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  • British Artists and Balzac at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
  • Samuel Shaw

Aubrey Beardsley's drawing of Balzac (Fig. 1) holds the viewer with a steady gaze.1 The French writer, garbed in his customary dressing gown, has a devilish smile on his lips. It is the smile of a man confident in his own genius, the smile of a lovable rogue. The thick, slicked hair, drooping moustache and creased cheeks seem made for the swells and dips of Beardsley's pen. Balzac is grotesque, yes, but he is clearly a character whom the artist respects. In this image we find ourselves face to face with the famous writer: this is a confrontation in which the artist wills us to accept his subject's brilliance for our own gain. It is also, more precisely, an invitation. Beardsley's image first appeared on the front cover of Leonard Smithers's edition of Scenes of Parisian Life, printed in gold on a pale brown background, enticing the reader between the covers. In this colour scheme, Balzac's hair forms a kind of halo around his grinning head; his loose gown evokes the character—possibly intended—of a decadent monk. There is, in short, nothing remotely nervous about this representation of the famous novelist. Beardsley's Balzac is here to stay. Despite this, the clear devotion shown to Balzac by Beardsley and other British artists of this period has never been considered in any depth. This article focuses on a network of British artists centred around William Rothenstein and the Carfax Gallery in order to understand their fascination with Balzac and its relation to the identity of British culture at this time.

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Fig. 1.

Beardsley Balzac 1897 Design for cover of Leonard Smithers's Balzac's Scenes of Parisian Life.

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Forty years before Beardsley's drawing another Victorian artist staged a high-profile confrontation with Balzac. In the opening part of Augustus Egg's popular tripartite painting Past and Present (1858) (Fig. 2), however, we are not given an image of the man himself, but of one of his books. The painting represents the moment in which a husband learns of his wife's infidelity. As the fallen woman flings herself at the feet of the morally shaken man, one of their two daughters turns away from constructing a house of cards, causing the latter (a somewhat unsubtle metaphor for the whole situation) to tumble down. The collapse of the cards has already been prefigured by the fact that the children chose to assemble them on a book by Balzac.

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Fig. 2.

Egg Past and Present, Part One 1858

Egg's use of Balzac in this context says a great deal about the French writer's reputation in mid-Victorian Britain. Here Balzac's book serves as shorthand for the concept of adultery and amorality.2 His work is the antithesis of a steady foundation; it is instead a cause of disruption in the domestic sphere. It has been argued that the artist is not simply condemning Balzac, but raising wider questions concerning the treatment of adulterous women; nevertheless it is fair to say that his audience tended to read the presence of Balzac in a wholly negative way.3 Ultimately, Egg's painting provided more reasons to avoid than to embrace Balzac's writing.

Much was to change during the next forty years. Beardsley and his publisher Leonard Smithers were hardly the types to pander to wider public opinion; nonetheless, by the time of Beardsley's drawing, Balzac had reached a much greater level of popularity than he ever achieved in the 1850s. Though Balzac was still associated with amorality in some quarters, more nuanced readings were also commonplace. Indeed, it has long been acknowledged that the centenary of Balzac's [End Page 428] birth in 1899 (marked in one of many ways by Arthur Symons's long essay in the Fortnightly Review) represented something of a peak in his reputation in Britain, especially amongst artists and writers.4 The Victorian naysayers (Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot among them) had given way by the...


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