"George Eliot's mind is like the National Gallery; for every canvas on display there are two stored away in the basement" (p. 37). W. J. Harvey's simile for the contents of George Eliot's mind in general aptly summarizes her knowledge of painting in particular. She had a wide acquaintance with pictures and artists. From the time she received her first illustrated book and painted her first water colors of floral arrangements, she had an abiding interest in the visual arts. The record of that interest is unusually full, thanks to the many surviving letters and journals which describe her experience of painting and sculpture. Only in the cases of Thackeray and Henry James are we as well informed about the pictorial knowledge and tastes of a major Victorian novelist.3

There are gaps in the record, of course. We can never know the names of all the pictures, statues, and exhibitions that Eliot saw. To begin with, the record of the early years in London was partially destroyed by J. W. Cross, who removed from George Eliot's journal forty-six pages covering the years 1849-54 (Haight, p. 71). Cross's folly sadly restricts our view of an especially formative period in Eliot's life. Furthermore, although her travel journals for the period 1854-65 have survived, the journals for subsequent trips, such as the visit to the Prado during a tour of Madrid in 1867, are sketchy or missing altogether. Then, too, Eliot did not regularly record her reactions to the paintings she saw at home in London. For our knowledge of her London experience, we must depend upon chance [9/10] references in her letters. Finally, she had no cause to note down all the prints, engravings, and book illustrations that enriched her daily life.

Yet despite these omissions a substantial amount of information remains. We can reconstruct in surprising detail the novelist's attendance of galleries and exhibitions in London, her visits to museums on the Continent, her personal contacts with painters, and her reading in the literature of art.

In his account of George Eliot's last years, Cross reports that "she was in the habit of going with me very frequently to the National Gallery, and to other exhibitions of pictures, to the British Museum sculptures, and to South Kensington" (Cross, III, 343). This habit was of long standing; in fact, George Eliot had frequented the museums, galleries, and exhibitions of London from the time she first settled there in 1851 (Haight, p. 103). Each spring she liked to attend the exhibitions of the Royal Academy and the Society of Painters in Water-Colours.5 She also enjoyed the annual Exhibition of Pictures by Modern Artists of the French School, instituted in 1854 by Ernest Gambart at the French Gallery.6 She visited the National Portrait Gallery and, in 1867, attended the enormous National Portrait Exhibition at the South Kensington Museum, now the Victoria and Albert (Letters, IV, 37, 362-64). She saw the International Exhibition at South Kensington in 1862 (Letters, IV, 45-46) and the memorial exhibitions of William Mulready's collected works at South Kensington in 1864 and of Frederick Walker's at the Deschamps Gallery in 1876.7 Naturally she attended the one-man shows of her friends Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon at the French Gallery in 1859 (Letters, III, 124, 128) and Edward Burne-Jones at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877 (Letters, Vl, 365). Among the smaller London museums, George Eliot visited the Dulwich Gallery in 1859 and the newly opened Bethnal Green Museum in 1872. And in 1868 she and George Henry Lewes made a trip to Leeds to see the great National Art-Exhibition, held for the benefit of the new Leeds Infirmary.

In addition to these public displays, George Eliot was invited to a number of artists' studios and private collections. She saw the studios of Frederic Leighton, William Holman Hunt, G. F. Watts, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, and Mrs. William [10/11] Allingham. Of the notable private collections in London, Eliot knew at least two: B. G. Windus's famous collection of Turners in Tottenham, which she saw in 1850, and Alfred Morrison's collection at Carlton House Terrace, which she saw in 1872 and again in 1874.

From this record we may infer that George Eliot was a devoted student of pictures during her thirty years in London. She was familiar with the city's major permanent public collections and several of its most important private ones. She kept abreast of new work by attending the annual spring exhibitions and by visiting the studios of working artists. She took a serious and continuing interest in painting, finding in it a perennial source of pleasure and intellectual stimulation. Rarely did she feel uninspired "after seeing pictures" (Letters, II, 155).

