The enchanted, impressionist April
by Nandia Foteini Vlachou
There is a passing reference to painting in Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April (1922), more specifically to impressionism. When the subject of Lotty’s and Mellersh’s social life comes up, von Arnim writes: “whereas she and Mellersh, when they did go out, went to the parties of impressionist painters, of whom in Hampstead there were many. Mellersh had a sister who had married one of them and lived up on the Heath, and because of this alliance Mrs. Wilkins was drawn into a circle which was highly unnatural to her, and she had learned to dread pictures. She had to say things about them, and she didn’t know what to say. She used to murmur, ‘Marvelous,’ and feel that it was not enough. But nobody minded. Nobody listened. Nobody took any notice of Mrs. Wilkins.”
Although no explicit like or dislike is stated in the passage, painting does not seem to detain the author’s interest, unlike nature herself which merits some of the book’s most memorable descriptions. Pictures are also presented in opposition to nature: Lotty has no problem expressing herself enthusiastically once in San Salvatore, her ideal vacation spot in Italy, but painting apparently belongs to a specialized type of discourse, where one “has to say things” about it, things that do not come naturally.
It would be interesting then to compare some of von Arnim’s descriptions with the type of impressionist painting that devoted so much attention not only to the representation of nature as such, but to capturing the effusiveness and luscious materiality of blooming and blossoming, the same that, literally, enchanted the author.
“All down the stone steps on either side were periwinkles in full flower, and she could now see what it was that had caught at her the night before and brushed, wet and scented, across her face. It was wistaria. Wistaria and sunshine…she remembered the advertisement. Here indeed were both in profusion. The wistaria was tumbling over itself in its excess of life, its prodigality of flowering; and where the pergola ended the sun blazed on scarlet geraniums, bushes of them, and nasturtiums in great heaps, and marigolds so brilliant that they seemed to be burning, and red and pink snapdragons, all outdoing each other in bright, fierce color. The ground behind these flaming things dropped away in terraces to the sea, each terrace a little orchard, where among the olives grew vines on trellises, and fig-trees, and peach-trees, and cherry-trees. The cherry-trees and peach-trees were in blossom—lovely showers of white and deep rose-color among the trembling delicacy of the olives; the fig-leaves were just big enough to smell of figs, the vine-buds were only beginning to show. And beneath these trees were groups of blue and purple irises, and bushes of lavender, and grey, sharp cactuses, and the grass was thick with dandelions and daisies, and right down at the bottom was the sea. Color seemed flung down anyhow, anywhere; every sort of color, piled up in heaps, pouring along in rivers—the periwinkles looked exactly as if they were being poured down each side of the steps—and flowers that grow only in borders in England, proud flowers keeping themselves to themselves over there, such as the great blue irises and the lavender, were being jostled by small, shining common things like dandelions and daisies and the white bells of the wild onion, and only seemed the better and the more exuberant for it.”
[All works are by Childe Hassam (1859–1935), the American impressionist painter]