"'Vermilion, saffron, white' is a brilliant stroke (that is a lie, so to speak, of Lessing's that pictures ought not to be painted in verse, a damned lie — so to speak)" (Hopkins, p. 61). The critic is Gerard Manley Hopkins, expressing his admiration not only for a line of R. W. Dixon's but also for literary pictorialism in general. " Wordpainting is, in the verbal arts, the great success of our day," Hopkins told Robert Bridges: ". . . wordpainting is in our age a real mastery and the second rate men of this age often beat at it the first rate of past ages."2 Hopkins was celebrating an assimilation between the Victorian arts of literature and painting which other contemporary observers also noted with approval. Henry James remarked that "we have invented, side by side, the arts of picturesque writing and erudite painting," and Aubrey Beardsley spoke with clever paradox of "story painters and picture writers." 3 James and Beardsley were alluding to the reciprocity of influence which impelled authors toward the picturesque as it drew painters toward the narrative and literary. 4 Baudelaire concisely summarized the working sisterhood which he saw everywhere among the contemporary arts in 1863: "one of the diagnoses of the spiritual condition of our century is that the arts aspire, if not to substitute for one another, at least to lend each other new strengths." 5
We know from the popularity of literary illustration that the Victorian audience liked to "see" its fiction, and novelists catered to the same taste by providing abundant visual description. Conrad was only reiterating a commonplace of Victorian aesthetics when he said [1/2] that the "task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. (Conrad, x).
No writer supplied the demand for word-painting more successfully than George Eliot, whose early work capitalized brilliantly upon the popular fancy for Dutch, Flemish, and English genre pictures. The identification of her novels with such painting, which she herself encouraged in chapter 17 of Adam Bede, persisted in the public mind long after her pictorialism had extended its scope and diversified its effects. 'The popular notion about the excellence and brilliancy of the style of George Eliot's novels is that it is simply the excellence of a painter like Teniers," observed the Saturday Review in 1866 (Morley, 21); and as late as 1876 a reviewer of Daniel Deronda was still parroting the old praises of "the exquisite cabinet pictures to which George Eliot has accustomed us" (Saintsbury, 373). The stereotype was inappropriate, not because Eliot had ceased to present cabinet pictures in Daniel Deronda, but because the novel contains so many other pictures that are more important: literary portraits arranged in sophisticated thematic patterns, landscapes and architectural paintings representing a natural and historical order with which the characters have lost touch, ironic conversation pieces where the apparent happiness of the family group is belied by the absence of the unlawful father. In her later work George Eliot's pictorialism moves well beyond what the Saturday Review described as the "photographic reproduction of the life of midland dairies and farm-houses and apple-orchards" (Morley, 252). The complexity of her pictorial effects anticipates the art of Henry James.
Eliot herself considered word-painting to be one of the two main branches of the novelist's art. The other she called dramatic presentation while G. H. Lewes called it dramatic ventriloquism. (see Letters, II, 274, 406-07, and Lewes, "Jane Austen," 105). Description is indispensable to the novel precisely because fiction is not drama seen in a theater. According to Lewes, "the fact that in the novel the persons are described instead of being seen, renders it necessary that the author should supplement as far as possible this inferior vividness of presentation by a more minute detail, both physical and moral" ("Tom Jones," 335). Description, then, supplies the visual dimension of the drama which is otherwise missing to the reader in his [2/3] closet. Thus Lewes praised Mrs. Gaskell because her Life of Charlotte Bronte "paints for us at once the psychological drama and the scenic accessories with so much vividness" (Letters, II, 315).
It follows that failure to describe is a fault in a novelist, as Lewes argued in a little-known passage of his essay on "The Novels of Jane Austen" that has important implications for George Eliot's art. Austen, Lewes charged, skimps on visual detail:
So entirely dramatic and so little descriptive is the genius of Miss Austen, that she seems to rely upon what her people say and do for the whole effect they are to produce on our imaginations. She no more thinks of describing the physical appearance of her people than the dramatist does who knows that his persons are to be represented by living actors. This is a defect and a mistake in art: a defect, because, although every reader must necessarily conjure up to himself a vivid image of people whose characters are so vividly presented; yet each reader has to do this for himself without aid from the author, thereby missing many of the subtle connections between physical and mental organisation.
