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Edith Wharton and the Visual Arts

Edith Wharton and the Visual Arts

by Emily J. Orlando

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An insightful look at representations of women’s bodies and female authority.

This work explores Edith Wharton's career-long concern with a 19th-century visual culture that limited female artistic agency and expression. Wharton repeatedly invoked the visual arts--especially painting—as a medium for revealing the ways that women's


An insightful look at representations of women’s bodies and female authority.

This work explores Edith Wharton's career-long concern with a 19th-century visual culture that limited female artistic agency and expression. Wharton repeatedly invoked the visual arts--especially painting—as a medium for revealing the ways that women's bodies have been represented (as passive, sexualized, infantalized, sickly, dead). Well-versed in the Italian masters, Wharton made special use of the art of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, particularly its penchant for producing not portraits of individual women but instead icons onto whose bodies male desire is superimposed.

Emily Orlando contends that while Wharton's early work presents women enshrined by men through art, the middle and later fiction shifts the seat of power to women. From Lily Bart in The House of Mirth to Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country and Ellen Olenska in The Age of Innocence, women evolve from victims to vital agents, securing for themselves a more empowering and satisfying relationship to art and to their own identities.

Orlando also studies the lesser-known short stories and novels, revealing Wharton’s re-workings of texts by Browning, Poe, Balzac, George Eliot, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and, most significantly, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Edith Wharton and the Visual Arts is the first extended study to examine the presence in Wharton's fiction of the Pre-Raphaelite poetry and painting of Rossetti and his muses, notably Elizabeth Siddall and Jane Morris. Wharton emerges as one of American literature's most gifted inter-textual realists, providing a vivid lens through which to view issues of power, resistance, and social change as they surface in American literature and culture.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"In this meticulously researched study of Wharton's novels and short stories, Orlando (Fairfield University) makes a convincing argument for the ways in which Wharton enacted, through her work, a 'cultural critique that transcends the literary arts.' Interweaving illustrations of 19th- and early-20th-century art and detailed close readings of Wharton's fiction, the author guides the reader through Wharton's critique of the pre-Raphaelite artists and their vexed representations of women. Thanks to Orlando's impressive knowledge of art history and of Wharton scholarship, this volume secures an understanding of Wharton's place as one of 'American literature's most gifted inter-textual realists.' Nor does Orlando sacrifice depth for breadth. So smart and commanding a reader is she that the study's multidisciplinary approach (art history, cultural history, women's studies, US literature, Victorian literature) only enhances its appeal. One leaves this book with a more thorough understanding of Wharton's engagement with the visual arts as well as deeper insight into her complex, often-misunderstood relationship to the representation of women and the emerging feminism of her day. A distinguished contribution to Wharton scholarship. Summing Up: Essential. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty."

"Professor Orlando is very skillful in showing how Wharton integrates the works of other artists (especially painters and poets) in creating characters and scenes in her own work. . . . She is the first to study Wharton’s work in the context of the history of museums and the role of women as curators and art historians.. . . Another strength of the book is the attention given to neglected stories, such as "The Potboiler," "The Rembrandt," and "The Temperate Zone," which are shown to be relevant to the major novels in ways that had not been demonstrated before."--Elsa Nettels, author of Language and Gender in American Fiction: Howells, James, Wharton, and Cather

Product Details

University of Alabama Press
Publication date:
Amer Lit Realism & Naturalism
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Edith Wharton and the Visual Arts

By Emily J. Orlando

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2007 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-5552-4

Chapter One

Beauty Enshrined

Living Pictures and Still Lifes; or, Her Body Becomes His Art

Women and works of art are related creatures.... What is really wanted of them is possession or exhibition. -Hippolyte Taine, Notes on Paris (1901)

[M]en say of women, let them be idols, useless absorbents of previous things, provided we are not obliged to admit them to be strictly fellow-beings. -George Eliot, "Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft" (1855)

Terence Davies admits he cast Gillian Anderson in his recent film of The House of Mirth (2000) because she reminded him of a Sargent painting, a point that Wharton would have appreciated. Davies had never seen Anderson act-and at the film's release, he had yet to watch The X-Files-but he selected his Lily because s he looked like she stepped from a canvas by the premier portraitist of Wharton's set. Wharton clearly knew how it felt to be compared to a painting: her friend, the writer Paul Bourget, called her "le Velasquez" after a child princess bythe Spanish artist (Lubbock 95). As an adult, Wharton was painted once, by her husband's friend Julian Story; thinking the portrait a failure, she refused to sit for another. Wharton also was averse to being photographed, as is clear from a 1902 letter to her publisher. Such resistance to being represented in visual culture suggests that Wharton keenly understood the power of images. And while both Gillian Anderson and Edith Wharton, auburn-haired women rising to prominence at the start of a century, established themselves as successful artists in their own right, the men in their respective fields seem inclined to position them as living portraits.

