Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

But not in my house!

Tuesday, November 8th, 2016

There’s a trope of art criticism that runs something like this: this work of art is okay, but I wouldn’t want it in my living room.

I’m not sure where and when this critical chestnut was first uttered, but was a little surprised to find a version of it issuing from the mouth of Paul Cézanne. It had been placed there by his dealer and biographer Ambroise Vollard, who naturally had a strong professional interest in the question of matching art to appropriate spaces.

You know, Monsieur Vollard, the grandiose (I don’t say it in bad part) grows tiresome after a while. There are mountains like that; when you stand before them you shout, “Nom de Dieu. . . .” But for every day a simple little hill does well enough. Listen, Monsieur Vollard, if the Raft of the Medusa hung in my bedroom, it would make me sick.”

In terms of size and subject matter, Cézanne recognizes Gericault’s famous 23-foot painting to be better suited to the Salon or to the Louvre than to a domestic space.  Better a simple mound than a sublime mountain–let alone Gericault’s  pyramid of traumatized survivors, all heaped up and desperately straining to catch the attention of a passing speck on the horizon.

It’s the type of disturbing subject that might inspire nausea and trouble the imagination–hence, perhaps, Cézanne refuses to put it in his bedroom, rather than some other room. Here, in his bedroom, it would best inspire restless nights and bad dreams. Here romanticism would ruin romance.

raft of the medusa in a bedroom

Folks, you are free to disagree, and if this is the image you want for your bedroom then there’s a website that can help you with that.

The but-not-in-my-house trope is very familiar and still circulates today but, Cézanne aside, I can’t recall other good examples. And my hunch is that the room in question–if one is specified–is more usually a living room.

Where and when, I wonder, did this critical cliché first emerge–this tendency to claim and cut-down a work of art by placing it in one’s own living space, at least in imagination?

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this, and to enlist your help coming up with further good examples. If you have any, please send them to me ( and I’ll add them to this post. Together let us celebrate the fact that there are works of art in the world that have absolutely no right being in our domestic spaces!



Nov 10, 2016. This from Hels (

I suspect the comment “this work of art is okay, but I wouldn’t want it in my living room” is actually a polite way of saying “I don’t like the painting at all”. Romanticism was never romantic; it was always untamed, melodramatic and tragic.

Cezanne wasn’t always correct, but he was right to say that traumatised survivors, all heaped up, belonged in a public gallery with enormous walls.


Taking the Mickey: Censoring Sendak’s “In the Night Kitchen”

Friday, September 26th, 2014

[This post records my contribution to Banned Book Week, which was delivered at MSU’s Mitchell Library as part of a faculty read-out. My thanks to Rachel Cannady for the invitation and for organizing and chairing the session.]

Banned Books Week Read-Out at MSU's Mitchell library

Yours truly at MSU’s Banned Books Week Read-Out  (Grisham Room, Mitchell Memorial Library)

Unlike almost all of my fellow presenters today, I have the luxury of being able to read you the entirety of my story. Ideally we’d have the book between us and we’d turn the pages together. Alas, powerpoint and digital projection will have to do. I’ll show the book double-page by double-page, and a digital “wipe” effect will be our page turn. Even if we’ll miss the reaching out, the touch of the paper, the breath of displaced air, and the gentle crackle of the turn, something of the revelation of the fresh page will, I trust, survive. Hands, mouth, eye… touch, voice, brain—such is the gloriously sensuous world of the picture book. Nobody has created and charted this terrain better than Maurice Sendak.

So without further ado, I give you In the Night Kitchen.

[Dear blog reader, in lieu of my own voice, I can give you something better. Click here to see a video of James Gandolfini reading the story.]


Mickey, dressed and undressed

Yes, I have heard of Mickey. Too often, and especially at this time of year, what I hear involves censorship. What’s all the fuss? There are the usual stories of the book being removed from libraries, and of copies being bought en masse from bookshops, in an attempt to take them out of circulation. (Some people, let it be noted, really need that ECON 101 class.) Mostly, there are tales of a subtler and more insidious form of censorship—an expurgation of the offending detail. For, as a character, Mickey comes fully endowed, endowed (certainly) with fun derring-do, with inventiveness, and also showing moments of testiness, doubt, and swagger.

Moments of Mickey. Top: fun, derring-do, inventiveness. Bottom: testiness, doubt, swagger.

Moments of Mickey. Top: fun, derring-do, inventiveness. Bottom: testiness, doubt, swagger.

But I’ll be blunt: like almost all boys (and naked boys especially) Mickey has a penis. To be sure, it’s a modestly-sized and apparently well-behaved penis, but it’s a penis nonetheless. And though it only appears in about five of the book’s panels, to the censorious mind it may as well be everywhere. In the Night Kitchen has been reduced to a cock-and-balls story. And though Mickey also has a backside, this apparently only bothers a subsection of the offended.

Our subtler censors acknowledge the merits of Sendak’s book in unexpected ways. As we are about to see, they have devoted time and labour to the job of rectifying Sendak’s “lapses” precisely so that the book might stay on the shelves, albeit in an altered and diminished form.

So let the wild fashion rumpus begin!


Mickey number 1 is wearing the very latest in cobalt-blue swimming trunks—useful for the child who insists on swimming in milk.

78662While this little Mickey’s fetching briefs nicely complement his unruly shock of black hair.

7093296881_29003e966b_oOur third Mickey is trying to “make it work” with a white-out diaper, complete with fastener.

