Visual Riddles: Collier’s controversies

John Collier (1850–1934), Mariage de Convenance (1907), oil on canvas, 124 x 165 cm, Cyfarthfa Castle Museum & Art Gallery, Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. The Athenaeum.

In the late 1890s, ‘problem pictures’ had started to generate public controversy in the press, with critical analyses, correspondence, even competitions to choose the most appropriate resolution of their narrative. But the great master of this sub-genre, John Collier, had only recently entered the field, and his first couple of paintings hadn’t been particularly successful.

Collier next exhibited A Confession in 1902, for which I have been unable to locate a suitable image. This stepped back to some of the precursors from the early 1890s in showing a couple engaged in an emotional conversation. Despite its lack of innovation and limited visual clues, it was sufficient to generate controversy over its reading, even some fan letters to the artist begging him to disclose its meaning and resolution.

John Collier (1850–1934), The Prodigal Daughter (1903), oil on canvas, 166 x 217 cm, Usher Gallery, Lincoln, England. WikiArt.

The following year, Collier realised his ambition with The Prodigal Daughter (1903), which proved far more successful, and remains one of Collier’s best-known works. An elderly middle-class couple are seen in their parlour in the evening in their sober black clothes and sombre surroundings. They are surprised when their prodigal daughter turns up out of the blue, in her low-cut gown with floral motifs and scarlet accessories.

Father is still sitting, backlit by a table lamp to heighten the drama. Mother has risen from her chair and is visibly taken aback. Daughter stands, her back against the door and her hand still holding its handle, as if ready to run away again should the need arise. Collier also uses ingenious shadow play, a device which became popular in the nineteenth century perhaps with the advent of optical projectors: here the mother’s cast shadow makes her appear much larger than the daughter’s, like an ogre bearing down on a child.

This immediately sparked debate over the role of women in the modern world, the nature and scope of their family responsibilities, and changing class boundaries. Collier went to great lengths to capture the expressed emotions, in terms of the daughter’s facial expression, and the contrasting body language. The daughter is seen as a ‘fallen woman’, thus part of a popular mythology of the time. But far from appearing fallen and repentant, she stands tall, proud, and wears a rich dress.

The resulting discussion spilled over from art gossip columns into more general editorial and comment sections of the press. Collier had arrived.

Félix Vallotton (1865–1925), Interior with the Back of a Woman in Red (1903), oil on canvas, 93 x 71 cm, Kunsthaus Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.

At the same time in France, Félix Vallotton had moved back from his brief Nabi phase to painting mysterious if not sinister narrative interiors. His Interior with the Back of a Woman in Red from 1903 develops the framing effect of multiple sets of doors, which draw the eye deeper towards the distant bedroom.

The woman wearing a red dress looks away, her skirts swept back as if she has been moving towards the three steps which divide the space into foreground and background. There are tantalising glimpses of detail on the way: discarded fabric on a settee, clothing on a chair in the next room, and half of a double bed with a bedside lamp in the distance.

John Collier (1850–1934), The Sinner (1904), oil on canvas, 147.3 x 108 cm, Victoria Art Gallery, England. The Athenaeum.

Collier’s The Sinner from 1904 shows a woman, possibly dressed in widow’s weeds, making an emotionally-charged confession. Although opening the viewer’s mind to speculation, it doesn’t appear to have enjoyed the same success as The Prodigal Daughter from the previous year.

Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema (1852–1909), The Pledge (1904), oil on canvas, 40 × 50.8 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Even the wife of Lawrence Alma-Tadema felt it worth entering the sub-genre: Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema’s Pledge, probably from 1904, is one of her Dutch period scenes with an obviously unresolved narrative. A young man and woman are clearly making some sort of pledge to one another over glasses of white wine. But who is the second man, at the right? Is this a matter of the heart, or perhaps something more sinister?

Félix Vallotton (1865–1925), Interior, Bedroom with Two Figures (1904), oil on cardboard, 61.5 × 56 cm, Hermitage Museum Государственный Эрмитаж, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

Félix Vallotton continued his series with Interior, Bedroom with Two Figures from 1904, set in a bedroom, in which the lady of the house is standing over her maid as the latter is sewing up an evening gown for her.

The mistress stands with her back to the viewer, but her face is revealed in her reflection in the large mirror on the wardrobe at the back of the room. In that, the maid is all but invisible. These three figures appear in a perspective recession, and to the right of the wardrobe is a doorway, presumably leading through to the master’s bedroom.

Although Vallotton’s disquietening interiors may appear a separate and blind alley here, they may actually have had greater lasting influence in twentieth century painting, particularly among later artists associated with Surrealism.

John Collier (1850–1934), Mariage de Convenance (1907), oil on canvas, 124 x 165 cm, Cyfarthfa Castle Museum & Art Gallery, Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. The Athenaeum.

Collier regained form with his Mariage de Convenance in 1907, another of his ‘problem pictures’ which received extensive media coverage. In contrast with Orchardson’s early more obvious treatment of the problem of marriages of convenience (which were often also arranged marriages), Collier poses a real problem.

The mother, dressed in the black implicit of widowhood, stands haughty, her right arm resting on the mantlepiece. Her daughter cowers on the floor, her arms and head resting on her bed, in obvious distress. Laid out on the bed is the daughter’s wedding dress. Perhaps the daughter is to be married into money to bring financial security to the family, now that the father is dead?

Collier himself offered a slightly simpler version of that, when finally tackled by the press, which omitted reference to any father’s death. But this then raised debate in the press over how and why the young woman’s mother should appear so haughty and unfeeling, particularly when wearing such a low-cut dress. This led to her condemnation as a ‘bad mother’, and comparisons with other contemporary paintings showing ‘good’ mothers embracing and comforting their daughters.

John Collier’s ‘problem pictures’ had become an annual event within the yearly exhibition of the Royal Academy, and press and public were looking forward eagerly to his painting in 1908.


Fletcher PM (2003) Narrating Modernity, the British Problem Picture 1895-1914, Ashgate. ISBN 978 0 754 63568 0.