George Scharf, friend of George Eliot's and an important figure in the Victorian art world, once contrasted "the historical, heroic, or idealised style of figure-painting" with genre painting, which he defined as the "representation of life in its unheroic forms." It was into genre, Scharf believed, that "all the imaginative art of this country seems in progress of being absorbed" (p. 95). Scharf was acknowledging an important trend. Throughout the eighteenth century, Dutch and Flemish genre painting had gained in popularity among British collectors (Millar, p. 6-36). Genre conventions were successfully adapted to British scenes by painters such as George Morland and David Wilkie, and they in turn were imitated by many Victorian followers.
Genre painting and the novel arose together as middle-class art forms and retained close connections until the end of the nineteenth century. According to Richard Stang, it was a French treatise of 1846 on Dutch and Flemish painting that first popularized the application of the term realisme to fiction.3 And certainly it is with Dutch, Flemish, and English genre painting that George Eliot's realism is most often compared. She herself invites the comparison in chapter 17 of Adam Bede, and Mario Praz applies it to all of her work in his study of The Hero in Eclipse in Victorian Fiction.
Genre painting suited both George Eliot's experience and her artistic goals. The domestic reality depicted in seventeenth century Netherlandish pictures was of a piece with the domestic reality surrounding her in the preindustrial English countryside of the [105/106] 1820s and 1830s. The photographs of her environs that have been published by C. S. Olcott and Marghanita Laski suggest how readily the scenes and customs Eliot knew as a girl could be perceived in terms of genre painting. Many of the descriptions in her early fiction are at once literal accounts of identifiable places and pictorial arrangements imitating a well-established visual style. Metaphors derived from genre painting served to describe even the intellectually oppressive aspects of her early world: "mine is too often a world such as Wilkie can so well paint, a walled-in world, furnished with all the details which he remembers so accurately, and the least interesting part thereof is often what I suppose must be designated the intelligent" (Letters, 1, 71). She must often, before moving to Coventry, have felt herself to be living in the world painted by Wilkie and his Dutch and Flemish predecessors.
Furthermore, the spirit in which ordinary domestic life is treated in the best Netherlandish genre pictures harmonizes perfectly with the spirit in which George Eliot wished to write. Often the painter appears to value quotidian existence so much that he invests profane subjects with a numinous, radiant, almost sacred aura that evokes memories of the religious art from which secular painting originally derived. As Walter Pater put it, the "ideal of home" in genre painting "was not without a kind of natural religiousness" ("Sebastian von Storck," p. 88). To hallow everyday communal life with a sense of "natural religiousness" was a primary goal of George Eliot's fiction, as we have seen. Her genre pictorialism therefore emphasizes the values of harmony, order, and love in the visual tradition which she inherited.
Yet it is possible to exaggerate the importance of genre painting to Eliot. Because she drew upon many other kinds of painting, an indiscriminate application of the genre-painting analogy can distort her achievement. Praz's crude and unilluminating characterization of Eliot's art as "Biedermeier" perfectly illustrates the danger of taking the remarks on Dutch painting in chapter 17 of Adam Bede as the key to her entire oeuvre (Preminger p. 77, Finke p. 68). Those remarks, as Darrell Mansell, Jr., has shown, do not invest supreme value in Dutch genre, and do not offer it as a complete prototype of the narrator's own art. To be sure, Adam Bede contains many word-pictures in the Dutch manner; but chapter 17 is primarily a plea against prescriptive generic criticism, [106/107] echoing Ruskin's defense of Dutch painting against the categorical strictures of Reynolds. It is an argument for the importance of truthfulness and sympathy as critical criteria, not a manifesto for the inherent superiority of genre to history painting.
To avoid a simplistic view of Eliot's depictions of common life, we should distinguish some of the different schools and sorts of genre painting which she imitated. This chapter will outline the principal visual traditions that inform her genre pictorialism, and discuss her literary use of those traditions.
William Bell Scott was mindful of the diversity of nonheroic subjects when in 1873 he named "genre, familiar subjects illustrative of real life, tableaux de société, or 'conversation pieces'" as a single branch of painting (p. 81). George Eliot employed each sort of picture listed by Scott and several that he did not list. In chapter 17 of Adam Bede she mainly evokes seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish scenes of humble bourgeois or peasant life, some of them comical or satirical in emphasis, some of them realistic and intimist. This Netherlandish tradition descends from Pieter Brueghel the Elder to Adriaen Brouwer and David Teniers II in Belgium, and passes thence to Gerhard Dou and the Leyden School in Holland (Legrand). The heritage includes Mieris, Metsu, Maes, Steen, the Ostades, De Hooch, Terborch, and Vermeer. The pleasure these painters gave nineteenth century viewers may be gauged from a remark of Henry James's: "We never fail to derive a deep satisfaction from these delectable realists-the satisfaction produced by the sight of a perfect accord between the aim and the result" (p. 77).