10706318_10204982208498863_1311719033_nAnd our final Mickey has donned a sloppily constructed and semi-transparent paper slip, which—truth be told—seems only to encourage us to look further. As Sendak himself has noted, sometimes such “quaint quickie briefs are downright kinky.” Case in point!

(An aside: even google managed to fudge Mickey’s nudity in a otherwise charming animated doodle they made in honour of Sendak. We see Mickey jumping from the plane and into the bottle, where he disappears into the opaque milk, never to emerge again. Given the long history of discomfort with Mickey’s nudity, this appears to be a case of bottling out.)

I’m going to go out on a limb and state that however fine these unknown artists are, not one of them improves upon Sendak’s art.I rather wish that they had invested in a copy of the “Coloring Book” version of In the Night Kitchen, where they could have embellished Sendak’s art ad infinitum.

Instead, these additions stick out and are not all-of-a-piece with the rest of Sendak’s exquisitely colored world. This repeats the self-defeating logic of censorship, which tends to draw our attention to the censored object, rather than away from it. Mark Twain comments on this phenomenon in A Tramp Abroad­, while considering the statues of Rome and Florence. “These works,” he notes “…. stood in innocent nakedness for ages [but] are all fig-leaved now…. Nobody noticed their nakedness before, perhaps; nobody can help noticing it now, the fig-leaf makes it so conspicuous.”

Fig-leaf for a plaster cast of Michelangelo's David, V&A Museum, 1857

Fig-leaf for a plaster cast of Michelangelo’s David, V&A Museum,  circa 1857

Stephen Colbert put his finger on these matters (aesthetic integration, censorship, attention) during an interview with Sendak. Playing the role of outraged moralist, Colbert produced a copy of In The Night Kitchen that had had all the offending parts cut out in neat circle…. only to be collected in a zip-lock bag.

Stephen Colbert, In the Night Kitchen, and a bag of bits.

Stephen Colbert, In the Night Kitchen, and a bag of bits.

As the Encyclopedia of Censorship summarizes the matter, the chief charges leveled against In the Night Kitchen are that the book desensitizes “children to nudity.” “… If nudity is acceptable in a kindergarten children’s story,” worries a concerned source, “how can I teach my children that Playboy is unacceptable?” One thing leads quickly to another and, before you can say “slippery slope,” we find claims like this: “children are taught their private parts are private. This book is contrary to this teaching.”

It is inconvenient for these critics that the structure of the narrative underlines the fact that Mickey is usually dressed and, indeed, that this is the normal state of affairs. His nudity accompanies his free-floating journey into the dream world of the night kitchen, where the usual rules are suspended. Concealing Mickey’s nudity both dilutes dream logic, where nudity often plays an important role, and interferes with an important and delightful sequence in the story: Mickey’s progression from blue pajamas, to nudity, to a sticky romper suit of partly cooked batter, to this suit’s milky disintegration and a return to nudity, to the security of a blanket, before finally ending up back in those same blue pajamas.

Mickey's Progress: pajamas, nudity, suit of batter, nudity, blanket, pajamas.

Mickey’s Progress: pajamas, nudity, suit of batter, nudity, blanket, pajamas.

Big Mickey and the breeches

To an art historian, all these unwarranted and ham-fisted interventions bring to mind a story about the biggest Mickey of them all: Michelangelo. Famously, soon after the artist’s death, his Last Judgment was subject to an aggressive cover-up campaign; draperies were painted over the genitals and backsides of many figures.Daniele da Volterra, the artist responsible for many of these additions promptly acquired the nickname “Il Braghettone” (“the breeches-maker”).

Figures from Michelangelo's Last Judgment (with added drapes), 1534-41.

Figures from Michelangelo’s Last Judgment (with added drapes), 1534-41.

But the potential problem had been recognized three decades earlier, when Michelangelo was still painting the work. Giorgio Vasari tells the story:

When Michelangelo had completed about three quarters of the work, Pope Paul went to see it, and Messer Biagio da Cesena, the master of the ceremonies, was with him, and when he was asked what he thought of it, he answered that he thought it not right to have so many naked figures in the Pope’s chapel. This displeased Michelangelo, and to revenge himself…. he painted him [Cesena] in the character of Minos with a great serpent twisted round his legs.


Vasari omits to mention exactly what the snake is doing to Minos-slash-Cesena: you can see for yourself that the punishment fits the crime. And though I certainly wouldn’t want to consign Mickey’s censors to hell, let alone subject them to this particular torment, I wish I could have magically shown them Michelangelo’s figure just before they set about “correcting” Sendak’s work.

Oh Mickey, you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind!

Published in 1970, two years before I was born, I somehow missed In the Night Kitchen as a child. Mickey caught up with me much later, when I was spending an inordinate amount of time reading to my own kids. This, I discovered, is one of the pleasures of parenting: you suddenly have permission to revisit your favorite childhood books, as well as hunting down newer books or new-to-you books. Children will insist on having the same books read to them again and again. So, from the adult reader’s point of view, there’s a simple test of quality: a good children’s book is one that hasn’t driven you mad after, say, three dozen readings.

Sendak’s book passes this test with flying colours, and I want to mention just a few of the reasons why I love this book, and indicate some of the ways it has stimulated me aesthetically and intellectually. To do so is, in part, a way of resisting the impulse to censor, which insists on a partial reading of the book at the expense of all other responses.

milk in the batter

For starters, take Sendak’s language, which is simply fun to read, especially out loud. With its alliteration, rhymes, and rhythms, there’s a musicality to his words, as though they are aspiring to song or to jazz. Reveling in its own riffs, the book’s plot seems to emerge out of verbal playfulness: Mick and Milk, Mickey and milky, Mickey’s way and the milky way, Mickey the milkman, and even—perhaps—the idea of slipping a Mickey (to add something that really shouldn’t be there).

img011 - Copy

The story is also an elegant homage to Winsor McCay, one of the founding figures of modern comics, and particularly to MacCay’s greatest creation, Little Nemo. Both Nemo and Mickey are boys whose dream adventures begin and end in bed. Sendak uses the visual language McCay helped to invent and adapts it to the picture book format.