George Eliot's knowledge of "the galleries of Europe"

In Daniel Deronda George Eliot's narrator speaks with authority of "the galleries of Europe" (38:298). The novelist knew them well from a series of holidays and working visits to the Continent between 1854 and 1867. During most of these trips she wrote detailed accounts of the cities, museums, and individual works of art she saw. After she returned to familiar surroundings, her journals served to refresh her memory of visual experiences that she cherished and wished to retain. In later years she turned to these records for material to use in her novels. Five visits to the Continent are particularly well documented: 1854-55,1858, 1860, 1864, and 1865.

The first of these trips was the elopement with G. H. Lewes. The lovers traveled through Antwerp, Frankfurt, and Düsseldorf to Weimar in the autumn of 1854. In Antwerp they saw Rubens's Elevation of the Cross and Descent from the Cross in the Cathedral, and they visited the art museum (Cross, 1, 269-70). In Düsseldorf they toured the Städel Museum (Haight, p. 151). From Weimar they went to Berlin, where during the winter months they visited the Old and New Museums and three private collections: Graf Raczinsky's, Consul Wagner's, and the Ravené Collection. They met Wilhelm von Schadow, the famous Nazarene painter and director of the Düsseldorf Academy, and Gustav Friedrich Waagen, the great art historian. They saw two private studios as well: those of Edward Magnus, the portrait painter, and Christian Daniel Rauch, the sculptor. George [11/12] Eliot recorded these first experiences of modern German art in a notebook entitled "Recollections of Berlin," and she drew upon them many years later when describing Dorothea Brooke's honeymoon in Middlemarch. (Excerpts from this journal, which are now in now in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, appear in Cross, I, 269-306.)

The Leweses returned to Germany in the spring and summer of 1858. During this working vacation George Eliot was completing Adam Bede. She and Lewes stayed mainly in Munich and Dresden, with shorter visits to Nüremberg, Prague, Leipzig, and Vienna. George Eliot was a conscientious tourist in each city, visiting most of the best-known churches and art collections. Thus in Munich she came to know both the Old Pinakothek and the New, the Glyptothek, and the other public buildings of King Ludwig's Bavarian renaissance. She also made the acquaintance of the famous art patron, Baron Schack, and visited the studios of Wilhelm von Kaulbach and Buonaventura Genelli (Cross, II, 15-37, and Letters, II, 450-55). In Dresden the Leweses spent many hours in the new Gemäldegalerie, which had opened in 1855; the Neue Pinakothek in Munich had opened in 1854; the Neues Museum in Berlin in 1855 (see Plagemann, p. 135). The paintings they saw in the Gemäldegalerie affected them powerfully, and are mentioned throughout their subsequent writings.14 The picture-gallery in Leipzig they noted chiefly for Alexandre Calame's Swiss landscapes (Cross, II, 51). In Vienna they saw the "magnificent collection of pictures at the Belvedere" and paid two visits to the Liechtenstein collection (Cross, II, 43), which became the setting for an important scene in "The Lifted Veil" (1:303).

After these travels in the German-speaking countries, the Leweses turned their attention to France, Italy, and Spain. George Eliot visited Paris in 1859, 1850, 1861, and 1864, acquainting herself with the Louvre and Luxembourg museums (Haight, pp. 293, 322, 343, 376). Three of these Parisian holidays broke journeys to Italy. The italienische Reise of 1860 was a grand affair. From Paris she and Lewes proceeded southward to Turin, Milan, Pisa, Rome, and Naples. Returning northward, they stopped at Florence and Siena. Florence especially interested them "from its relation to the history of modem art" (Letters, III, 299). After two weeks there, they went on to Bologna, Padua, and Venice. Then they came home via Verona, Milan, Como, and Geneva. It was, George Eliot told John Blackwood, her "first journey to the greatest centres of art." During [12/13] this tour of Italy, Eliot conceived Romola and gathered some of the material she was to use in the Rome chapters of Middlemarch.

