Ut pictura poesis, that very fiery particle of Renaissance and neoclassical aesthetic theory, was not after all snuffed out by an article.1 Such is the conclusion suggested by several recent studies which show that the venerable Horatian dictum (Ars poetica, 1. 361) survived the criticism of Lessing's Laokoön (1766), weathered the coming of Romanticism, and led a vigorous, if significantly modified, life in nineteenth-century British thought. Ian Jack has documented the popularity of ut pictura poesis in the Keats circle, Roy Park has traced its permutations in the writings of Hazlitt, George P. Landow has analyzed Ruskin's version of the analogy, and Viola Hopkins Winner has studied the pictorialist elements in Henry James's theory and practice of fiction.2 It now seems that music did not supplant painting as the dominant nineteenth-century analogue to poetry among the sister arts. And painting certainly remained the art most frequently compared to fiction. As late as 1884, James was able to say with perfect conviction that "the analogy between the art of the painter and the art of the novelist is, so far as I am able to see, complete."3 James's opinion was a commonplace of the period, so much so that Mario Praz is quite justified in calling "ut pictura poesis "the golden rule . . . of nineteenth-century narrative literature" (The Hero, p. 29).
To be sure, the function of the analogy had changed in several important ways since the Renaissance. One change was rhetorical. Renaissance critics usually compared painting with poetry in order [33/34] to dignify the more mechanic of the two arts, and to claim for it some of the prestige traditionally associated with poetry. But later critics, as Bernard Richards has pointed out, usually compared painting with the novel in order to dignify the latter, and to claim for the new literary form some of the prestige which painting had acquired since the Renaissance.5 Furthermore, with the advent of Romantic poetic theory, the basis of the analogy between the arts shifted from imitation to expression. For Ruskin, painting and poetry are two forms of 'language" through which the soul of the artist expresses its visions. As George P. Landow has pointed out, Ruskin
did not defend painting on the ground that, like poetry, it educates and entertains by imitating nature. In the theory of poetry which Ruskin allied with pictorial art, the expression of noble emotion had replaced the earlier concern with imitation as a center of critical attention. [p. 49]
After Ruskin, most nineteenth-century theorists grounded their conception of the sister arts in the idea of a primal inspiration that chooses between different artistic media for its embodiment.
Romantic aesthetics also placed a special emphasis upon the ideas of concreteness and particularity comprised in the traditional doctrine of ut pictura poesis. By imitating the specificity of painting, literature could avoid the pitfalls of abstraction and unverified generalization which Romantic critics, unfairly for the most part, identified with neoclassical aesthetics. Thus Hazlitt praised "the force and precision of individual details, transferred, as it were, to the page from the canvas" (Hazlitt, XI, 166; quoted Park, p. 104.). The sensible reality of painting made it an attractive model for literature in the eyes of empiricist critics such as Hazlitt, Mill, Lewes, and George Eliot, who valued aesthetic experience but distrusted the abstracting and schematizing powers of language.8
Not even the most ardent Victorian advocates of empirical observation, however, recommended limitless description in art. Lessing's attack upon the excessively pictorial verse of the mid-eighteenth century made a mark in nineteenth-century England, where his distinction between poetry and painting was well known. G. H. Lewes, for example, criticized poetry that is merely "an animated catalogue of things," and Coleridge complained of "modern poems [34/35] , where all is so dutchified . . . by the most minute touches, that the reader naturally asks why words, and not painting, are used?"9 P. G. Hamerton, a hard-line Lessingite, argued that "it is not possible to produce, with an elaborate word-picture, that single-stroke effect which makes the power of an elaborate colour-picture" (II, 251). Clearly ut pictura poesis, never a simple doctrine, had acquired more ramifications than ever by the time George Eliot inherited it.
Eliot's own version of the theory unites empiricist psychology with the traditional rhetorical notion of enargeia: the power of verbal visual imagery to set objects, persons, or scenes before an audience (Hagstrum, p. 11). Eliot and G. H. Lewes formulated an interesting psychological rationale for this power of language by combining elements from the British empiricist tradition with some of the doctrines of Ruskin. From empiricism came the concept of "images" and their function in mental processes. From Ruskin came the concept of "vision" and its role in the genesis of great art. Images and vision are central, in George Eliot's thought, to both the creation of literature and its effect upon its audience. An important corollary of her emphasis upon vision is the high value she placed upon pictorial description. But her pictorialism was qualified by an awareness derived from Lessing of the limitations of such description and the importance of supplementing it with other modes of representation.
