In Other Words
The Pen and The Brush: How Passion for Art Shaped 19th-Century French Novels by Anka Muhlstein
The Pen and The Brush: How Passion for Art Shaped Nineteenth-Century French Novels by Anka Muhlstein, translated by Adriana Hunter, Other Press, 240 pages At the end of her literary history book, The Pen and The Brush: How Passion for Art Shaped NineteenthCentury French Novels, Anka Muhlstein quotes Virginia Woolf: “Were all modern paintings to be destroyed, a critic of the 25th century would be able to deduce from the works of Marcel Proust alone the existence of Matisse, Cézanne, Derain and Picasso.” Muhlstein’s book explores the points of convergence between 19th- and early 20th-century French novels and Impressionist paintings, among others, along with the surprising links between the communities of artists who created these works. She uncovers layers of painterly erudition beneath Proust’s hyper-sensory prose, leading us expertly to Woolf’s staggering claim.
While reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, a reader gets so immersed in the novel’s sensual world, whether it is a lovingly observed door or the aromas of the narrator’s meals, that it is easy to overlook a secondary character, Elstir, who, as Muhlstein tells us, was most likely modeled on James Whistler, among other painters. Muhlstein sheds light on Elstir’s significance: He is the one who teaches Proust’s narrator how to see. She quotes from Within
a Budding Grove, the second volume of Proust’s novel, in which the narrator writes: “Having been taught by Elstir how to remember with precision details I would previously have deliberately brushed aside, my eyes gazed at length on things they could not see in the first year.” That we remember Proust’s oeuvre primarily for its astonishingly observed details underscores the profound influence Elstir had on the narrator’s eye.
In her introduction, Muhlstein makes a key point that in the era of post-Revolution France, beginning in 1793, museums such as the newly opened Louvre gave commoners access to great art, which previously could only be seen by the upper classes or by those who had entry into the drawing rooms of the rich. “This sort of public access was completely unprecedented in Europe. German princes and English aristocrats had always allowed people to visit their collections, but visitors usually had to be recommended.” Novelists, such as a young Honoré de Balzac, took full advantage of this access not only to educate themselves, but also, increasingly, to use paintings and painters as a backdrop, or even the focal point, in their stories. Gazing for hours at paintings in museums became a fashionable pastime not only for aspiring painters but also for aspiring novelists.
The Pen and the Brush begins with a vivid dissection of the works of Balzac and Émile Zola. Balzac, for instance, had his heroines dress like maidens in a Raphael painting — all blue velvet and white frills — in order to express their innocence and naiveté. Balzac pushed the concept of visual storytelling with his modernist portrayals of painters, including a story that focuses on the life of a woman painter. This is a connoisseur’s book — a perfect volume for a traveler in Italy or France who is rereading Balzac or Proust at night, and by day taking in the sumptuous paintings Muhlstein references.
It is amusing to read about Zola’s tenure as an art critic in the 1860s. He tried to sell his readers on the virtues of Impressionism despite the letters of protest his articles elicited, then quit his newspaper gig after his career as a novelist took off. As a critic, Zola not only forwarded the cause of Impressionism, he also had an original collaboration with the painter Édouard Manet, the two having met after Zola wrote an admiring column about Manet’s work. Two years later, “Zola dedicated his novel Madeleine Férat to the painter, and Manet painted a magnificent portrait of the writer,” and on the wall in the painting “hangs a recognizable reproduction of Olympia, the painting that provoked a fervid scandal at the 1865 Salon but that Zola considered Manet’s masterpiece.” The Russian nesting-doll nature of references in Manet’s (1868) was likely a pinnacle of the cross-pollination between painters and writers at the time.
Muhlstein makes not only physical, but also philosophical connections between the pen and the brush. She tells us that Zola felt that the “question of knowing how to see” was “even more important than actually creating.” In time, Proust would extend the search to see in new ways. We find out that on some nights, a young Jean Cocteau used to take the famously sedentary novelist out; Proust even met Pablo Picasso and saw his work, but told his housekeeper he didn’t find it particularly interesting. Still, Muhlstein argues that there are hints of Cubism in Proust’s work. Proust’s fondness for frequenting museums, especially the Louvre, was just as intense as Balzac’s, but it came to an abrupt end — with a “debilitating dizzy spell.”
Leo Tolstoy once described the “activity of art” thus: “To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling.” Muhlstein’s book is a potent study of how a common set of observational skills rest at the foundation of art and literature. The power with which writers and painters render telling details is often what distinguishes a master from an ordinary practitioner.
— Priyanka Kumar