Ekphrasis in Fiction: George Eliot’s Influence on Vincent Van Gogh

After hearing scholar Ruth Livesey speak on George Eliot’s influence on Vincent Van Gogh last fall, I had to broaden my ideas of the possible effects that painters and novelists can have on each other. Livesey, a professor at Royal Holloway, University of London, came to the University of Tennessee last October to talk about how Eliot’s fiction shaped Van Gogh’s painting. Her fascinating scholarship on the subject is now available at 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century. Her article illuminates not only how Van Gogh drew upon Eliot’s fiction but also how Eliot found inspiration in Dutch realist painters, including Gerrit Dou and Teniers.

By analyzing Eliot’s and Van Gogh’s relationships to both visual and literary art, Livesey uncovers what she calls “the radical experimentalism” of Eliot’s earlier fiction. In general, critics solely recognize the clear experimentalism of Eliot’s later work. This less conventional, late fiction includes one narrative about the authorial ambitions of single-celled parasites (Impressions of Theophrastus Such) and a novelistic exploration of Kabbalistic beliefs about souls entering new bodies (Daniel Deronda).

Livesey, though, reveals the subtler radical choices that Eliot made in her early fiction, such as the 1859 novel, Adam Bede, which aesthetically represents peasants with unusual depth. According to Livesey, Eliot endowed her working-class characters with an inward consciousness that traditionally the peasantry had been denied in art. So from underneath a peasant’s dusty face, for instance, we can glimpse the blush of desire.

Livesey, referring to the scholarship of Ronald Pickvance, examines the association that Van Gogh made in his letters between Dickens’s and Eliot’s disparate versions of realism. Van Gogh connected Dickens’s realism with visual art rendered in black and white, while he associated Eliot’s with forms that integrated color with characters complexly bound to the landscape. Livesey analyzes how Eliot, unlike Dickens, believed that harsh social conditions shape the individual; Eliot’s working-class characters, therefore, are part of the harsh landscapes in which they live. But while these characters take on the grays and browns of their environment, they never lose the hues, such as the blush of a passionate thought, that reveal their individual subjectivity.

Livesey’s treatment of color, character, and social and natural landscapes is enough to recommend the article, but her analysis of perspective and narrative progression makes this scholarship even more valuable to those who, like me, use visual art to inspire their own fiction and their teaching of creative and critical writing.

Article in Dickens Studies Annual

I wrote an article about Dickens’s 1843 novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, and his travelogue about his 1842 trip to the US, American Notes. In the article, I discuss how Dickens uses the elements of the pastoral, a poetic genre usually associated with natural beauty and pretty lasses, to deliver a strong political message. The article is available on Humanities Commons; the abstract is below:

In his 1843 novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens used the pastoral mode to deliver a strong message about labor. To communicate this message, he employed the mode’s many traits, including its retreat into and return from the rural landscape and its focus on the country worker, traditionally the shepherd. This essay follows the novel’s pastoral retreat into the United States, where young Martin comes to understand the realities of manual labor through his physical interactions with the American landscape. His companion, Mark Tapley, meanwhile, performs the emotional labor of the servant by initially shielding middle-class Martin from this painful knowledge. Both men, however, must confront manual labor on a massive scale upon reaching “Eden,” a hideous landscape that Dickens constructed referring to passages from his travelogue about his 1842 trip to the United States, American Notes. The landscape in Eden documents the decaying atmosphere of slavery as recorded in Dickens’s travelogue. It also recreates for Martin the physical experience that Dickens had as a child of entering a vast, foreign world of factory work. Ultimately, Dickens’s uses the pastoral to uncover a horror that usually lies beneath a beautiful surface: that the civilized landscape demands enslaved or nearly enslaved labor for its construction.

Poem in descant

The wonderful new issue of descant is here. In it is a poem I first wrote in a workshop with Art Smith, who recently passed away. I revised the poem with renewed faith after hearing Nikki Giovanni mention redlining as a possible subject of poetry.

This poem, “Roller-Skating in a Redlined Neighborhood,” opens:

Eva whizzed down a church
handicap ramp and slapped

side-view mirrors of parked
cars. I leaned forward, going

backwards, onto red rubber
knobs bolted to my toes.

Like erasers, they rubbed off
in bits. Eva’s home was close.

Mine was behind a tongue
of tires—commuter traffic—

stuttering S where the avenue
bent. It stared, open-shuttered,

at the end of Eva’s street.
She said when her father

came back from Vietnam,
she looked into his coffin

and told him to get up.
I said, “That’s so sad”—

but she told me, “No. I didn’t
understand then.” My empty

house stared at no one
in particular. Eva’s step-dad,

a parole-officer, had prison
one step back in his voice…”

Thank you, editors at descant, for giving this poem a home. Thank you too Art Smith in memory and Nikki Giovanni.