This last phrase betrays Lewes's bias toward a physiognomical reading of human appearance. He goes on to complain that in Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen does not sufficiently describe Mr. Collins.
As far as any direct information can be derived from the authoress, we might imagine that this is a purblind world, wherein nobody ever saw anybody except in a dim vagueness which obscured all peculiarities. It is impossible that Mr. Collins should not have been endowed by nature with an appearance in some way heralding the delicious folly of the inward man. Yet all we hear of this fatuous curate is, that "he was a tall heavy-looking young man of five-and-twenty. His air was grave and stately, and his manners were very formal." Balzac or Dickens would not have been content without making the reader see this Mr. Collins. Miss Austen is content to make us know him, even to the very intricacies of the inward man. It was not stated whether she was shortsighted, but the absence of all sense of the outward [3/4] world — either scenery or personal appearance — is more remarkable in her than in any writer we remember. [pp. 105-6; see also Watts]
This essay appeared in the same year as Adam Bede (1859) and echoes chapter 17 of that novel. We may assume that George Eliot agreed with Lewes's demand for full-fledged literary portraits that include a physical description of external appearances. She certainly took care to render such appearances in Adam Bede, as we shall see.
Modern readers are not likely to lament the paucity of physical description in Jane Austen's work. The reality that interests us in fiction is psychological, behind the eyes. In our pursuit of the psychological we tend to skip the descriptive passages in nineteenth-century novels (Ringe, pp. 2, 10, 15). Although modern criticism pays lip service to the idea that George Eliot balances the objective and the subjective, in practice most critics are interested in her exclusively as the great fountainhead of the modern psychological novel. "Her overriding concern," writes Barbara Smalley in a recent and representative study, "is not as with earlier novelists personality as it performs its drama in the outer world.... Her memorable portrayals are all studies of action that goes on inside the minds of her characters" (p. 9.)
Such a perspective is achieved only by shutting out a whole order of representation that George Eliot was careful to build into her fiction. Similarly, the recent studies of "vision" in Eliot's work tend to neglect its pictorial aspects and to stress instead a moral and psychological growth-pattern with correlations in an imagery of eyes, sight, mirrors, and windows (Stump, pp. 34-39). Even the critics who recognize Eliot's pictorialism are often uncomfortable with it, and characterize its effect as either sentimental and escapist, or distancing and alienating.16 We have, then, nearly lost sight of a dimension of George Eliot's art which she and her first readers valued highly. To recover that unseen dimension is the primary aim of this study and its illustrations.
That the Victorians liked to visualize George Eliot's fiction is suggested by the vocabulary of their reviews, a good deal of which comes from painting and art criticism. To be sure, such borrowing is often a symptom of poverty, mere dead metaphor and desperate [4/5] cliché revealing only that Victorian literary criticism still lacked a sophisticated terminology of its own. But surprisingly often the figures of speech reflect a genuine re-viewing of the book in question. For example:
When we have passed in review the works of that great writer who calls herself George Eliot, and given for a time the use of our sight to her portraiture of men and women, what form, as we move away, persists on the field of vision, and remains the chief centre of interest for the imagination? The form not of Tito, or Maggie, or Dinah, or Silas, but of one who, if not the real George Eliot, is that 'second self' who writes her books, and lives and speaks through them. [Dowden, pp. 320-21]
So strong was Edward Dowden's habit of visualizing novels that he could even "see" George Eliot's narrator. It is a habit we no longer cultivate, partly because we distrust its subjectivity and partly because we have come to rely upon the cinema to picture our novels for us. Although vestiges of the old painterly vocabulary linger in our criticism, it is probably impossible for us fully to recapture the Victorian sense of the literary text as a visual field (Oldfield, p. 85; see also Benson on "the metaphor of the portrait gallery . . . in Victorian reviewing" ).
