Edith Wharton and the Visual Arts

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Representation in this context refers to the act of depicting a body, whether in the visual arts, in fiction, or in our culture at large, though I am primarily concerned with representation both literary and visual—with characters engaged in picturing women according to their whims, wills, and wishes. These acts of representation are, in a sense, a kind of repackaging: that is, acts of re-presenting something or someone. Indeed, those Wharton characters who represent women take bits and pieces of real women, infuse them with various ideals or virtues, repackage them, and present them for consumption for pleasure, gratification, money, power, or success in the marriage market.

Edith Wharton and the Visual Arts by Emily J. Orlando - Read Online

This examination of representation is thus a study of how different characters combine real and imaginary facets of female physicality, the reasons they do so, and the consequences of their repackaging. In the cultural study that is her fiction, Wharton proves herself to be particularly invested in acts of mis representation.

She repeatedly takes issue with the way male artists have imagined women in art or literature—as passive, languid, sexualized, infantilized, dead, or sickly. Wharton elucidates the fact that by thus representing women in art and literature, the artist suggests how women are or how they should be. More than a century after the birth of her extraordinary career, Wharton is more resonant than ever.

It is perhaps no coincidence that as Wharton is an increasingly visible presence in our culture, so too is the woman-centered visual art that she interrogates in her fiction. These retrospectives, and the crowds they draw, attest to the rediscovery of and revival of interest in largely nineteenth-century representations of women in modern visual culture. Despite the impressive body of scholarship devoted to Wharton in recent years and the fact that she is now acknowledged as a major literary figure, the attention paid to her interventions in visual culture has been limited, even though throughout her career Wharton urged us to recognize the allusions she was tucking into her literary art.

Killoran notes that Wharton pursued readers tenaciously, urging us to solve the riddle, understand its half-hidden messages 8. In an essay titled The Vice of Reading , Wharton notes that the born reader enjoys the delights of intellectual vagrancy, of the improvised chase after a fleeting allusion Edith Wharton xxix.


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These intertextual references remain like stones unturned in Wharton criticism, and the stories themselves resemble unfrequented galleries that deserve visitors. This book shows Wharton, then, working in the tradition documented by Murray Krieger known as ekphrasis , the practice of invoking actual works of art in literature. Wharton thus positions herself in a predominantly male and modernist tradition, some of the most famous practitioners of which were T. Eliot, W. Auden, Ezra Pound, and W. Tintner notes that while Wharton has always been acknowledged for her excellent taste in fashion and interior decor—her first book, after all, was the well-received coauthored manual titled The Decoration of Houses — little attention has been paid.

Critics have not heretofore positioned Wharton alongside the new art historical studies with which her work so profoundly intersects. Never formally trained, Wharton was something of a self-taught art historian. She was well schooled at home. When Wharton had the occasion to meet Lee in , she found in her the first highly cultivated and brilliant woman I had ever known A Backward Glance During an visit to Florence, she made a day trip to the country with the express goal of investigating religious art about which she had read.

She there made a major discovery, refuting the origins of a group of life-sized terra-cottas at the San Vivaldo Monastery near Tuscany. The figures were originally thought by Bernard Berenson and others to have been produced by the seventeenth-century sculptor Gonnelli. Wharton identified them as the work of the fifteenth-century Giovanni della Robbia Benstock, No Gifts In an visit to Italy, Wharton journeyed to the village of Cerveno in search of sacred art.


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In a letter to Berenson three months before her death, she wrote that she yearned to see the Tintorettos in Venice Letters First, there has survived a tendency in the criticism to read Wharton as a kind of misogynist. Critics continue to read Wharton as outwardly poking fun at aspiring women writers or intellectuals in her fiction.

For instance, Josephine Donovan notes that to be a serious author. In numerous stories she puts down the silly, sentimentalist woman author After the Fall The gap Wharton imposes between protagonist and narrator or reflector through whose eyes we see makes clear this critique. These often egregiously arrogant male reflectors are reliably un reliable, and so Wharton compels us to question what she repeatedly calls their unseeing gazes.

Until recently, Wharton criticism had largely overlooked her work in this form, despite the fact that Wharton was first and foremost a writer of stories. Barbara White has performed a great service to Wharton readers by calling attention to the shorter fiction. The short story is a medium with which Wharton evidently was most comfortable, and it afforded her a place to do things she could not do elsewhere.

Volume VIII, Number 2, Fall 2012

In a letter, Wharton speaks of the smaller realism that I arrive at, I think, better in my short stories. I feel it more clearly after each attempt, because it is in such sharp contrast to the sense of authority with which I take hold of a short story Letters In The Writing of Fiction , Wharton notes that the short story is particularly adept for recounting situation rather than character development, which she considers the task of the novel.

Given that Wharton found the short story ideal for representing and describing situation—as in the situation, or predicament, of women—it makes sense to examine the cultural work her stories perform. Places Wharton within the predominantly male literary and cultural traditions of the period, discussing how her work both conforms to and challenges these traditions, resulting in a complex intellectual and spiritual outlook.

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Sign in with your library card. Related Articles about About Related Articles close popup. Henry James Sinclair Lewis. Environmental Writing Margaret Walker Find more forthcoming articles Introduction Edith Wharton b. How to Subscribe Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. Jump to Other Articles:. Indeed, the painter seems to have tilted the easel toward him as if to optimize his viewing pleasure. While Stevens's artist, like Wharton's, betrays a wistful admiration of his creation, the model evidently is less pleased with the fruits of his labor.

Her somber eyes and frown convey a disenchantment with the artist's rendering. An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.