A l’occasion de la journée internationale de la femme, The Telegraph a publié un article sur Vernon Lee. Vous pouvez le retrouver ci-dessous. Bonne lecture !
Too ‘dangerous’ for Henry James: Violet Paget, the
radical lesbian writer who shook the art world
For all of the great historical women we’ll remember and celebrate today, there are just as many whose stories and achievements have been largely forgotten.
One such woman is Violet Paget, a 19th century writer and art critic who published under the pseudonym Vernon Lee. A lesbian, a feminist, and an antivivisectionist, she supported women’s suffrage, campaigned against the First World War, and was part of a group investigating the psychology of sex. These days she is known mainly for her works of supernatural fiction, particularly her 1890 collection Hauntings. What few remember, however, is her groundbreaking contribution to the aesthetics field of art criticism, with a theory so radical it still hasn’t been absorbed into the mainstream.
But next week sees the first-ever English publication of her 1903 work, The Psychology of an Art Writer, which explores the theory she developed with her lover and long-term partner Clementina “Kit” Anstruther-Thomson. It involved a new way of looking at art based on the theory of empathy (Einfühlung), which Paget introduced into English aesthetics from Germany. But while the German theorists were interested in what happens inside our minds when we view art, how we feel our way into a piece, Paget pushed things further, looking at how our bodies respond to art. The book explores how our posture or breathing might change when viewing an artwork, whether it causes “palpitations”, and how our response to it is affected by our mood.
Selections from her Gallery Diaries (1901–4), included in the book, show her theory in action as she gives her own deeply personal responses to artworks. She has very different reactions to two artworks at the Uffizi Gallery, for example, thanks to a song she has stuck in her head. “Pleased to get out after a boring lunch and blood to head. Light step; under arcade a tune — Ich will dich mein Jesus, by Bach. No palpitations […] Attracted by Benjamin Constant, but tune prevents my seeing it. But I can see Ingres very well. What a deep, deep magnificent picture. The tune, if anything, helps certainly.”
Her approach was distinctly different from those of her English aesthetician peers and, as her thinking became more radical, it fell out of the mainstream. But this only gave Paget more freedom to experiment. She used her relationship with Kit as a basis for her explorations of art, watching how her lover responded to the pieces they viewed together, as well as including her own lesbian desires in the examination of her own responses to art.
Born in 1856 in France to English parents, Violet Paget lived all over the continent before settling in a villa in Florence, where she lived for the rest of her life. Determined to write from a young age, she went on to produce over forty volumes of varied work, from travel writing and musings on gardens to philosophical dialogues and feminist pamphlets. Her 1884 novel Miss Brown, a satire of the aesthetic circles popular in the 1880s, caused waves thanks to the its thinly veiled portrayals of the real members of the groups.
She lived a life as radical as her writing – openly lesbian relationships were of course rare at the time – and through her work and travels in Europe (she visited London regularly) she gathered an impressive circle of friends and collaborators, from the artist Mary Cassat to the writers Walter Pater, Edith Wharton, J.A. Symonds, Mario Praz, and Henry James. One of her oldest friends was John Singer Sargent, who Paget met as a child when their families were neighbours in Nice. In 1881 he painted her in a single three-hour session, writing ‘to my friend Violet’ on the painting and presenting it to her as a gift.
Her tendency to swim against the stream brought her intellectual adversaries too, and even James is said to have warned his brother that Paget was “as dangerous and uncanny as she is intelligent, which is saying a great deal.” It was Paget’s activism, though, that really put the literary establishment’s noses out of joint. She became involved in the suffrage movement, in part thanks to her friendships with the campaigner Isabella Ford and the writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, but when war broke out and most suffrage organisations halted their work to support the effort, Paget dug her heels in. A resolute pacifist, she joined the peace crusaders of the British Union of Democratic Control, handing out leaflets and addressing open-air meetings with Ford, often to much abuse. Her pacifist views not only led to her being ostracised by the literary world but may also have been one of the reasons her work is so little known. Radical pacifists were seen by many as heretics and their work was all but erased from public memory following the war. But Paget wasn’t totally forgotten. And with the release of The Psychology of an Art Writer the hope is that many more will know of this formidable woman and the contribution she made to our understanding of art.
The Psychology of an Art Writer is published by David Zwirner Books on March 29; preorder your copy from books.telegraph.co.uk