Winsor McCay, Little Nemo in Slumberland, 1905 (excerpts)

Winsor McCay, Little Nemo in Slumberland, 1905 (excerpts)

Consider, for example, the brilliance with which Sendak handles the motif of rising and falling objects. As Mickey emerges out of bed, he tumbles from one double page to the next. At the same time we immediately understand that, as we are turning the first few pages, we are also falling between three floors—a descent only completed when our battered hero is dispatched into the “Mickey Oven.”

The rest of the book spins an intricate web of further ups and downs.Mickey jumps down into bread dough while the moon ascends, and his yeasty plane rises up as the moon descends.

Mickey rises and the moon sinks.

Mickey rises and the moon sinks.

Then—playing the cockerel—he heralds the rising sun and slides down the milk bottle. But where does he land up as he escapes through the floor of the Night Kitchen? Back at the top of his bedroom—a space that by all accounts should be some three stories above him.The ending of the book continues the motion established in the first few pages, and if we combine the opening and closing sequences, as though turning them into a single page from a  comic book, we get a clear sense of the beautifully paradoxical world that Sendak has created.

In the Night Kitchen: Three double pages as a single page.

Three double pages turned into one page.

The night kitchen is below Mickey and above him; he is in the night kitchen and the night kitchen is in him. As an object set into motion, Mickey finally comes to rest. Sendak, as they say in gymnastics, helps him stick his landing.img036 - Copy (539x640)Through his beautiful handling of word and image—where each has its own appeal, and one adds to the other—Sendak creates something wonderful and catalytic. To paraphrase William Blake:

There is an art of words
And an art of picturing
And there is an art of arts
In which these two arts sing.

In the Night Kitchen is both a book about a dream and the stuff that dreams are made of.



When I agreed to give this talk, I decided to check up on the Mickey in our own library—just to see how he was faring. There’s good news and bad news. The good is that no Mickey has been tampered with; the bad is that there is no copy of the book in the MSU library system, excepting a copy in the Meridian campus. So since, like morning cake, we need more of Mickey not less of him, I would like to finish today by donating a copy of In the Night Kitchen to the library.


MSU’s Mitchell Memorial Library, and the inside cover of my In the Night Kitchen gift (now accessioned)

But if anyone meddles with this Mickey…. well I won’t hesitate to summon Michelangelo and beg him to go and mess with their dreams.


[Send comments, questions, and cake to]


Roger Fry’s Silence

Sunday, December 8th, 2013

Just a quick note to say that one of my articles–‘The rest is silence: the sense of Roger Fry’s endings’–has recently been published. Better still, thanks to the Journal of Art Historiography, it’s available for free, and you can read it here.

Ramsey and Muspratt, Roger Fry, 1932, Bromide Print

Ramsey and Muspratt, Roger Fry, 1932, Bromide Print

Edited by Richard Woodfield, the journal is affiliated with the University of Birmingham’s Barber Institute, where I first “converted” to art history. I delivered a version of my paper in New York this February, as part of Jeanne-Marie Musto’s CAA panel To what end? Eschatology in art historiography. Thanks to Jeanne-Marie and Richard for their roles in helping to make my paper, and the other papers from the panel, available to a much larger audience.

It’s great that there are now a number of peer-reviewed art history journals with open access policies. (I hope more follow suit.) Apart from the Journal of Art Historiography, another favourite is Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, which also has reliably good contributors and high quality content.

Seven types of ambiguity, Cezanne on Chardin

Thursday, September 26th, 2013

Alex Danchev’s new translation of The Letters of Paul Cézanne has just been published and, at first glance, looks like a significant improvement on existing collections of the artist’s letters. For starters, Danchev includes some twenty letters, including several to Monet, that are not found in John Rewald’s earlier volume. I’ve yet to read Danchev’s translations systematically, but it’s worth noting that we are now in the position of having multiple English-language translations to compare and choose between. The important letters Cézanne wrote to Emile Bernard, for example, exist in at least four different English translations.

To give you a flavour of these differences, I thought I’d compare the various ways just one section of a letter has been treated. It’s a paragraph taken from a letter to Bernard, dated 27 June 1904. It particularly intrigues me because it’s the only point in his correspondence where Cézanne mentions Chardin. But he chooses to tell Bernard about Chardin’s self-portrait, not, as one might have predicted, a still-life.

Chardin, Self-Portrait, pastel

Chardin, Self-Portrait, pastel

Here then are seven versions of this paragraph, including five different English translations and any accompanying footnotes. I’ll let the differences speak for themselves.

1. Photograph of Cézanne’s original letter (paragraph starts on the right side, fourth line down)

Cezanne, Letter to Bernard, 27 June 1904

Cézanne, Letter to Bernard, 27 June 1904


2. Transcription in French.

Vous vous rappelez le beau pastel de Chardin, armé d’une paire de bésicles, une visière faisant auvent.—C’est un roublard ce peintre. Avez-vous pas remarqué, qu’en faisant chevaucher sur son nez un léger plan transversal d’arête, les valeurs s’établissent mieux à la vue.—Vérifiez ce fait, et vous me direz, si je me trompe.