This chapter concerns moments in Wharton's fiction in which women are "enshrined" in art as poems, pictures, or statues-idols intended, as Taine and Eliot suggest, for possession or exhibition. The chapter addresses Wharton's lesser-known early tales "The Muse's Tragedy," "The Moving Finger," and "The Duchess at Prayer" in context with the well-known The House of Mirth, while drawing connections to other texts by Wharton and those whose work her fiction invokes-Browning, Hawthorne, Poe, Balzac, George Eliot, Christina Rossetti, and especially Dante Rossetti. These Wharton tales embrace a number of shared themes: an awareness of the cultural predilection for imaging women a s objects of display for possession or exhibition; a recognition of the period's inextricable link between art and the death of a beautiful woman; and a consciousness of the way in which the representation of women has been theorized as akin to sexually overpowering them and/or appropriating their "fertile gardens" and that this conquest is marked by violence.

These Wharton narratives, and the ones that would follow, offer a limited set of options for women. Among them are: disappointment and loneliness, death (after which one becomes an object d'art), acceptance of one's status as artwork for circulation in t he marketplace, or self-directed circulation of one's own body on the marriage market. That is, Wharton's women can be circulated as works of art or they can beat men in their own game and elect to circulate themselves as marriageable commodities (Kate Arran, "The Potboiler") or as works of art (Lily Bart, The House of Mirth; Undine Spragg, The Custom of the Country) or both. Increasingly in Wharton's fiction, her women learn, as a survival tactic, to barter their bodies for their benefit. In fact, the women in Wharton's middle to late fiction turn the tables and locate agency in their objectification in a way that the early heroines could not: they direct and produce a kind of "body art." While Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have astutely noted that "[m]id-Victorian writers of both sexes tended to dramatize a defeat of the female, while turn-of-the-century authors began to envision the possibility of women's triumph" (1:4), Wharton's case is more complicated. Indeed, what distinguishes Wharton is her contention that not much had truly changed for women by the early years of the twentieth century; and this, of course, was not a terribly popular message to broadcast. If Wharton is able to locate possibility in these narratives, it is through her heroine's objectification and indeed the cross-marketing of her own body. This is not to suggest Wharton promotes or celebrates the strategy. On the contrary, she laments the choices available to American women. But at least Wharton manages to identify some options. This book's discussion of women who turn up disappointed or dead at the narrative's end (Mary Anerton, Mrs. Grancy, the duchess at prayer, Lily Bart) anticipates the striking example of Undine Spragg, discussed at the start of chapter 3, who carves out a space for her own agency. In the later years of her career, Edith Wharton negotiates a way for her heroines to survive in a system that would otherwise relentlessly objectify them in art. She allows the women of her later fiction to find ways to make the system work for them by overseeing and directing their body art.

The objectification of women must have struck a personal note for Edith Wharton, who was compared not only to a painting but also to a piece of furniture. At the height of her career, Wharton was described by a critic as being "finished as a Sheraton sideboard" (Parrington 393). The analogy resonates on many levels. Bram Dijkstra in Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture describes a disturbing trend in the visual arts of the turn of the century that figures women as furniture. He points for example to drawings of women who offer their backs for the support of a chair. Such images, he claims, signify "the twisted turn-of-the-century dream of masculine mastery which insisted on seeing woman as merely a piece of household furniture" (118). And yet many of Wharton's women are ambivalent about the "dream of masculine mastery" to which Dijkstra refers-ambivalent because, although they may be objectified and sexualized, there are advantages to being likened to a work of art and thought so aesthetically pleasing that, like Ellen Olenska, they "ought to be painted." As Wharton repeatedly shows, upper-class women of leisure, and particularly the women of the later fiction, in effect support and reinforce the cultural codes and benefit from the pernicious tradition that objectifies them.

