Art of the Everyday: Dutch Painting and the Realist Novelby Ruth Bernard Yeazell
Realist novels are celebrated for their detailed attention to ordinary life. But two hundred years before the rise of literary realism, Dutch painters had already made an art of the everydaypictures that served as a compelling model for the novelists who followed. By the mid-1800s, seventeenth-century Dutch painting figured virtually everywhere in the British
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Realist novels are celebrated for their detailed attention to ordinary life. But two hundred years before the rise of literary realism, Dutch painters had already made an art of the everydaypictures that served as a compelling model for the novelists who followed. By the mid-1800s, seventeenth-century Dutch painting figured virtually everywhere in the British and French fiction we esteem today as the vanguard of realism. Why were such writers drawn to this art of two centuries before? What does this tell us about the nature of realism?
In this beautifully illustrated and elegantly written book, Ruth Yeazell explores the nineteenth century's fascination with Dutch painting, as well as its doubts about an art that had long challenged traditional values.
After showing how persistent tensions between high theory and low genre shaped criticism of novels and pictures alike, Art of the Everyday turns to four major novelistsHonoré de Balzac, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Marcel Proustwho strongly identified their work with Dutch painting. For all these writers, Dutch art provided a model for training themselves to look closely at the particulars of middle-class life.
Yet even as nineteenth-century novelists strove to create illusions of the real by modeling their narratives on Dutch pictures, Yeazell argues, they chafed at the model. A concluding chapter on Proust explains why the nineteenth century associated such realism with the past and shows how the rediscovery of Vermeer helped resolve the longstanding conflict between humble details and the aspirations of high art.
"Yeazell looks to bring together both the high and the low, bridging Barrett Browning's gap between the Dutch and the Italian...Art of the Everyday: Dutch Painting and the Realist Novel sheds new light on both the realist novel and Dutch painting and covers both fields with the clear, warm glow of a fine Vermeer."Bob Duggan, Art Blog by Bob
"[A]s Ruth Bernard Yeazell makes abundantly clear in her study of the influence of Dutch painting on realist novels, it was the humanity, the ordinariness, the domesticity, of the work of a dozen or so Dutch (and Flemish) artists that proved both appealing and inspiring to Balzac, George Eliot, Hardy, and Proustto name only the masterly writers whom Yeazell considers most essential and instructive. . . . Yeazell documents her thesis with skill, erudition, and elegance."Ed Minus, Sewanee Review
"Yeazell's is an accomplished book, at once meticulous and highly readable, in which narratives of social meaning-making interact in complex, often uneasy ways with stories of conflicted inwardness."Paul K. Saint-Amour, Novel
"Yeazell's grasp over seventeenth-century Dutch painting is both thorough and nuanced, and the several very interesting connections that she makes between these paintings and realistic novels will have major implications for future work on literary realism."Sambudha Sen, Victorian Studies
"Yeazell's well-documented book (more than 500 endnotes and the opinions of many critics on this topic) offers strong evidence that beyond the visual imagery of nineteenth century English and French realist novelists there lies the minute pictorial syntax of the visual images of the seventeenth-century Dutch painter."Camelia-Mihaela Cmeciu, European Legacy
"There's something about the way Art of the Everyday has been written, which takes the reader right inside the canvas of Dutch painting. Upon reading two chapters in particular, 'Low Genre and High Theory' and 'Proust's Genre Painting,' one feels so immersed within the writing, that by proxy, the paintings themselves feel almost within reach. It's as if one is no longer reading about art, but rather, within the art itself. . . . [L]et there be no doubt that Art of the Everyday is an august, and extraordinary contribution to the world of literary theory and the art-historical."David Marx, Davidmarx.com
"Art of the Everyday is one of those rare works that succeeds in comparing these media while doing full justice to their differences and complexities. Yeazell's close readings of nineteenth-century narratives are matched by her vivid interpretations of Dutch paintings, several of which are reproduced in stunning full-color plates. The book is useful not only for the argument it makes about the influence of Dutch painting on the nineteenth-century novel, but also for the high standard it sets for future interdisciplinary studies. . . . Art of the Everyday promises to become an influential work in both literary and art historical studies."Aviva Briefel, Nineteenth-Century Contexts
Paul K. Saint-Amour
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Art of the Everyday Dutch Painting and the Realist Novel
By Ruth Bernard Yeazell Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2007 Princeton University
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Novel as Dutch Painting
In a memorable review of Jane Austen's Emma (1816), Walter Scott celebrated the novelist for her faithful representation of the familiar and the commonplace. Austen had, according to Scott, helped to perfect what was fundamentally a new kind of fiction: "the art of copying from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life." Rather than "the splendid scenes of an imaginary world," her novels presented the reader with "a correct and striking representation of that which [was] daily taking place around him." Scott's warm welcome of Emma has long been known to literary historians and fans of Austen alike. But what is less often remarked is the analogy to visual art with which he drove home the argument. In vividly conjuring up the "common incidents" of daily life, Austen's novels also recalled for him "something of the merits of the Flemish school of painting. The subjects are not often elegant and certainly never grand; but they are finished up to nature, and with a precision which delights the reader."
