- British Romanticism and the Reception of Italian Old Master Art 1793–1840 by Maureen McCue
How does one study the reception of art work? As we know from the work of Caroline Burdett and others, in the early part of the twentieth century Vernon Lee scrutinized and recorded the physical responses to paintings of her lover Kit Anstruther-Thomson: a direct scrutiny of scrutiny’s effects that Lee then translated into words. Starting from this empirical position, Lee claimed in her [End Page 113] 1912 Beauty and Ugliness that memories and associations caused unconscious changes in posture and breathing: the “reception” she sought to systematise and map was a bodily one. It scandalized contemporaries, but if they had been able to read Maureen McCue’s well-written study of how some of the major Romantics reacted to Italian Old Masters, those critics would have been able to appreciate how Lee’s emphasis on the physical had a very respectable historical genealogy in canonical poets and prose writers of the Romantic period.
Comprising four chapters, an introduction, and a brief conclusion, British Romanticism and the Reception of Italian Old Master Art 1793–1840 covers the tensions involved in appreciating Italian art from the early Renaissance and afterward from the perspective of the mainly male, educated middle classes in the early nineteenth century. The volume also deals with the changing nature of the arbiters of taste and the rules of taste, and the effect of Old Masters on literary texts, especially by Shelley, Byron, Hazlitt, and the fascinating Dissenting banker and poet, Samuel Rogers, to whose poem Italy an entire chapter is devoted. Other authors several times referred to but only briefly discussed include Mary Shelley, Madame de Staël, P. G. Patmore, Pierce Egan (the Elder), Anna Jameson, Lady Morgan, William Roscoe, and William Wordsworth.
McCue begins by anchoring the well-known idea that Italy came to be regarded as “a land of the imagination . . . which has all but become a work of art in itself” (1). England began to see itself as the protector of Italy and of its art treasures in the face of Napoleon’s depredations. The import of Italian art into London, which was considerable, could therefore be justified as an act of curatorship. Such raiding could also be sanctioned by newly refined forms of perception as described and recommended by literary texts, and it is these with which McCue is mostly concerned. Her description of Hazlitt’s stress on “gusto”—the body’s response to an art work—prefigures Vernon Lee’s, though Hazlitt’s focus on corporeal reaction was by no means unique. It also had, as McCue reminds us in her first chapter, a political dimension. For the aristocratic Grand Tourist in the eighteenth century, art had had a grand moral lesson that required a considerable education to appreciate. But attending to art’s effects on the body gave a role in aesthetic appreciation to those without the specialist education of the aristocrat. All the responder needed to do was verbalize as imaginatively as possible his or her reaction. Art was, at least in theory, democratized. That McCue does not entirely fall for this oversimplification is one of the instructive pleasures of this volume. Instead, she foregrounds the commercial, religious, and cultural interests that always inflect perception when it is filtered through words.
Although McCue concentrates on male writers, the question of women’s perception of art is also raised at several points, but the most sustained passage comprises a short discussion of Anna Jameson’s Diary of an Ennuyée. This [End Page 114] focus on men is a pity in these days of renewed attention to women’s writing. One looks in vain for discussion of L. E. L’s Improvisatrice or Felicia Heman’s Properzia Rossi, for example.
In any study of reception one must have a very clear idea of who is doing the receiving and when and where. McCue’s study is split on this notion of the specificity of response in ways...