Perhaps the most ironic, darkly comic, and touching death scene in 20th-century literature takes place in front of Vermeer’s painting “A View of the Delft” (1660-1661) in Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time (1913-1927).
Bergotte, a terminally ill novelist who has had a decisive influence on the narrator’s writing vocation, remembers that “A View of the Delft” happens to be on view in Paris, on loan from the Mauritshuis in The Hague. And so, defying frail health, he improvises a meal and hurries out. In the gallery, guided by an art critic who compares Vermeer’s refinement to that of Chinese artists, he studies the painting. But his analytical powers surrender to a mesmerizing tiny patch of yellow wall beneath a roof.
The yellow flourish is so awe-inspiring that Bergotte regrets the verbose overkill in his own books. His self-loathing is cut short by stomach pain. Doubling over, he assumes the sharp ache must be food poisoning from undercooked potatoes. As passers-by in the gallery offer help, he drops dead.
Like much in Proust’s novel, the scene has sly autobiographical roots. In May of 1921, a year before he died, Proust himself risked poor health to see an exhibition of Dutch painting, including “A View of the Delft,” at the Jeu de Paume. In this respect, visual art bookends Marcel Proust’s life and writing career.
In the new Letters to His Neighbor (New Directions 2017), Proust mails a copy of his first book, a collection of verse called Portraits of Painters (1896), to an American dentist living upstairs
Both the early Portraits of Painters and the Vermeer death scene, written decades later, along with constant literary references to visual art in between, beg a critical question — why did Proust, the archetypal “writer’s writer,” who spent 10 years composing and revising a 4,000-plus-page book, plant hundreds of references to visual art in the quintessential novel about the writing life?
That question lies behind Eric Karpeles’ Paintings in Proust: A Visual Companion to In Search of Lost Time (Thames & Hudson, 2017), now out in its first paperback edition. This compendium contains over 200 reproductions of classic and modern paintings, drawings, and engravings, with corresponding excerpts about the artworks from C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin’s renowned English translation of Proust.
Nothing in Proust’s biography indicates that he would write a novel heavily invested in visual experience and visual art. By family pedigree and temperament, he was a philosophical skeptic and a ruthless social diagnostician. His father, Adrien, was a world-renowned epidemiologist who specialized in stopping the spread of cholera, and his mother, Jeanne, was a classically educated, voracious reader who encouraged her son’s interest in language and literature. Books, not visual art, shaped the young Proust. In university he studied law and read philosophy, history, and science; later, he delved into cutting-edge foreign thinkers like Thomas Caryle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Frederich Nietzsche.
However, it is known that friends and family members gave the aspiring author reproductions of artworks. As noted in the introduction to Paintings in Proust “[he] never saw many of the actual paintings that came to be incorporated into the pages of his novel.” Mostly he took in art by chance, through gallery and museum visits led by such art-enthusiast friends as Robert de Billy and Pierre Lavallée. After college, he was exposed to contemporary art through a close friendship with the art collector Charles Ephrussi, who knew the Impressionists and personally introduced many of them to Proust.
It was probably raw literary ambition, not a veneration of art, that led him to first write about it. Inspired by poems written by Charles Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine about famous paintings, Proust’s first book consists of verse dedicated to the painters Albert Cuyp, Paulus Potter, Anton Van Dyck, and Antoine Watteau.
For much of his 20s and 30s, Proust was known as a gifted underachiever, who frittered away his time on the prose-poetic vignettes collected in Pleasures and Days (1896) and an eventually abandoned novel, Jean Santeuil (1896-1900) which was published posthumously and, most likely, against Proust’s wishes.
But during this time he was also moving among the art-collecting nobility and frequenting the salons in the Faubourg Saint-Germain. His mid-career struggles with writing led him to try art criticism. These extant pieces provide clues to the very qualities that would be prized, years later, by critics and readers of In Search of Lost Time.
Writing on Gustave Moreau, Proust detects a universe of analogies, paintings that document an “intoxication of mind” in which reality is a “mysterious country” of unlike objects “resembl[ing] one another.” Describing Rembrandt, he finds an exacting individualism visible in a manipulation of light “that bathes [Rembrandt’s] portraits and his pictures [in] the very light of his thought […] a personal light in which we view things when we are thinking for ourselves.” Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin was probably Proust’s favorite painter. He sees in Chardin a vision “combining things and people in those rooms which are more than a thing and perhaps more than a person, rooms which are the scene of their joint lives, the law of affinities and contrarieties […] the shrine of their past.”
