Chapter 10 of the author's George Eliot and the Visual Arts, which Yale University Press published in a 1979 . It has been included in the Victorian web with the kind permission of the author, who of course retains copyright.
he first important biography of Leighton carries a quotation from Romola on its second page (Barrington, I, 2). "Va! your human talk and doings are a tame jest; the only passionate life is in form and colour" (8:134). As David DeLaura points out, Walter Pater liked to quote this aphorism, too, enchanted no doubt by its formalist implications (pp. 225-26).But George Eliot was not a forerunner of Roger Fry or Clive Bell in her approach to visual art. As Gillian Beer has noted, "pure pattern has no appeal for her . . . [her] emphasis is on art straining to become life . . . the human model is always more vital than the picture" (p. 18). Art serves life in George Eliot's scheme of values; pictures are but an imperfect means to a higher end -- the truthful representation of life in its dynamic complexity. That is why Daniel Deronda's mother has "an expression of living force beyond anything that the pencil could show" (53: 138).
Ruskin, more than anyone else, taught George Eliot to value art as the servant of a greater reality. "The truth of infinite value that he teaches is realism," she declared, "the doctrine that all truth and beauty are to be attained by a humble and faithful study of nature and not by substituting vague forms, bred by imagination on the mists of feeling, in place of definite, substantial reality" ("Art and Belles Lettres," 626). For Ruskin and Eliot, the faithful study of nature is not an end in itself but a means of attaining a selfless perception of truth and beauty. Ruskin's belief in the spiritual significance of nature was no less important to Eliot than his empiricism. She learned from him to seek what Richard L. Stein has called "an intense spiritual [171/172] apprehension of nature from a detailed examination of its physical characteristics" ( p. 38). She learned or relearned, in other words, the great lesson of Romantic aesthetics: to be attentive to the veil of appearances in the hope of seeing through it to a profounder truth. A Ruskinian conviction that visual and literary art deals with two planes of reality -- one visible, the other invisible -- pervades her theory and practice of literary pictorialism.
In portraiture, the two planes are the physical appearance and the inner nature of the sitter. All of Eliot's speculations about physiognomical expression presuppose a correlation between the two. But the correlation becomes complex and problematic once naive systems of interpretation such as phrenology are abandoned. Then the portraitist must, like Piero di Cosimo in Romola, ponder the surfaces until his penetrative imagination intuits the truth behind them. And he must remain alert to the possibility that good looks mask selfish or evil inclinations.
Idealizing portraiture depends upon the double reality of type and antitype in figural symbolism. The type has a concrete existence in history or literature yet prefigures or postfigures an absent antitype which fulfills its meaning. Thus Daniel Deronda achieves his full meaning only in his figural relation to Titian's exemplary image of Christ giving the world its due. In secular or humanistic typology, the figure may be valued more highly than the paradigm of which it is, i.e. shadow. Thus Eliot criticizes Naumann's symbolism because it is inattentive to the empirical reality of its vehicles. Both the flesh and the spirit must be honored in the incarnations of art.
In narrative and problem pictures, the spectator infers a state of affairs from the visual clues given him, comprehending the unseen through a careful scrutiny of the seen. By the same token, the reader must scan George Eliot's literary problem pictures carefully if he is to perceive how the absence of an unlawful member of the family group subverts the benign conventions of the conversation piece. Eliot invites us to consult appearances but teaches us to look well beyond them.
She values accurate empirical detail in representations of landscape because the attention paid to such detail ultimately yields a spiritual insight into the larger reality of the human condition. For [172/173] both Eliot and Ruskin, a true vision of landscape is at once faithful to material surfaces yet aware that suffering and evil may be present in the most idyllic scenes, that mountain gloom is no less real than mountain glory, that the picturesque may have a dark underside of squalor and decay. It was chiefly Ruskin who taught Eliot to see the art of landscape as a marriage of naturalistic and emblematic techniques.
Although she had ceased to share the Evangelical faith that informs Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice, George Eliot was nonetheless profoundly influenced by Ruskin's conceptions of nature, imagination, and art. She incorporates his vivid sense of a world that is intensely present in its own right, yet intensely meaningful to humankind. She believes with him that imagination is the agency by which this physical/spiritual world is apprehended, and that art is the means by which the truthful apprehensions of the imagination are conveyed. Her realism, like Ruskin's, is essentially a subspecies of Romanticism.
Barrington, Mrs. Russell. The Life, Letters, and Work of Frederic Baron Leighton. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1906.
Beer, Gillian. "Music and the Visual Arts in the Novels of George Eliot."
DeLaura, David. "Romola and the Origin of the Paterian View of Life."
Eliot, George. "Art and Belles Lettres." Westminster Review, 65 (1856).
Stein, Richard L. The Ritual of Interpretation: The Fine Arts as Literature in Ruskin, Rossetti, and Pater. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975.
Last modified 20 February 2000