When George Eliot spoke of "the superior mastery of images and pictures in grasping the attention," she was using the term images with some precision (Essays, p. 445). In the psychological teachings of G. H. Lewes, an image is a sense-experience mentally reproduced. Not all images are visual, but many are. From images come ideas, which result when the remembered sense-experiences lose some of their immediacy and, with the help of language, become signs or symbols. Images thus mediate between direct sensation and thought (see Kaminsky, Lewes as Critic, pp. 22, 38). Poetry, for example, originates "when passion weds thought by finding expression in an image" (Essays, p. 435). Because they are closer to direct sensation than ideas are, images have a greater power than ideas to compel the emotions; "our earliest, strongest impressions, our most intimate convictions," George Eliot wrote, "are simply images added to more or less of sensation. These are the primitive instruments of thought" (Essays, p. 445). [35/36]
Although most of our thinking is carried on with signs and symbols, the Leweses believed that some of our best thinking — especially in the arts — is done through images. "Vigorous and effective minds habitually deal with concrete images," G. H. Lewes wrote in "The Principles of Success in Literature" (1865). "This is notably the case with poets and great literates. Their vision is keener than that of other men. However rapid and remote their flight of thought, it is a succession of images, not of abstractions" (190-91). (The role of images in the epistemology and aesthetics of the Scottish "Common Sense" school of British empiricism is well summarized by Ringe, The Pictorial Mode, pp. 3-8.) George Eliot similarly spoke of "the picture-writing of the mind, which it carries on concurrently with the more subtle symbolism of language" (Essays, p. 267). Imaging, because it is anchored in direct experience, helps the mind to avoid abstractions, the unreality of "verbal fallacies and meaningless phrases" to which the sign system of language is inherently susceptible (p. 190). The prevalence of concrete images distinguishes the thought and language of artists from those of philosophers and scientists in G. H. Lewes's scheme of mental activities. The philosopher, Lewes argued, "aims at abstract symbols"; the poet, "at picturesque effects"' (p. 574.). Lewes used the term vision as a metaphor for all thinking done primarily through images. He borrowed the metaphor from the experience of the eye, which, following an ancient tradition, he considered to be "the most valued and intellectual of our senses" (p. 583. On the tradition of the primacy of the sense of sight, see Paulson, Emblem and Expression, p. 235n). Lewes argued that mental vision, or "seeing with the mind's eye," is essential to perception, inference, and reasoning as well as to imagination (p. 190; see, too, the excellent discussion of "vision" in Paris, Experiments in Life, pp. 34-39.). By imagination he meant the mind's power to select, abstract, and recombine images held in the memory, sometimes forming from them new images which correspond to no external reality.
Mimetic correspondence mattered less to Lewes than expressive authenticity. From Ruskin he borrowed the principle that the artist should represent only what he has actually "seen" with his bodily or mental vision. "Some minds see things only visible to the physical eye," Lewes wrote in a review of the fourth volume of Modern Painters; "others see things with the mental eye. But no one should paint what he does not see or feel." Ruskin's principle of sincerity Lewes declared to be "as applicable to the poet (and novelist) as to the painter."'18 The greatest source of false and second-rate art is the representation of what is not truly seen but is derived at second [36/37] hand from tradition or convention. The artist must always ask himself "whether he does or does not distinctly see the cottage he is describing, the rivulet that is gurgling through his verses, or the character he is painting . . . if he does not see these things he must wait until he can, or he will paint them ineffectively"' ("Principles of Success," pp. 586-87). Likewise George Eliot, in a letter praising Ruskin, spoke of "the falsity that paints what the painter does not see" (Letters, II, 422).
Lewes claims that the clear visions of the artist penetrate the layer of habit and "misty generality" which normally obscures our mental experience; thus the artist causes us to see things — often very familiar things — anew ("Principles of Success," p. 188; on Ruskin's aim "to vivify our sight," see Landow, "There Began," p. 137). According to George Eliot, a great artist teaches "by giving us his higher sensibility as a medium, a delicate acoustic or optical instrument, bringing home to our coarser senses what would otherwise be unperceived by us" (Essays, p. 126). In "Belles Lettres," which appeared in the 1856 Westminster Review, she quoted approvingly some lines to the same effect from Browning's "Fra Lippo Lippi":
For, don't you mark, we're made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times, nor cared to see;
And so they are better, painted — better to us,
Which is the same thing. Art was given for that —
God uses us to help each other so,
Lending our minds out. [p. 294; emphasis added by Eliot]
By communicating his clear vision to an audience, the artist extends their perceptions and sympathies. For this reason, Eliot believed that vivid aesthetic picturing is a far more effective way of teaching than hortatory argument.