3. From John Rewald (editor) and Marguerite Kay (translator), Paul Cézanne: Letters (Da Capo Press, 1995 [1941]).

“You remember the fine pastel by Chardin, equipped with a pair of spectacles and a visor providing a shade. He’s an artful fellow, this painter. Haven’t you noticed that by letting a light plate ride across the bridge of the nose the tone values present themselves better to the eye?[a] Verify this fact and tell me if I am wrong.”

a. This sentence is not clear, the French text reads: N’avez-vous pas remarqué qu’en faisant chevaucher sur son nex [sic] un léger plan transversal d’arête, les valeurs s’établissent mieux à la vue?


4. From Michael Doran (editor) and Julie Lawrence Cochran (translator), Conversations with Cézanne (University of California Press, 2001)

“You remember Chardin’s beautiful pastel self-portrait in which he is wearing a pair of eye glasses and a visor which served as a shade.[11] (He’s a clever one, that painter!) Have you noticed how that thin intersecting plane across his nose enhances the values?[12]—Go verify this for me and tell me if I am wrong.—”

11. The reference is to Chardin’s pastel self-portrait of 1775, Autoportrait à l’abatjour [Portrait of Chardin Wearing an Eyeshade], in the Louvre.

12. It may be noted that a straight-edged plane, used as an eyeshade in this way, also encourages the interpretation as curves of “straight” horizontals in the motif being viewed. This may help to explain one class of Cézannian “distortion.”


5. From John House (translator), The Courtauld Cézannes (The Courtauld Gallery in association with Paul Holberton Publishing, 2008)

“Do you remember the beautiful pastel of Chardin, wearing a pair of spectacles, with a visor shading his eyes. He is a crafty one, that painter. Have you noticed that by placing a little horizontal plane across the bridge of his nose he made the values work together better? Check this, and let me know if I am wrong.”


6. From Alex Danchev (editor and translator), The Letters of Paul Cezanne (The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2013)

“Do you remember the beautiful pastel by Chardin, equipped with a pair of spectacles with a visor shading his eyes?[1] He’s a crafty one, that painter. Have you noticed how, by allowing a plane of light to cross his nose at a slight angle, the values adapt much better to the eye? Take a close look and tell me if I’m not right.”

1. Self-Portrait Wearing an Eyeshade (1775) was a late work, as Cézanne would have known, painted four years before his death. It was acquired by the Louvre in 1839.


7. From Google translate (, accessed 26 September, 2013

“You remember the beautiful pastel de Chardin, armed with a pair of spectacles, a visor making auvent.-C is a rogue this painter. Have you not noticed that overlapping on his nose a slight transverse ridge, the values ​​are set to the best view.-check this and tell me if I’m wrong.”

google goes cezanne Jan 19 2011

This June, while in Paris, I wanted to play the role of Bernard, so I went to the Louvre to “verify,” “check,” and “take a close look” at the Chardin. But this is what I found. The photo should not require much translation.

IMG_5075 (1024x940)

Dictionary of Received Ideas (arty edition)

Saturday, May 25th, 2013

I’ve always enjoyed Flaubert’s Dictionnaire des idées reçues, his inventory of bromides, clichés, and platitudes. (Would listing things in groups of three qualify?!)

Below, I’ve excerpted most of the entries of relevance to the visual arts, and have added some images and links. The translation is by Jacques Barzun and I recommend the larger book, which you can buy here.


ALABASTER. Its use is to describe the most beautiful parts of a woman’s body.

AMPHITHEATER. You will know of only one, that of the Beaux-Arts School.

ANGEL. Eminently suitable for love and literature.

ANTIQUES. Always modern fakes.


ARCHITECTS. All idiots: they always forget to put in the stairs.


ARCHITECTURE. There are but four architectural orders. Forgetting, of course, the Egyptian, Cyclopean, Assyrian, Hindoo, Chinese, Gothic, Romanesque, etc.

ART. Shortest path to the poorhouse. What use is it since machinery can make things better and quicker?

ARTISTS. All charlatans. Praise their disinterestedness (old-fashioned). Express surprise that they dress like everyone else (old-fashioned). They earn huge sums and squander them. Often asked to dine out. Woman artist necessarily a whore. What artists do cannot be called work.

BASILICA. Grandiose synonym for church. Always: “an impressive basilica.”


BLACK AS. Follow invariably with “your hat” or “pitch.” As for “jet black,” what is jet?

BRONZE. Metal of the classic centuries.

CABINET MAKER. Craftsman who works mostly in mahogany.

CATHOLICISM. Has had a good influence on art.

CENSORSHIP. “Say what you will, it’s a good thing.”

CHIAROSCURO. Meaning unknown.

COUNTERFEITERS. Always work below ground.

CRIMSON. Nobler word than red.

Daumier, The Influential Critic at the Salon

Daumier, The Influential Critic at the Salon

CRITIC. Always “eminent.” Supposed to know everything, read everything, see everything. When you dislike him, call him a Zoilus, a eunuch.

CRUCIFIX. Looks well above a bedstead–or the guillotine.

Signature of Queen Elizabeth I

Signature of Queen Elizabeth I

CURLICUES (AROUND A SIGNATURE). The more complicated, the more beautiful.

DAGUERREOTYPE. Will replace painting. (See PHOTOGRAPHY.)

DELFT. More swank than “china.”

DOLMEN. Has to do with the old Gauls. Stone used for human sacrifice. Found only in Brittany. Knowledge ends there.