An important offshoot of the Dutch tradition was the conversation piece, a mixture of genre and portrait in which a group friends or relatives is depicted in an intimate and informal setting (Staring, De Hollanders Thuis). The Dutch bourgeois conversation piece had an aristocratic Flemish counterpart which often located the portrait group in a ballroom or garden. The Flemish conversation piece is closely allied to the French tableau de société and, through Watteau, to the fête galante. (Gerson pp. 172-73, Paulson pp. 123-25). Both the Dutch and the Flemish styles helped to shape the English conversation piece, which flourished in the eighteenth century. This type of picture appealed greatly to George Eliot and proved especially useful to her fiction because the element of [107/108]portraiture could readily be adapted to her habitual techniques of characterization.
Eliot also admired nineteenth-century genre painting and was sensitive to many of the innovations which her contemporaries made in the genre tradition. These included the introduction of contemporary themes, the use of genre motifs for historical subjects, an increased emphasis upon narrative techniques, and the invention of the problem picture. These Romantic and Victorian tendencies found their way into George Eliot's pictorialism and exerted no less influence upon her descriptive style than did the earlier phases in the history of genre painting.
If we examine Eliot's actual practice, we shall see that she evokes seventeenth-century Netherlandish art most often in her earliest work. The Dutch tradition appears at least once, for instance, in each of the Scenes of Clerical Life, helping to define the tea-preparations at Mrs. Patten's in the opening pages of "Amos Barton," the kitchen at Cheverel Manor in the fourth chapter of "Mr Gilfil's Love-Story," and Mrs. Jerome at her tea-table in the eighth chapter of "Janet's Repentance." But it was not until Eliot visited the galleries of Munich and Dresden while working on Adam Bede in the summer of 1858 that Teniers and Dou and their compatriots made their deepest impression upon her art. "I did not half satisfy my appetite for the rich collection of Flemish and Dutch pictures here," she wrote in her Dresden journal, "for Teniers, Ryckart, Gerard Dow, Terburg, Mieris and the rest" (Cross, II, 48-49). It was a great pleasure, after a visit to the Alte Pinakothek at Munich, "to call up in your imagination a little Gerard Dow that you have seen hanging in a comer of one of the cabinets" (Letters, II,454).
Gerard Dou, The Sinner's Grace. Bayerischen Staatsgemäldesammlungen. Figure 23 in print version. Click upon thumbnail for larger image.
One such Dou reappears in chapter 17 of Adam Bede; for, as Norma Jean Davis and Bernard Richards have shown, the Betende Spinnerin at Munich is clearly the model for Eliot's "old woman . . . eating her solitary dinner, while the noonday light, softened perhaps by a screen of leaves, falls on her mob-cap, and just touches the rim of her spinning-wheel, and her stone jug" (17:268). (Davis p. 71, Richards p. 152, Dou p. 100). The details of this description correspond exactly with those of the painting, and show how attentively Eliot could look at a picture that interested her.
[108/109] Both Davis and John Goode have demonstrated that Adam Bede contains a great many motifs and light effects that are commonplace in seventeenth-century Netherlandish pictures: the woman on the doorstep, framed by the domestic architecture behind her; the interior furnished with household objects and illuminated by sun-light through a window; the interior glimpsed through a window and lit by a candle or lamp within.15 The first of these arrangements governs the initial description of Adam's home and mother:
It was a low house, with smooth grey thatch and buff walls, looking pleasant and mellow in the evening light. The leaded windows were bright and speckless, and the door-stone was as clean as a white boulder at ebb tide. On the door-stone stood a clean old woman, in a dark-striped linen gown, a red kerchief, and a linen cap, talking to some speckled fowls which appeared to have been drawn towards her by an illusory expectation of cold potatoes or barley. [1:14]
The same composition reappears in a later account of Lisbeth (4:54) and in the closing glimpse of Dinah Morris (Epilogue: 374). Dutch interiors are given to the Hall Farm (6:106-07, 14:215, 22:374) and Bartle Massey's house (21:348-49). The Hall Farm dairy is unmistakably a Dutch scene:
The dairy was certainly worth looking at: it was a scene to sicken for with a sort of calenture in hot and dusty streets-such coolness, such purity, such fresh fragrance of new-pressed cheese, of firm butter, of wooden vessels perpetually bathed in pure water; such soft colouring of red earthenware and creamy surfaces, brown wood and polished tin, grey limestone and rich orange-red rust on the iron weights and hooks and hinges. But one gets only a confused notion of these details when they surround a distractingly pretty girl of seventeen, standing on little pattens and rounding her dimpled arm to lift a pound of butter out of the scale. [7:120]
E. H. Corbould, Hetty and Captain Donnithorne in Mrs. Poyser's Dairy, 1861. Figure 24 in print version. Click upon image for larger picture, which takes longer to download.
The first illustrator of this scene had no doubt about what pictorial style the author intended. In Hetty and Captain Donnithorne in Mrs. Poyser's Dairy (1861), E. H. Corbould imitates precisely the kind of seventeenth-century setting that Eliot's text is designed to [109/110]recall. This faithful and highly successful illustration shows how at least one attentive Victorian reader visualized the genre descriptions in Adam Bede.
