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 with allusive qualities, such as the Duchess of Manchester and her son as Diana disarming Cupid, and the countless portraits of actresses in the costumes of characters they had not even played. For a time there was even a fashion for painting well-known incidents from the lives of such authors as Burns, Milton, and Scott. One of the most popular forms of literary painting was the elaboration of parts of a work that were only suggested in print; a favorite subject was Othello’s account to Desdemona of his military adventures, although that conversation is only mentioned in the play and is not part of the dramatic action.

After surveying the history of the changes in the conception of literary painting, Altick turns to the consideration of the paintings inspired by Shakespeare and other British writers. His emphasis is upon subject rather than painterly achievement, which raises once more the vexed problem of what “subject” means in art. Even today, when we are used to saying that the subject of music is music itself, it is harder for most people to accept that the subject of a representational painting may be form, color, and spatial relationships; how much more difficult when the overt literary subject was something to which one brought an already formed response.

Subject conditions our reactions to works of art, and the artist courts trouble when he invokes external associations and emotions that are stronger than those evoked by the picture itself. As viewers we all bring past experience to a painting, just as the artist does, but when, as in most of the paintings discussed here, the experience of the literary text is considerably more intense than its representation in paint, we feel that the canvas merely gets in the way. This probably explains our normal feeling that literary art has a touch of the secondhand about it, that it lacks the immediacy conveyed by greater works, or even by those lesser paintings that do not seem to direct us out of the picture frame by raising the question of what the painting is “about.”


The quality of the literature that inspired the artists was considerably higher than that of the resulting paintings. After Hogarth and Reynolds in the eighteenth century, only Turner, and perhaps John Martin, were painters of genius in the literary genre, and Turner painted only a few literary pictures. The index of this book mentions him much less frequently than either Charles Robert Leslie or Daniel Maclise, good painters both but on a different level.

The chief theoretical basis for yoking painting and literature was the doctrine of ut pictura poesis, one of those classical aesthetic statements that we find so hard to believe the eighteenth century took as literal statement not metaphor. Derived from Horace, it asserted the sisterhood of painting and poetry. As Altick characterizes it,

The nub of the…idea was that a poem was a “mute painting” and painting was “spoken poetry”: both were expressive arts, differing only in the medium chosen. The chief creative use to which this tenet was put was the warrant it gave to the poet who wished to write in “painterly” terms—to embody in his lines a series of vivid pictures. But since the relationship was a reciprocal one, it also meant that the painter should invest his own creation with “poetry.” And from this it was an easy step to assuming that the actual subject matter of art might be borrowed from existing poetry, or, by a further easy extension, from literature at large.

The doctrine was a serious attempt to see what various arts had in common, but it courted overstatement. Taken literally, it made little more sense than assertions that architecture is frozen music or that poetry and music are nearly identical twins because they both can be heard. Before the end of the eighteenth century Lessing had reasonably pointed out in Laocoön that the doctrine was untenable, since painting is a spatial art and poetry a temporal one, and most critics came to share his views. But the damage had been done. For artists more knowledgeable about painting and selling than about theory it was an easy assumption that a noble passage from a great poet would ensure the nobility of the painting that illustrated it.

It was no accident that the heyday of narrative painting coincided with the Industrial Revolution and the gradual aspiration to taste by the captains of industry. Altick has a fascinating section on the buyers of the pictures, and even more on this subject would be welcome, since the wants of the public so obviously influenced what was painted. In the eighteenth century the older aristocracy had bought old masters, a habit often acquired by young men on their grand tour of the Continent; now their chief modern acquisitions were family portraits. The possessors of new mercantile and manufacturing fortunes, however, bought English pictures to hang in the cavernous halls of their Gothic houses in the north of England.

Never before had there been such a demand for pictures as interior decoration, and it spread rapidly from the northern country houses to the villas built for the middle class all over England. Not surprisingly, many pictures were bought for qualities that were hardly artistic. Even Alfred Tennyson and his wife, who were not philistine in most of their tastes, wrote to a London friend, asking him to keep an eye out for cheap paintings of “red and flesh colour and bright frames.” We are not told how the owners of the larger collections hung their acquisitions, but the frontispiece, showing the library of Cragside, Sir William Armstrong’s Northumberland house, suggests that his paintings were put in eye-level rows, more to cover the walls systematically than to display the beauty of the individual pictures.