Just what Flemish paintings did Scott have in mind? If it is hard to see much resemblance between an Austen novel and a van Eyck altarpiece or a mythological image by Rubens, it is not much easier to recognize the world of Emmain the tavern scenes and village festivals that constitute the typical subjects of an artist like David Teniers the Younger (figs. 1-1 and 1-2). Scott's repeated insistence on the "ordinary" and the "common" in Austen's art-as when he welcomes her scrupulous adherence to "common incidents, and to such characters as occupy the ordinary walks of life," or describes her narratives as "composed of such common occurrences as may have fallen under the observation of most folks"-strongly suggests that it is seventeenth-century genre painting of which he was thinking; and Teniers was by far the best known Flemish painter of such images. (He had in fact figured prominently in the first Old Master exhibit of Dutch and Flemish painting sponsored by the British Institution in London the previous year.) But nineteenth-century writers did not often distinguish closely between the Dutch and the Flemish in this connection; and Scott's allusion to "the Flemish school" serves less to evoke individual pictures or even artists than to conjure up Netherlandish genre as a whole. Like "Dutch painting" or "the Dutch school"-phrases that recur with even more frequency in the criticism of the period-it is shorthand for a type of painting that itself, as we shall see, is a painting of types. That such phrases simultaneously evoke ideas of the generic or the typical and of the meticulously detailed and particular (what Scott here calls "precision") is a seeming contradiction that goes to the very heart of the ambivalence that Dutch painting, whether on canvas or in words, could inspire.
Scott's comparison of Austen's art to that of Flanders was not the first analogy between the novel and Netherlandish painting; and it was certainly not the last. At least as early as 1804, Anna Barbauld had already used the analogy to characterize the painstaking detail of Samuel Richardson: the author of Pamela and Clarissa, in her words, had "the accuracy and finish of a Dutch painter ... content to produce effects by the patient labour of minuteness"-a phrase that Leslie Stephen echoed almost exactly when he in turn evoked the novelist's "Dutch painting of extraordinary minuteness" in an essay in the Cornhill more than half a century later. Reviewing Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in 1821, Richard Whately repeated Scott's comparison of Austen's fiction to Flemish painting and added an allusion to the "Dutch school" as well. In 1859, George Henry Lewes returned to the Flemish analogy in an essay that sought to defend Austen's art from the strictures of Charlotte Brontë-an essay that also seized the occasion, not coincidentally, to contend that Austen's "sympathy with ordinary life" had much in common with that of the recently published Scenes of Clerical Life by George Eliot. As we shall see, the latter's own defense of her art by analogy to Dutch painting in Adam Bede that same year predictably encouraged many of her critics to pursue the comparison in the decades that followed. Yet Anthony Trollope was also compared to a Dutch painter, and so too were Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Margaret Oliphant-whose Chronicles of Carlingford were implicitly chided for their affinity with that "apostle of the Dutch school, Mr. Thackeray." Even Thackeray's most celebrated rival was assimilated to the "school": while one reviewer confined himself to a single scene, calling the banquet at Todgers' in Martin Chuzzlewit (1844) a "notable ... piece of Dutch painting," Charles Kingsley's impatient allusion in Alton Locke (1850) to "these days of Dutch painting and Boz" managed to make Dickens and the Dutch virtually synonymous, before he in turn grudgingly set out to satisfy the presumed appetite for such art with a detailed description of an "old eccentric's abode."
