Botticelli’s Zipporah fascinated Ruskin as much as it did Swann. In 1874 he spent over two weeks on a watercolor of her from the original in the Sistine Chapel.

John Ruskin: Zipporah

This image appeared as the frontispiece in the 1906 edition of Ruskin’s Collected Works owned by Proust. Cynthia J. Gamble, in Bloom’s Proust, makes a strong case that Ruskin himself is one of the models for the character Swann. The two share what Proust calls an “idolatrous” aesthetics.
Proust on Ruskin:

And at the very moment when he was preaching sincerity he lacked it in himself, not in what he said but in the manner in which he said it. The doctrines he was professing were moral and not aesthetic doctrines, yet he chose them for their beauty. And as he did not want to present them as beautiful but as true, he was obliged to lie to himself concerning the nature of the reasons which had led him to adopt them. (Days of Reading, 30)

Gamble shows how Swann, through a similar type of self-dishonesty, creates a woman he can love from someone not really his type.

Swann’s disappointment, indeed agony, in love is in part due to his manner of conducting his artificially created love-affair. Only when he realizes that he has ceased to be in love with Odette is he able to see her, as he had done at the very beginning of their acquaintance, in a transparent and rational way. Her true feature, her defects to which he had been blind, or which he had assigned to oblivion during his passionate pursuit, become apparent: ‘Odette’s pallid complexion, her too thin cheeks, her drawn features, her tired eyes, all the things which…he had ceased to notice since the early days of their intimacy.’…

Swann reconstructs Odette à la Zėphora and gazes ‘in admiration at the large eyes, the delicate features in which the imperfection of the skin might be surmised, the marvelous locks of hair that fell along the tired cheeks.’ In this extreme form of iconolatry, Swann is overcome by fetishism as Zipporah becomes both a visual representation and a reincarnation of Odette as Swann takes hold of Zipporah-Odette and grasps her close to his heart. In this moment of illusionary physical possession, Swann’s desire for Odette is realized and a kind of complementary mechanism is released: ‘The vague feeling of sympathy which attracts one to a work of art, now that he know the original in flesh and blood of Jethro’s daughter, became a desire which more than compensated, thenceforward, for the desire which Odette’s physical charms had at first failed to inspire in him.’ The Swann looks at the black-and-white reproduction of Botticelli’s Zipporah, the more he believes he is in love with Odette: ‘When he had sat for a long time gazing at the Botticelli, he would think of his own living Botticelli, who seemed even lovelier still, and as he drew towards him the photograph of Zipporah he would imagine that he was holding Odette against his heart.’  (72-73)

That black and white reproduction of Zipporah on Swann’s desk, Gamble surmises, must have been the Ruskin reproduction.


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