By Anka Muhlstein (translated by Adriana Hunter)

Other Press. 228 pages. $18.95. ISBN 978-15905-1805-2

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Why were nineteenth-century French novelists often “obsessed with painters and painting”? That question is asked at the very start of Anka Muhlstein’s book, and she goes on to say that numerous writers “explored not only how a painter sees things but also how he looks at them, and this produced a new way of writing”.

According to Muhlstein, the “visual nature of novels at the time”, was “essentially a French phenomenon”, and “has no real equivalent in England, Germany, or Russia”. I did, at first, wonder whether or not something similar had happened in England, but on reflection I found it difficult to think of an English novelist who dealt with a painter’s preoccupations in terms of how he sees things. Yes, there are plenty of novels in which a painter is one of the characters, sometimes with even a central role to play. But it’s the painter as a person who seems to intrigue English writers.

There is a book by Bo Jeffares, The Artist in 19th Century English Fiction (Humanities Press, 1979), which discusses a wide range of writers, some of them forgotten or obscure, and it’s noticeable that it’s the social side of the artists’ experiences that predominates. The titles of some of the chapters perhaps indicate the book’s tendencies: “The Artist Versus Society”, “The Artist’s Appearance as Romantic Hero”, “The Artist’s Tragic Temperament”. I can’t claim to have read most of the books Jeffares refers to, but from her comments I get the impression that few, if any, of them say much about the painting process as opposed to the personalities of the artists. But I may be wrong.  

I’m not suggesting that French novelists weren’t involved with a question like the “Artist’s tragic temperament”. Zola’s The Masterpiece surely deals with the “tragic temperament” of an artist in a highly-detailed manner. But Zola had worked as an influential art critic and was a leading advocate for the work of the Impressionists. Muhlstein says that, “some passages in his novels read like descriptions of Impressionist paintings”, and she cites the following as an example: “Everything blazed, the new foliage on the trees, the fountains in the pools springing up and wafting away like gold dust. They watched Paris go by as if through a divine light, the carriages with their wheels shimmering like stars, the great yellow omnibuses more golden than triumphant chariots……..”

Zola knew many artists, and Cezanne had been a friend since boyhood. It’s often said that the artist in His Masterpiece was based on Cezanne, and that his portrayal was the cause of a breakdown in their relationship. Muhlstein suggests that this was not necessarily the case, and claims that some passages in the book can be read to suggest aspects of paintings by  Monet, Manet, and even the Symbolist painter, Gustave Moreau, as providing a basis for the work of Zola’s fictional painter, Claude Lantier.

Muhlstein essentially focuses on five writers – Balzac, Zola, Huysmans, Maupassant, and Proust - though she stresses that others (Stendhal, Flaubert, the Goncourts) could also be drawn into the survey. It was Edmund de Goncourt, incidentally, who said of Zola: “It is a perilous undertaking for a man who is a complete stranger to art, to write an entire book about it”. I’ve never read the Goncourt’s novel about 19th century artistic circles, Manette Salomon, though Jerrold Siegel, in his Bohemian Paris: Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life, 1830-1930 (Viking Penguin, 1986) says that it “provides a portrait of nineteenth-century artistic life and an image of Bohemia unequalled in its combined hostility and insight”. But Zola’s novel has lasted, whereas I would guess  that Manette Salomon may now only be read or referred to by scholars, and readers with a specialist interest in nineteenth-century French bohemia.

Muhlstein says that Balzac “was the first novelist to grasp how much of a painter there is in any writer”. He had a lifelong interest in art, and “Paintings often sowed the seeds for the novelist’s narratives”. There is an anecdote about Balzac looking at a painting of a “melancholy winter scene steeped in fog, dotted with shacks and scrawny peasants”. He studied the painting, and said it was beautiful, and then added, “but what do they do in that shack? What do they think about, what are their problems? Did they have a good harvest? They probably have debts to pay”.

Did the painting suggest all that, or was it just Balzac’s imagination that projected the questions onto it? The painter may only have had the scene in mind and what It represented in terms of shapes, colours, etc. He may have had no thoughts at all about the implications of the setting – winter, scrawny peasants, shabby huts – though it’s perhaps underestimating an artist’s capacity for social concerns, and a way to represent them, to suggest this.

Balzac’s most significant study of art and artists was probably The Unknown Masterpiece, a novella described by Muhlstein as his “major work about art, artists, and the creative act”. It involves three artists, one of them, Frenhofer, a fictional character, and the other two, Poussin and Pourbus, real- life painters. The story gives Balzac an opportunity, through the character of Frenhofer, to discourse at some length about creativity. It isn’t sufficient to just have a first-class technique. A genuine artist has to invest his work with something that goes beyond it and gets to the essence of the subject, no matter what it is. Balzac tells a story, of course, and doesn’t merely theorise, and there is irony in it, in that Frenhofer, despite all he says about art, in the end fails to succeed when attempting to transfer his ideas to the canvas.