Having evoked "the merits of the Flemish school" rather warmly in his review of Emma, Scott himself returned to the analogy more than a decade later-only now it was Daniel Defoe whose fictions were more equivocally praised for the resemblance:
The air of writing with all the plausibility of truth must, in almost every case, have its own peculiar value; as we admire the paintings of some Flemish artists, where, though the subjects drawn are mean and disagreeable, and such as in nature we would not wish to study or look close upon, yet the skill with which they are represented by the painter gives an interest to the imitation upon canvass which the original entirely wants. But, on the other hand, when the power of exact and circumstantial delineation is applied to objects which we are anxiously desirous to see in their proper shape and colours, we have a double source of pleasure, both in the art of the painter, and in the interest which we take in the subject represented. Thus the style of probability with which De Foe invested his narratives, was perhaps ill bestowed, or rather wasted, upon some of the works which he thought proper to produce.
There is no ambiguity here about the kind of low genre painting Scott has in mind. Defoe's rogues and criminals would certainly seem more at home in a tavern by Teniers than would an Emma or a Mr. Knightley (see fig. 1-1). The allusion to "mean and disagreeable" subjects nonetheless helps to illuminate the faint condescension with which Scott had earlier praised Austen's "Flemish" art for confining itself to "the middling classes of society"- while "those which are sketched with most originality and precision, belong to a class rather below that standard." His class discriminations are carefully calibrated, but in both cases Flemish painting evokes the representation of the lower orders as well as the circumstantial details of the novelists' style.
Despite Scott's well-known distinction between his own "Big Bow wow strain" and "the exquisite touch" with which Austen rendered "ordinary common-place things and characters," one French authority identified the author of Waverley too with the tradition of Netherlandish painting in fiction. According to Hippolyte Taine in his Histoire de la littérature anglaise (1863), Scott was "like a painter who, having finished with great ceremonial paintings, finds an interest and a beauty in the bourgeois houses of some provincial dump, or in a farm framed by beds of beetroots and turnips"-a painter of "interior and genre pictures, so local and minute, and which, like those of the Flemish, indicate the rise of a bourgeoisie." For Taine, Scott's true contribution was not the imaginative reconstruction of history but the representation of "the real and modern world," a representation that had profoundly influenced-and by no means all to the good- a "whole literature" that followed:
Miss Austen, Miss Brontë, Mrs. Gaskell, George Eliot, Bulwer, Thackeray, Dickens, and so many others paint especially or entirely, as he does, contemporary life as it is, without embellishment, at all ranks, often amongst the people, even more often amongst the middle class. And the same causes which made the historical novel by him and others come to nothing made the novel of manners by these authors succeed. They were too minute copyists and too decided moralists, incapable of the great divinations and the wide sympathies which open up history; their imagination was too literal, and their judgment too fixed. It is precisely with these faculties that they created a new species of novel, which proliferates today in thousands of offshoots, with such abundance that talents in this branch of literature may be counted by hundreds, and that one can only compare for original and national vigor to the great age of Dutch painting.
Great as it may be, the "great age of Dutch painting" is clearly a doubtful precursor for the new age of the novel.
I shall return to the implications of Taine's mixed assessment throughout this book. But it is worth noting here that the very numbers in which this "new species" proliferates is one source of the critic's unease-as well as a reason for the analogy to a visual tradition famous for the very abundance of the images it produced. If Dutch painting constituted the "first mass consumers' art market" in Europe, as Simon Schama contends, then the nineteenth-century novel was surely the second; and the popularity of both forms raised continual questions about canons of taste and hierarchies of value. Indeed, Taine may be writing at the moment only about English literature, but he is quite clear that Dutch painting in fiction is not confined to England. "Ask a cook which picture she prefers in the museum," he observes caustically, "and she will show you a kitchen, in which the saucepans are so well done that one is tempted to dip into the soup." Such cooks-or rather, the readers for whom they stand-are now apparently everywhere in Europe: "this inclination ... is now European," and the novel which responds to such taste is a European phenomenon. (Where the English differ, Taine suggests, is their impulse to moralize the picture.)