Seeking more fuel from art, Proust started reading John Ruskin, whose influential The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (1851-53) revived popular interest in medieval art. Proust’s fascination coincided with the British critic’s death in 1900, and he wrote a long obituary on Ruskin in Gazette des Beaux-Arts. He then embarked on a Ruskin-translation project, working with his mother, who knew English much better than he did, and consulting with Marie Nordlinger, a British cousin of his close friend Reynaldo Hahn. The translation project took six years and led Proust to visit French cathedral cities as well as Venice and Padua where he saw, for the first time, Italian art and architecture.
The Ruskin-Proust marriage was productive but complicated. Proust, born of a Jewish mother and raised Catholic by atheist parents, did not share Ruskin’s religious faith or moral puritanism. Their tastes in art differed, too. The doctrinaire Ruskin publicly decried the paintings of James McNeill Whistler while Proust, whose tastes in visual art were more or less random, hung Whistler’s portrait of Thomas Carlyle in his bedroom.
But Ruskin found in art a force equal to the natural and organic worlds it mirrored, and that equilibrium, combined with his conviction that art’s meaning must exceed its sensual pleasures, corresponded to Proust’s growing unease with fin de siècle decadence, art-for-arts sake, and trendy forms of arty obscurantism – not least his own tendencies toward those excesses.
Being a sort of spiritual empiricist, Ruskin understood how medieval art and architecture documents human apprehensions of timelessness. In particular, the critic’s writing on Amiens’ Notre Dame Cathedral charts how the Church’s art and architecture concertize Biblical narratives and Christian prophecies. These ideas nudged Proust closer to his own reconsideration about the nature of time.
By 1909, jolted by the death of his parents in quick succession, Proust hunkered down to compose what became the first volume of In Search of Lost Time. The novel’s literary infrastructure attempts the time-defying aims of a Gothic cathedral.
The cathedral’s infinite moments, frozen in stone, stained glass, and sculpture, recover an ancient past that tells an immediate human “story” conforming to the superstructure of divine timelessness — a drama with a “cast” of prophets, disciples, saints, evangelicals, and a tripartite Holy Family.
In a parallel, literary fashion, In Search of Lost Time narrates a young man’s development as an only child under the aegis of his parents, recovering a kind of simultaneity of past, present, and future by rebuilding talismanic moments from his past and finding correspondences in the lived moments that involve others — his extended family and various love interests — and all the obsessions, jealousies, aspirations, and disappointments to be found within an expanding and contracting aristocratic social orbit.
Though linear in its narrative nature, In Search of Lost Time imitates visual art in how it suspends the normal experience of time. As James Joyce said of his Finnegans Wake, Proust’s magnum opus might best be taken in its entirety by “an ideal reader suffering an ideal insomnia.” Normal time is undone, dilated, slowed down, suspended, through myriad interrogations and hesitations abetted by networks of subordinate clauses, interminable qualifiers, and hypnotic ambivalences.
Though committed to daily life, the narrated topographies and slow-motion psychological dramas expose the timeless dimension in human experience that exists beneath the normal passage of time. In Proust, the theological “kingdom come” built into French cathedrals is transposed into the novel’s retrieval of an existential timelessness, or lost ecstasies — moments otherwise destroyed by habit, by voluntary memory, by daily routines, by the numbing tabulations of clock, calendar, and culture.
No wonder, then, in a novel built on analogies that prove how past moments defy memory and chronology, visual art is a frequent tool. Art is just as real as reality because reality – life itself – is inherently fugitive. “We feel in one world,” Proust’s tells us, “we think, we give names to things in another; between the two we can establish a certain correspondence, but not bridge the gap.”
And it’s no surprise either that “simulacrum,” that buzzword associated with postmodernist theories about the media’s displacement of the actual, appears in Proust. Visual art is his most useful simulacrum for finding correspondences between the two worlds. Consequently, about 100 individual painters and more than 200 real and fictitious artworks populate In Search of Lost Time. But you don’t need a degree in art history to read it, any more than you need degrees in marine biology or biochemistry or the many other specializations from which he extracts metaphors.
When an artwork is referenced, it is to dig deeper into the reality of an elusive object or character in the narrator’s “real life.” Paintings in Proust lays out one example after another. Francoise, the family’s tireless maid, by turns looks like Giotto’s figure of Charity and Anne of Brittany from Jean Bourdichon’s Book of Hours (1500-08); the uninhibited courtesan Odette de Crécy, wife of Charles Swann and, later, of Baron de Forcheville, shares features with Botticelli’s Zipporah in his Trials of Moses (1481-82) and, in a rare, remorseful pose, with the Graces in the same artist’s Primavera (1482); the socially-savvy Robert Saint-Loup resembles a cavalier in a Watteau portrait; and Charlie Morel, the conniving violinist appears, in an unusually alluring light, like a handsome figure by Bronzino.