The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. Appeals founded on generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment. When Scott takes us into Luckie Mucklebackit's cottage, or tells the story of 'The Two Drovers,' — when Wordsworth sings to us the reverie of 'Poor Susan,' — when Kingsley shows us Alton Locke gazing yearningly over the gate which leads from the highway [37/38] into the first wood he ever saw, — when Hornung paints a group of chimney-sweepers, — more is done towards obliterating the vulgarity of exclusiveness, than by hundreds of sermons and philosophical dissertations. Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a w! mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot. All the more sacred is the task of the artist when he undertakes to paint the life of the People [Essays, pp. 270-71]
What unites the sister arts of painting and literature, in this famous passage from George Eliot's greatest essay, is their common presentation of pictures of human life seen by the moral vision of the artist and represented so vividly as to move the sympathetic imagination of his audience. It is worth noting that three of George Eliot's examples are not only "pictures" in a metaphorical sense, but also highly pictorialized in their actual forms.
To paint a picture, then, was Eliot's favorite figure of speech for the effective realization of vision in literature. William J. Hyde speaks of the "characteristic allusion to painting" in her Westminster Review essays, and certainly a pictorial vocabulary is prominent throughout the important series of review articles in which, between 1855 and 1857, she formulated her theory of fiction (Hyde, 151). The severest criticism she could make of a novel was that it failed to "paint" its characters or scenes. Thus in "Belles Lettres," which appeared in the 1857 Westminster Review, she wrote of Holme Lee's Kathie Brande:
Instead of vividly realizing to herself the terrible scenes, and vividly representing them . . . the author writes about them, does not paint them.... An artist would have suffered his imagination to dwell on such scenes until, aided by his knowledge, either direct or indirect, the principal details became so vividly present to him that he could describe as if he saw them and we should read as if we saw them too. [p. 321]
She considered Charles Kingsley a better painter of scenes, but found his main fault as a novelist to be his tendency to moralize his own pictures instead of letting them speak for themselves. In Kingsley's Westward Ho!, Eliot charged, "the preacher overcomes the painter often":
It is as if a painter in colour were to write 'Oh, you villain!' under his Jesuits or murderers; or to have a strip flowing from [38/39] a hero's mouth, with 'Imitate me, my man!' on it. No doubt the villain is to be hated, and the hero loved; but we ought to see that sufficiently in the figures of them. We don't want a man with a wand, going about the gallery and haranguing us. Art is art, and tells its own story. [Essays, p. 123]
Such a passage suggests the elaboration and wit of which the pictorial analogy is capable in George Eliot's hands. Whatever it might have been for other Victorian critics, it was seldom a cliché for her.
And there can be no doubt that she demanded of herself as a novelist the same intense visualizing and vivid painting that she demanded of Holme Lee and other writers. She applied her customary pictorial standards and vocabulary to her own work when she noted, in a famous letter to Frederic Harrison, that aesthetic teaching becomes offensive "if it lapses anywhere from the picture to the diagram." The letter goes on to explain how difficult it was for her imagination 'to make art a sufficiently real back-ground, for the desired picture, to get breathing, individual forms, and group them in the needful relations, so that the presentation will lay hold on the emotions as human experience — will, as you say, 'flash' conviction on the world by means of aroused sympathy" (Letters, IV, 300-01; or the word art in this passage, should we read out — "to make out a sufficiently real background"?). A picture can "flash" conviction because it works through images and "our most intimate convictions are simply images added to more or less of sensation" (Essays, p. 445). A diagram, by contrast, employs a more abstract symbolism. Eliot incidentally uses the same picture-diagram metaphor in "The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton," where she contrasts picturesque architecture with the modern architecture that is displacing it: "dear, old, brown, crumbling, picturesque inefficiency is everywhere giving place to spick-and-span new-painted, new-varnished efficiency, which will yield endless diagrams, plans, elevations, and sections, but alas! no picture" (1:4).