Though I shall argue that there were in fact particular reasons to connect English fiction to Dutch painting, Taine was not alone in finding such painting everywhere in the novel. He does not add any Continental names to the litany of "Miss Austen, Miss Brontë," and the rest, but many readers thought that Balzac especially belonged in their company. In a study of Netherlandish art published six years later, Taine himself would compare Rembrandt to Balzac; but by the time that he thus reversed the direction of the analogy (Rembrandt was "comme notre Balzac"), the comparison of the French novelist to Dutch and Flemish painters had become commonplace on both sides of the Channel. In fact Balzac's realist novels had scarcely begun to appear in the 1830s before critics drew on the analogy to note the extraordinary detail with which his people and places were evoked. At least as early as 1833, the Revue des deux mondes suggested that an old woman in Le médecin de campagne might have had "her wrinkles counted by the brush of Gerrit Dou," and allusions to Dou, Teniers, Rembrandt, and others regularly recurred in the decades that followed. In France one reviewer characterized Père Goriot (1834) as a "tableau flamand," and another invoked the "pinceau flamand" of César Birotteau (1837); in England Eugénie Grandet (1833) was "a Dutch picture of an interior"-this in a review that otherwise excoriated the novelist-while Balzac himself was "a painter of the Flemish school" or a "Dutch painter in prose." As the number of volumes in the Comédie humaine multiplied, Balzac's fiction became a whole gallery of Netherlandish art:
We have all passed entire hours in the galleries of the Louvre in contemplating some of those marvelous interiors by van Ostade, Metsu, or Gerrit Dou, into which our imagination enters, takes up residence, and amuses itself; M. de Balzac sometimes knows how to give to his novels the kind of mysterious attraction these pictures present.... The world that M. de Balzac has the gift of understanding and reproducing is the same as that of these bourgeois painters.
Balzac was not the only Continental writer to be identified-whether for good or ill-with such pictures. In 1861, for example, Flaubert was attacked for creating a world that resembled "a Flemish or Dutch museum," and the analogy was used for other realists, some German as well as French, throughout the century. But the sheer fecundity of Balzac's art-both the astonishing rate at which the novels appeared and the descriptive abundance of his style-made him an especially salient figure for a kind of art that was itself strongly associated with the proliferation of detail. "Where another writer makes an allusion," as Henry James memorably put it, "Balzac gives you a Dutch picture." That so much of Balzac's descriptive energy was directed toward the representation of houses and their interiors-what James called his "passion for bric-à-brac"-intensified his association with the domestic realism of so much Netherlandish painting. Indeed, it is very much to the point that the use of the word "réalisme" in an aesthetic sense seems to have first come into circulation with an 1846 study of Dutch and Flemish art, and that its earliest migration into English seems to have been an anonymous essay on Balzac in the Westminster Review of 1853-an essay that partly sought to counter "the well-known comparison of Balzac to the Dutch painters." (The comparison was fair enough, the critic conceded, "as regards the truthfulness with which he has depicted interiors, and the habits of some homely characters," but it failed to do justice to other aspects of his art-including "his exquisite female characters.")
That the nineteenth century saw Dutch painting virtually everywhere in the novel may suggest that the analogy was used rather loosely, but it also testifies, as I shall argue, that fundamental characteristics of the genre itself were at stake: in associating narrative fiction with the visual art of the seventeenth-century Netherlands, nineteenth-century commentators were both registering and uneasily displacing many of those elements that we have come to identify, after Ian Watt, with the "formal realism" of the novel. Although literary historians sometimes write as if the novel were the first genre in which such realism dominates an entire work (as opposed to figuring in the margins, like servants in Greek tragedy or peasants scrupulously depicted on the borders of a medieval manuscript), many of the images produced by seventeenth-century Netherlandish painters clearly provided an important precedent; and however vaguely they conjured with the analogy, nineteenth-century writers were well aware of the fact. The detailed rendering of material particulars, the representation of "ordinary" people and events rather than heroic and mythical ones, the close attention to the rituals and habits of daily life, especially the domestic life of the middle classes: all these familiar characteristics of novelistic realism had their visual analogues in the so-called Golden Age of Dutch painting-the approximately hundred years, from 1580 to 1680, in which artists had produced the numerous images that continued to circulate through Europe in the centuries that followed.
Excerpted from Art of the Everyday by Ruth Bernard Yeazell
Copyright © 2007 by Princeton University. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Ruth Bernard Yeazell is the Chace Family Professor of English and director of the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale University. Her books include "Harems of the Mind: Passages of Western Art and Literature".
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