It would seem that Balzac, unlike Zola and other writers, was not the friend of any artists, nor did he ever attempt to become a painter, as did Gautier, Vigny, Musset, and Sue He did visit art galleries, particularly The Louvre which was open to everyone, much to the chagrin of the respectable who objected to crowds of scruffily-dressed workers wandering around the rooms. The National Gallery in England opened some time later and probably drew the same negative comments from the polite and prosperous, assuming that working people in England annoyed them by venturing into galleries.

I can accept that both Balzac and Zola displayed influences from art and artists in their work, but Maupussant may be a more difficult example to deal with. His novel, Strong as Death, is about an artist, a quite successful one compared to the struggling and ill-fated painters who occur in many other books. Maupussant knew artists, and had reviewed exhibitions for the Parisian papers, but his story isn’t concerned with the artistic process. It’s a social novel, in the sense that it’s the characters’ actions in relation to each other that matters, and not the painter’s feelings about what he’s putting on his canvases. He’s a society painter. Art may be a job for him, not a conviction.

It’s interesting, and of relevance, to look at a Maupussant short-story, “The Model”, which opens:

“The little crescent-shaped town of Étretat, with its white cliffs, white shingle and blue sea, was dozing peacefully in the brilliant July sunshine. At the tips of the crescent two arches of rock jutted out into the calm water, the smaller to the north like a dwarf foot, the larger to the south like a giant leg; and beyond it the needle, tapering upward from a broad base almost to the height of the cliff. towering skyward”.

Now let me quote a passage from Portalone, a long out-of-print novel, published in 1904, by a minor British writer, C. Ranger-Gull:

“They turned out of the station and walked a few yards till they came to the inn. It stood on the banks of a wide, shallow estuary, an arm of the sea which had come far inland. Except for one narrow strip of horizon, where something white fell and tumbled, suggesting the sea outside the bar, the scene was grey and sad. The inn was a square house of granite without ornamentation, or, indeed, anything which might seem to suggest much hospitality or cheer”.

That seems to me as visual as the Maupassant, and I’m not drawing argumentative comparisons between French and British writers, simply pointing to the fact that writers “painting scenes” were not unusual. I will accept that 1904 was a few years after Maupassant was active (he died in 1893), and his work was known to many British writers. In fact, the style and mood of the story, which concerns an artist more or less pushed reluctantly into marriage when his model attempts to commit suicide, reminds me of the work of the ill-fated British writer, Hubert Crackanthorpe. But then, he was a great admirer of Maupassant’s novels and stories.

It’s perhaps worth noting that Portalone is a novel based on the artists’ colony of St Ives in Cornwall. I’m not about to claim that it bears comparison with Balzac, Zola, or Maupassant. Ranger-Gull was a popular novelist of his day, facile, sentimental, and easy to read. But scattered throughout his book are descriptive passages which point to his being alert to the land and the sea around him and, possibly, to the work of the artists he was associating with.

J.K.Huysmans was descended from a line of Dutch artists and had worked as an arts columnist. His novel, Against the Grain, revolved around an aesthete, Des Esseintes, whose preferences in painting run to Gustave Moreau and Goya. Huysmans himself seems to have liked the work of Degas and Whistler among nineteenth-century artists. Muhlstein refers to “the most beautiful passage in Against the Grain”, which is a description of Moreau’s Salomé. According to Muhlstein, when Maupassant reviewed Huysman’s, novel he praised it but also thought it “uproariously funny,” not perhaps a judgement that the author would have welcomed. But from my own reading of Against the Grain many years ago, I can understand why Maupassant saw it that way. It did often strike me that Des Esseintes’ aestheticism was so extreme that it couldn’t help but lead to laughter.

Proust had a taste for classical art, but liked the Impressionists and painters such as Whistler and Steer. He seems not to have cared for Cezanne, Matisse, Bonnard, and Picasso. Muhlstein says that it is clearly Monet who inspired Proust when his narrator at one point admires “the places where the sea is so calm that the reflections feel almost more solid and real than the hulls of boats vaporised by the effects of the sun”.

There is a strong argument in The Pen and the Brush for the singularity of French nineteenth-century novels in terms of their use of art and artists, not only as subject-matter but also as influences relating to how things are described. It’s certainly true of Zola. It did occur to me, however, to keep thinking about whether or not British novelists didn’t also emphasise the visual (people as well as landscapes) in some ways, though without necessarily insisting on being influenced by paintings.

There are many descriptive (of faces and places) passages in Dickens, for example. I recently came across a reference in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, where someone is likened to a Titian portrait. The same novel also has a passage where the play of light on water is emphasised and adds to the mood of the situation described. I have a feeling that, had I the time and energy to track down and read all the novels mentioned in Bo Jeffares’ The Artist in Nineteenth-Century English Fiction, I might well be able to come up with some more examples of English writers doing “literary painting”.   

This is not a criticism of Anka Mulstein’s book, and I have to emphasise that the points raised in my review were brought about by the clear and provocative (in the best sense) nature of her writing. Her ideas are interesting, and her selections from the work of the novelists she writes about are always apt. I enjoyed The Pen and the Brush. It pushed me into questioning some of my assumptions about writers and writing, and opened my eyes to themes worth taking into consideration. And in an age of overlong books it is refreshingly short and concise.