- A Passion for Things: Cicerones, Collectors, and Taste in Edith Wharton's Fiction
- Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 54, Number 4, Winter 1998
- p. pp. 25-52
- View Citation
ALLAN HEPBURN A Passion for Things: Cicerones, Collectors, and Taste in Edith Wharton's Fiction IN an isthmus of land, at the narrowest and highest point of the Cap Ferrât on the French Riviera, stands a pink Italian palazzo , built between 1905 and 1912 for the Baroness Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild. In 1934, Rothschild donated the palace, stocked with priceless objects and canvases, to the Académie des Beaux-Arts. The Blue Guide, indispensable cicerone to the sites of Provence, states that the house has preserved its character as "la résidence d'un riche amateur d'art à l'aube du XXe siècle" (709). This residence, turned museum , contains Louis XV and Louis XVI furniture, Sèvres porcelain, forged iron objects, paintings by Boucher, Fragonard, Moreau, Monet and others. Legend has it that the baroness had items shipped from all over Europe to the train station in nearby Beaulieu. She then sauntered among heaps of goods that sat on the platform and selected and rejected at whim. Her diverse taste manifests itself also in the assemblage of garden styles behind the house. There, Italian fountains, English hedges, Spanish pergolas and French promenades each have a designated place, as if landscape were an esperanto of flowers and greenery. The pink palace incarnates a modern collector's passion and raises two interrelated questions. First, why do so few women collect art or art-objects in the modern period? Second, how is space designed to display the modern collector's possessions and regulate her privacy? The Baroness' collection is the distillation of a female art-lover's taste, the emblem of female purchasing power manifest in teacups, paintings and Arizona Quarterly Volume 54, Number 4, Winter 1998 Copyright © 1998 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004-1610 20Allan Hepburn side-chairs all displayed in a joyously pink palazzo. Meditating on material things refines and rationalizes itself into connoisseurship, a discernment of nuance that Edith Wharton understands and uses throughout her fiction. Wharton herself, despite a manifest interest in décor and houses, did not collect art, yet an interest in collectors infuses her fiction between 1902 and 1913. In stories such as "The Moving Finger," "The Dilettante," and "The Pot-Boiler," she exposes the complex relation between those who produce art, those who are the subjects of art, those who appreciate art, and those who collect art. Wharton's knowledge of collectors derived from close contact with a coterie of men who understood art markets: American collector Egerton Winthrop, Harvard professor of art history Charles Eliot Norton, and art expert Bernard Berenson (Dwight 47). Although the imperatives ofappreciation put forward by John Ruskin, Walter Pater and Bernard Berenson for would-be collectors were known to Wharton as the foundation for "good taste," she creates no collectors in her fiction who are women. Male collectors, on the other hand, figure in The Vaüey of Decision (1902), the short story "The Daunt Diana" (^05), The Reef (1912), and The Custom of the Country (1913). Affected by Wharton's understanding of commerce and taste in an American context, collectors in her stories and novels attempt to preserve a private world that gets displaced into or onto objects. The bond between collector and commodity is a dangerous one, particularly for women, for it poses questions of taste and possession. Wharton's literary representations of collectors respond to shifts in the culture of collecting in the first decade of the century. Wharton, by classifying identities according to taste—"dilettante," "connoisseur," "collector"—demonstrates the complex effects that material culture has on women and their relations to identities wholly determined by, or in opposition to, material goods. In The Custom of the Country, Undine's relationship to commodities, as well as Wharton's view of women's place in the world of art and artcollectors , becomes shaded by the understanding that things entrap women and must be kept in circulation in order to avoid the métonymie slide from possessor to possessed. One solution to this quandary is to make women become cicerones who exhibit knowledge or good raste wirhout necessarily becoming collectors. Walter Benjamin argues that the collector, a product ofhigh capitalism , lives a life...