After Adam Bede, however, Eliot never again used Dutch and Flemish painting on so large a scale. The Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner, as we shall see in the next chapter, do not depend heavily upon pictorial techniques; and even the famous scene at the Rainbow Inn, which has often been compared to a genre picture, is almost entirely aural and dramatic, controlled by the remembered rhythms of country dialogue rather than the visual precedents of Teniers or Steen. Any resemblance to Netherlandish painting is in the subject, not in the treatment. Eliot evoked Dutch still-life painting in one vivid passage of "Brother Jacob" in 1864 (2:368), but not until she described the Garths in Middlemarch did she return to the descriptive mode of Adam Bede. She visualizes Mary Garth in terms of a Rembrandt portrait (12:169), and her parents in terms of a genre picture:
On entering the quarried parlour, which had no carpet, but was well hung with maps and plans, Fred saw Mrs Garth standing with her hand on her husband's shoulder. He was seated at his desk by the fire, and had just called her out of the kitchen to read a letter which he had finished. Mrs Garth was of the same curly-haired square-faced type as Mary, but handsomer, with more delicacy of feature, a pale skin, a solid matronly figure, and a remarkable firmness of glance. In her snowy frilled cap she reminded one of that delightful Frenchwoman whom we have all seen marketing, basket on arm. [Middlemarch p. 178]
The first two sentences of this passage exist only in the manuscript, however, and not in the final version of the novel. Their omission reduces the effect of a "solid sort of Dutch realism" (Essays, p. 331). In fact, Eliot associates the Garths, as we shall see, with Victorian genre painting more often than with Dutch. Netherlandish art, then, provides a systematic pictorialist program only in George Eliot's first novel.
By contrast, the conversation piece appears throughout Eliot's oeuvre. As a social novelist she often had need to present portraits [110/111]of families or groups of friends, "seen in their home surroundings or engaged in some favourite occupation" (Paulson p. 121). The conversation piece unites portrait and genre by placing identifiable instead of anonymous figures in genre contexts. In such pictures the sitters enjoy a special harmony with their setting; they belong in it, and usually it belongs to them. The repertoire of settings varies, as Mario Praz has shown, from a table in a room, to a porch or balustrade in a courtyard or garden, to a tree in the open air, or a park with a country house in the distance, or even a boat.18 The outdoor settings sometimes have greater affinities with landscape than with genre painting, as we shall see in the next chapter when we discuss the motif of the aristocratic family depicted against a background of park and country house.
The activities of the portrait group are also important, since the conversation piece is essentially informal, private, and casual rather than formal, public, and posed. The term conversation itself refers to the interplay among the members of the group, which usually centers upon some recreation or avocation: a game, a dance, a theatrical performance, a concert, a sport, a hobby, a collection. Several kinds of activity may take place within a single picture, especially if children and pets are represented. Having originated in Belgium and Holland in the seventeenth century, the conversation piece achieved its highest development in England between 1720 and 1810. Thereafter it fell from fashion, but its tradition remained well known, throughout the nineteenth century.
The essential elements of the conversation piece are all present in George Eliot's description of the Garth family at the beginning of chapter 57 of Middlemarch. The group is not stiffly posed but engaged in informal diversions of several sorts:
[Fred Vincy] found the family group, dogs and cats included, under the great apple-tree in the orchard. It was a festival with Mrs Garth, for her eldest son, Christy, her peculiar joy and pride, had come home for a short holiday. . . . He was lying on the ground now by his mother's chair, with his straw-hat laid flat over his eyes, while Jim on the other side was reading aloud from that beloved author who has made a chief part in the [111/112] happiness of many young lives. The volume was 'Ivanhoe,' and Jim was in the great archery scene at the tournament, but suffered much interruption from Ben, who had fetched his own bow and arrow, and was making himself dreadfully disagreeable, Letty thought, by begging all present to observe his random shots, which no one wished to do except Brownie, the active-minded but probably shallow mongrel, while the grizzled Newfoundland lying in the sun looked on with the dull-eyed neutrality of extreme old age. Letty herself, showing as to her mouth and pinafore some slight signs that she had been assisting at the gathering of the cherries which stood in a coral-heap on the tea-table, was now seated on the grass, listening open-eyed to the reading. [57:57-58]
The group is disposed about a large tree which symbolizes the fruitfulness and continuity of the family-a common arrangement in eighteenth-century conversation pieces, as Ronald Paulson has observed (pp. 154-55). The connotations of the apple tree are repeated in the cherries and borne out by the concentration of the portraiture upon the younger generation. The theme of generation(s) extends even to the Landseerian dogs. The word-picture implies that the Garth family renews itself as nature does, accommodating diversity, spontaneity, friction, and separation within an orderly ongoing rhythm. (Some of the same connotations are present in a series of three portraits of Mary Garth in orchard or garden settings, 40:203, 52:367, 86:448-49. These portraits punctuate her relations with Mr. Farebrother and Fred Vincy). The doubts which darken the affirmative portraiture of other characters in Middlemarch cast no shadow upon the Garths.
