, painted a small canvas now on view at the Frick Collection. In it, humanoid hunters sporting butterfly wings and floral headgear, mounted on hummingbirds and armed with thorny bits of bramble, pursue a white mouse through a blackberry thicket--Darwinism meets surrealism in miniature.

Is Fitzgerald's mouse about to become fairy-shoe leather? This and other questions linger after a visit to "Victorian Fairy Painting," an exquisite exhibition of 34 works organized by the University of Iowa Museum of Art with London's Royal Academy of Arts. Both neo-Victorians and Chelsea gallerygoers will find aesthetic sustenance there, for Victorian fairy painting, with its weird loveliness, enchantment, cruelty, and lilliputian drama, anticipates contemporary art's current preoccupation with miniaturization and grotesquerie.

Lewis Carroll counted 165 fairies in Joseph Noël Paton's The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania (1849).
Antonia Reeve; © Edinburgh National Galleries of Scotland
Lewis Carroll counted 165 fairies in Joseph Noël Paton's The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania (1849).

Who were those shy, diminutive creatures with insect wings, twinkling and gamboling through the glens and bowers of Victoriana? Were they, as 19th-century believers speculated, an ancient Celtic race, a tribe of shrunken Catholics, or the nature spirits that haunted Romantic landscapes?

In an increasingly urban, industrialized society, fairies provided imaginative refuge from harsh, Dickensian reality--nostalgic remnants of past cultures, embodying the elemental forces of nature. Fairies challenged science's expanding powers of microscopic observation--presenting a world so tiny it could be seen only with the mind's eye. In a time of colonial expansion, they personified an archaic Otherness deep within English society. They were at home amid the hallucinations of a drug culture fueled by Orientalism, which embraced hashish, opium, and laudanum, that "aspirin of the nineteenth century." In a pre-Freudian era, they offered a nearly uncensored vision of unrestrained human drives and impulses.

Queen Victoria appears not to have noticed the frank eroticism of The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania, a painting illustrating a scene from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dreamby Joseph Noël Paton, one of her favorite artists. Lewis Carroll counted 165 fairies in this canvas, which fairly overflows with naked supernatural beings kissing, whispering, touching, grabbing, and running around their resplendent naked queen, Titania.

The painter Edwin Landseer, another of Victoria's favorites, chose to represent the moment in Shakespeare's play when Titania wakes from a drugged sleep and falls in love with Bottom, a weaver with the head of an ass. Tiny naked fairies riding white rabbits gaze in wonder upon their mistress as she fawns over her garlanded donkey companion. A frisson of bestiality hovers over this moralistic yet touchingly perverse image of the temporary subjection of women's spirit to basest nature.

Victorian fairy painters included illustrious artists who dabbled in the genre and unknown virtuosos who made it their specialty. John Anster Fitzgerald belongs to the latter category. He liked to paint figures drowning in feverish, opium-induced slumbers, surrounded by sprites and spiny monsters. A series of small paintings shows a supine young woman in Turkish garb whose cheeks are flushed and whose sleep is troubled by wildly colored, music-making goblins, while her nightmares are traced in ghostly white paint above her. Fitzgerald's work suggests an obsession with out-of-body experiences and a deep ambivalence about both the contents of imaginative life and the hidden recesses of the feminine psyche.

Cavorting amid minutely observed and brightly colored scenes of nature, Pre-Raphaelite fairies can appear hyperreal, like a kitschy Spielberg movie. A prospective buyer of John Everett Millais's Ferdinand Lured by Arielwas put off by the livid greenness of the painting's band of wood sprites. Romantic fairies, catapulted through vast celestial expanses, are reminders of the lonely spirit's struggle against an indifferent universe. In Turner's magnificent Queen Mab's Cave, tiny, fragile figures blown about by wind against the backdrop of a craggy cliff, a watery chasm, a dark tunnel, and swirling light suggest the primordial power and sublime fecundity of the Romantic imagination.

The darker side of imagination is made palpable in the works of several fairy painters who pursued their careers within the confines of asylums. Richard Dadd did his best work while an inmate at London's notorious Bethlehem Hospital, also known as Bedlam. When he was a young artist, a trip to the Middle East unhinged his mind; upon his return to London, following professional disappointments, he murdered his father and spent the rest of his life interned.

Dadd worked for nine years on The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke, a small canvas so minutely detailed that many of its figures are barely visible. (Fairies were supposed to disappear if seen by humans, so much fairy art cultivates an aura of transgression.) Through a mesh of weeds and grasses, we see a fairy axman about to split a hazelnut. Surrounding him are a seemingly infinite number of fairy men and women, with strangely compressed and distorted faces--a bearded king, a dwarfish scholar, milkmaids and dandies, insect courtiers and musicians. The light is gray and even, every surface filled and flattened in claustrophobic profusion--this scene of voyeurism and suspended violence provokes intense anxiety.

Another fairy artist who used the madhouse as his studio was Charles Altamont Doyle. Confined to a dull civil servant's job and unable to cope with supporting his large family, he drank, had himself committed, and finally died of epilepsy. A watercolor self- portrait shows an impassive Victorian gentleman sitting cross-legged at a table, beset by fearful hallucinations.

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