Because of their preference for concrete images in art, the Leweses opposed the antipictorialist argument of Edmund Burke's Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). Burke, resisting the tendency toward excessive pictorial description in mid-eighteenth-century poetry, attacked the principle of enargeia itself by denying that language can evoke visual experience. "From a pictorialist's point of view," Jean Hagstrum has noted, "Burke's absolute disjunction between words (which create emotional response) and images (which bring to the mental retina the objects of nature) is nothing short of revolutionary" (Sister Arts, p. 153). Burke argued for the superior efficacy of obscure, confused, and crowded literary imagery, which makes an emotive [39/40] rather than a visual impact, hurrying the reader's mind beyond its usual frame of reference into an unfocused sense of grandeur and sublimity. "A clear idea," wrote Burke, "is therefore another name for a little idea."28 G. H. Lewes devoted a three-page subsection of "The Principles of Success in Literature" to refuting Burke. It was a necessary digression if Lewes's main thesis in the essay — the highly pictorialist "principle of vision" — was to stand.
Lewes did not argue in favor of exhaustive catalogues of exclusively visual details. Nor did he contend, as the twentieth-century Imagists were sometimes to do, that language can hand over visual images intact, replete with the unmediated freshness of direct experience. He recognized that words are not things or mental images but symbols of them: "Language, after all, is only the use of symbols, and art also can only affect us through symbols" ("Principles of Success," p. 583; see also his Female Characters). The images which language evokes in a hearer's mind can never be identical with those in the speaker's mind; they can only be analogous. Lewes, then, avoided a naive theory of verbal pictorialism. Nevertheless, he strongly favored the use of distinct and vivid imagery in literature. He argued, contra Burke, that even sublime, overwhelming impressions and confused, emotional states of mind need to be represented in clear terms if they are to be communicated effectively. All description, according to Lewes, requires "intelligible symbols (clear images)" ("Principles," p. 585.) This was not always Lewes's position. Earlier in his career, as we see from his 1842 essay on Hegel, he had agreed with Burke's view of poetic language.
Although they opposed Burke on the issue of clarity, the Leweses were much more sympathetic to the antipictorialist arguments of Burke's contemporary, G. E. Lessing. We do not know which German edition the Leweses used; the earliest complete English translation was by William Ross (London: J. Ridgway & Sons, 1836). They admired and accepted Lessing's distinction between painting and poetry set forth in Lessing's Laokoön, oder Uber die Grenzen der Malerei und Poesie (1766). The thesis of Lessing's essay helped George Eliot to qualify her doctrine of ut pictura poesis, and to articulate her sense of the limitations of literary pictorialism.
Lessing argued that painting handles forms and colors in space. It is perceived in an instant of time, and should therefore depict only an instant of time. Poetry, on the other hand, handles articulated sounds in time. It is perceived in temporal sequence and should therefore re-create processes (actions) rather than visual fields. Poetry is the more comprehensive (weitere) of the two arts, because it can depict what precedes and what follows the single moment to [40/41] which painting is restricted. Lessing was not opposed to the principle of ut pictura poesis so much as to the more literal-minded applications of it in the descriptive poetry of his day (Sister Arts, pp. 155-56.). There remained a sense in which he believed "der Dichter soll immer malen": not by enumerating a great many visual details that would, in a painting, be taken in at a glance, but by presenting ideas so vividly that the audience forgets that words are being used and has the , illusion of direct sense-experience instead (Laokoön, sec. xvii. ).
This was close to George Eliot's view of the matter. Certainly she did not read the Laokoön as a purist attack upon verbal painting per se. Rather she found in Lessing a useful reminder of the limitations of such painting, and a justification of her conviction that literature is, after all, superior to the visual arts as a mode of representing human experience. "Every reader of Lessing's 'Laokoön,"' she wrote in the 1856 Westminster Review, "remembers his masterly distinction between the methods of presentation in poetry and the plastic arts the acumen and aptness of illustration with which he shows how the difference in the material wherewith the poet and painter or sculptor respectively work, and the difference in their mode of appeal to the mind, properly involve a difference in their treatment of a given subject." In particular, Eliot notes, the literary artist would be mistaken "if he adopted all the symbolism and detail of the painter and sculptor, since he has at his command the media of speech and action" ("Belles Lettres," 566). Literary description must, in other words, give way at some point to narrative and drama. The novelist must use "the media of speech and action" to represent the invisible and temporal aspects of human experience which painting, according to Lessing, cannot truly embody.