Eliot's description of the Garth children and their dogs evokes a distinctly nineteenth-century pictorial idiom, with perhaps a touch of the Dutch heritage in the bourgeois boisterousness of the group. More in the eighteenth-century mode is the subdued, aristocratic conversation piece in chapter 35 of Daniel Deronda. Entertaining the Grandcourts for the first time since their marriage, Sir Hugo Mallinger has invited them to dine at the Abbey with a carefully assorted group of his friends. The party has assembled in the drawing-room to await the guests of honor.
The scene was really delightful-enlarged by full-length portraits with deep backgrounds, inserted in the cedar panelling-surmounted by a ceiling that glowed with the rich colours of the coats of arms ranged between the sockets-illuminated almost [112/113]as much by the red fire of oak-boughs as by the pale wax lights-stilled by the deep-piled carpet and by the high English breeding that subdues all voices; while the mixture of ages, from the white-haired Lord and Lady Pentreath to the four-year-old Edgar Raymond, gave a varied charm to the living groups. Lady Mallinger, with fair matronly roundness and mildly prominent blue eyes, moved about in her black velvet, carrying a tiny white dog on her arm as a sort of finish to her costume; the children were scattered among the ladies, while most of the gentlemen were standing rather aloof conversing with that very moderate vivacity observable during the long minutes before dinner. Deronda was a little out of the circle in a dialogue fixed upon him by Mr Vandernoodt, a man of the best Dutch blood imported at the Revolution: for the rest, One Of those Commodious persons in society who are nothing particular themselves, but are understood to be acquainted with the best in every department; close-clipped, pale-eyed, nonchalant, as good a foil as could well be found to the intense colouring and vivid gravity of Deronda. [35:194-95]
The arrangement of the group is semiformal, and its main activity is literally conversation. The portraiture is likewise semiformal, in that it emphasizes the ages, ranks, backgrounds, and social roles of the individuals who make up the party. The passage supports Ronald Paulson's thesis that the conversation piece strives above all for a precise social definition of its subject (pp. 121-122). In this connection Deronda's physical position-slightly outside the circle of English gentlemen-is as significant as the position of the ladies and children.
As these examples suggest, Eliot drew upon the conversation piece for a variety of fictional effects. The form is ideally suited to the celebration of family harmonies, but it can also be used to spotlight family problems. As we shall see, Eliot developed a highly effective kind of literary problem picture which ironically inverts the benign conventions of the conversation piece. Perhaps because it is such an adaptable pictorial form, the conversation piece appears at least once in each of her novels.
The problem picture was but one of the modifications which [113/114]British artists made in the genre tradition when they took it up in the nineteenth century. They also introduced contemporary social themes into their pictures of humble life, infused history painting with genre motifs, and extended the techniques of narrative presentation which they learned from Hogarth. Each of these innovations made a mark upon George Eliot's pictorialism. She was a keen student of contemporary genre painting as it developed from the work of David Wilkie.22 We have already observed that she refers to Wilkie in a letter of 1840 (Letters, 1, 71) and later praises the scene in The Antiquary in which Scott evokes Wilkie's cottage pictures (Essays, p. 270). When she visited Berlin in 1854-55, she remarked "some clever Wilkie-like pictures by Hasenclever"("Recollections of Berlin"). She also liked the work of the prolific Irish genre painter, William Mulready, and the French genre painters, Henriette Browne and Jacques Feyen (Letters, III, 134; IV, 144; VII, 281). The novelist's regular visits to the Royal Academy and French Gallery exhibitions no doubt kept her well informed of the latest trends in the pictorial representation of common life.
In her early stories George Eliot drew unhesitatingly upon themes that were popular in contemporary genre painting. For example, she liked to end her tales with word-pictures of deathbed and village wedding scenes. The death of Milly Barton and the weddings of Mr. Gilfil, Adam Bede, and Eppie Marner are unabashedly conventional in their appeal to an established visual taste. But Eliot also employed less conventional genre themes, for example at the beginning of Adam Bede:
With this drop of ink at the end of my pen, I will show you the roomy workshop of Mr Jonathan Burge, carpenter and builder, in the village of Hayslope, as it appeared on the eighteenth of June, in the year of our Lord 1799.
The afternoon sun was warm on the five workmen there, busy upon doors and window-frames and wainscoting. A scent of pine-wood from the tent-like pile of planks outside the open door mingled itself with the scent of the elder-bushes which were spreading their summer snow close to the open window opposite; the slanting sunbeams shone through the transparent [114/115]shavings that flew before the steady plane, and lit up the fine grain of the oak panelling which stood propped against the wall. On a heap of those soft shavings a rough grey shepherd-dog had made himself a pleasant bed, and was lying with his nose between his forepaws, occasionally wrinkling his brows to cast a glance at the tallest of the five workmen, who was carving a shield in the centre of a wooden mantelpiece. It was to this workman that the strong barytone belonged which was heard above the sound of plane and hammer singing
"Awake, my soul, and with the sun
Thy daily stage of duty run;
Shake off dull sloth . . ." [1:3-4]
The imagery of the passage appeals to several senses, as R. T. Jones has noted (p. 6). But it is predominantly visual and pictorial. Like the title of a Victorian painting, the words of the hymn underline the moral meaning served by the detailed realism of the technique.