Dome of the Invalides, Paris

Dome of the Invalides, Paris

DOME. Tower with an architectural shape. Express surprise that it stays up. Two can be named: the Dome of the Invalides; that of St. Peter’s in Rome.

DRAWING (art of). “Consists of three things: line, stippling and fine stippling. There is, in addition, the masterstroke; but the masterstroke can only by given by the master” (Christophe).

DUPUYTREN. Famous for his salve and his museum.

ECLECTICISM. Thunder against as being an immoral philosophy.

ENAMEL. The secret of this art is lost.

ERECTION. Said only of monuments.

Etruscan Vase, British Museum

Etruscan Vase, British Museum

ETRUSCAN. All antique vases are Etruscan.

EUNUCH. Never can have children… Fulminate against the castrati singers of the Sistine Chapel.

FACADE (OF BUILDINGS). Great men look well when sculptured in front of.

david's figleaf

Figleaf for the Victoria and Albert Museum’s copy of Michelangelo’s David

FIGLEAF. Emblem of virility in the art of sculpture.

FOREHEAD. Wide and bald, a sign of genius, or of self-confidence.


Raphael, La Fornarina

FORNARINA. She was a beautiful woman. That is all you need to know.

FOSSIL. A proof of the Flood. A joke in good taste when alluding to a member of the Academy.

FRESCO PAINTING. No longer done.

GENIUS. No point admiring–it’s a neurosis.

gobelins tapestry

Gobelins tapestry

GOBELINS. A tapestry of this kind is an amazing piece of work, it takes fifty years to make. On seeing it, exclaim: “It is more beautiful than a painting!” The workman does not even know what he is about.

GOTHIC. Architectural style which inspires religious feeling to a greater degree than others.

HANDWRITING. A neat hand leads to the top. Undecipherable: a sign of deep science, e.g. doctors’ prescriptions.

Welsh bard saved as jpg

HARP. Gives out celestial harmonies. In engravings, is only played next to ruins or on the edge of a torrent. Shows off the arm and hand.

HIEROGLYPHICS. Language of the ancient Egyptians, invented by the priests to conceal their shameful secrets. “Just think! There are people who understand hieroglyphics! But after all, the whole thing may be a hoax…”

IDEALISM. The best of all philosophic systems.

IMAGINATION. Always “lively.” Be on guard against it. When lacking in oneself, attack it in others. To write a novel, all you need is imagination.

IMPRESARIO. Artist’s word meaning Manager. Always preceded by “clever.”

INCRUSTATION. Applies only to mother-of-pearl.

INDIA-RUBBER. Made of horse’s scrotum.


INSCRIPTION. Always “cuneiform.”

INSPIRATION (POETIC). Brought on by: a sight of the sea, love, women, etc.

IVORY. Refers only to teeth.

JAPAN. Everything there is made of China.

JASPER. All vases in museums are made of jasper.

KALEIDOSCOPE. Used only to describe picture exhibitions.

KEEPSAKE. Only to be found on every drawing-room table.

Courbet, View of Ornans

Courbet, View of Ornans

LANDSCAPES (ON CANVAS). Always so much spinach.

LOCKET. Must contain a lock of hair or a photograph.

LUXURY. The downfall of great states.


Made of Parian marble: The Nike of Samothrace

MARBLE. Every statue is made of Parian marble.

MODELLING. In front of a statue, say: “The modelling is not without charm.”

MOSAIC. The secret of the art is lost.

Versailles. Recalls the days of the nation’s history. A splendid idea of Louis Philippe’s.
The Louvre. To be avoided by young ladies.
Dupuytren. Recommended for young men.

NATURE. How beautiful is Nature! Repeat every time you are in the country.

Ingres, Grande Odalisque

Ingres, Grande Odalisque

ODALISQUES. All women in the Orient are odalisques.

ORIENTALIST. Far-flung traveler.

ORIGINAL. Make fun of everything that is original, hate it, beat it down, annihilate it if you can.

PAINTING ON GLASS. The secret of the art is lost.

PALM TREE. Supplies local colour.

Nadar, Portrait of Flaubert

Nadar, Portrait of Flaubert

PHOTOGRAPHY. Will make painting obsolete. (See DAGUERREOTYPE.)

PRIESTLY CALLING. “Art, medicine, etc. are so many priestly callings.”

PYRAMID. Useless edifice.

Delacroix, The Raft of the Medusa

Delacroix, The Raft of the Medusa

RAFT. Always “of the Medusa.”

RUINS. Induce reverie; make a landscape poetic.

SALON. To write up the Salon is a good beginning in literature; it allows a man to cut a figure.

SCENERY (STAGE). Isn’t real painting. The only skill required is to splash paint on the cloth and smear it with a broom–distance and lighting do the rest.

Vasari, Apelles and the Cobbler

Vasari, Apelles and the Cobbler

SHOEMAKER. Let the shoemaker stick to his last.

STARK. Whatever is antique is stark, and whatever is stark is antique. Bear this firmly in mind when buying antiques.

WHITEWASH (ON CHURCH WALLS). Thunder against. This aesthetic anger is most becoming.

WINDMILL. Looks well in a landscape.

Which Books Shaped Your Art History?

Friday, March 22nd, 2013

I’ve just received my copy of the The Books that Shaped Art History in the mail and have already begun to dip into it. It promises to be a fascinating read. The book consists of essays by various authors on sixteen “key” art historical texts, several of which I will now have to add to my library.

Below, I’ve listed all sixteen books covered by the volume. (Alternatively, you can click through the scans of the title pages, above.)

