Talking Pictures

Richard Altick’s books have been original and unpredictable, but never self-indulgent. Among other subjects, he has written about Victorian murderers, about literary biography, the public shows of nineteenth-century London, the sixteenth-century Roman murder trial that prompted Browning to write The Ring and the Book, and the Victorian origins of modern literary scholarship. What initially seems merely academically unfashionable and of secondary importance turns out to be central to understanding the period on which he is writing. And that period is usually Victorian England.

His new book explores the curious, unsatisfactory no man’s land in which eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century aestheticians tried to establish a common basis for the arts. Then it shifts to the use that painters made of their understanding of the doctrine of family relationship between literature and painting. This might have resulted in a narrow study of little interest to anyone except a few cultural historians, but it turns out to clarify a century and a half of sometimes puzzling taste.

Professor Altick freely admits both the preponderance of bad painting he has had to consider, and the fact that he is not a professional art historian. He will not consider paintings “as autonomous objects of art,” he writes, “but simply as primary documentation of the literary and artistic tastes that were current from the middle of the eighteenth century to the end of the nineteenth.” The result is what he fairly calls “a phenomenon in the historical sociology of English literature.” The book is chiefly about literary painting when it was at its height between 1830 and 1850. As examples he uses only English paintings in oil, which largely excludes both Blake and D.G. Rossetti.

At one extreme of this field of art was the direct transferral to paint of a scene from a poem, novel, or play, whether as illustration to the published work or as independent picture. The difficulties of defining the matter are clear in considering the subject of one of the early examples of the school, Hogarth’s famous painting, Garrick as Richard III. Should it be looked at as a fancy-dress portrait of David Garrick, as a record of his production of Cibber’s version of Shakespeare, as the capture of the dramatic moment of terror when Richard is visited by the ghosts, or even as an incident in English history? Today most viewers would probably look at it as one of the first two, but in 1745 it was not so difficult to think of it in all four ways.

Quite different were literary paintings with titles or quotations intended merely to set the tone without direct reference to a literary work. Thus, in the late nineteenth century, a painting called All’s Well That Ends Well might refer to Shakespeare’s play or it might be added to a sentimental painting of a pet cat recovered from drowning.

Between the extremes was an untidy range of categories, including the loosely defined one of “fancy” pictures, usually portraits …

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