The comparison between Wharton and furniture further invokes Laura Mulvey's discussion of a more contemporary London exhibition of Allen Jones's work: "The sculptures formed a series, called 'Women as Furniture,' in which life-size effigies of women, slave-like and sexually provocative, double as hat-stands, tables and chairs. Not surprisingly, members of Women's Liberation noticed the exhibition and denounced it as supremely exploitative of women's already exploited image" (6). Response to the 1970 Jones show makes it clear why a critic's likening of Wharton to a piece of furniture might offend women, and especially creative women. The comparison of Wharton to a work of art remained with her after death, when she was described by a scholar and sometime friend as though she were a novel by Henry James: "[S]he was all that only his [Henry James's] eloquence could depict ... clear-cut, finely finished and trimmed and edged.... If she was a novel of his own she did him credit.... All this was much more than her pretty little literary talent, the handful of clever little fictions of her own" (Lubbock 21). Perhaps anticipating the dismissal of her "pretty little ... talent" and "clever little fictions" and the will of others to render her, as they would the heroine of "The Muse's Tragedy," a "pretty little essay with a margin" (78), Wharton's own fiction takes up with special urgency the problem of the objectification of women in art and culture.

Turn-of-the-century America, which finds Wharton defining herself as a fiction writer, evidently expended a lot of energy dreaming of portraits of dead, beloved females coming to life, if only for an instant. We might consider the example of the popular magician Herrmann who in 1894 staged a scene titled The Artist's Dream. The New York Herald described it on November 18 as "a pathetic little sketch telling the story of an old French artist who had painted the portrait of his little daughter, who has died." The stage re-created the artist's studio: "[A]t one side stands the young girl's portrait.... the artist comes in, and after adding a few touches to the picture [of his daughter] with his brush, sits down in front of it. He gazes at it awhile, and then apparently drops off to sleep. In a twinkling a fairy appears in one of the empty frames, and as she waves her wand the portrait of the child literally comes to life before the eyes of the spectators. She steps down from the frame and dances and sings around her father's chair. Suddenly he awakes and-presto! the child is back in the frame, a picture once more." This fragment from the turn-of-the-century New York stage demonstrates the culture's attraction to art that captures dead female bodies, resurrects them for a moment in the fashion of Pygmalion, and restores them to the canvas, "a picture once more." Christina Rossetti's sonnet "In an Artist's Studio" anticipates the work of the magician Herrmann, whose female model is alive only in the artist's dream.

"The Muse's Tragedy" (1899) remains a touchstone for Wharton's commentary on the enshrinement of women in art by men. Wharton's Mary Anerton, a forty-something American woman who has spent most of her life in Europe, has been canonized as the "Silvia" and "Mrs. A" of the celebrated sonnets by the late Vincent Rendle, a poet whom she loved in a way he could not reciprocate. Rendle in fact begs a comparison to Dante Rossetti, whose sonnet sequence The House of Life (1870) celebrates the second of his great loves-the inaccessible model-muse Jane Morris. Rendle's protégé, an aspiring young critic named Danyers, has long been intrigued with the mythical Mrs. A: "Ever since his Harvard days ... Danyers had dreamed of Mrs. Anerton, the Silvia of Vincent Rendle's immortal sonnet cycle, the Mrs. A of the Life and Letters. Her name was enshrined in some of the noblest English verse of the nineteenth century" (67). Wharton here invokes the Anglo-Italian Rossetti's 1870 poem "The Portrait," in which the speaker celebrates his enshrinement of a woman's beauty: "In painting her I shrined her face" (l. 19). The tenth sonnet of The House of Life, also titled "The Portrait," similarly speaks in the voice of a male painter, who boasts

Her face is made her shrine. Let all men note That in all years (O Love, thy gift is this!) They that would look on her must come to me.

Like Rossetti's speaker, Wharton's Rendle has enshrined his muse in art such that the reader must go through him to get to her.

Mary Anerton and other Wharton heroines challenge the assumption that a muse is more active than passive. At the story's end, Mary says of Rendle's sonnets: "I am supposed to have 'inspired' them, and in a sense I did" (74). But the reader knows, if not from Wharton's own career then from the cautionary example of Emily Morland, the late accomplished poet of "The Temperate Zone" (1924), that it is not enough to "inspire" great art: it is said of Mrs. Morland that she "had been inspired, which, on the whole, is more worth-while than to inspire" (455).