Eliot returned to Florence in the spring of 1861 to do research for Romola. She kept no journal of this visit, but we know from her correspondence and from Romola itself that she was particularly concerned with paintings of late fifteenth-century faces and costumes such as Ghirlandaio's frescoes in the choir of Santa Maria Novella.16 After finishing Romola, she went to Italy once more — this time accompanied not only by Lewes but also by Frederic Burton, the watercolorist who was to become director of the National Gallery (Haight, p. 376). Avoiding Florence altogether, the party traveled straight to Venice via Paris, Turin, and Milan, and stopped at Padua, Verona, and Brescia on the return. George Eliot's unpublished journal of the tour, entitled "Italy 1864," which is now in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, contains interesting notes on the paintings she saw in each city. This journal mentions visits to the Louvre, the Gallery in Turin, the Brera in Milan, the Arena Chapel in Padua, and the Galleries in Verona and Brescia. In Venice especially, she was an indefatigable visitor of museums, churches, and palazzi. It was probably on this trip, as Gordon S. Haight has suggested, that she saw in the Scuola di San Rocco the Annunciation by Titian which later inspired The Spanish Gypsy and Daniel Deronda (Haight, p. 376, and Laski, George Eliot and Her World, p. 85).

In the summer of 1865 the Leweses took their vacation in Normandy and Brittany. "Normandy and Brittany 1865," the journal of this holiday, which is also at Yale, is rich in observations of regional architecture. Then in 1867 the Leweses made their longest trip ever, a ten-week journey to Spain during which they visited San Sebastián, Barcelona, Granada, Córdoba, Seville, and Madrid. In Madrid they went every day to see the pictures at the Prado. Unfortunately, George Eliot's journal of the trip has been lost, so we do not know which of them impressed her most (Haight, p. 402). Lewes's journal mentions the following paintings at the Prado: Titian's The Emperor Charles V on Horseback and The Bacchanal, Murillo's The Appearance of the Virgin to Saint Bernard, and Velasquez's The Drunkards, Aesop, and Menippus. (I am indebted to Professor Haight for this information.) Similarly sketchy are the records of her last two visits to Italy in 1869 and 1880.

Between 1854 and 1867, then, George Eliot visited many of the most important "galleries of Europe," grounding her knowledge of European painting and sculpture in a firsthand acquaintance with the major collections and masterpieces. Her experience of the visual arts was at any rate not insular.

In addition to her knowledge of art works, George Eliot had many friends and acquaintances who were artists. In her early years at [13/14] Coventry, there were the sisters Clara Bray and Sara Hennell, both amateur painters of some talent.21 George Eliot's first proposal of marriage actually came from a young Coventry picture-restorer in 1845. His suit failed because Marian Evans was not in love with him, and because his profession was not deemed "lucrative or overhonourable" by her friends and family (Haight, p. 56). This affair was probably the model for Maggie Tulliver's respectful rejection of the artist, Philip Wakem, in The Mill on the Floss. And the next painter whom George Eliot met also contributed to the character of Philip.

In 1849-50 George Eliot spent eight months in Geneva, recovering from the fatigue and depression caused by her father's illness and death. During five of those months, she lived in the family of Alexandre-Louis-François d'Albert-Durade (1804-86), a Swiss painter of portraits and scenes from Genevan history. D'Albert Durade had studied with Joseph Hornung and married Julie Covelle, an accomplished painter of flowers. "She has hung my room with pictures," George Eliot wrote, "one of which is the most beautiful group of flowers conceivable thrown on an open Bible — painted by herself" (Letters, I, 314). Of M. d'Albert-Durade Eliot reported:

I love him already as if he were father and brother both. You must know he is not more than four feet high with a deformed spine — the result of an accident in his boyhood — but on this little body is placed a finely formed head, full in every direction. The face is plain with small features, and rather haggard looking, but all the lines and wavy grey hair indicate the temperament of the artist. [Letters, I, 307]

For this verbal and phrenological portrait, d'Albert-Durade reciprocated by painting an actual portrait of the writer (Haight, p. 77 and Plate IV). When he accompanied her back to England in the spring of 1850, George Eliot arranged for him to see the Windus collection of Turner's work (Letters, I, 332).

