Visual Riddles: Decline and fall

Hans Andersen Brendekilde (1857–1942), Afternoon Work (1918), oil on canvas, 77 x 100 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

During the first decade of the twentieth century, John Collier was the painter the whole of Britain was talking about. His unresolved narratives, or ‘problem pictures’, had captured the public imagination, and debating their stories was popular in the press.

For the Royal Academy exhibition in 1908, Collier had come up with an unconventional theme. Rather than revisit previously popular stories of the ‘fallen woman’, extra-marital affairs or failed marriage, he chose life and death.

John Collier (1850–1934), The Sentence of Death (1908), colour photogravure after oil on canvas original, original 132 x 162.5 cm, original in Wolverhampton Art Gallery, Wolverhampton, England. By courtesy of Wellcome Images, The Wellcome Library.

At first, The Sentence of Death (1908) disappointed the critics, but it quickly became very popular. Sadly the original work has not lasted well, and I rely here on a contemporary reproduction which may do it better justice.

A young middle-aged, and presumably family, man stares blankly at the viewer, having just been told by his doctor – visual clues given include a brass microscope and sphygmomanometer – that he is dying. The doctor appears disengaged, and is reading from a book, looking only generally in the direction of his doomed patient.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a time of great advances in medicine, but the big killers in Europe and North America like tuberculosis remained common and barely affected by improvements in surgery and hospitals. In some ways, this painting may at the time have seemed quite everyday, but Collier’s genius was in confronting the viewer with the reality.

Not only did this problem picture tackle the great Victorian obsession with death and mortality, but it did so with an adult male patient, assumed by society to keep a ‘stiff upper lip’ and not to be emotional. This led to speculation as to the expected male response to such news, and questions as to what condition might be bringing about his death. There was even public debate about interpretations of the doctor-patient relationship.

For me, this is the pinnacle of Collier’s achievement, a painting which should challenge every generation of viewers, whose unresolved narrative is one of the eternal stories of our species.

Collier continued to paint ‘problem pictures’ for some years, but the sub-genre steadily faded from the public eye. I show here two undated paintings which may date from this period.

John Collier (1850–1934), Fire (date not known), oil on canvas, 140.7 x 120.3 cm, Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum, Royal Leamington Spa, England. WikiArt.

Fire shows a young woman, sat up in bed, afraid by the bright warm light of a fire, presumably one which is in the same building and putting her into danger. It is not clear why she is not doing anything to try to escape, though.

John Collier (1850–1934), The Minx (date not known), oil on canvas, 75 x 62.3 cm, Swindon Museum & Art Gallery, Swindon, England. WikiArt.

The Minx shows a femme fatale holding what might be a mirror in front of her. Unfortunately the condition of the painting is not good, and its narrative now more obscured that it was.

Then, in 1914, the world changed with the start of the First World War. Painters continued to make problem pictures, but they no longer had much public appeal.

Cecilia Beaux (1855–1942), After the Meeting (1914), oil on canvas, 104 x 71.4 cm, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH. The Athenaeum.

In 1914, the American society portraitist Cecilia Beaux made what was for her an unusual type of painting: After the Meeting has all the makings of a problem picture.

The woman in the foreground is in discussion with an unseen companion to the left and beside the viewer. Another woman in the distance appears to be in the company of a young girl, and is talking at a counter. We are invited to speculate what might be happening, what interactions there have been, and who the meeting might have been with.

Hans Andersen Brendekilde (1857–1942), Afternoon Work (1918), oil on canvas, 77 x 100 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

The Danish artist Hans Andersen Brendekilde tried one last and more whimsical unresolved narrative in his Afternoon Work from 1918. A dedicated gardener has joined battle against a mole, which has been steadily burrowing under his prized vegetable patch. The gardener’s small daughter is standing back at a safe distance from attack with the spade, and his wife is hiding indoors.

John Collier (1850–1934), Sacred and Profane Love (1919), oil on canvas, 104 x 142 cm, Northampton Museum & Art Gallery, Northampton, England. The Athenaeum.

John Collier tried to revive problem pictures after the war, with works such as Sacred and Profane Love (1919), which returned to women’s problems. On the left, sacred love is shown as a modestly if not dowdily dressed plain young woman, and on the right, profane love as a ‘flapper’ with bright, low-cut dress revealing her ankles, flourishing a feather in her left hand. The suitor is shown reflected in the mirror above, a smart young army officer.

Although not as enigmatic as his earlier works, Collier remained very topical, achieving his narrative using dress and composition, rather than facial expression or body language.

One of the last paintings which I have come across, before the later revival of strange and unresolved narratives later in the twentieth century, is this late work by Félix Vallotton.

Félix Vallotton (1865–1925), Chaste Suzanne (1922), oil on canvas, 54 x 73 cm, Musée cantonal des beaux-arts, Lausanne, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.

When I first saw Vallotton’s Chaste Suzanne from 1922, I was puzzled as to what its story could be, but I think that this is a modern retelling of the Old Testament tale of Susanna and the Elders, in which the two men are trying to blackmail Susanna into being unfaithful. This appears to be the consensus of others who are more knowledgeable than I am.

Vallotton has not simply painted a modern theme, but recast a very old story into contemporary terms.


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