Ford Madox Brown, Work, 1852-1856. Not in print version. Click upon image for larger picture, which takes longer to download.
The passage is George Eliot's version of a Victorian picture of duty or work. Like Ford Madox Brown's Work (1852-65), William Bell Scott's Newcastle Quayside in 1861, or James Hook's From under the Sea (1864), Eliot's description emphasizes the quasi-religious, Carlylean significance of socially useful endeavor and presents the worker as an impressive, almost heroic figure.25
Adam and his fellows are not, to be sure, set in the postindustrial world of Brown's navvies, who are excavating for a sewer, or Scott's shipbuilders, or Hook's miners. But the pastoral environment of the shop enhances the biblical connotations of the carpentry. The typological resonance of the scene helps to ennoble the carpenters and to push the genre subject in the direction of sacred and heroic history painting. The workshop motif is repeated in chapters 19 and 38, with interesting variations that correspond to Adam's psychic fall from innocence to experience. It is a skillful novelistic handling of a new and important pictorial theme.
The blurring of the boundaries between genre and history painting is characteristic of Victorian art. Weary of what George Scharf called "the exclusive reign of the high historical," the Victorians carried [115/116]through a pictorial revolution which had begun in the last half of the eighteenth century. (Scharf p. 58, Edgar pp. 116-27). By incorporating genre motifs into history painting, they broke away from neoclassical restrictions upon subject and treatment. Private persons and minor domestic incidents began to displace famous persons and great public moments in history pictures. "The introduction of genre," according to Scharf, "has opened to our figure-painters the whole range of subjects in past and contemporary life." (p. 58). This expansion in English painting was influenced by parallel developments in France and Germany. The works of Paul Delaroche and of the Dusseldorf school of history painting (Lessing, Hildebrandt, Hubner, Bendemann, and Sohn) were well known in England and admired by George Eliot, among others (Finke pp. 100-01, Hutt, Haight p. 151).
The new taste in history painting gave rise to a popular motif of lovers placed in interesting historical situations. George Eliot was deeply affected by Millais's A Huguenot on St. Bartholomew's Day at the Royal Academy of 1852 and by Frederic Burton's The Meeting on the Turret Stairs at the Old Water-Colour Exhibition of 1864 (Letters, II, 29-30; IV, 147).
Frederic Burton, The Meeting on the Turret Stairs. 1864. Figure 26 in print version. Click upon image for larger picture, which takes longer to download.
She tried her own hand at such a picture when she described Romola and Tito on the day of their betrothal:
It was not long before Romola entered, all white and gold, more than ever like a tall lily. Her white silk garment was bound by a golden girdle, which fell with large tassels; and above that was the rippling gold of her hair, surmounted by the white mist of her long veil, which was fastened on her brow by a band of pearls, the gift of Bernardo del Nero, and was now parted off her face so that it all floated backward.
"Regina mia!" said Tito. . . . They held each other's hands while she spoke, and both looked at their imaged selves [the picture of Bacchus and Ariadne]. But the reality was far more beautiful; she all lily-white and golden, and he with his dark glowing beauty above the purple red-bordered tunic. [20:303-05]
The rich color-imagery and the motif of the couple in this passage are somewhat reminiscent of Rossetti's watercolors of the mid-1850s but could have been inspired by any number of medievalizing Victorian [116/117] pictures. The lovers are seen to be involved in a conflict of allegiances resembling that which complicates many Victorian pictures of historical romance. The symbolic attributes bestowed upon Romola and Tito suggest that theirs is a marriage of the Marian and the Bacchic, of the Christian and the pagan. The result will be either a perfect union of opposites or a disastrous mingling of incompatible cultures and temperaments.
The wars between the Puritans and the Cavaliers provided the most popular setting for dilemmas of loyalty in nineteenth-century English painting. In Millais's The Proscribed Royalist (1853) a sequestered cavalier kisses the hand of the young woman who has smuggled food to him. William Shakespeare Burton's A Wounded Cavalier (1856) complicates matters further by implying the possibility of an amorous attraction between the cavalier and the Puritan lady who is nursing him. George Eliot employs a similar motif in the dramatic reconciliation scene between Will Ladislaw and Dorothea in Middlemarch.
"I don't doubt you any longer," said Dorothea, putting out her hand; a vague fear for him impelling her unutterable affection.
