Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Another Greuze

Here, again, is Mrs. Humphry Ward's recollection of George Eliot's arrival at Lincoln College, Oxford, and her first sight of Mrs. Pattison, the Rector's young wife:
As we turned into the quadrangle of Lincoln—suddenly, at one of the upper windows of the Rector's lodgings, which occupied the far right corner of the quad, there appeared the head and shoulders of Mrs. Pattison, as she looked out and beckoned smiling to Mr. Lewes. It was a brilliant apparition, as though a French portrait by Greuze or Perronneau had suddenly stepped into a vacant space in the old college wall. The pale, pretty head, blond-cendrĂ©e, the delicate smiling features and the white throat; a touch of black, a touch of blue; a white dress; a general eighteenth-century impression as though of powder and patches:—Mrs. Lewes [George Eliot] perceived it in a flash, and I saw her run eagerly to Mr. Lewes and draw his attention to the window and its occupant...
Mrs. Humphry Ward

In an earlier post on Middlemarch, I mentioned how Eliot translated this scene to the Vatican, where the artist Naumann spies Dorothea and fetches Will Ladislaw to share his aesthetic experience. The striking scene in the Lincoln quadrangle lodged in Mrs. Ward's imagination, too, and found its way into her 1888 novel, Robert Elsmere. In the novel, the title character, a young clergyman, is showing his old Oxford tutor, Langham, around a remarkable private library belonging to the misanthropic scholar, Squire Wendover. Langham, the disappointed and detached middle-aged scholar, has begun to feel an attraction to Elsmere's spirited sister-in-law, nineteen-year old Rose. In the library, the two men at last come to a dreary room used "as a receptacle for the superfluous or useless volumes thrown off by the great collection all around." The room is filled with frayed and broken volumes, gradually crumbling to dust, and "a musty smell hung over it all." As he is leaving this room, a sudden vision arrests Langham's attention:
He passed the threshold again with a little sigh, and saw suddenly before him at the end of the suite of rooms, and framed in the doorways facing hiim, an engraving of a Greuze picture—a girl's face turned over her shoulder, the hair waving about her temples, the lips parted, the teeth gleaming, mirth and provocation and tender yielding in every line. Langham started, and the blood rushed to his heart. It was as though Rose herself stood there and beckoned to him.
The woman becomes a work of art, the work of art becomes a woman. There are traces of Pygmalion in these scenes, in the relationships between these old scholars and beautiful but intellectually unformed girls. Rose, it should he noted, is herself an artist, a violinist with a rare and exceptional talent. She is both artist and object of art.

Lady Dilke

In Robert Elsmere, Rose has an older sister, the puritanical Catherine, whose strong religious convictions make her call into question the value of art and the artistic temperament. Rose and Catherine seem to represent the aesthetic and ascetic impulses in Victorian women, the tension between the sensual and the spiritual that Dorothea wrestles with in Middlemarch. This tension is vividly illustrated in a memoir of Lady Dilke—the former Emilia Frances Strong Pattison—written by her second husband. In a striking passage, he writes about her days as a young art student in South Kensington: "In 1859, Miss Strong used to horrify her ordinary church friends by her studies in dissection and advocacy of the necessity of drawing from the nude; but, at the same time, still more greatly to shock them by her habit of doing penance for the smallest fault, imaginary or real, by lying for hours on the bare floor or on the stones, with her arms in the attitude of the cross." An aesthetic appreciation of the bodies of others contrasts with an ascetic mortification of her own flesh.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, "Souvenir"

The paintings of Greuze were enormously popular in the nineteenth century. Sir Richard Wallace collected nearly two dozen Greuzes at Hertford House (The Wallace Collection), where Lady Dilke viewed them. Their appeal may have lain in what she called their "immature beauty" and "vein of wanton suggestion." At left is one of the typical Greuzes from The Wallace Collection. Is her expression primarily sensual, or is there something spiritual in it as well, something of the ecstasy of St. Teresa?

In Robert Elsmere, Mrs. Humphry Ward explores the often conflicting facets of woman's nature, as the Victorians understood it. She's interested in the tension between spiritual and sensual, between being the artist and being the object of art, between self-fulfillment and being the fulfillment of someone else's desire.

Footnote: In 1908, Humphry Ward, the novelist's husband, traveled to Berkeley, California, to give a lecture on the development of the Louvre's collection. Ward was a prominent art critic. Although he declined to be interviewed after the lecture, "he did venture the opinion...that American women were good to look upon." He was amazed at the number of women who were able to show up for a morning lecture. The New York Times article on his lecture was headed: "HUMPHRY WARD LECTURES ON ART. Wonders Afterward That So Many Women as Hear Him Have Nothing to Do. BUT FINDS THEM PRETTY."

Related: Greuze works in the Wallace Collection, London

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