She saw d'Albert-Durade again in June of 1860, when she and G. H. Lewes stopped in Geneva on the return from their tour of Italy. By then the painter had become director of the Athénée Museum. He took the Leweses there and also to the studio of [14/15] Calame, the Swiss painter whose Alpine landscapes had impressed George Eliot at Leipzig in 1858. Although she never saw d'Albert Durade again, George Eliot continued to correspond with his family, and d'Albert-Durade became the French translator of Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss (Haight, pp. 330-33). One wonders what he thought of Philip Wakem.

An even closer friend of George Eliot's was the landscape painter and feminist, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827-91). She was the illegitimate daughter of a Radical Member of Parliament whose father before him had been an M.P., an Abolitionist, and a Unitarian. In her youth she studied with William Henry Hunt, the famous painter of naturalistic watercolors, and visited the studio of Turner. She became an accomplished painter of landscapes in watercolor who often exhibited her work in public. Among her close acquaintances were Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Mrs. Anna Jameson, Corot, and d'Aubigny. Barbara Leigh Smith was introduced to George Eliot in June 1852, but the two women did not become intimate friends until July 1856, when they shared a seaside holiday at Tenby in South Wales. In the early 1860s they were neighbors, living only a few doors apart in Blandford Square. Barbara was probably the physical model for Romola, George Eliot's principal heroine of this period.22

Barbara Bodichon and George Eliot supported one another not only as friends but also as women artists. Barbara was among the first to intuit the true identity of the author of Adam Bede in 1859. "That is written by Marian Evans," she exclaimed; "there is her great big head and heart and her wise wide views" (Haight, p. 280). A few months later George Eliot returned these enthusiastic praises when Madame Bodichon had a one-woman show at Gambart's French Gallery: "Of course we shall go and see your pictures.... It is really a step to have your pictures hung together in a regular gallery where you have an illustrious predecessor" (Letters, III, 124). The "illustrious predecessor" was David Cox, whose watercolors were shown at the French Gallery in May, June, and July of 1859. Most of Mme. Bodichon's pictures were drawings of Algerian landscapes and vegetation; she spent part of each year in Algiers after marrying Dr. Eugene Bodichon, French physician and radical, in 1857. (For a review of the exhibition, see The Illustrated London News, 30 July 1859, p. 106). Another Bodichon show, featuring forty-three of her drawings, was held at the French Gallery in April of 1861; see Maas, Gambart, pp. 113, 137.

George Eliot delighted in success by women artists of all kinds at the moment when her own reputation as a novelist was hanging in the balance. She especially relished a remark made during the Bodichon exhibition by the painter David Roberts: "If ever one sees a fine picture now, it is by a woman." [15/16] Another painter also complimented Barbara Bodichon during the exhibition of her work. As George Eliot reported, "an artist friend of ours — Mr. F. W. Burton — a nice creature, expressed high admiration of your pictures — didn't care about the want of finish in some of them — they had finer qualities than finish — he felt they were done on the spot under true inspiration" (Letters, III, 128). The Leweses had met Frederic William Burton (1816-1900) at Munich in 1858. Born in Ireland, he had become a watercolorist of some distinction and a member of the Old Water-Colour Society. In 1864 he accompanied the Leweses to Venice, and later that year began a portrait in chalks of George Eliot, which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery (Haight, pp. 371, 376-78, Plate IX). Burton was named director of the National Gallery in 1874 and served twenty years in the position, receiving a knighthood in 1884. He remained a close friend and regular dinner guest of the Leweses.

