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RICHARD DELLAMORA Pater's Modernism: The Leonardo Essay In 1869 Walter Pater was establishing a reputation in Oxford and London as 'a daringly original thinker and critic." This effort is apparently at odds with his choice of Leonardo as the subject of his third published essay. Leonardo then as now was a monumental figure of culture; he had also become a rather dull one. Especially in the nineteenth-century English accounts, he was a focus of moral, 'Christian,' and positivist readings of classic art and artists.2 Such accounts reduce the vitality of Leonardo's ambivalences; they also make him at first sight a less than promising topic for the young critic. Nevertheless, Pater's essay made a sustained, energetic impact on the founders of literary modernism. Arthur Symons suggests why in his praise of the MOr'.a Lisa passage, in which, he says, 'the essential principles of the art of painting are divined and interpreted with extraordinary subtlety.'3 Pater in his study of Leonardo investigates the nature of the creative process itself. This enquiry in turn implies norms for the modern artist - for writers like Symons, Wilde, and Yeats. In an early version of his essay on Pater (1896), Arthur Symons argues that The Renaissance 'had many affinities with the poetic and pictorial art of Rossetti, Swinburne, and BurneJones , and seems, on its appearance in 1873, to have been taken as the manifesto of the so-called "aesthetic" school.'4 Early in his career Pater published an article on Winckelmann, greatest of neoclassic art historians, followed by a first attempt to write on Leonardo. He accepted Leonardo's exalted rank with no hesitation; he called his art a search for 'beauty: accepting the classical term. And yet it is self-evident that when Hunt in Paris with Rossetti praised the 'dreaming beauty' of the Mona Lisa he had in mind something other than the 'strange beauty' that Pater finds in the portrait.' And when we recall that Pater finds 'strange beauty' not only in the work of Leonardo and other lesser-known Renaissance artists but in Greek and Roman art as well, his relation to the standard critical tradition shows itself much more reflective than we might gather at first sight. Pater, who seemed so willing to accept the norms of others, actually worked to transform them. Standard criticism in England offers a somewhat misleading context for the Leonardo essay. Resources for Pater's effort were available in England: parallel interpretation of individual and cultural development UTQ, VOLUME XLVII , NUMBER 2, WINTER 1977/8 0042-0247178 /0200-01;0; $o1.'iolo © University of Toronto Press 136 RICHARD DELLAMORA occurs earlier in Carlyle- Arthur Symons's remark about the PreRaphaelite context of this specifically 'aesthetic' manifesto is also to the point. In an essay, 'Aesthetic Poetry' (written in 1868; published in Appreciations, 1889; afterwards suppressed), Pater, reviewing the poetry of William Morris, describes the figures of courtly love as 'people of a remote and unaccustomed beauty, somnabulistic [sic], frail, androgynous , the light almost shining through them ,'7 The phrase is apt as well for figures in Burne-janes's paintings of the 1860s. In the visual arts, Leonardesque form was being interpreted in profane and even perverse ways. Simeon Solomon, friend ofRossetti, Swinburne, Burne-Jones, and Pater, in 1866 'made the first of his three journeys to Italy ... and there knelt at the feet of Da Vinci, Luini, and Sodoma,'· In his Bacchus (1867), Leonardesque form is homoerotic. Swinburne in an essay on Solomon describes this painting under the title, The Sacrifice of Antinous9 In his own essay, Pater was to draw on French critics who perceived unorthodoxy and sexual ambiguity in Leonardo. The Leonardo essay attempts to define a self-consciously modern idea of beauty. In terms of Victorian aesthetics, Pater accepts Ruskin's opposition of 'Christian' to 'pagan' or classic art. But he inverts Ruskin and prefers 'pagan' to 'Christian' art precisely because it is 'pagan,' This classicism differs baSically from the classicism that underlies Ruskin's analysis and to which he returned in Modern Painters v (1860).10 Pater accepts classicforms ofbeauty but finds the 'truth' that they communicate to be immoral. His classicism, strictly speaking...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 135-150
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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