He took her hand and raised it to his lips with something like a sob. But he stood with his hat and gloves in the other hand, and might have done for the portrait of a Royalist. [83:422]
The image of Will as a Royalist reminds us that Dorothea is a Puritan, and evokes not only the contrast of their temperaments but also the differences of background and allegiance that still divide them. The pictorial tension is created only to be resolved as the lovers are finally united; but in the meantime "the portrait of a Royalist" has helped to distance the sentiment of the scene by establishing a perspective beyond that of the characters, and by encouraging us to visualize the stylized gallantry of Will's attitude even under the stress of intense emotion.
Genre also invaded the realm of sacred history painting in the nineteenth century. The void left in religious art by the demise of traditional Christian iconography was filled in part by genre pictures of biblical scenes and of worship itself. Robert Rosenblum has called attention to "the new Romantic domain of spectator Christianity, [117/118] where genre scenes of communal piety replace traditional Christian subject matter." In such pictures we observe "scenes of piety and ritual, and man-made objects of Christian art and architecture" rather than biblical events. (pp. 26-27, 57). Religious feelings are evoked, but religious belief is not solicited. Thus spectator Christianity offends neither the faithful nor the lapsed Christian. At once empirical and nostalgic, it is a pictorial compromise well suited to an age of waning faith.
It certainly suited the purposes of George Eliot, who remained sympathetic to the culture of Christianity even though she had abandoned its theology. Because she valued communal activity informed by a sense of the sacred, her descriptions of sincere believers at worship — be they Anglicans, Methodists, Catholics, or Jews — are always sympathetic. "It was a pretty sight, that family assembled to worship in the little chapel, where a couple of waxcandles threw a mild faint light on the figures kneeling there." This passage in "Mr Gilfil's Love-Story" (2:171) implies that the custom of family worship in the private chapels of country houses, though now largely a thing of the past, was both picturesque and beneficial to the participants. Equally rich in human and pictorial interest was the habit of Sunday Bible-reading, a favorite theme among French genre painters of the eighteenth century (Fried pp. 139-77). In Adam Bede we are assured that "You would have liked to see Adam reading his Bible. . . . He held one hand thrust between his waistcoat buttons, and the other ready to turn the pages; and in the course of the morning you would have seen many changes in his face" (51:318). Here the believer's state of mind matters more than the contents of his creed. Such a focus is typical of spectator Christianity, which appreciates the aesthetic, historical, and humanistic values of Christian occasions but does not necessarily assent to their dogma.
The same viewpoint governs George Eliot's elaborate descriptions of Dinah's preaching and of Hayslope Church in Adam Bede. In the church we notice first its antiquity, then its furnishings and decoration, and finally its parishioners and minister.
I cannot say that the interior of Hayslope Church was remarkable for anything except for the grey age of its oaken pews great square pews mostly, ranged on each side of a narrow aisle.
[118/119] It was free, indeed, from the modern blemish of galleries. The choir had two narrow pews to themselves in the middle of the right-hand row, so that it was a short process for Joshua Rann to take his place among them as principal bass, and return to his desk after the singing was over. The pulpit and desk, grey and old as the pews, stood on one side of the arch leading into the chancel, which also had its grey square pews for Mr Donnithorne's family and servants. Yet I assure you these grey pews, with the buff-washed walls, gave a very pleasing tone to this shabby interior, and agreed extremely well with the ruddy faces and bright waistcoats. And there were liberal touches of crimson toward the chancel, for the pulpit and Mr Donnithorne's own pew had handsome crimson cloth cushions; and, to close the vista, there was a crimson altar-cloth, embroidered with golden rays by Miss Lydia's own hand.
But even without the crimson cloth, the effect must have been warm and cheering when Mr Irwine was in the desk, looking benignly round on that simple congregation-on the hardy old men, with bent knees and shoulders, perhaps, but with vigour left for much hedge-clipping and thatching; on the tall stalwart frames and roughly-cut bronzed faces of the stonecutters and carpenters; on the half-dozen well-to-do farmers, with their applecheeked families; and on the clean old women, mostly farm-labourers' wives, with their bit of snow-white cap-border under their black bonnets, and with their withered arms, bare from the elbow, folded passively over their chest. . . . I beseech you to imagine Mr Irwine looking round on this scene, in his ample white surplice, that became him so well, with his powdered hair thrown back, his rich brown complexion, and his finely-cut nostril and upper lip; for there was a certain virtue in that benignant yet keen countenance, as there is in all human faces from which a generous soul beams out. And over all streamed the delicious June sunshine through the old windows, with their desultory patches of yellow, red, and blue, that threw pleasant touches of colour on the opposite wall. [18:295-97]
The passage is suffused by a sentiment of nostalgia for the religious simplicities and social harmonies of a bygone era, a tone which is [119/120] characteristic of Victorian spectator Christianity. The visual imagery is deliberately organized to recall the style of Victorian historical genre painting, and looks forward to the even more elaborate description of the interior of Santa Maria Annunziata in chapter 14 of Romola.
