1st Edition

The Victorian Painting of Modern Life

By Pamela Fletcher Copyright 2025
    296 Pages 35 Color & 34 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    This text offers a comprehensive and tightly focused account of the emergence and flourishing of British modern-life paintings at midcentury.

    Contemporary subjects were new and risky in the late 1840s and early 1850s; immensely popular and much debated by 1858; and already falling out of fashion by the mid-1860s. The book follows this story chronologically, moving from the anxious attempts by young artists such as William Powell Frith and William Holman Hunt to capture modern life in a visual language that conveyed both the literal and emotional truths of contemporary experience, through the new genre’s explosion into popularity in the later 1850s and early 1860s, and the critical debates (and changing fashions) that led to its diminishment by the end of that decade.

    The book will be of interest to scholars working in art history, British studies, visual culture, exhibition culture, museum studies and the sociology of art.

    Introduction: Defining the Victorian Modern-Life Subject  1. The Reform of Art  2. The Response: Looking Into the Lives of Others  3. ‘The Meaning and Inexhaustibleness of Life’: Defining a Genre  4. The Here and Now of Modern Life  5. Shipwreck, Suicide, Sensation, Surface: The Decline of the Modern Life Subject  Epilogue: Reflections on Modern Life


    Pamela Fletcher is Professor of Art History at Bowdoin College.

    “Essential reading for students, scholars, lovers and haters of nineteenth-century Britain, this book breathes new life into the genre of Victorian modern life painting. Fletcher’s masterful analyses of works by leading painters of the mid-Victorian period, combined with her deep understanding of Victorian exhibition culture, make for a truly fascinating read.”

    -- Keren Rosa Hammerschlag, Australian National University 


    “In pursuing the question ‘What does modern life feel like?’ Pamela Fletcher’s enthralling book invites readers into the rich relationships that existed between Victorian artists, their paintings, and their publics. This study radically shifts what we think we know about nineteenth-century British art.”

    -- Aviva Briefel, Bowdoin College