Edith Wharton and the Visual Arts

Edith Wharton and the Visual Arts

Edith Wharton and the Visual Arts

Edith Wharton and the Visual Arts

Excerpt

[Y]ou don't know how much of a woman belongs to you after you've
painted her.

—Claydon
Edith Wharton, “The Moving Finger”

I like her better when she is thus broken…. I think that in death she
will attain to the supreme expression of her beauty.

—Giogio
Gabriele D'Annunzio,
Il trionfo della morte

Embedded in the visual subtext of Alfred Stevens's The Painter and His Model (1855) is a paradigm that Edith Wharton skeptically engages throughout her fiction (see figure 1). Stevens's painting depicts an artist languidly gazing at the canvas on which he has represented his female model. The painter's apparent comfort, suggested by his slippers, robe, and posture, and the proximity of the woman's body imply she is both lover and model—a suspicious slippage Wharton frequently calls into question. Indeed, the painter seems to have tilted the easel toward him as if to optimize his viewing pleasure. The Stevens painting provides a visual analogue to several Wharton narratives, especially “The Moving Finger” (1901), in which a painter boasts of having “turned his real woman into a picture” (176) while delighting in what Wharton elsewhere describes as the “joy of possessorship” a man derives from his relation to a beautiful woman. While Stevens's artist, like Wharton's, betrays a wistful admiration of his creation, the model evidently is less pleased with the fruits of his labor. Her somber eyes and frown convey a disenchantment with the artist's rendering. Like Christina Rossetti's chilling sonnet “In an Artist's Studio” written the following year, Ste-

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