A shift in modern taste is, however, taking place. Criticism today is more receptive to the nineteenth-century interchange among the arts than it has been at any time since the modernist revolution of 1908-14. The sensibility which has brought representational art back into fashion has also prompted a renewal of interest in mainstream nineteenth-century painting. Art historians are resurrecting Victorian pictures from the neglect into which they sank in the first half of the twentieth century, and we are finally learning to look at the salon work of the bourgeois romanticists and realists with something more than amused contempt. For its part, literary criticism is far more willing to entertain connections between the arts than it was only ten or twelve years ago, when formalistic explication of the text was the dominant method of literary interpretation. The trend in recent criticism has been to put literature back into touch with other intellectual disciplines — without, however, losing sight of what formalism taught us about the integrity of individual works of art.
But there is still no general agreement about what constitutes a [5/6] valid method in studies of literature and the visual arts. When is it legitimate to assert that a passage or an entire work of literature resembles a picture or a school of painting? The approaches used in recent studies range from the suggestive intuition of a common style among the arts of a given period (the method of Mario Praz and Wylie Sypher) to the detailed analysis of literary rhetoric that is carefully arranged to evoke the reader's pictorial experience (the method of Jean Hagstrum).20 Given the variety of procedures available, any new study of the sister arts is obliged to declare its method at the outset.
This study starts from the premise that correspondences based only on what Mario Praz has called the "air de famille . . . between the expressions of the arts in any given epoch of the past" are seldom to be trusted.21 Although the calligraphy of the Zeitgeist is doubtless visible everywhere in the artistic productions of a given era, the comparison of specific works from different media is likely to seem arbitrary and capricious unless the critic can provide some historical evidence of a connection between them. As Bernard Richards has said,
Once the critic has abandoned the guidelines of what poets and painters actually saw and read, he is in a wide-open and chaotic country, and there comes a point at which he is resorting to the 'soul adventuring among the masterpieces' approach.... A study of inter-relations in the arts looks slightly more valid when one follows the lines laid down by the artists themselves and pursues 'influences' from the other arts or the pervasive spirit of the times which they acknowledged and believed in. [321-23]
This is sensible advice. The present study attempts to associate George Eliot's work primarily with pictures and pictorial traditions which she knew. At a few points, most prominently, perhaps, in the discussion of typological symbolism, the parallels that are asserted depend more upon an intuition of the spirit of the age than upon any documentary evidence. But for the most part I have tried to verify influences before asserting them. For this reason, the first two chapters of the study seek to establish just what George Eliot did know and like among the visual arts.
A distrust of intuitive methods also makes me hesitate to transfer terms derived from the stylistic history of art to the analysis of literary style or structure. To say that a literary work is written in a Mannerist or Biedermeier or Impressionist style almost always obscures more than it clarifies. The media of the two arts are so different that terms which are useful in the analysis of one usually apply to the other only by a courtesy of metaphor.23 Often such terms are used to denote similarities of subject matter or sensibility rather than style. For example, when Praz applies the term Biedermeier to the work of a number of nineteenth-century English writers, he generally means either bourgeois domestic subjects or a pious-sentimental-humorous mode of regard.24 He is seldom referring to any specifically pictorial qualities in the literature he cites.
Claims of pictorial influence should be reserved for circumscribed literary passages whose language demonstrably evokes the reader's experience of the visual arts. "In order to be called 'pictorial,"' Jean Hagstrum writes, "a description or an image must be, in its essentials, capable of translation into painting or some other visual art . . . its leading details and their manner and order of presentation must be imaginable as a painting or sculpture" (The Sister Arts, pp.xxi-xxii). In other words, the pictorial consists of visual imagery ordered in certain ways. Not all visual imagery is pictorial, and not all passages which mime the processes of visual perception are pictorial. To be connected with the visual arts, a passage must overtly recall
- an identifiable work of art,
- a tradition of graphic or plastic representation, or
- an established convention of pictorialist rhetoric such as the formal character-portrait.
