British artist Edwin Long turned his artistic fortunes around with the production of dramatic yet sophisticated history paintings. Scenes of the story of Christianity and the Bible play a crucial role in his productions and led to great acclaim from Long’s contemporaries.
Long was the son of a hairdresser and perfumer, and it is thought that his father was reluctant to accept his son’s desire to be an artist, instead wanting him to continue the family business. Nonetheless, Long received admission to Leigh’s Academy, an independent art academy run by artist James Matthew Leigh (1808-1860). This was a school of some reputation, taking on students of the likes of Lord Frederick Leighton (1830-1896) and John Everett Millais (1829-1896).
Despite Long’s best efforts, he was denied admittance to the Royal Academy schools on two occasions, and, following a short period travelling across Europe, he returned to Bath and established himself as a portrait painter. He saw success in this area, painting prominent local figures as well as visiting people of importance, such as Sir Hugh Gough. Yet the scorn of the Royal Academy was still a harsh blow for Long, and he desired more.
He finally saw some success when two works were accepted into the Royal Academy summer exhibition. He was soon after acquainted with prominent Scottish artist John Phillip (1817-1867). Phillip invited Long to accompany him to Spain, and in 1857 the two men set off on a studying holiday.
This time proved pivotal in the development of Long’s career. He became enamoured with the works of the great Spanish baroque artists Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682). Long was entranced by their dramatic history paintings and genre scenes, with their religious focus and narrative elements. Indeed, so enamoured was Long that he made copies of these great masters’ works. A study of Velázquez’s ‘Las Hilanderas’ was celebrated by art critics as being ‘charming and brilliant.’
Long began to produce his own original works, taking inspiration from the Bible or classical texts. Through all of his pieces, Long weaves a strong thread of narrative bound tightly to artistic competency. His compositions are ‘effective’ at telling the stories at the heart of his works. Long lays out his figures in a way which incurs intrigue. One wants to allow their eye to roam over every aspect of the canvas. Coupled with this is a strong sense of drama derived from Velázquez’s baroque inspiration.
The crowds which lurch in from every angle add suspense to the scene of a young woman being forced to renounce her Christianity. The anticipation on their faces and their tense poses only increases the drama, as does the Roman official leaning close into the woman’s face. She herself is caught in that fraught moment of decision, one hand reaching out to the temple of Diana, yet the other clutched to her chest, torn between head and heart. There is a sense of claustrophobia in the scene, cleverly executed by Long.
Threaded through these attributes was a ‘well-balanced’ use of colour. Long’s work ‘The Babylonian Marriage Market’ exhibits a glorious use of colour married with his depth of composition. The women being bartered for matrimony in the foreground are laid out in crisp and creamy robes as they wait their turn. They contrast with the men in the background, swathed in richer-coloured clothing, further dimmed by depth. The brighter focus on the women also symbolises their purity and innocence.
Long married with artistic savvy an intellectual zeal. He always researched his scenes with the utmost care to make sure that each detail, from clothing, to plant-life, to architecture, be as accurate as possible. This was appreciated and recognised by art critics, who praised the ‘vast amount of classical lore and study having been employed.’ Indeed, alongside his works’ great moral merits, Long was often applauded for his diligence and care for historical accuracy.
Long’s works found great acclaim both from the general public and the artistic circles surrounding the Royal Academy. In a predominantly Christian country, his focus on biblical scenes appealed greatly. There was also a growing orientalist scene in art at the time to which Long’s works contributed.
For the Academy, his eloquent narratives and artistic virtues proved to be incredibly alluring. Especially when coupled with his references to the classical world, something from which art institutions took great inspiration. Oftentimes Long’s work was referred to as ‘faultless,’ Long a ‘master of his art.’ He was rewarded with membership to the Academy in 1881.
Edwin Long had grown from a young artist unable to obtain admittance into the Royal Academy schools to one of its stalwarts. By drawing inspiration from masters before him and the biblical scenes important to society, Long was able to cultivate a successful career. This allowed him to explore different times, different places, and apply to them his own shrewd eye and dexterous hand.
Following his rather sudden death in 1891, Long’s wife set up an art gallery on Bond Street to encourage further appreciation of her husband’s work. Unfortunately, this was an effort short-lived, and the changing times and tastes as Britain moved in the 20th century meant Long’s works fell from favour.
Nonetheless, today they receive revitalised interest as examples of the Victorian interest with the classical world, and how the morals of society intersected with the art world.
Born in Bath, Britain.
Moved to London. Began Studying at James Matthew Leigh's School of Art.
Married Margaret Jemima Aiton.
Exhibited frequently at the Royal Academy.
Travelled to Spain.
Exhibited frequently at the British Institution.
Travelled to Egypt and Syria.
Elected an Associate of the Royal Academy.
Elected a member of the Royal Academy.
Died in Hampstead, London, Britain. Buried in West Hampstead Cemetery.