Proust and Painting


 Maurice Chernowitz, author of Proust and Painting, notes how Swann loves to match real people to images found in the paintings of the masters. Chernowitz does much the same thing in his book by matching Proust’s word paintings with what he imagines as the real paintings that inspired the prose.

In this first manuscript, which has remained partly unpublished, Elstir’s art reveals to the narrator the beauty of natural scenes to which he had previously paid no attention. A water-color instills in him the desire to see again in real life scenes of the ocean where the bathers and the yachts are an integral part of the view. Manet, Monet, and the other Impressionists have pictured seascapes exactly like these, where men and boat are one with the ocean and the multicolored passengers are treated as if they were part of a landscape or of a colorful still life. (101)

Manet – Seascape at Berck

Furthermore, Elstir’s studies render the narrator less restricted in his tastes by bringing out the charm of a provincial French town…Here Proust may have thought of Pissarro’s pictures, for the latter pained market scenes and fairs in village squares in Rouen and elsewhere that show a perfect knowledge of village life. (101)

 

Pissarro – The Old Market at Rouen

He quotes this passage where Elstir compares a seaside cliff in sweltering sunshine to a cathedral.

“I spoke to you the other day of Balbec church as a great cliff, a huge breakwater built of the stone of the country, but conversely,” he went on, showing me a watercolor, “look at these cliffs (it’s a sketch I did near here, at the Creuniers); don’t those rocks, so powerfully and delicately modelled, remind you of a cathedral?” And indeed one would have taken them for soaring red arches. But, painted on a scorching hot day, they seemed to have been reduced to dust, volatilised by the heat which had drunk up half the sea so that it had almost been distilled, over the whole surface of the picture into a gaseous state. (II,656)

Monet – Entretat End of Day

 Guided by Elstir, Marcel begins to see the commonplace as beautiful. Chernowitz sees Manet in this word tableau of the dinner table.

…the promenade of the antiquated chairs that came twice daily to take their places round the white cloth spread on the table as on an altar at which were celebrated the rites of the palate, and where in the hollows of the oyster-shells a few drops of lustral water had remained as in tiny holy-water stoups of stone; I tried to find beauty there where I had never imagined before that it could exist, in the most ordinary things, in the profundities of “still life.” (II,613)

Manet – Oysters
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