Mention the word "Victorian" today and -- almost invariably -- certain kinds of stereotypes tend to creep into the conversation.
Stuffy, strait-laced and hypocritical are just a few of the terms often used to describe the culture that dominated the globe during the time of England's longest reigning monarch, says Chrysler Museum of Art director William J. Hennessey.
Sentimental is just as common.
Visitors to the Chrysler's newest show, however, are seeing a vastly more complex and sometimes unexpectedly familiar world unfold as they take in the compelling canvases of "London Calling: Victorian Paintings from the Royal Holloway Collection."
Assembled by one of Great Britain's richest men during the early 1880s, the provocative paintings reflect the strong taste and character of a socially engaged, enterprising and ultimately self-made entrepreneur looking for emblems of guidance during a time of unprecedented economic and social upheaval.
"The Victorian era may have been the most dynamic, the most energetic period in history. More money was being made, more lives were being changed and more people were moving and being displaced than at any previous time because of the revolution that was giving birth to the modern world," Hennessey says.
"And the best artists of the day were making art that tried to come to terms with that world -- one that was changing faster and more dramatically than anybody had ever imagined."
Born to an industrious baker and publican, Holloway grew up in the west of England and was apprenticed to a chemist at 16.
He lived in France for three years before returning to London and establishing himself in the import-export business.
He was already 37 when -- inspired by an Italian patent-medicine tycoon -- he concocted "Holloway's Universal Family Ointment" in his mother's kitchen. Though the resulting rivalry led to bankruptcy and debtor's prison, he soon bounced back, using aggressive, American-style advertising to build a wildly profitable global business.
Holloway ranked as one of Britain's richest men when he began buying contemporary British paintings for the pioneering women's college he founded outside London. His unusually patriotic choice was no accident.
"He wanted paintings that reflected the values he saw in successful businessmen like himself, and British art in 1880 was very well-crafted and often socially engaged," Hennessey says. "It also celebrated the English countryside as an expression of national character and virtue."
As a result, Holloway resisted the more conventional lure of Old Masters and classical subjects for such works as Daniel Maclise's large 1857 canvas "Peter the Great at Deptford Dockyard."
Not only does this enormous, detail-filled painting laud the ingenuity and craftsmanship behind England's shipbuilding industry but it also underscores the hands-on character of the enterprising Russian modernizer who wanted to replicate it.
Other scenes from British history captured Holloway's fancy, too, including Sir John Vincent Millais' evocative 1878 portrait of Prince Edward V and his brother Richard, who were imprisoned in the Tower of London at the ages of 12 and 10 and then murdered by their uncle.
"In a time of great national change, where do you look for identity? You look to the past," Hennessey says. "And the nice thing about the past is that it has a lot of stories with clear villains and innocent victims."
Holloway sought images of contemporary Victorian life just as avidly, paying unprecedented sums for such large, unmistakably emblematic works as William Powell Frith's 1862 masterpiece "The Railway Station."
The nearly 9-foot-long canvas fills one of the Victorian period's most definitive structures with more than 60 faces, Hennessey says. It also recreates the Paddington Station gateway where Holloway disembarked on his first trip from the West Country.
"Every era has a building that embodies its spirit and character. In the 19th century, that building was the railway station," he says.
"It was the one place where every part of this very stratified, quickly changing society came face to face. And every single figure in this painting -- the wedding party, the detectives, the boys being sent off to boarding school -- has a story."
Holloway showed similar interest in socially conscious paintings, including Sir Luke Fildes' portrayal of Victorian London's homeless in "Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward."
So sensational was this dark, challenging depiction of the poor and down-and-out that when it debuted at the Royal Academy in 1874 it needed a policeman and rail to shield it from the crowds.
Even more daring was his choice of Sir Edwin Landseer's "Man Proposes, God Disposes," a bleak 1864 canvas that shows two fierce polar bears tearing at the remains of a failed expedition.
The panoramic format underscores the vastness and desolation of the Arctic, while the wreckage of the doomed explorers' ship speaks volumes about the savagery of nature and the limits of human ambition.
"It's just an astounding picture," Hennessey says. "Fierce, frightening and uncompromising on so many levels."
Want to go?
What: "London Calling: Victorian Paintings from the Royal Holloway Collection."
Where: Chrysler Museum of Art, 245 W. Olney Road, Norfolk
When: Through Jan. 2
Online: Go to dailypress.com/Victorianart to see pictures from the show