It was probably Burton who introduced Mr. and Mrs. Edward Burne-Jones to the Leweses in 1868. A fast friendship quickly developed between the younger and older couples, particularly between the women. Through the Burne-Joneses, the Leweses soon met William Morris and D. G. Rossetti (Haight, pp. 408-09). These new acquaintances nearly completed the original circle of Pre-Raphaelites, since the Leweses had already met Holman Hunt in 1864 and Thomas Woolner in 1866 (Haight, pp. 388, 398). A list of the other artists George Eliot knew would include Charles Robert Leslie, whom she met in 1851, George Cruikshank (1852), Jane Benham Hay (1860), Samuel Laurence (1860), Frederic Leighton (1862), Rudolf Lehmann (1866), William Bell Scott (1868), George Howard (1869), George Smith (1870), Charles François d'Aubigny (1871), and George du Maurier (1872).26 Through Barbara Bodichon she also knew George Scharf, the secretary of the National Portrait Gallery (Letters, IV, 13).

In addition to these personal contacts with artists, George Eliot also read regularly in the literature of the visual arts. By far her most important mentor was Ruskin. In 1856 she read and reviewed volumes III and IV of Modern Painters.27 'What books his last two are!" she exclaimed to Barbara Leigh Smith. "I think he is the finest writer living" (Letters, II, 255). To Sara Hennell she wrote: [16/17]

But I venerate him as one of the great Teachers of the day — his absurdities on practical points do no harm, but the grand doctrines of truth and sincerity in art, and the nobleness and simplicity of our human life, which he teaches with the inspiration of a Hebrew prophet, must be stirring up young minds in a promising way . . . . The two last volumes of Modern Painters contain, I think, some of the finest writings of this age. [Letters 11, 422-23]

George Eliot's own mind was stirred up in a promising way by Ruskin, not only by Modern Painters, but also by The Stones of Venice (1851), the first letter to The Times in defense of Holman Hunt's The the World (1854), the Edinburgh Lectures on Architecture and Painting (1854), and the Manchester lectures on The Political Economy of Art (1857). It is difficult to overestimate Ruskin's influence upon her theory of art and her way of looking at pictures. He will be a major figure in our study of George Eliot's pictorialism.

Another important interpreter of the arts to George Eliot was G. E. Lessing. During the winter of 1854-55 in Berlin, she read a great deal of Lessing: the Laokoön, Die Hamburgische Dramaturgie , Emilia Galotti, Nathan der Weise, and Minna von Barnhelm. In her journal she described the Laokoön as "the most un-German of all the German books that I have ever read. The style is strong, clear and lively; the thoughts acute and pregnant. It is well adapted to rouse an interest both in the classics and in the study of art" (Cross, I, 303). She mentioned the Laokoön again in one of her Westminster Review essays; it was also a favorite book of G. H. Lewes's.29 As we shall see, Lessing's argument was an important influence upon George Eliot's theory of ut pictura poesis.

Her enthusiasm for the Laokoön suggests that George Eliot viewed classical art largely through the medium of German culture. She first paid attention to Greek and Roman sculpture not in the British Museum but in the museums of Berlin and Munich, and she saw many neoclassical imitations of Greek sculpture at Weimar ("Recollections of Berlin" and Essays, pp. 86-89). Besides Lessing, George Eliot read other German writers on classical [17/18] art such as Adolf Stahr and Johannes Adolf Overbeck. She met Stahr in Berlin, and soon thereafter read his Torso: Kunst, Künstler, und Kunstwerken der Alten (1854-55) and Ein Jahr in Italien (1847-50). The former, she said, "feeds the fresh interest I am now feeling in art."31 She read "Overbeck on Greek art" in Munich in 1858 (Cross, II, 21) — not Johann Friedrich Overbeck, the Nazarene painter, but Johannes Adolf Overbeck, author of Geschichte der Griechischen Plastik für Künstler und Kunstfreunde (1857-58). [See Baker #1590, where the author is incorrectly identified].