The great northern magnates naturally wanted big pictures for big rooms, and these lent themselves to outsize subjects from English history, preferably those that Shakespeare had written about. These were settings fit for the epic imagination of Benjamin Haydon, the apocalyptic splendors of John Martin, or the heroic canvases of Benjamin West. All that paint and all those frames were adequate demonstration of the owner’s wealth and taste. If the artist demurred at having his works ordered by the yard, the buyer could point out that Michelangelo had been content with commissions based on size.

In the later nineteenth century the popularity of historical painting declined, but at roughly the same time there was an enormous boom in middle-class housing, creating a demand for a new kind of picture. To fit the houses, painters scaled down their canvases, in historical art concentrating on intimate scenes from the lives of great men, in literary painting picking out a single moment that implied a narrative: both of what had preceded it and what was to come after. These genre pictures became so popular that they nearly dominated subsequent literary painting.


Both historical and genre pictures took ostentatiously English subjects; the new millionaires regarded the old masters as reprehensibly foreign at the same time that they were deeply attached themselves to the land in which they had made their money. The genre paintings, too, leaned toward the familiar and easily comprehensible in literature. If neither Satan nor Romeo and Juliet could be proven to be English in origin, at least Milton and Shakespeare were undeniably so.

Spenser’s patriotic Faerie Queene was taken to be “the quintessence of poetic pictorialism,” and Altick has found records of at least 175 paintings from the poem. Leigh Hunt, not a man to understate his prejudices, said that Spenser’s genius included Titian’s coloring, the chiaroscuro of Rembrandt, the grandeur of Michelangelo, the gorgeousness of Rubens, not to mention the best qualities of Guido, Raphael, Correggio, Claude, and Poussin. Keats, who carried Spenser’s pictorialism into the Romantic period, was another favorite, particularly with the Pre-Raphaelites, for scenes from Endymion, “Isabella,” and of course “The Eve of St. Agnes,” which was painted by Millais, Holman Hunt, Burne-Jones, and many lesser artists.

As Altick points out, slightly wearily, the illustration of Tennyson was almost an industry in itself, resulting in hundreds of paintings, with all the best artists of the second half of the century trying their brushes at “The Lady of Shalott,” “Mariana,” “The Gardener’s Daughter,” and Idylls of the King. Given the diversity in Spenser, Keats, and Tennyson, it is surprising that painters chose to illustrate such a limited group of poems; whether the choice represented the painters’ own tastes, or what they imagined the narrow tastes of buyers to be, is not certain.

The untutored tastes that predominated among the new connoisseurs preferred the intensely literal details that came to be the norm after mid-century, at a time when the newly invented camera was spreading its influence. With this emphasis on the literal came the desire for emotions as easily recognizable as the settings in which they were experienced. For the slightly more knowledgeable, the judgment of a picture might consist of checking the accuracy of its details against those given in the literary text from which it derived. What probably came as a very distant last consideration was the formal quality of the painting itself.

The persistence of at least a nominal recognition of ut pictura poesis is indicated by the use, during most of the nineteenth century, of the word “reading” for the practice of assessing the meaning of a picture by minute scrutiny of its details, often at the expense of considering its overall composition. (Since “reading” was so important, it is a shame that the reader cannot try it himself, because the numerous reproductions in the book are so small and so lacking in contrast that details are only rarely visible. Color would help immensely, too, but perhaps that is impossible even at the high price of the book.)

By the end of the century the form was essentially dead, killed by the art for art’s sake movement, among other developments, and by the end of this absorbing book one’s understanding of it has been so enlarged that its demise seems a matter for regret. Altick wears his knowledge lightly, and his claims for the artistic importance of his subject are not exaggerated. He illuminates the complex subject of the relation between the arts in the nineteenth century and unobtrusively explains much of what we often find puzzlingly sentimental in both painting and literature of the period.

This Issue

February 12, 1987