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The Visual Arts, Pictorialism, and the Novel
James, Lawrence, and Woolf
By Marianna Torgovnick
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1985 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
IN THE DOCUMENTARY MODE: JAMES, LAWRENCE, WOOLF, AND THE VISUAL ARTS
Henry James (1843-1916) is the oldest, most conservative of the novelists with whom I will deal, and his age and temperament largely determine the nature of his involvement with the visual arts. A consciousness of the visual arts surrounds all of James's life and career, but, as we shall see, that consciousness was more circumspect, less radical, less Modern, than that of either Lawrence or Woolf. As an autobiographer and critic, James provided unusually detailed records of his exposure to the visual arts, and of his likes and dislikes. And many of the details are little short of perfect in fitting the general picture just sketched.
We must rely on others to assure that our last words sound right to posterity, but can proffer to the world for ourselves our earliest, most vivid memories. Several of James's concern the visual arts. He recorded his first memory as a framed image seen through a carriage window and, as Viola Hopkins Winner notes, this remains a characteristic mode of perception for James, reflecting, perhaps, his later passion for observation. As Winner also notes, the perception of things framed becomes a characteristic mode of perception for characters within James's novels: Isabel framed in the doorway for Ned Rosier's eye, for example.
Other early memories include illustrations in novels (especially those of Cruikshank) and the desire to be himself a painter (from which he was dissuaded by the painter John La Farge). In the autobiographical A Small Boy and Others, James also recalled an early visit to the Louvre's Galerie d'Apollon which recurred for him later in life in the form of a "dream-adventure" or night mare. In the dream, James felt overwhelmed by the greatness and power of the art he beheld, which impressed themselves upon him, oddly, in terms of sound. In his biography of James, Leon Edel connects the experience to James's rivalry with his brother William and notes that in the Louvre, "Henry James discovered for the first time the meaning of 'Style.'"
One other of James's noteworthy early impressions of art was his enthusiasm for Delaroche's Les Enfants d'Edouard (1831; plate 1) which depicts the young Princes in the Tower awaiting their doom at the hands of Richard Ill's henchmen. In his autobiography, James later attributed his interest in the psychological to this painting; others have noted its anticipation of James's recurrent interest in the theme of terrified or confused children, of children under the shadow of evil. When we consider the status of this painting in Victorian England, however, other aspects of James's appreciation become prominent. As Roy Strong notes in Recreating the Past: British History and Victorian Painting, the theme of the menaced or victimized child or woman (especially when Royal) was a Victorian obsession, and this painting by Delaroche (and a similar one by Millais) was among the most popular in Victorian England. In many ways, then, James's tastes in the visual arts typified those of his adopted country and especially those of the educated high bourgeois of his day. He admired the High Renaissance and the "grand style" in architecture. He admired too Titian, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Fra Angelico, Botticelli, Raphael, and Tintoretto, especially Tintoretto for his sense of light and movement and for the sense of the inner life manifested in the outer form. His tastes inclined always to painting rather than to sculpture, a preference reflected in the above list.
Especially in his early and middle career, James wrote travel pieces, pieces sometimes collected in volumes with titles that evoke the visual arts, like Portraits of Places. These essays show a wide range of sensitivity to foreign places and richly evoke the sounds, smells, feelings, and forms of life in the locales described. But, as the very genre and titles imply, they are especially rich in sights that evoke the sense of place. Indeed, James shows an implicit awareness of a principle that we will frequently find associated with perceptual uses of the visual arts: the ability of a remembered sight to compose like a painting, to be recalled as a whole, and thereby to evoke a complete memory and understanding. Thus, in "Venice," James notes that when he hears the name of that city,
I simply see a narrow canal in the heart of the city — a patch of green water and a surface of pink wall. The gondola moves slowly; it gives a great, smooth swerve, passes under a bridge. ... A girl is passing over the little bridge, which has an arch like a camel's back, with an old shawl on her head, which makes her look charming; you see her against the sky as you float beneath. The pink of the old wall seems to fill the whole place; it sinks even into the opaque water.
Then, "Afterward, in ugly places, at unprivileged times, you can convert your impressions into prose" (p. 17). The habit of mind James describes fostered his most extensive and felicitous uses of the visual arts and pictorialism in his novels.
