Vision and Vacancy: "Schalken the Painter" and le Fanu's Art of Darkness

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   And it's old and old it's sad and old it's sad and weary I go
   back to you my cold father, my cold mad father, my cold mad
   feary father ...

   --Finnegans Wake

Underlying the melodrama and moralism, the orthodoxy and mysticism of Uncle Silas (1864), W. J. McCormack has discovered a "sinister vacancy" from which "authority has withdrawn" (Sheridan Le Fanu 207). In the development of a technique for representing art itself as a mask for vacancy and for raising the mere ghost of authority, Le Fanu never surpassed "Schalken the Painter" (1839). (1)

Le Fanu's art fable first appeared in Dublin University Magazine as "Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter," framed as an "Extract from the Legacy of the Late Francis Purcell, P. P., of Drumcoolagh." In the first Extract the "editor" presented Purcell's credentials as a priest "of the old school ... whose habits were from many causes more refined, and whose tastes more literary than those of the alumni of Maynooth." In the later version of The Purcell Papers, "many causes" is replaced by "education abroad," making the Catholic priest more clearly representative of the cosmopolitan culture promoted by the severely Protestant D. U. M. (2) In the early volumes of the magazine, "Schalken" kept company with James Clarence Mangan's Anthologia Germanica, with translations or adaptations of Goethe, Schiller and the lesser German Romantics, of one tale of Hoffmann's and three of Balzac's. (3) A common thread in these specimens of Romanticism (or, in Balzac's case "Romantic Realism" (4)) was their struggle with what Thomas Mann would describe as "sympathy with the abyss" (17). The sense of vacancy, the "urge," even, "towards nihilism" whose source McCormack finds in the predicament of the Protestant Ascendancy (Sheridan Le Fanu 194) had literary antecedents in a series of imaginative encounters with the void that were part of an Anglo-Irish writer's literary milieu.

During Le Fanu's tenure as editor/ proprietor (1861-69), D. U. M. printed an essay on "The Style of Balzac and Thackeray" remarking their power to penetrate the "surface," the "masquerade," of civilization (621). An earlier essay on "French Novels and Novelists" compares Balzac's art to Dutch painting: "fresh objects ever start out from the dim, yet transparent shades of his background" (351). In "Schalken" Le Fanu follows Balzac's "Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu" ("The Unknown Masterpiece") in using Dutch portraiture as a projection of his own uncanny realism. (5)

The story (in its unframed version) opens with a description of an imaginary painting by a real painter whose work was distinguished, as the narrator tells us, by "the curious management of its lights." (6)

The picture represents the interior of what might be a chamber in some antique religious building; and its foreground is occupied by a female figure, in a species of white robe, part of which is arranged so as to form a veil. The dress, however, is not that of any religious order. In her hand the figure bears a lamp, by which alone her figure and face are illuminated; and her features such an arch smile, as well becomes a pretty woman wear when practising someprankish roguery; in the background, and excepting where the dim red light of an expiring fire serves to define the form, in total shadow, stands the figure of a man dressed in the old Flemish fashion, in an attitude of alarm, his hand being placed upon the hilt of his sword, which he appears to be in the act of drawing. (29)

The narrator is certain that Schalken's picture represents "not the mere ideal shapes and combinations which have floated through the imagination of the artist, but scenes, faces, and situations which have actually existed" (29). The painting in fact depicts no single action in the story but seems a composite of two, occurring respectively in the middle and at the end. Together the three scenes constitute a kind of triptych comprehending the whole action of the narrative, which can be summarized as follows:

Like his original, the eponymous hero of Le Fanu's tale is the pupil of another genre painter, Gerard Douw (Gerrit Dou [1613-1675]). …