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.