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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Friday, September 2, 2011

"...many good paintings; but Elizabeth knew nothing of the art;"

In researching JA's usages of the word "intelligible" in _Emma_, I also briefly browsed in some of the usages in her other novels, and that is why I only today read, for the first time with comprehension of its mysteriousness, the following passage in P&P describing Elizabeth Bennet's reactions as she tours Pemberley:

"The picture-gallery, and two or three of the principal bedrooms, were all that remained to be shown. In the former were many good paintings; but Elizabeth knew nothing of the art; and from such as had been already visible below, she had willingly turned to look at some drawings of Miss Darcy's, in crayons, whose subjects were usually more interesting, and also more intelligible."

That phrase "but Elizabeth knew nothing of the art" has actually been quoted a couple of times by readers of the novel, but never with any attention paid to what it means! I think almost all readers of P&P blow right by that phrase, and take away from that sentence that Lizzy is extremely interested in anything to do with Darcy and therefore also his sister, and not much else.

But what does it mean that Miss Darcy's drawings were more intelligible than the art in the picture-gallery of which "Elizabeth knew nothing", and also that Miss Darcy's crayon drawings were not only "more interesting" but were also "more intelligible"? Why would JA throw in that kind of detail? As usual, my default setting in reading such cryptic passages in JA's novels is to suspect her of some hidden meaning. And here is what I have come up with.

JA wrote this passage nearly two hundred years ago, in 1813. And yet, if we did not know that date of composition as we read, and we thought we were reading a novel written in 1911, or even in 2011, I think most readers of P&P would read "...but Elizabeth knew nothing of the art.." as meaning that Pemberley's picture-gallery was stocked with what we today would call _abstract_ or non-representational art.

Isn't that the way many people who are not very familiar with abstract art react when they look at it? They can't make sense of it, but they expect there to be something concrete represented, and so they throw up their hands and either claim ignorance of such art, or just say that it does not make sense, i.e., it is not _intelligible_. The same way Emma finds Harriet's sudden acceptance of Robert Martin's second proposal "unintelligible".

But here's the problem--my understanding is that abstract art did not arise in Europe until the latter part of the 19th century, at least a half century _after_ JA published P&P!

So...what sort of paintings did JA want us to imagine that Darcy had on display at Pemberley that would be sophisticated in some way that Elizabeth would have no aesthetic grasp of it?

Here are relevant factoids from the novel that seem relevant. First, we know that Darcy is a connoisseur and a collector, because he is very proud of the library he has inherited, and then expanded, at Pemberley. But we also know that Elizabeth is not artistically ignorant. How? Because she (famously) makes the following veiled and very witty allusion to Gilpin's theories of the picturesque:

" "No, no; stay where you are. You are charmingly grouped, and appear to uncommon advantage. The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth. Good-bye." She then ran gaily off, rejoicing, as she rambled about, in the hope of being at home again in a day or two…."

What JA has done here, as has been pointed out by a few Austen scholars, is to compare the Bingley sisters to cows in a pasture, which was the example Gilpin used in his famous tome on the picturesque.

And Lizzy also loves natural beauty, as evidenced by this effusion about touring the English countryside:

"What are young men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend!"

So, Lizzy is no slouch in terms of knowledge and appreciation of the visual arts.

And...JA herself has not blundered into this topic of the visual arts, because _she_ has demonstrated some real erudition in this realm when she wrote the following aesthetically sophisticated passage in Northanger Abbey:

"In the present instance, she confessed and lamented her want of knowledge, declared that she would give anything in the world to be able to draw; and a lecture on the picturesque immediately followed, in which his instructions were so clear that she soon began to see beauty in everything admired by him, and her attention was so earnest that he became perfectly satisfied of her having a great deal of natural taste. He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances—side-screens and perspectives—lights and shades; and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape. Delighted with her progress, and fearful of wearying her with too much wisdom at once, Henry suffered the subject to decline, and by an easy transition from a piece of rocky fragment and the withered oak which he had placed near its summit, to oaks in general, to forests, the enclosure of them, waste lands, crown lands and government, he shortly found himself arrived at politics; and from politics, it was an easy step to silence."

Catherine may not know much about art, but Jane Austen sure does! And you can be sure that part of her expertise was derived from the serious study of pictorial art that CEA surely engaged in, and that surely JA shared a love of, just as CEA loved JA's writing.

So...with all of that, I still have not arrived at an explanation for what sort of paintings Darcy has hanging on the wall in his picture-gallery that so mystify Elizabeth?

Here is my best guess. I would guess that most British aristocrats who collected art would not only have the paintings of European masters on their walls, but also paintings and drawings from the wider world, in particular from the Middle East, India and/or China. I am under the impression that there were artistic traditions from those exotic lands which would partake of abstraction.

Anyway, that is enough for now, I just thought I would toss this one out for any reactions.

Cheers, ARNIE

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Or the art of Darcy and the Gardiners and Mrs Reynolds conspiring to draw lizzy in especially the flattery by mrs Reynolds as they were touring the gallery - of that art Lizzy knew nothing.. As per your shadow story