If the German writers on classical art occupied her during her travels in Germany, likewise George Eliot became interested in the history of Italian painting when she was traveling in Italy in 1860 and 1861. She studied Vasari's Lives of the Painters in 1861 and took her portrait of Piero di Cosimo in Romola from Vasari (Haight, p. 350). As preparation for Romola she also read (or reread) The Poetry of Sacred and Legendary Art (1848) and Legends of the Monastic Orders (1850) by Mrs. Anna B. Jameson, the great Victorian popularizer of early Christian art.33 Other surveys of Italian painting known to George Eliot are John Coindet's Histoire de la peinture en Italie, which she read in Rome in 1860, and Franz Theodor Kugler's A Handbook of the History of Painting, which she read in Florence in the same year. 34 Along with Kugler's Handbook, she read the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini (Haight, p. 325) and made plans to read Hawthorne's The Marble Faun (Letters, III, 300). Earlier, she had reviewed a study of Leonard de Vinci et son école (1855) by Alexis-François Rio; and later, she became acquainted with Walter Pater and his Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873).35

What remains of George Eliot's library contains a number of books on aesthetics and art history. The following list includes titles she does not mention elsewhere in her writings; the dates are those of the editions she possessed. It is impossible to know just when she acquired these books or when, if ever, she read them. But she at least owned Longinus's De Sublimitate (1820); Quatremere de Quincy's History of the Life and Works of Raffaello (translated by William Hazlitt, 1846); Sir Joshua Reynolds's Discourses (1825); Friedrich Schelling's The Philosophy of Art (1845); Karl Solger's Vorlesungen uber Aesthetik (1829; acquired by G. H. Lewes in [18/19] 1839); Richard Duppa's Life and Works of Michel Angelo (1846); Jean Baptiste d'Agincourt Seroux's History of Art by Its Monuments (1847); Ralph Wornung's The Epochs of Painting (1864) and his Some Account of the Life and Works of Hans Holbein (1867); Vincenzo Marchese's Memoire dei pui insigni Pittori, Scultori, et Archetetti Domenicani (1854); Sir John Charles Robinson's Italian Sculpture of the Middle Ages and Period of the Revival of Art (1862); and Hippolyte Taine's De l'ideal dans l'art (1867) [Baker, Nos. 1322, 1758, 1818, 1938, 2044, 637, 1994, 2312, 2311, 1387, 1851, 2118].

Clearly George Eliot had a rich experience of the visual arts. As a result of her gallery-going, her friends, and her reading, she knew a good deal about the history of European painting from Giotto and the early Italians to the realists of the mid-nineteenth century. To be sure, her horizons, like those of nearly all her contemporaries, were limited to Europe and to the conventions of Greek and Renaissance art. She disliked the Moorish decorative art she saw in Spain (Letters, IV, 351), and she knew virtually nothing of Far Eastern or African art. (She did, however, read the pioneering account of Pre-Columbian art in J. L. Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Central America . . .; see Haight, p. 302.) If she ever heard of Impressionism and the subsequent modernist movements in France, she completely ignored them. Even on her last visit to Paris in 1880, her letters are full of the realists and genre painters: "I made some pleasant new acquaintances among the painters of French peasant life. The French, I think, succeed better in giving the true aspect of their common people, than our painters succeed in the same genre. Whom have we to pair with Jules Breton?" (Letters, VII, 281).

Because she always assumed that European painting was evolving toward a Ruskinian naturalism, George Eliot would have had no sympathy with those who altered and finally broke the traditional Renaissance conventions of humanism and representational illusion. We do not know precisely where she stood on the famous case of Whistler vs. Ruskin, but it seems likely that she would have found Whistler's impressionistic Nocturnes as incomprehensible as Ruskin did. It is easy enough for the modern reader to dismiss these mid-Victorian perspectives on art as hopelessly narrow. It is more difficult sympathetically to imagine the taste that flourished within such boundaries. [19/20]


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Last modified 20 September 2000