The Willing Captive is a charming narrative painting which exemplifies a style of painting, both popular and prolific during the Victorian era. England's increasingly affluent middle class favoured pictures with a story and preferably a moral. The artist was the storyteller who created a pictorial tale with a series of clues, for example, the personal demeanour of the subjects, their clothes and accessories, or the background objects, or the title. The viewer was invited to extend the story beyond the frame.
The title of this painting is evocative-The Willing Captive. The observer could justifiably question which of the two lives is the captive one, that of the bird or its owner, or indeed, whether a captive is ever willing. The beautiful young woman is herself enslaved by the conventions and restraints of nineteenth-century society. The drawing room of the middle¬class house at this time has been described as 'the throne room of the lady of the house and the gilded cage of her daughter'. On her hand rests the other captive, the small canary, temporarily released from its cage, yet showing no urgent instinct to flee. Perhaps this captive is indeed willing.
The Willing Captive has been carefully painted, every detail clear and fresh. There is no doubt that this woman is from the comfortable, prosperous middle class. Her posture reflects the manners of a proper nineteenth-century lady. She wears a gown of fine, expensive fabric in a fashionable style which suggests an earlier age. Her hand is raised gracefully to allow her pet to perch, drawing the viewer's attention to the pagoda-style sleeve, a reminder of the British obsession with the Orient. Her other hand rests on the rich velvet surface of the tablecloth, a hand clearly not to be engaged in menial chores. Hair immaculately groomed, pearls resting below the black ribbon around her neck, she is the personification of nineteenth-century gentility. She looks not at, but past the bird, as if her thoughts, too, go beyond the present. Does she wistfully dream of her own freedom? How could she know of the tide of emancipation so soon to flow and change the lives of all women? This nineteenth-century painting gives the viewer a glimpse of a society which had great admiration for wealth and placed strong emphasis on respectability, yet still took pleasure in woman's beauty. One can respond to its gentle qualities, yet be reminded of the social restrictions and inhibitions imposed on the life of the lovely subject.
John Robert Dicksee was the first in a family of artists, of which his nephew, Sir Frank Dicksee, has become the best known. Despite being encouraged into a business career, he gradually established himself, first as a lithographer, then as a portrait and figurative artist. His only art training was six months spent studying under H. P. Briggs, RA. From 1852 to 1897 he was head drawing master at the City of London School and he was also the first curator of the works of art belonging to the Corporation of the City of London. He exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy and other British art societies. His Times obituary recorded that 'he retained the use of his faculties practically to the end and, indeed, his last picture was in this year's exhibition of The Royal Academy (1905)'. The Willing Captive was first exhibited in The Royal Academy Exhibition in 1876.