Augustus Leopold Egg

Past and Present, No. 2

1858

On display at Tate Britain

Artist
Augustus Leopold Egg 1816–1863
Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 635 x 762 mm
frame: 802 x 926 x 90 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by Sir Alec and Lady Martin in memory of their daughter Nora 1918
Reference
N03279

Summary

This is the second of a set of three modern-life pictures on the theme of the fallen woman. The other two (N03278 and N03280) are also in the Tate collection. They are typical of the social moralist pictures that were popular in Victorian art.

The theme of the triptych is the discovery of the woman's infidelity and its consequences. In the first scene the family are still together, and the husband has just learned of his wife's adultery. The second scene is a dimly-lit garret, five years later. The room is sparsely furnished and the few decorations include two portraits of the absent mother and father. The father has recently died and the mother has been driven out of her home, a fallen woman. The two orphaned girls comfort each other, the elder gazing sadly over the rooftops towards the moon.

When the set of pictures was first shown at the Royal Academy in 1858, the drawing-room scene was hung between the other two. The writer and art critic John Ruskin described the three works in his Academy Notes,

In the central piece the husband discovers his wife's infidelity; he dies five years afterwards. The two lateral pictures represent the same moment of night a fortnight after his death. The same little cloud is under the moon. The two children see it from the chamber in which they are praying for their lost mother, and their mother, from behind a boat under a vault on the river shore. (John Ruskin, Academy Notes, 8 May 1858.)

The pictures were exhibited with no title, but with this subtitle, 'August the 4th - Have just heard that B - has been dead more than a fortnight, so his poor children have now lost both parents. I hear she was seen on Friday last near the Strand, evidently without a place to lay her head. What a fall hers has been!' In Victorian England a man could safely take a mistress without fear of recrimination, but for a woman to be unfaithful was an unforgivable crime. As Caroline Norton, an early feminist, wrote, 'the faults of women are visited as sins, the sins of men are not even visited as faults' (quoted in Lambourne, p.374).

Further reading:
Lionel Lambourne, Victorian Painting, London 1999, pp.374-5, reproduced p.376, in colour.
Christopher Wood, Victorian Painting, London 1999, pp.52-3, reproduced p.53, in colour.

Frances Fowle
1 December 2000

Display caption

When this triptych was first exhibited the drawing-room scene was hung between this painting and the final scene. The writer John Ruskin wrote: ‘the husband discovers his wife’s infidelity; he dies five years afterwards. The two lateral pictures represent the same moment of night a fortnight after his death. The same little cloud is under the moon. The two children see it from the chamber in which they are praying for their lost parents, and their mother, from behind a boat under the vault of the river shore.’ Ruskin’s comments show that audiences were expected to ‘read’ pictures like novels.

Gallery label, November 2016

Further reading

Tate Paper

A Dramatic Reading of Augustus Leopold Egg’s Untitled Triptych

This article explores the significance of the theatrical and literary references found in the triptych Past and Present 1858 by ...

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