Edith Wharton and art, pt. 1
by Nandia Foteini Vlachou
Recently, due to poor eyesight, I discovered the pleasure (and relief) of audiobooks. As someone who reads (and reads and reads), it was so distressing not to be able to. But, through LibriVox, and its amazing volunteers, I have discovered a whole new way to get to literature. It is imperative, of course, to find one voice that suits one’s taste, but I’ve been incredibly lucky in discovering David Clarke’s impeccable reading of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock canon, and Nicholas Clifford’s readings of Henry James and Edith Wharton.
The latter, especially, gave me the opportunity to discover the short stories of Edith Wharton, one of my favorite authors, in two volumes, The Descent of Man, and Other Stories (1904) and Tales of Men and Ghosts (1910). I never fancied myself as one who appreciates the short story as a literary form, but I was surprised to find out that I did, and that I enjoyed Wharton’s short stories as much as her novels (Summer, Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence rank among the novels I most cherish). The Tales of Men and Ghosts even includes two masterful ghost stories, The Eyes and Afterward (which I strongly recommend to fans of the genre). Her stories are always evocative and ambiguous, leaving ample space for interpretation, many times with enigmatic endings. But another aspect of them that I enjoyed (as I do with James’s writing as well), were the frequent allusions to art and art objects. This is why I am devoting two posts to The Reckoning and The Quicksand, both from The Descent of Man, and Other Stories.
In The Reckoning (1902), a bitter tale of marriage and divorce, there is only a fleeting mention to painting, a deprecating reference to contemporary art – and to the profession of painters as little more than an excuse for sociable interactions. I always find the impressions of writers precious, as they denote a particular form of reception, expressed through their literary sensibility, and they frequently allow a vivid image, not only of their personal tastes and distastes, but also of those of their contemporaries.
So, without further delay, the passage from The Reckoning goes as follows: “The Herbert Van Siderens were a couple who subsisted, socially, on the fact that they had a studio. Van Sideren’s pictures were chiefly valuable as accessories to the mise en scene which differentiated his wife’s ‘afternoons’ from the blighting functions held in long New York drawing-rooms, and permitted her to offer their friends whiskey-and-soda instead of tea. Mrs. Van Sideren, for her part, was skilled in making the most of the kind of atmosphere which a lay-figure and an easel create; and if at times she found the illusion hard to maintain, and lost courage to the extent of almost wishing that Herbert could paint, she promptly overcame such moments of weakness by calling in some fresh talent, some extraneous re-enforcement of the ‘artistic’ impression. It was in quest of such aid that she had seized on Westall, coaxing him, somewhat to his wife’s surprise, into a flattered participation in her fraud. It was vaguely felt, in the Van Sideren circle, that all the audacities were artistic, and that a teacher who pronounced marriage immoral was somehow as distinguished as a painter who depicted purple grass and a green sky. The Van Sideren set were tired of the conventional color-scheme in art and conduct.”
The ‘purple grass’ and ‘green sky’ reminded me of neo-impressionist (yes, these interminable sub-categories of modernist art…) painters, such as Henri-Edmond Cross and, although a bit later, Henri Matisse’s fauvist canvases, which may provide an apt illustration of the kind of painting that Edith Wharton had in mind.