1862 The Paragone
Depicting a young woman and her father in silent confrontation, Millais’ painting Trust Me provoked viewers to speculate about the cause of their stand-off in terms that ranged from the prosaic to the sensational (Fig. 1). The pair stand facing one another in their breakfast room. He holds out his hand in a gesture of request; her hands are intertwined behind her back around a letter, which she declines to hand over. This is a quiet moment of conflict; their lips are closed and the words “Trust me”—spoken perhaps by either figure—linger in the air between them. Accustomed to reading narrative paintings through details of facial expression, viewers found the young woman’s face notably blank: “The young lady … is totally devoid of expression. We can read in her face neither timidity, wavering, guilt, merriment, defiance, nor yielding.”1
At least some viewers and reviewers enjoyed the ambiguity of the scene. The Times offered a series of speculations:
Is it a love-letter? Is the old man recalling to his child the absolute confidence in which they have lived till now, and asking her to continue it? Or is it the girl reminding her father that he has never had cause to doubt her, and must not begin now, if she decline to show him this letter? But who knows it if be a love-letter? It may be on business—breaking to the girl some painful news which she feels it better her father should not know. In short, the painter here again gives us the pleasant duty of cracking the nut, and so interests us in more than the skill of his workmanship. We are left to find out the mot de l’énigme, a far more exciting, though less easy task, than pronouncing on the more or less success with which an intelligible meaning has been expressed.2
The Saturday Review expanded the range of narrative options into the territory of the sensation novel:
The letter may breathe of love, or it may be a confidential epistle from one of the young lady’s companions. It may contain a warning or even some serious demands upon her private means. All remains uncertain, and the painter has fully succeeded in perpetuating a moment of suspense.3
“Suspense” is a key term here, and one with a positive value. The literary historian Caroline Levine has persuasively argued that suspense was an important category in nineteenth-century literary, scientific, and philosophical theory, creating a state of mind in which one was open to new evidence and theories rather than ruled by preconception and prejudice.4
In this light, it is worth pausing to reflect on how the visual artist might wield the strategy of suspense differently from the writer, leaving the viewer in a “perpetual” moment of suspense, resolvable only in the viewer’s own imagination. These reviews implicitly recognise that distinction, noting that “the painter” has engaged the viewer’s imagination. The painter is, of course, Millais, but is “the painter” also the larger category of the image-maker—implicitly set against the author—in a kind of modern paragone?
It is tempting to speculate that Millais might be explicitly reflecting on the differences between the literary and the pictorial throughout this picture. The letter—the text that would explain the story—is present but inaccessible, both because she will not relinquish it, and because it is closed, with even the text on the outside obscured. In the later 1850s and early 1860s, the young artist had turned to the burgeoning industry of periodical and book illustration, including producing images for Trollope’s novels of contemporary life, and their compositions have been linked to Trust Me.5 These illustrations tended to focus on dramatic moments between two characters, set against fairly flat backgrounds, with clearly legible details and gestures, and often use a fragment of dialogue as a caption, qualities that are clearly echoed in the painting.
So what are we to make of this connection? The tension between the literary and the visual comes to a head in illustration: should the artist simply depict a scene already well described in the text, or is the artist’s role to expand the story by imagining a moment left vague or implied? Victorian authors and artists tussled over this question, and while Millais’ relationship with Trollope was generally quite amiable, the process of illustration itself meant that artists had to think hard about the relation between the textual and the visual.6 As Paul Barlow elegantly notes, the picture is an “attempt to expand to exhibition scale the conventions of novel illustration in the absence of a novel”.7 And the absence of the novel is precisely the point, as Millais asserts painting’s capacity to stimulate the viewer’s imagination.
Another painting on view elsewhere in London during the summer of 1862 also seemed self-consciously to pose the question of the relation of its modern-life subject to literature: Whistler’s The White Girl, then known as The Woman in White, the title of the immensely popular Wilkie Collins novel that was currently all the rage (Fig. 2).8 The picture was retrospectively renamed Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, a title that locates it in the realm of aestheticism and allusion rather than narrative realism.9 And yet the painting seems to fit the narrative of The Woman in White far better than this revision suggests. The painting invites you to read the signs of the woman’s face and figure, yet the face is impassive, introspective rather than expressive, signalling an interiority the viewer is invited to imagine but cannot share. In other words, though you are presented with an intimate psychological moment, there is little you can deduce about the woman, her thoughts, or her identity. And of course, this is precisely the theme and narrative engine of Collins’ novel: the plot turns on the fact that almost no one can see the difference between the two women in white—Anne Catherick and Laura Fairlie. Whistler’s painting seems to dramatise the reader’s experience, presenting the alluring and mysterious figure for inspection, but leaving her an unresolved enigma.
Putting the Whistler next to Millais’ precisely contemporaneous painting Trust Me suggests a shared context in which a self-conscious concern with the relationship between the literary and the visual were investigated through play with Victorian conventions of narrative, iconography, and facial expression. Artists were increasingly judged by the originality of their subject matter; as one critic had chided artists a few years earlier:
When will painters learn that it is their business to invent as well as compose, and that in taking a subject which has been conceived by a poet or a novelist, they are, to that extent, lowering the dignity of their art?10
As the examples of Millais and Whistler demonstrate, some artists took up the challenge of the paragone directly, engaging in a thoughtful visual exploration of the relationship between the visual and the literary and asserting that painting could inspire viewers’ imaginations and emotions as well as, if not better than, literature.
“The Royal Academy”, The Saturday Review, 17 May 1862, 560.↩︎
“Royal Academy Exhibition”, The Times, 8 May 1862, 8.↩︎
“The Royal Academy: Second Notice”, The Saturday Review, 17 May 1862, 560.↩︎
Caroline Levine, The Serious Pleasures of Suspense: Victorian Realism and Narrative Doubt (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2003).↩︎
Paul Barlow, Time Present and Time Past: The Art of John Everett Millais (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), 95–97; Jason Rosenfeld, John Everett Millais (London: Phaidon Press, 2012), 134–136.↩︎
Michael Mason, “The Way We Look Now: Millais’s Illustrations to Trollope”, Art History 1, no. 3 (1978): 309–340.↩︎
Barlow, Time Present and Time Past, 96.↩︎
The picture was rejected from the Royal Academy in 1862, and exhibited instead at a private gallery in Berners Street.↩︎
The painting was never exhibited under the title Symphony in White during Whistler’s lifetime and continued to be exhibited as The White Girl throughout the nineteenth century. In 1863, Paul Mantz referred to the painting in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts as a “symphony in white”; and in 1867, Whistler exhibited Symphony in White, No. 3, thus implicitly retitling the earlier painting. Whistler explicitly used the new title in a book of press cuttings in 1878. “Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl”, National Gallery of Art, https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.12198.html#overview; Robin Spencer, “Whistler’s ‘The White Girl’: Painting, Poetry and Meaning”, The Burlington Magazine 140, no. 1142 (May 1998): 300–311; Aileen Tsui, “The Phantasm of Aesthetic Autonomy in Whistler’s Work: Titling The White Girl”, Art History 29, no. 3 (June 2006): 444–475.↩︎
“The Royal Academy and the Water-Colour Exhibitions”, The Universal Review, June 1859, 578.↩︎
Thematic categories: art criticism - narrative painting, book illustration, comparative analysis, history painting, illustration in books, literary references, narrative art, paragone (art and literature), Pre-Raphaelites, problem pictures, readings of paintings, suspense in art, Victorian narrative painting, picture of the year