Volume 21, Issue 3 | Autumn 2022

Picture World: Image, Aesthetics, and Victorian New Media by Rachel Teukolsky

Reviewed by Carey Gibbons

Rachel Teukolsky,
Picture World: Image, Aesthetics, and Victorian New Media.
New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.
461 pp.; 56 color and 100 b&w illus.; bibliography; index.
$66 (hardcover)
ISBN: 9780198859734

Rachel Teukolsky’s ambitious and detailed study explores a range of traditionally neglected yet significant pictorial materials—including mass-printed illustrations for books and periodicals, cartes de visite, stereoscopic images, cartoons, and posters. These examples of visual print media provide important insights into key aesthetic concepts of the nineteenth century and become portals that lead the reader to insights into Victorian values and experience. Taking inspiration from Martin Heidegger’s phrase “the world picture,” referring to the conquest and mastery over the world which occurs when it is transformed into a visual representation, as well as W. J. T. Mitchell’s idea of visual culture as “the visual construction of the social, not just the social construction of vision” (3–4), Teukolsky surveys a wide array of “world pictures” constructed across print media during the Victorian period.‍[1]

Although the title phrase “new media” initially calls to mind the digital realm, Teukolsky uses the phrase to refer to the innovative, transformative types of print media created during the nineteenth century. The examples she investigates have traditionally been thought of as ephemeral and marginal, separate from high art and not worthy of serious study. Teukolsky reminds us of the items’ resonance with the fleeting and transitory aspects of modernity and relocates them to a central position.

In addition, Teukolsky questions the work of scholars of visual culture that have followed Michel Foucault’s emphasis on correction and control, such as Jonathan Crary’s discussion of the stereoscope in terms of the disciplining of its viewers in Techniques of the Observer; she argues that such an approach is too limiting to apply to the variety of nineteenth-century media effects and the complex, intimate relationships between individuals and objects.‍[2] Departing from previous discussions of mass visual culture, as well as prior examinations of technologies of communication by scholars like Friedrich Kittler, Teukolsky replaces the idea of an automated, depleted, or passive subject with a new model that privileges desire, imagination, and agency.‍[3] Her refreshing and innovative approach acknowledges the embodied pleasures offered by objects of the Victorian image-world and the importance of those objects in conveying and shaping conceptions of identity and the self.

Picture World explores the influence of “mass culture,” a term Teukolsky prefers over “popular culture,” which she argues is often aligned with the working classes. I am not sure that most people would make that distinction, but Teukolsky’s approach is admirable for its examination of the heterogeneous audience for visual print media, including both wealthier consumers and consumers with more limited means. Each chapter of the book explores the connections between a specific keyword or category in Victorian aesthetics and a particular form of visual mass media. The structured and predictable format of the publication never becomes dull, however, despite the fact that Teukolsky is examining familiar terms; character is discussed in relation to caricature, realism alongside pictorial journalism, illustration through a consideration of illustrated Bibles, sensation through carte-de-visite photographs, the picturesque within the context of stereoscopic views, and decadence by way of advertising posters. She encourages us to think about these aesthetic terms from new vantage points, allowing fresh meanings to emerge through pairings with new media objects.

The first chapter reveals a politicized, externally assembled idea of character that departs from our usual sense of the nineteenth-century concept. Unlike the nineteenth-century realist novel’s psychological notion of character, associated with delving into the internal depths of a person, 1830s caricatures by artists like George Cruikshank and Hablot “Phiz” Browne present character as something provisional and flexible, constructed from the outside through behaviors, movements, and surface details. Depictions of the “cockney,” “the urban mischief-man whose subversive masculinity hovered at the borderlands of class, respectability, and propriety” (17) are given special attention by Teukolsky. While displaying crude racism and misogyny, the comic, grotesque cockney was anti-authoritarian and rebellious, giving expression to the frustrations and instabilities felt by the working and lower middle classes in Britain after the failure of the Reform Bill of 1832 to live up to its ideals.

The second chapter delves into the complex topic of realism through an examination of reportage of the Crimean War. Since scholars have typically discussed realism in relation to nineteenth-century novels, photography, or painting, Teukolsky’s analysis of a range of realist modes in journalistic imagery—including the descriptive, the authentic, the everyday, and the plausible—encourages us to think of realism as an array of possibilities with diverse uses and effects.

Illustration is the keyword for the third chapter, which focuses on the illustrated Bible, the centerpiece of the Victorian parlor. Teukolsky shows that illustration is about more than just elucidating a text or mixing words and images; illustrations “engaged in imaginative acts of world-building and world-making” that “concretized visions of space, place, and self” (143). She examines a range of religious imagery, characterizing the world pictures in Bibles as unstable scenes that stand between opposing concepts, including past and present, East and West, British and foreign, and Jewish and gentile. Her discussion presents fascinating case studies of the Cassell’s Family Bible (1859–63), the best-selling Bible of the mid-century; the “epic” Bible illustrations of Gustave Doré, who was more popular in England than in France; and the illustrations by John Everett Millais for Parables of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (1863), which aimed to make the parables familiar and relevant for modern British audiences. She concludes the chapter with a thought-provoking examination of the joining of modern Britishness and Jewish traditions in depictions of Jewish customs by Pre-Raphaelite artist Simeon Solomon. Conspicuously different from the other visual examples in the chapter, and from the depictions of androgynous figures that are typically associated with Solomon, the illustrations stand out for their mysterious, hazy quality, which, as Teukolsky notes, seems like a rejection of the linear caricature tradition that had produced negative Jewish stereotypes.

