Working against the grain of popular Victorian taste—which favored art that told a story or evinced a moral—Moore focused on the purely visual properties of his pictures, with the exclusive aim of creating supremely beautiful arrangements of line and color. As a means of frustrating attempts to impose extraneous historical or literary meaning onto his work, Moore adopted titles that reference seemingly trivial accessory objects within his paintings, such as flowers or fruit. The title “Topaz” is typical in being both a red herring and the essential key to the picture’s color scheme, which is Moore’s real subject. The single amber-colored topaz bead at the center of the necklace worn by the figure on the right provides the keynote of Moore’s palette, balanced by the gray-green and pearly-white hues found in other beads. The warm salmon-colored turbans and rug introduce contrasting color accents.
Moore underscored his abstract intentions in Topaz, as in other paintings, by treating the figures as formal design elements, rather than psychologically and physically individualized human beings. The nearly identical female figures are based on Moore’s careful studies of life models, which he gradually transformed to match an ideal of human beauty that he derived from Greek sculpture. The embroidered silk fabric in the background of Topaz appears in several other paintings by Moore, including the iconic Dreamers of 1882 (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery). The flat, decorative backdrop emphasizes the picture’s status as a two-dimensional design, rather than a simulacrum of reality. The filigree pattern of the backdrop also provides a lively counterpoint to the slow, rhythmic swags of the figures’ drapery.
Moore devoted two years to rehearsing and refining every detail of Topaz in order to hone the painting to a state of gemlike perfection. Through numerous figure and drapery studies, he painstakingly developed the composition and experimented with alternative color schemes. He subsequently reworked several of these preliminary studies as finished paintings; examples include Forget-Me-Nots (1881, Private Collection) and Companions (1883, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts).
Emulating the design principles he discerned in nature and the finest examples of art (chiefly, Greek sculpture and Japanese prints), Moore formulated a unique composition process in which the placement of every element—from the slightest stroke of color to the myriad folds of drapery—was determined in advance through the creation of an underlying grid of intersecting lines and curves. Even the placement of his characteristic anthemion signature (visible in the lower right corner of Topaz) was analyzed as an integral element of the composition. Through these exhaustive preparations, Moore ensured that the final canvas was carried out with absolute certainty. The ease and spontaneity of his brushwork enhances the picture’s sparkling appeal.
Topaz was among the most frequently exhibited of Moore’s paintings and critics recognized it as one of the artist’s finest works. Exhibition reviews dwelled on the exquisite delicacy of the color scheme, which (it was often said) lay beyond the capacity of words to describe. Such comments bear out Moore’s belief that a visual work of art, by definition, should appeal directly to the eye and had no business with words. This radical notion constituted a challenge to the narrative traditions of British art and compelled a more sophisticated mode of art criticism.
Although Albert Moore’s paintings were widely admired for their sheer beauty, the experimental aesthetic theories that underlay them were perceived by only a select few of his contemporaries. For them, Moore’s work was a revelation. After seeing Topaz on display at the Walker Art Gallery in September 1879, the artist William Gawin Herdman declared the painting “one of the most singular and novel pictures of modern times” (William Gawin Herdman, “Walker Art Gallery,” Liverpool Mercury, September 23, 1879, p. 8).
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