As genre encroached upon history painting, its narrative ambitions increased. History painting has always been literary, taking its subjects from either the Scriptures or "the poets." Modern poets and novelists were gradually added to the pantheon of classical authors eligible for illustration, so that by the nineteenth century perfectly respectable subjects for both history and historical genre painting could be found in Shakespeare, Milton, Tasso, Malory, Cervantes, Molière, Sterne, Goldsmith, Goethe, or Scott. Narrative and dramatic elements were naturally prominent in such pictures, as the artist strove not only to depict a climactic scene, but also to recall its literary context to the viewer's mind.
For nineteenth-century English artists the most important source of narrative techniques was Hogarth, whose "Progress" sequences brilliantly demonstrated the use of dramatic expression, innovative iconography, and emblematic detail in a pictorial structure that can be "read"and translated into verbal terms. (Paulson, Hogarth). Because they have no immediate literary sources, Hogarth's sequences set a precedent for the application of narrative techniques to any genre scene in which moral meanings might be found. In the nineteenth century many nonheroic pictures of daily life required the viewer to imagine a temporal context of events leading to and from the moment actually represented (Lister, Anon p. 13). This narrative element distinguishes Victorian from Dutch and Flemish genre painting, which only occasionally implies a rudimentary story in courtship and epistolary scenes.
If, as Peter Conrad has suggested, narrative painting aspired to the condition of the novel, it is equally true that the novel sometimes aspired to the condition of narrative painting (pp. 25, 46). George Eliot, for one, made good use of telltale pictorial structures to arouse suspense in her stories. Will Grandcourt propose to Gwendolen, and will Gwendolen accept him? These questions in Daniel Deronda are asked in pictorial terms:
A moment afterwards, when they were both of them seated on [120/121] two of the wreath-painted chairs-Gwendolen upright with downcast eyelids, Grandcourt about two yards distant, leaning one arm over the back of his chair and looking at her, while he held his hat in his left hand-any one seeing them as a picture would have concluded that they were in some stage of lovemaking suspense. [27:36]
"The Imminent Proposal" might be a suitable title for the narrative painting George Eliot asks us to envision here. Courtship scenes were among the first genre subjects to attract narrative treatment, and from the seventeenth century through the nineteenth they retained a lasting popularity.
The conversation piece also lends itself to narrative treatment by virtue of the dramatic activities of the group portrayed. When the pastimes of the sitters become morally significant actions, the picture no longer depicts "conversation" in the eighteenth-century sense of the term. As Sacheverell Sitwell has observed, many well known Victorian paintings would be classifiable as conversation pieces but for the drama and strong moral sentiment of the moment represented. (p. 86). Ford Madox Brown's The Last of England (1855) and R. B. Martineau's Last Day in the Old Home (1862) are two cases in point. In these pictures, scenes of family crisis have displaced scenes of family amusement.
This new Victorian emphasis is visible in a scene of George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss:
Tom drew to the corner of the table near his father when the tin box was set down and opened, and the red evening light falling on them made conspicuous the worn, sour gloom of the dark-eyed father and the suppressed joy in the face of the fair-complexioned son. The mother and Maggie sat at the other end of the table, the one in blank patience, the other in palpitating expectation. [V, 6:130]
On one level, this is an informal portrait of the family group at home. But the members of the group are occupied with the restoration of the family fortunes and honor rather than with recreation. The gamut of expressions in the scene far exceeds that of the ordinary conversation piece, and arouses sympathetic curiosity rather [121/122] than admiring delight. The narrative picture shows character and situation in the making, whereas the conversation piece shows them as made.
When the situation implied by a narrative painting must be puzzled out by the viewer without the help of an external literary source, the result is a Victorian "problem picture." The term has a double reference, for such a picture both shows forth a problem and poses one for the viewer, who must make inferences from the given clues. Many problem pictures are based on the conventions of the conversation piece, since the affirmation of family prosperity and harmony can easily be inverted to underline problems of poverty and marital discord. Both Mario Praz and Ronald Paulson have called attention to a Dutch conversation piece by Julius Quinkhard, Paulus Determeyer Weslingh and His Accountant (1765), in which Weslingh's wife and daughter have been painted out as the result of a bitter family quarrel (Praz p. 172, Paulson p. 124). Two empty chairs remain, and the absence of their occupants is, as Paulson says, "the most important thing about the picture." This conversation piece, which hints mysteriously at family troubles, accidentally anticipates many nineteenth-century treatments of domestic dispute, abandonment, infidelity, or bereavement.