1. Emile Mâle: L’art religieux du XIIIe siècle en France: Etude sur l’iconographie du Moyen Age et sur ses sources d’inspiration (1898). [Religious Art in France in the XIII Century: A Study in Medieval Iconography and its Sources of Inspiration.]

2. Bernard Berenson: The Drawings of the Florentine Painters Classified, Criticised and Studied as Documents in the History and Appreciation of Tuscan Art, with a Copious Catalogue Raisonné (1903).

3. Heinrich Wölfflin: Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe: Das Problem der Stilentwicklung in der neueren Kunst (1915). [Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art.]

4. Roger Fry: Cézanne: A Study of His Development (1927).

5. Nikolaus Pevsner: Pioneers of the Modern Movement from William Morris to Walter Gropius (1936).

6. Alfred H. Barr, Jr.: Matisse: His Art and His Public (1951).

7. Erwin Panofsky: Early Netherlandish Painting: Its Origins and Character(1953).

8. Kenneth Clark: The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art (1956).

9. E. H. Gombrich: Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (1960).

10. Clement Greenberg: Art and Culture: Critical Essays (1961).

11. Francis Haskell: Patrons and Painters: A Study in the Relations Between Italian Art and Society in the Age of the Baroque (1963).

12. Michael Baxandall: Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style (1972).

13. T. J. Clark: Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution (1973).

14. Svetlana Alpers: The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (1983).

15. Rosalind Krauss: The Originality of the Avant Garde and Other Modernist Myths (1985).

16. Hans Belting: Bild und Kult: Eine Geschichte des Bildes vor dem Zeitalter (1990). [Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art.]

All but one of the featured books are from the Twentieth Century, so the Art History we are talking about here largely overlaps with the history of The Burlington Magazine (founded in 1903), which is where the essays appeared a couple of years ago. (You can read one of them, Christopher Woods piece on Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, here.) But this emphasis also makes sense from an institutional point of view. It was only in the last century that Art History became firmly established as an academic discipline in British and American universities.

In their introductory material, Richard Shone and John-Paul Stonard, the volume’s editors, elaborate a little on how these books were chosen from an “initial list of about thirty volumes” (p.5) and mention some of these other contenders (pp.18-19). Naturally, readers will want to argue with their final choices and, in particular, will wonder why some of their favourite texts aren’t included.

And so I ask you: which of these texts shaped your own Art History? Or, if they weren’t all included, which books would you like to see in some hypothetical second volume of The Books that Shaped Art History?

Itself an attractively designed and printed book, The Books that Shaped Art History also inevitably makes one wonder whether the traditional book will continue to be such an essential vehicle of art historical debate. And, if not, what will take its place?

Solid Objects and the Stuff of Thought

Thursday, March 7th, 2013

It’s nice to see some of my old work becoming available on the internet, especially when there’s no pay wall. So here’s a link to the published “selected papers” from the 14th International conference on Virginia Woolf, which took place in 2004 at the University of London. Look for my contribution–“Woolf, Fry, and the Psycho-Aesthetics of Solidity”–on page 244 of the PDF document.

My paper deals with Ernest Jones’s psychoanalytic theories, collecting, and Woolf’s wonderful short story, Solid Objects. I’ve always been fascinated by Woolf’s friendship with Roger Fry, and there’s a bit of that in this paper, too.

John Ruskin, “How to Draw a Stone”, from
The Elements of Drawing

If nothing else, if you haven’t already, please read Solid Objects.  Here’s my favourite quote from one of my favourite stories:

“Looked at again and again half consciously by a mind thinking of something else, any object mixes itself so profoundly with the stuff of thought that it loses its actual form and recomposes itself a little differently in an ideal shape which haunts the brain when we least expect it.”

For me, this quote gets at the heart of art history–or at least my version of it.

The Portrait of Mr. O.W.

Monday, June 20th, 2011

Prompted by Harvard University Press’s new edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray,  I recently wrote about Kerry Powell’s intriguing account of “Magic Picture Mania”–the nineteenth-century craze for stories about magical pictures, especially portraits.

In this post, I will eventually turn my attention to a portrait of Oscar Wilde. But in order to provide a context for this discussion, I first want to consider the following question, which is raised cumulatively by Powell’s account and by the many portraits and editorial notes included in HUP’s Dorian Gray. Can this “magic picture mania” be best explained as an exclusively literary trend (the parameters that concern Powell) or should we understand it as part of a broader cultural phenomenon, as one symptom of the nineteenth-century’s peculiar relationship to portraiture?

Wilde, "Fancy Portrait" (Punch cartoon: 5th March 1892)

The two possibilities are presumably mutually reinforcing, but as an art historian I’m naturally inclined to stress the latter, if only as a strategic corrective to an approach that insulates literature from visual culture. At any rate, consider the following bits and pieces, all of which tend to confirm the assertion that “artistic portraiture was undergoing a renaissance in Britain,” as Nicholas Frankel, the editor of the HUP edition puts it (125).

By 1890, photography had been generating quasi-magical pictures for half a century and had especially helped to stimulate portraiture. More people were now having their portraits taken, and these circulated in greater numbers and in new ways (think, for example, of the carte de visite).

Hills & Saunders, Oscar Wilde (carte de visite, 1876)

One of my favourite details in The Picture of Dorian Gray concerns precisely this new expanded culture of portraiture. Dressed in mourning clothes, Dorian’s housekeeper wears “a photograph of the late Mr. Leaf [her husband] framed in a large gold brooch at her neck” (176). This prose vignette points to an untold story and one that might parallel Dorian’s, albeit on a more mundane level.  It too would be about portraiture, dependency and death.