Elsewhere, the elusive and perpetually absent beloved Albertine sometimes comes into view looking like Bernardo Luini’s “Portrait of Lady “(1520/1525); Albertine covets dresses that remind the narrator of gowns in female portraits by Titian and Carpaccio; Gilbrete’s hair reminds Proust of long-stemmed flowers drawn by Leonardo da Vinci; and as World War I descends, Parisian women who have taken to wearing hair accessories made from munition fragments look like noblewomen in Pisanello portraits.
Paintings in Proust falls short mainly because it fails to demonstrate how visual art is more than just a chain of metaphors. Art informs the novel’s subversive social critique, too, by exalting, however ironically, marginalized or working-class characters by comparing them to figures in masterpieces of art. Highbrow artworks are referenced in scenes set in chaotic kitchens, gossipy salons, and secret rooms set aside for liaisons.
And since duplicity is a Proustian synonym for human nature, a recurring art-related theme is the parallel between the interpersonal transactions involving art and the forged and faked intimacies embedded in certain friendships and alliances. Often, art fuels snobbery and snobbery always backfires on the snob. In an inside joke around Edouard Manet’s masterpiece “A Bunch of Asparagus” (1880), the “little clan” at the Verdurins’ — elite, boorish know-it-alls — prove themselves to be idiots when they mock Charles Swann’s sophisticated interest in the painting.
Perhaps the most overlooked fact about visual art in Proust is that his most unforgettable descriptions of paintings are whole-cloth inventions. He is arguably the most skilled draughtsman in modern literature. An admirer of Dostoevsky and Flaubert, Proust was as practiced as they were at literary types of human portraiture. He also masters literary still-life, seascapes, and landscapes. He manipulates diction, tense, and syntax in the same layered, deliberate manner with which a painter chooses, mixes and applies colors. He delineates a particular object in a particular cast of light, nailing the way a passing facial expression registers a range of conflicting emotions.
It’s no surprise, then, that Elstir, a painter possibly modeled on Monet, Degas, or Turner, emerges as the most intellectually grounded character. Though he has a relatively minor role, Elstir’s art and ideas influence the narrator more deeply than do the writers he meets. He urges the young Marcel 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.’ ” When Marcel laments his tendency to lose his grip on reality due to daydreaming, Elstir tells him, “If a little day-dreaming is dangerous, the cure for it is not to dream less but to dream more, dream all the time.”
And Elstir’s art inspires the novel’s most visually ambitious prose. In Normandy, Marcel finally has the opportunity to see the man’s paintings. One titled “Miss Scaripant, October 1871” turns out to be a portrait of a bowler-wearing Odette, whose gender-shattering self-assurance is foregrounded by Elstir’s art:
Along the lines of the face, the latent sex seemed to be on the point of confessing itself to be that of a somewhat boyish girl, then vanished, and reappeared further on with a suggestion rather of an effeminate vicious and pensive youth, then fled once more and remained elusive (908).
In describing Elstir’s Turner-esque seascape, “Carquehuit Harbour,” Proust may be paying a double homage, to the English painter and his famous champion, John Ruskin. Whatever motivated the outpouring, the passage shows that Proust might be the best painter to never have wielded a brush:
Whether because its houses concealed a part of the harbour, a dry dock, or perhaps the sea itself plunging deep inland […] the roofs were overtopped (as it had been by chimneys or steeples) by masts which had the effect of making the vessels to which they belonged appear town-bred, built on land, an impression reinforced by other boats moored along the jetty but in such serried ranks that you could see men talking across from one deck to another without being able to distinguish the dividing line, the chink of water between them, so that this fishing fleet seemed less to belong to the water than, for instance, the churches of Criquebec, which, in the distance, surrounded by water on every side because you saw them without seeing the town, in a powdery haze of sunlight and crumbling waves, seemed to be emerging from the waters, blown in alabaster or in sea-foam […] The sea itself did not come up in an even line but followed the irregularities of the shore, which the perspective of the picture increased still further, so that a ship actually at sea, half-hidden by the projecting works of the arsenal, seemed to be sailing across the middle of the town; women who were gathering shrimps among the rocks had the appearance, because they were surrounded by water and because of the depression which, beyond the circular barrier of rocks, brought the beach (on the two sides nearest the land) down to sea-level, of being in a marine grotto overhung by ships and waves, open yet unharmed in the midst of miraculously parted waters (894-895).