Wharton borrows Danyers's perspective to deliver a commentary on the sexually charged relationship between women, art, and inspiration: "Posterity is apt to regard the women whom poets have sung as chance pegs on which they hung their garlands; but Mrs. Anerton's mind was like some fertile garden wherein, inevitably, Rendle's imagination had rooted itself and flowered. Danyers began to see how many threads of his complex mental tissue the poet had owed to the blending of her temperament with his; in a certain sense Silvia had herself created the Sonnets to Silvia" (72). While the passage suggests Danyers's acknowledgment of the muse's involvement in literary production, it is "Silvia," not Mary, to whom credit is given. In rechristening Mary "Silvia" in art, Vincent Rendle aligns himself with Dante Rossetti, another Victorian sonneteer who renamed his muse: as his brother William noted, Dante Rossetti insisted on spelling Lizzie's last name with one "l" (Siddal), even though her family name was Siddall (Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His Family Letters with a Memoir 1:171). (He thought the change rendered it more refined.) Like Rendle, Rossetti effectively controlled how history would remember his muse, not just in image but also in name, given that Rossetti's spelling has generally been accepted as standard.

Danyers's image renders Mary Anerton a "fertile ground" to be "inevitably" penetrated by the male genius-a paradigm that suggests the kind of Pre-Raphaelite art that would penetrate. In fact, Danyers seems to want to let his own imagination roam in "Silvia": "[H]e now thrilled to the close-packed significance of each line, the allusiveness of each word-his imagination lured hither and thither on fresh trails of thought, and perpetually spurred by the sense that, beyond what he had already discovered, more marvelous regions lay waiting to be explored" (67). So for both Rendle and Danyers, a woman enshrined in art remains a fertile ground waiting to be conquered by a male explorer who will linger hither and thither, drawing thrills from the process of unveiling the meaning of the text/garden/woman. But Wharton critiques this impulse first by having Mary survive Rendle and escape the "enforced immortality" of her enshrinement in art and also by having her reject the marriage proposal made by Danyers, a man who seems eager to fill Rendle's shoes (73).

The image of the male writer's imagination flowering in Mary Anerton's mind looks forward to a problematic remark Henry James would make in speaking about Wharton's fiction. James suggests in a 1902 letter to Mary Cadwalader Jones, his longtime friend and Wharton's sister-in-law, that he evidently wanted to plant his own imagination in the aspiring writer's "fertile ground." While expressing approval of two volumes of Wharton stories, James nevertheless would like "to get hold of the little lady and pump the pure essence of my wisdom and experience into her.... If a work of imagination, of fiction, interests me at all ... I always want to write it over in my own way.... That I always find a pleasure in, and I found it extremely in the "Vanished Hand" (Bell, Edith Wharton and Henry James 247). Apparently referring to "The Moving Finger," James's comment is instructive to Wharton readers not only for the way it reduces Wharton to "the little lady" but also for its undeniably sexual implications, suggesting a kind of intellectual ravishment that is decidedly violent.

Mary Anerton critiques the construction of woman-as-muse in the Dear John letter to Danyers with which the story closes, and she in fact proposes a solution to the muse's quandary. Of her failed romance with Rendle, who was more in love with his image of her than with her flesh-and-blood counterpart, she writes: "He had never made love to me; it was no fault of his if I wanted more than he could give me. The Sonnets to Silvia, you say? But what are t hey? A cosmic philosophy, not a love poem; addressed to Woman, not to a woman!" (75). The facts that Wharton's story is interrupted by the intrusion of Mary's voice (her letter to Danyers comprises the story's final section), that we more than once see her engaged in the act of writing, and that she speaks the words that close the narrative, suggest a kind of resistance to the way in which art and poetry enshrine women. Indeed, she speaks for herself at the close of a story that had otherwise been more Danyers's than her own. So while Wharton's Mary is empowered by the way in which she closes the narrative, it is useful to remember that her fate, signaled by the story's title, is far from happy: one of Wharton's tragic muses, she describes herself, finally, as "a disappointed woman" (73). But at least Mary escapes the narrative alive, and with a voice, which is more than can be said for the other tragic muses and enshrined beauties that constellate the pages of Wharton's early fiction.


Excerpted from Edith Wharton and the Visual Arts by Emily J. Orlando Copyright © 2007 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Emily J. Orlando is Assistant Professor of American Literature at Tennessee State University.

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