In all of James's tastes, however, there is little unexpected, little out of the ordinary. He seems to articulate, with characteristic grace and accuracy, precisely the likes and dislikes that one might expect of his age and class. The same remains true in his evaluation of earlier nineteenth-century and contemporary painting. In 1868, James pronounced dislike for Ingres, but great liking for Delacroix, whom he called "the one really great modern painter of France." Later, he elaborated his praise for Delacroix, using criteria entirely typical of his attitudes toward art, and based almost entirely on subject or content, especially on dramatic or psychological interest: "I think there is no question that, on the whole, the artist we value most is the artist who tells us the most about human life." Again like many Victorians and Edwardians, James favored the first generation Pre-Raphaelites — among whom he had personal friends, like Sir Edward Burne-Jones — but disliked Wildean aestheticism and artists like Beardsley.
Like all nineteenth-century devotees of the visual arts, James's crucial and most complex encounter came with the most radical and mutating of nineteenth-century art movements, Impressionism and its various heirs, grouped since the 1910 English exhibition under the name Post-Impressionism. Now wildly popular and entirely acceptable, the Impressionists were once considered little more than fools and madmen, and it requires an act of historical imagination to share the nineteenth century's outrage at the movement.
The name "Impressionism" was given, in derision, by a hostile critic to the work of Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, and Alfred Sisley, but it has also come to designate some of the work of Edouard Manet, Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, and Pisarro. Unlike the neutral term "Post-Impressionism," coined by Roger Fry, the term was designed to ridicule the hallmark of Impressionist style: rapid brushstrokes to capture impressions of people and landscapes, and to "suggest the scintillation of light and to recreate it to a certain extent on canvas [as well as] to retain rapidly changing aspects." The Impressionists also tended to paint subjects from the lower classes in more ordinary activities than found in much earlier painting, especially that ruling in the Salon. Our historical imaginations may be aided in understanding nineteenth-century fears by quoting from a review of the Impressionists' exhibition by Louis Leroi, now known, ironically, as the man who christened Impressionism; his remarks refer to Monet's Boulevard des Capucines, Paris (1873; plate 2) and are in the form of a dialogue between a defender and attacker of the movement:
"There's impression, or I don't know what it means. Only be so good as to tell me what those innumerable tongue lickings in the lower part of the picture represent?"
"Why, those are people walking along!" I replied.
"Then do I look like that when I'm walking along the Boulevard des Capucines? Blood and thunder!"
James was less crude but hardly more enthusiastic about the Impressionists. His first encounter with the movement — and it is significant that he speaks of the movement as a monolith, uncharacteristically making little attempt to distinguish among its artists — produced, in 1876, a cooly dismissive review which decided that "none of its members shows signs of possessing first-rate talent." In the review, James especially criticized the Impressionists for declining the burden of arrangement that he himself found the artist's chief task: the Impressionists, noted James, "are partisans of unadorned reality and absolute foes to arrangement, embellishment, selection, to the artist's allowing himself, as he has hitherto, since art began, found his best account in doing, to be preoccupied with the idea of the beautiful. The beautiful, to them, is what the supernatural is to the Positivists — a metaphysical notion, which can only get one into a muddle and is to be let severely alone. Let it alone, they say, and it will come at its own pleasure; the painter's proper field is simply the actual, and to give a vivid impression of how a thing happens to look, at a particular moment, is the essence of his mission."
James's remarks are wholly consistent with his general disposition toward painting. A work without photographically mimetic qualities, without a dramatic situation, was, for him, lacking some of the essential qualities of art. James's reactions to Whistler's work are instructive in this regard. He frequently praised Whistler and liked the traditional portrait of Whistler's mother. But, significantly, he ignored Whistler's titles — in this instance, Arrangement in Black and Gray — which urge our attention away from the subject portrayed to formal arrangement independent of subject. Interestingly, James's position here resembles his qualified admiration for Flaubert, whose technical achievements James thought brilliant and worth borrowing, but whose desire to write a novel about nothing, just style, and whose repeated choice of protagonists that James found "stupid" dismayed him.
It is frequently said that James eventually accommodated the Impressionists and came to understand their emphasis on the perceiving eye so fully that he became a "literary Impressionist." Yet it might be more accurate to say that he began to appreciate some aspects of some Impressionist paintings and arrived at an emphasis on the perceivng subject analogous to, though not, I think, derived from theirs. Such a view accords far better than others with the stinging criticisms of the Impressionists that appear quite late in James's writings, as in an essay on John Singer Sargent, James's friend and (in 1913) the painter of his portrait. The remarks occur in an essay of 1893:
From the time of his first successes at the Salon he was hailed, I believe, as a recruit of high value to the camp of the Impressionists, and today he is for many people most conveniently pigeon-holed under that head. It is not necessary to protest against the classification if this addition always be made to it, that Mr. Sargent's impressions happen to be worthy of record. This is by no means inveterately the case with those of the ingenuous artists who most rejoice in the title in question. To render the impression of an object may be a very fruitful effort but ... [the Impressionists lie] not unjustly, as it seems to me, under the suspicion of seeking the solution of their problem exclusively in simplification.