In George Eliot's literary problem pictures, the favorite theme is illegitimacy. Eliot liked to evoke the benign conventions of the conversation piece and then invert them ironically by leaving out a member of the family whose connection with it is unlawful. Thus an apparently innocuous pictorial passage in Felix Holt actually hints at Mrs. Transome's adultery and Harold Transome's illegitimacy:
She was standing on the broad gravel in the afternoon; the long shadows lay on the grass; the light seemed the more glorious because of the reddened and golden trees. The gardeners were busy at their pleasant work; the newly-turned soil gave out an agreeable fragrance; and little Harry was playing with Nimrod round old Mr Transome, who sat placidly on a low garden-chair. The scene would have made a charming picture of English domestic life, and the handsome, majestic, grey-haired woman (obviously grandmamma) would have been especially admired. But the [122/123] artist would have felt it requisite to turn her face towards her husband and little grandson, and to have given her an elderly amiability of expression, which would have divided remark with his exquisite rendering of her Indian shawl. Mrs Transonic's face was turned the other way, and for this reason she only heard an approaching step, and did not see whose it was; yet it startled her: it was not quick enough to be her son's step, and besides, Harold was away at Duffield. It was Mr Jermyn's. [8:168-69]
The scene is almost a perfect conversation piece. But Mrs. Transome's attitude is not the expected grandmaternal attitude, and the picture for which she is not quite posed is presented through a series of subjunctive verbs ("would have been"). In fact, two questionable members of the family are missing-Mrs. Transome's former lover and her natural son. Because they do not belong in "a charming picture of English domestic life," the picture dissolves before they enter it, depriving Mrs. Transome of the true family harmony for which she longs with averted head. In a later conversation piece which again features old Mr. Transome, Harry, and the family dogs, Harold is present but Mrs. Transome herself is not (43:254). On yet another occasion, Esther perceives Mrs. Transome "to stand apart from the family group, as if there were some cause of isolation for her both within and without "(40:212).
Mrs. Transome's plight resembles that of Mrs. Glasher in Daniel Deronda. As Grandcourt's former mistress, Mrs. Glasher has borne him four illegitimate children. Her establishment is introduced to the reader through a conversation piece which gradually turns into a problem picture:
Mrs Glasher was seated in the pleasant room where she habitually passed her mornings with her children round her. It had a square projecting window and looked on broad gravel and grass, sloping towards a little brook that entered the pool. The top of a low black cabinet, the old oak table, the chairs in tawny leather, were littered with the children's toys, books, and garden garments, at which a maternal lady in pastel looked down from the walls with smiling indulgence. The children were all there. The three girls, seated round their mother near the window, were [123/124] miniature portraits of her-dark-eyed, delicate-featured brunettes with a rich bloom on their cheeks, their little nostrils and eyebrows singularly finished as if they were tiny women, the eldest being barely nine. The boy was seated on the carpet at some distance, bending his blond head over the animals from a Noah's ark, admonishing them separately in a voice of threatening command, and occasionally licking the spotted ones to see if the colours would hold. Josephine, the eldest, was having her French lesson; and the others, with their dolls on their laps, sat demurely enough for images of the Madonna. Mrs Glasher's toilet had been made very carefully-each day now she said to herself that Grandcourt might come in. Her head, which, spite of emaciation, had an ineffaceable beauty in the fine profile, crisp curves of hair, and clearly-marked eyebrows, rose impressively above her bronze-coloured silk and velvet, and the gold necklace which Grandcourt had first clasped round her neck years ago. [30:99-100]
Once again the absence of the father belies the apparent normalcy of the family group. Like Weslingh alone with his accountant, Mrs. Glasher dominates the scene visually, but the interpretive focus comes finally to rest upon the missing spouse. In Silas Marner it is a missing child-Godfrey Cass's illegitimate daughter-who haunts an otherwise benign conversation piece organized around Sunday dessert in the parlour of Red House (17:226-27).
The theme of illegitimacy was not uncommon in Victorian problem pictures; for example, both Millais's Retribution (1854) and Ford Madox Brown's "Take Your Son, Sir!" (ca. 1857) raise the issue. But George Eliot had compelling personal reasons to be interested in the question, for she was obliged to decide whether to try to bear children out of wedlock. Her determination not to try suggests that she considered illegitimacy too cruel a handicap to be imposed upon the innocent. Perhaps she was thinking of the children whom Lewes's wife had borne to Thornton Hunt. Society might always treat them as nonpersons, as it had treated Eliot herself when she first became a common-law wife. To represent the dilemma of the nonperson, she devised her characteristic technique of creating [124/125] troublesome voids in innocent-looking literary conversation pieces. The technique is more subtle and more poignant than the melodramatic confrontations used in some other Victorian treatments of illegitimacy.
Eliot did, then, use genre painting in her novels with a greater confidence in its correlation to reality than she displayed in her ambivalent handling of sacred and heroic history painting. But it is important to recognize the diversity of the reality involved in this genre pictorialism. The technique is far less reductive and simplistic than Mario Praz and Peter Conrad have suggested. Eliot imitated a wide variety of schools and styles within the genre tradition, from the seventeenth-century Dutch intimists to the Georgian painters of conversation pieces to the Victorian masters of narrative and domestic-historical art. This range of effects cannot be lumped under the heading "Biedermeier" or done justice by such a statement as the following: "George Eliot cultivates a uniform greyness of tone, a concentration on the middling qualities of characters with their spots of commonness, and presents this as the whole truth about them" (Conrad p. 105). This generalization reflects an inattention to both the human and the pictorial dimensions of George Eliot's art. Neither in her genre scenes nor, as we are about to see, in her landscapes did she cultivate a uniform grayness of tone.
Created 2000; reformatted 2007 and 14 April 2015