Despite photography, or perhaps partly because of it, portrait painting flourished, too. 1891 saw the founding of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, and five years later the National Portrait Gallery opened its new (and current) premises, just off Trafalgar Square. Living in Chelsea, Wilde was acquainted with many of the district’s notable portraitists, including John Singer Sargent, Charles Shannon, and James McNeill Whistler.

Napoleon Sarony, Portrait of Oscar Wilde (albumen print), 1882

Oscar Wilde actively participated in this growth in portraiture. He sought out some of the most prominent portrait photographers of his day; during his famous tour of America, for example, he visited Napoleon Sarony’s well-known Manhattan studio and posed for him in various different costumes and attitudes. He also commissioned at least one painted portrait of himself.

The resulting work particularly captures my imagination in relationship to The Picture of Dorian Gray. Made sometime between 1882 and 1884, it’s an oil painting by the American artist Harper Pennington and is reproduced in the HUP edition of Dorian Gray. (By the way, not much seems to be known about Pennington and I’d love to find out more about him.)

Harper Pennington, Portrait of Oscar Wilde (circa 1884)

In his work, Pennington depicts the Anglo-Irish writer assuming a distinguished and somewhat haughty attitude.  One arm extends smoothly forwards, while the other bends jauntily and accents his high hips and waistline. One hand holds a cane, the other gloves. These are dandyish accoutrements and, despite the carpet, they hint at urban explorations. The pose has royal associations and recalls, for example, Van Dyck’s famous portrait of Charles I, now in the Louvre.

Details of Van Dyck's Portrait of Charles I (circa 1635) and Pompeo Batoni's Portrait of Charles Cecil Roberts (1778)

By the late Nineteenth Century, this basic pose had become something of a formula, although we find it in varying degrees of rotation and with any number of adjustments. Drawing attention to the subject’s body as much as his head, it was used for many full-length “swagger” portraits and found to be eminently suitable for male artists and writers. Manet, for example, had used a version of it in his portrait of the artist Carolus Duran, possibly taking his cue from the fact that Carolus is a latinate version of Charles.

Manet's Portrait of Carolus Duran (1876, detail) and John Singer Sargent's Portrait of W. Graham Robertson (1894)

Similarly William Merritt Chase, visiting London in 1885, used the pose in his portrait of Whistler, who was also Pennington’s teacher. The pose thus connects three American artists who painted in London.

William Merritt Chase, Portrait of Whistler (1885)

At least five years passed from the time Wilde posed for Pennington’s portrait to August 1889, when he successfully pitched the idea of The Picture of Dorian Gray to the editor of Lippincott’s Magazine. Those five years would have been long enough for the work to appear to Wilde not just as a different self, but as a distinctly “earlier” self.  It’s tempting to speculate that in addition to the general vogue for portraiture, this painting would have made Wilde conscious of portraiture’s relationship to aging, time, notions of immortality, and the splitting of self and image–all crucial aspects of his novel.

Like the picture in the story, Pennington’s portrait of Wilde is a “full-length” (67) and  “life-sized” (89) work, and would have required lengthy sessions for the artist and sitter; the painting almost certainly represents a far greater investment of Wilde’s time and money than any of the other portraits he commissioned. And there’s a very good reason to think that Pennington would have been in Wilde’s mind in 1889, again in relationship to posing and modeling: early that year, fifteen of the artist’s illustrations had accompanied Wilde’s article about “London Models.”

Celebrity authors, like Wilde, commissioned and sat for portraits; and whether they liked it or not, they also became the subjects of caricatures–no-one more so than Wilde. So in all its variety, portraiture increasingly mediated between authors and readers, helping to shape the image of a writer in the public’s mind. Perhaps, then, we should not be too surprised that writers found the topic of portraiture so compelling. And let’s us not neglect another important yet productive aspect of portraiture: tedium. “It is horribly dull,” opines Dorian Gray in the second chapter of Wilde’s novel, “standing on a platform and trying to look pleasant” (92). While they sat or stood for their portrait, and while conversation with their portraitist lagged, I imagine these authors diverting themselves by inventing stories, even stories about strange pictures.

Harper Pennington, Portrait of Oscar Wilde (detail)

Later in the 1890s, when Wilde was imprisoned and ruined financially, his friends Ada and Ernest Leverson bought Pennington’s portrait during the sale of the author’s possessions, thus saving it for him. Wilde later joked about the corrupting influence the work might have had on those who had seen it at the Leversons: “I was quite conscious of the very painful position of a man who had in his house a life-sized portrait, which he could not have in his drawing-room as it was obviously, on account of its subject, demoralising to young men, and possibly to young women of advanced views” (letter to Frank Harris, 13 June 1897). Just before his release, Wilde arranged for the picture to be retrieved from the Leversons and stored it in “a small room in Hornton Street, Kensington”. There it stayed while Wilde lived out his remaining days on the continent.

Later in that same letter, Wilde vividly and humorously describes the portrait as a “social incubus.” The language irresistibly recalls another potentially dangerous and parasitic portrait. This other portrait, the one in The Picture of Dorian Gray, also needed to be hidden away from the wrong sort of viewer, even while remaining fully visible to the reader’s imagination. Pennington’s portrait, on the other hand, ended up surrounded by books. It is housed in UCLA’s Clark Library, where, I trust, it is fully visible to all, yet never found to be “demoralising to young [Californians]… of advanced views.”