The critic renders better service by explicating the local pictorial meanings of an author's language than by flying off in search of grand stylistic equations.
Literary pictorialism in the finite sense just outlined has a venerable history. As Hagstrum has shown, it came over into written literature from the oral traditions of rhetoric, and appears in the earliest surviving Greek poetry and prose fiction (Sister Arts, pp. 17-36). Pictorialism was a prominent feature of the English novel from its inception, and was especially well established in the Fieldingesque branch of the tradition which came to George Eliot through Scott.28 Eliot transformed that inherited pictorialism, as she transformed traditional characterization [7/8] , by raising it to an unprecedented level of complexity and sophistication. No novelist in English before her used pictorial devices so extensively, so diversely, or so subtly; and no major novelist after her was unaffected by her achievement. Henry James learned as much from her in this regard as he did in others, and his techniques in turn influenced those of many twentieth-century novelists.
This study of George Eliot's pictorialism will begin with a biographical chapter surveying her knowledge of art, artists, and the literature of art. The next two chapters will characterize her taste in painting and sculpture and discuss the role of painting in her theory of the novel — her version of the traditional doctrine of ut pictura poesis. These backgrounds having been fixed, the remaining chapters will focus upon the actual uses of painting in her fiction, examining the four principal genres that she loved to recreate: portraiture, sacred and heroic history painting, genre painting, and landscape. These chapters will find their unifying theme in George Eliot's Ruskinian emphasis upon accurate naturalistic representation as a medium of moral and spiritual vision. Particular novels or stories will be discussed in conjunction with the genres of painting that have colored them most distinctively. The penultimate chapter presents an interpretation of Frederic Leighton's illustrations of Romola, the only novel of George Eliot's to be illustrated in its first edition.
This book aims to challenge, on George Eliot's behalf, a claim made for Thomas Hardy by Alastair Smart: "It is questionable whether any other English novelist, with the possible exception of George Moore, possessed so intimate a knowledge of the visual arts; certainly no other writer of fiction has ever used such knowledge with equal skill or imagination."29 Without denying Hardy's knowledge or skill, we may affirm that in neither capacity did he surpass George Eliot, his mentor in pictorialism no less than in pastoralism. To support Eliot's claims, we turn first to the question of her knowledge.
Benson, James D. "'Sympathetic Criticism': George Eliot's Response to Contemporary Reviewing," Nineteenth-Century Fiction 29 (1975), 434.
Conrad, Joseph. "Preface" (1897) to The Nigger of the 'Narcissus'. New York: Doubleday and Page, 1918.
Dowden, Edward [essay on George Eliot], Contemporary Review, 20 (1872); rpt. Carroll, ed., George Eliot: The Critical Heritage.
The Correspondence of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Richard Watson Dixon, ed. Claude Colleer Abbott. London: Oxford University Press, 1935.
Lewes, G. H. "A Word about Tom Jones," Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 87 (1860), 335.
____. "The Novels of Jane Austen," Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 86 (1859).
Morley, John. [unsigned review of Felix Holt], Saturday Review, 21 (16 June 1866); rpt. George Eliot: The Critical Heritage, ed. David Carroll (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971), p. 252.
Oldfield, Derek. "The Language of the Novel: The Character of Dorothea," in Middlemarch: Critical Approaches to the Novel. ed. Barbara Hardy. London: The Athlone Press, 1967.
Richards, Bernard. "Ut Pictura Poesis." Essays in Criticism, 21 (1971), 321-23.
Ringe, Donald A. The Pictorial Mode: Space and Time in the Art of Bryant, Irving and Cooper. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1971.
Saintsbury, George. [review of Daniel Deronda] Academy, 10 (9 September 1876); rpt. George Eliot: The Critical Heritage, p.373.
Smalley, Barbara. George Eliot and Flaubert: Pioneers of the Modern Novel. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1974.
Stump, Reva. Movement and Vision in George Eliot's Novels. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1959.
Watts, Harold H. . "Lytton's Theories of Prose Fiction," Publications of the Modern Language Association, 50 (1935), 214.
Last modified 20 September 2000