Such criticisms show the master skeptical of the French experimenters, long after their experiments had ceased to be the most radical things on the visual arts' horizon.
James wrote art reviews between 1868 and 1882, with brief resumptions in 1893 and 1897. His career as an art critic thus skirts the years in which he produced his most brilliant novels. His art criticism always reflects his taste for the representational, the dramatic, the art of content and moral. James thought, moreover, that the best art critics shared his tastes and assumptions. He notes with approval that the "best" of the French critics (named as Stendhal, Planche, Vitet, and Taine) "deal with painters and paintings as literary critics deal with authors and books. They neither talk pure sentiment (or rather impure sentiment), like foolish amateurs, nor do they confine their observations to what the French call the technique of art. They examine pictures (or such, at least, is their theory) with equal regard to the standpoint of the painter and that of the spectator, whom the painter must always be supposed to address."
James's habits of mind concerning the visual arts predate his career as a writer. When he turned from painting to literature as his vocation, he felt that the two arts had identical aims: in fiction as in the visual arts "the picture was still, after all, one's aim." A similar view informs "The Art of Fiction," in which the author's ability to form impressions as "pictures" becomes a source of knowledge, and the comparison between painting and writing novels is strongly asserted. Said James:
the analogy between the art of the painter and the art of the novelist, is, so far as I can see, complete. Their inspiration is the same, their process (allowing for the different quality of the vehicle) is the same. They may learn from each other.
Appropriately, his later criticism and prefaces abound in metaphors and terms drawn from the visual arts as well as, more obviously, from drama. And yet these terms frequently lack the crispness and aptness of the terms he borrowed from drama, and they frequently seem misleading or confusing. James often, for example, describes literary pieces or individual sentences as "pictorial," using none of the meanings usually given to the term. The sentences and passages he so designates seem unimaginable as paintings or sculptures, but do share quaintness or a high degree of psychological awareness that, for James, seems to be what the term "pictorial" describes, along with a certain "unity" of elements into a suitable whole.
It is certainly true that James derived inspiration for his fictional theories from the visual arts. As Ellen Eve Frank shows in Literary Architecture, James often used architectural metaphors in his theoretical remarks about fiction, with the architectural images suggesting central features of James's work, like the balance between what Frank calls "internalities" (the characters' consciousnesses, for example) and "externalities" (like the authorial shaping of form). His ideal of organic form in fiction and his concern with point of view also evolve in part from his sense of paintings as organic wholes rendered (at least in the traditional art he knew and favored most) from a single and consistent vantage point. The "in part" in the preceding sentence counts heavily with me, however. For James simultaneously evolved his theories of fiction from his conception of drama and from his (often critical) reading of earlier novels, as well as from his experience of the visual arts, with these sources rather entangled in his theoretical writing. Perhaps because James tended so pervasively to make analogies between drama, the novel, and the visual arts, connections between his theory of fiction and the visual arts frequently become so large as to end in vagueness or else are tainted by analogies to drama as well. One should note, however, that in linking drama, the novel, and painting, James once again was in accord with his time: for the dramatic reenactment of paintings, as well as illustrations from novels — often in the form of the tableau-vivant, which itself imitates a painting — was common in nineteenth-century theatre.
Excerpted from The Visual Arts, Pictorialism, and the Novel by Marianna Torgovnick. Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsLIST OF PLATES, ix,
ONE In the Documentary Mode: James, Lawrence, Woolf, and the Visual Arts, 37,
TWO Paintbrushes, Chisels, and Red Herrings: Decorative Uses of the Visual Arts and Pictorialism in Selected Novels by James and Earlier Novelists, 70,
THREE The Sisters' Arts: Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, 107,
FOUR Art, Ideologies, and Ideals in Fiction: The Contrasting Cases of Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence, 124,
FIVE Perception, Impression, and Knowledge in The Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl, 157,
SIX Encoding the Taboo in Women in Love, 192,