Works Cited:
Powell, Kerry. “Tom, Dick, and Dorian Gray: Magic-Picture Mania in Late Victorian Fiction” in Philological Quarterly, vol.62, no.2 (Spring 1983) 147-170.
Wilde, Oscar. The Letters of Oscar Wilde (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.).
_________  (Nicholas Frankel, ed.) The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2011).


Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

I’ve written a review of Harvard University Press’s The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition, which you can find over at Three Pipe Problem. It’s nice to be a guest contributor to somebody else’s blog, but it’s especially nice when it’s such an excellent and widely read one.

You can access my review by clicking here. Rather than commenting below, feel free to add your thoughts here.

Googling Dorian: a few of his many faces.

Magic Picture Mania

Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

While writing my review of Harvard University Press’s new edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray, I began thinking about how Wilde’s story combines both original and highly conventional elements. Wilde recognized this. Describing the story to the editor of the Daily Chronicle, he said that it was about “a young man selling his soul in exchange for eternal youth–an idea that is old in the history of literature, but to which I have given new form” (30 June 1890).

Charles Ricketts, detail of his cover for “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” 1891

Digging around the new edition’s extensive bibliography, I found a reference to an article dealing with the generic aspects of Wilde’s novel. Writing about “Magic-Picture Mania in Late Victorian Fiction,” Kerry Powell places Dorian Gray within the context of dozens of lesser known nineteenth-century stories about pictures, and describes the startling popularity of these stories in the Nineteenth Century. The pictures in these tales are, to be more precise, almost always painted portraits; and if they are not always magical, then they are at the very least imbued with “the power of images,” to use David Freedberg’s useful phrase. (Freedberg, incidentally, traces such tales back, way back, to ancient and folkloric sources.) So, for Powell, the Faustian pact Wilde mentions is not really the defining characteristic of the story; it’s just one of many elements that can often be found in these tales of “magic pictures.” Powell lists about a dozen other such motifs.

Eugene Dété after Paul Thiriat, frontispiece to “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1908), wood-engraved illustration


Powell proposes that “Wilde has compiled in his novel a veritable lexicon of motifs associated with magic-portrait fiction” (152). The novel, he expands, collects “themes, situations, and character types that other writers of magic picture fiction had employed before him. But none of his predecessors used so many of these devices, and certainly none was able to manipulate the miraculous portrait itself with such dexterity, and to such marvelous effect, as the author of Dorian Gray” (164).

Objections could certainly be raised about Powell’s thesis, but rather than pursue these further, I’d like to draw attention to what really piqued my interest: the three or four dozen magic-picture stories mentioned in the article, a good number of which were written by well-known authors. I began searching for the full texts of these stories on the internet and most of them were there, having long ago entered the public domain. (It’s yet another reminder of how thoroughly my research activities now depend on the internet and, to name just one exceptionally useful tool, on Google Books.)

Gaston Fay, illustration for Henry James’s “The Story of a Masterpiece” (1868)

The point of this post is to share some of these findings. Here, arranged in chronological order, are eight short or shortish nineteenth-century “magic-picture” stories by seven well-known authors. (I’ve included two by Nathaniel Hawthorne.) Thanks to the magic of the internet, you can access a story by simply clicking on the associated portrait. To whet your appetite, I’ve also prefaced each story with a quote from it.

Magic Portrait Gallery
Nikolai Gogol’s The Portrait (1835): “‘I want my portrait painted. I have not long to live. I have no children, and I do not wish to die altogether. Can you paint a portrait of me that shall be exactly like life?'”

Alexander Ivanov, Portrait of Nikolai Gogol


Nathaniel Hawthorne, Prophetic Pictures (1837): “He had caught from the duskiness of the future–at least, so he fancied–a fearful secret, and had obscurely revealed it on the portraits.”

Charles Osgood, Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1840)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edward Randolph’s Portrait (1837): “It would be almost worth while to wipe away the black surface of the canvas, since the original picture can hardly be so formidable as those which fancy paints instead of it.”

Engraving after C.G. Thompson, Nathaniel Hawthorne

o O

Edgar Allan Poe, The Oval Portrait (1850): “And he would not see that the tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sat beside him.”

Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe

o O

Henry James, Story of a Masterpiece (1868): “It seemed to Lennox that some strangely potent agency had won from his mistress the confession of her inmost soul, and had written it there upon the canvas in firm yet passionate lines.” [And click here for the second part of the story.]

LaFarge, Portrait of Henry James (circa 1862)


H. G. Wells, The Temptation of Harringay (1895): “‘Why do you keep moving about then,’ he said, ‘making faces and all that–sneering and squinting, while I am painting you?’ ‘I don’t,” said the picture.”

Herbert George Wells (1943)

o O

Jerome K. Jerome, Portrait of a Lady (1895): “Once, glancing back over my shoulder, I could have sworn I saw the original of the picture sitting in the big chintz-covered chair in the far corner.”

Jerome K. Jerome

Edith Wharton, The Portrait (1899): “‘My advice is, don’t let George Lillo paint you if you don’t want to be found out–or to find yourself out. That’s why I’ve never let him do_me_; I’m waiting for the day of judgment.'”

Edward Harrison May, Portrait of Edith Wharton (1881)


Works Cited:
Freedberg, David. The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989).
Powell, Kerry. “Tom, Dick, and Dorian Gray: Magic-Picture Mania in Late Victorian Fiction” in Philological Quarterly, vol.62, no.2 (Spring 1983) 147-170.
Wilde, Oscar. The Letters of Oscar Wilde (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.).
_________  (Nicholas Frankel, ed.) The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2011).