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The Pen and The Brush: How Pas­sion for Art Shaped 19th-Cen­tury French Nov­els by Anka Muhlstein

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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

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