Precisely because it can render what she once called "the truth of change," George Eliot considered fiction superior to the visual arts (Daniel Deronda, 11:170; see also Sullivan and Beer). The novel may not only evoke a portrait in the mind's eye of the reader; it may also animate that portrait and go inside the frame. Will Ladislaw speaks for his creator when he says to Naumann in Middlemarch:
And what is a portrait of a woman? Your painting and Plastik are poor stuff after all.... Language is a finer medium.... Language gives a fuller image, which is all the better for being [41/42] vague. After all, the true seeing is within; and painting stares at you with insistent imperfection. I feel that especially about representations of women. As if a woman were a mere coloured superficies! You must wait for movement and tone. There is a difference in their very breathing: they change from moment to moment. — This woman whom you have just seen, for example: how would you paint her voice, pray? But her voice is much than anything you have seen of her. [19:291-92]
Although Naumann dismisses Ladislaw's arguments as mere symptoms of jealousy, the novel supports Will's view of the limitations of painting. That view is partly Romantic ("the true seeing is within") but it is also indebted to Lessing. Will's emphasis upon Dorothea's voice directly parallels Lessing's emphasis upon Laoko&oulm;n's voice, which can be represented by Vergil but not by the sculptor. Eliot herself calls attention to Laoko&oulm;n's voice in her remarks on Lessing in "Belles Lettres," Westminster Review, 66 (1856), 566.
Lessing's influence upon George Eliot's theory of ut pictura poesis affected the structure of chapters in her fiction. As we have seen, she and Lewes commonly divided the art of the novelist into two branches: description and dramatic presentation. The characteristic George Eliot chapter begins with description, setting a scene in static, visual, often pictorial terms. Then it modulates into drama, activating the tableau with dialogue and movement, or penetrating it with psychological commentary. The picture-frame becomes a proscenium arch, and the viewer is drawn into the scene, moving from a distanced and relatively objective perception toward participation and sympathetic identification. This structure does not involve a transition from "picture" to "scene" in the Jamesian sense of the terms. Rather it involves a transition from "scene" in the graphic sense to "scene" in the theatrical sense, an ambiguity nicely exploited in the title of George Eliot's first published stories. The moments of transition from one mode to the other are frequently the moments at which the narrator expresses his Lessingite reservations about literary pictorialism.
Eliot did not, then, "flout the canons of the Laocoon" in the way Ian Fletcher claims many Victorian artists did ("Some Types and Emblems in Victorian Poetry," p. 679). Her acceptance of Lessing likewise differentiates her from many twentieth-century [42/43] writers who use painting to transcend time and achieve a "spatial form" which is designed to be contemplated as a perfect, atemporal whole by the reader.39 In many modern novels, as Jeffrey Meyers has pointed out, "evocative comparisons with works of art attempt to transcend the limitations of fiction and to transform successive moments into immediate images" (Painting and the Novel, p. 1). A familiar device in the work of the later James, Proust, Lawrence, and other writers who descend from George Eliot is the symbolic painting which subsumes the meanings of the novel at one or several crucial points in the action.41 But Eliot herself was reluctant to place so much structural weight upon works of visual art. For example, her juxtaposition of Dorothea with the statue of "Ariadne" in the Vatican Museum scene is much less central to the meaning of Middlemarch than James's juxtaposition of Milly Theale with Bronzino's portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi is to the meaning of The Wings of the Dove.42 Eliot did not turn to painting because she was galled and chafed by the temporal nature of her medium. Lessing helped her to accept that limitation and even to rejoice in it.
Pictorialism, then, was a necessary but not a sufficient condition of the novelist's art as George Eliot conceived it. The writer must "paint" in the broad sense that his language must evoke vivid, concrete images rather than indistinct, abstract ideas in the reader's mind. The writer must also "paint" in the narrower sense of providing some descriptive passages to assist the reader's visualizing of the story. But word-painting of the second sort cannot adequately represent the inner, temporal aspects of human experience, and must therefore be supplemented by dramatic presentation.
Thus qualified, however, the analogy between the arts was indispensable to George Eliot's theory and practice of fiction. She chose her words carefully when, surveying her oeuvre in 1876, she said: "The principles which are at the root of my effort to paint Dinah are equally at the root of my effort to paint Mordecai" (Letters, VI, 318). She endeavored always to "paint" her characters, and in the next chapter we shall examine her loving yet impatient use of literary portraiture. [43/44]
Last modified 28 May 2009