Paintings in Proust


Paintings in Proust

Eric Karpeles, New York: Thames and Hudson, 2008

He can describe a scene by describing one after another the innumerable objects which at a given moment were present at a particular place, but truth will be attained by him only when he takes two different objects, state the connexion between them–a connexion analogous in the world of art to the  unique connexion which in the world of science is provided by the law of causality–and encloses them in the necessary links of a well-wrought style; truth–and life too-can be attained by us only when, by comparing a quality common to two sensations, we succeed in extracting their common essence and in reuniting them to each other, liberated from the contingencies of time, within a metaphor. (VI, 290)

Metaphor is the strongest and most ubiquitous stylistic device for Proust. Virtually every paragraph contains a striking metaphor. Proust is particularly fond of a particular type of metaphor, that of linking a sensation to a painting or painter. I have not studied art history at any great depth, so a reference like the following would be wasted on me:

But on the other hand when he (Dostoevsky)wants ‘ideas for paintings’ they’re always stupid and would at best result in the pictures where Munkacsy wanted to see a condemned man represeted at the moment when…etc, or the Virgin Mary at the moment when…etc. (V, 509)

I would never interrupt my reading to Google Munkacy, so I satisfy myself with understanding the idea being represented and read on. But I am missing a lot. Eric Karpeles has catalogued every painting and painter mentioned in the novel, and the number is huge: 103 painters and around 183 individual paintings alter pieces (some of the included paintings are representational of the painter and not actually identified by Proust). Each painting is reproduced a page by itself and on the facing page is a sentence or two describing the context, followed by the passage in Search that cites the painting. I will leave a close examination of Proust’s tastes in art to an art historian. I do have some general observations.

Among the artists with the most paintings cited are the great Renaissance masters: Botticelli (6), Carpaccio (8), Giotto (9), Leonardo (4), Mantegna (5), Titian (6). Also well represented are Rembrandt (8) and Vermeer (3). (I am counting only images; many of these artists are cited in Search without referring to particular paintings, as with Vermeer.)

Of the 19th century painters most cited are Manet (6), Monet (2), Renoir (5) and, above all, Whistler (8) (the fictional painter Elstir appears to be a near anagram of Whistler). The towering post-impressionists and modernists like Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse are not mentioned.

We are left with the impression that Proust had exquisite but rather conservative tastes in painting. I remember being struck when I first read Search that Proust rarely mentioned contemporary painters, an odd fact given the creative explosion that began around the time he began writing the novel, particularly the Fauvists and Cubists. Perhaps this was due to Proust’s failing health and inability to visit exhibitions and to his single-minded pursuit of his novel. He never read Joyce, either, perhaps for the same reasons.

I will follow this up with a post on Botticelli, Odette and idolatry.

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4 Responses to “Paintings in Proust”

  1. Odette Says:

    Are you familiar with the book Painting in Proust by Eric Karpeles?

  2. Odette Says:

    Duh! My eyes went right past the key words “Eric Kapeles.” Wonder why he thinks Elstir might be Whistler? Aside from the name similiarity? Have to think about this.

    • jimeverett Says:

      Actually Karpeles does not connect Elstir and Whistler but a number of other commentators have seen the word play here, notably Roger Shattuck.

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