The following two chapters include photographic case studies, beginning with the small portraits known as cartes de visite. Teukolsky alters our traditional understanding of the “sensation” phenomenon of the 1860s by showing its extension beyond the realm of fiction into the carte-de-visite portraits of actresses, criminals, courtesans, opera divas, and prostitutes. Although the discussion of spectacular female celebrity and the wild popularity of these photo portraits largely focuses on improper or illicit women, Queen Victoria and Sarah Forbes Bonetta, the queen’s adopted god-daughter from Africa, make unexpected appearances. The discussion of Bonetta’s portrait, which must have shocked Victorian viewers due to her stylization as an aristocratic English lady and departure from the customary visual imagery used to represent African women, is fascinating but leaves the reader longing for a more extensive discussion of her racialized identity in relation to sensation and the presentation of female bodies during the nineteenth century. The chapter on cartes de visite is followed by a chapter examining the images of the stereoscope, which enabled virtual travel through their three-dimensional views. By situating the stereoscope within Romanticism, as an expansion of the picturesque landscape aesthetic of the late eighteenth century, Teukolsky offers a fresh take on stereoscopic views that looks backwards, reminding us that innovative technologies are not always forward or future-looking.

The sixth chapter proves that decadence was not only manifested in literary works by well-known authors such as Oscar Wilde and Joris-Karl Huysmans; fin-de-siècle advertising posters were also vehicles for decadent philosophy. For example, Aubrey Beardsley’s perverse avant-garde aesthetic—involving the avoidance of clear narratives or moral messages, the use of human figures as bearers of pattern and form, a flattened picture plane, and an engagement with the diseased body and racial otherness—was applied to the marketing of consumer goods and cultural events, demonstrating that decadence was not in complete opposition to popular consumer culture as has been traditionally assumed. Teukolsky also explores the ways in which symbolist techniques were joined with consumerism in posters that required the deciphering of strange and unsettling imagery, producing a new approach to advertising based on suggestion and mystery rather than the explicit reference to the object advertised. The book concludes with a short section discussing how early cinema of the 1890s mediated and transformed the picture world of the Victorian parlor.

Teukolsky’s studies of visual print media within each chapter of Picture World are accompanied by discussions of literary examples, some of which seem more organically connected to the visual realm than others. For example, Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers (1836–37) fits well within the first chapter, as it was both inspired by caricature and influenced Reform-era visual culture. Additionally, the chapter on sensation and cartes de visite is enhanced by discussions of the commodification of women in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859–60), as well as in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) and Aurora Floyd (1863). On the other hand, some novels, such as George Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859, included in the chapter on realism and reportage of the Crimean War), and Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876, included in a discussion of Jewishness in the third chapter) feel less relevant and distract somewhat from the considerations of the visual.

Similarly, Teukolsky ends each chapter in the book with short sections linking her discussion of Victorian examples of visual print media to contemporary iterations. For example, aspects of Victorian caricature are reflected in the contemporary animated TV show The Simpsons; the persistence of Victorian Bibles is felt in the form of televangelical empires and religious theme parks; and the faces on Facebook are reminiscent of cartes de visite, with their interplay between individual celebrity and a democratized mass. Although these sections might give one the impression that the examples of Victorian media are the only templates or sources from which contemporary innovations derived, Teukolsky’s attention to the ways in which Victorian attitudes and values still linger gives the publication relevance and will greatly appeal to those interested in Victorian afterlives in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

That ambitious interdisciplinary research lies behind Picture World is evident, and the book is conversational and expansive, inviting engagement across fields, including art history, visual culture studies, media studies, design history, literature, anthropology, and history. Although the publication covers many topics, some important aspects of Victorian visual culture are missing; for example, the diverse and pervasive forms of scientific imagery that proliferated during the Victorian period are not addressed, and the book leaves out the under-recognized but important work of women involved in the creation of printed materials, including women illustrators and cartoonists. The publication is an incredible achievement, however; Teukolsky has provided a stimulating and thoughtful contribution to the field of Victorian print culture and greatly enhanced our knowledge of the intimate, complex relationships that existed between individuals and the varied forms of mass-produced visual media during the nineteenth century.


[1] Martin Heidegger, “The Age of the World Picture,” in The Question Concerning Technology: And Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Garland, 1977), 134; W. J. T. Mitchell, “Showing Seeing: A Critique of Visual Culture,” Journal of Visual Culture 1, no. 2 (August 2002): 170–71.

[2] Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990).

[3] Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 16; Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000), 46.