Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Dickens' Pictures from Italy: The Politics of the New Picturesque

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Dickens' Pictures from Italy: The Politics of the New Picturesque

Article excerpt

Pictures from Italy, Dickens' little-studied volume of travel writing, is seen in this essay as a key text in the formation of a distinctively Victorian understanding of the picturesque. Throughout his account of his residence in Italy, Dickens both highlights his indebtedness to this culturally dominant mode of viewing and undertakes a systematic critique of it; he emphasises its detachment from reality, its inadequacy to the modern condition and its apparent indifference to human suffering and social stagnation. This critique culminates in the call for a 'new picturesque' based on sympathetic engagement rather than detached connoiseurship, a gesture paralleled in the work of a number of Dickens's contemporaries, most notably John Ruskin and George Eliot. The essay concludes by suggesting that the radical and humanitarian impulse behind this call for a 'new picturesque' is compromised by its mystification of the causes of the social inequality and personal division it appears to deprecate.

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In The Seven Lamps of Architecture John Ruskin states that "probably no word in the language ... has been the subject of so frequent or so prolonged dispute [as the picturesque]; yet none remains more vague in their acceptance" (Ruskin 8.235). Ruskin's assertion highlights the apparent confusion surrounding the idea of the picturesque during the mid-nineteenth century. In place of the clarity and rigor of the debate conducted by Gilpin, Price, and Knight, mid-nineteenth century thinkers seem to offer little more than a garbled and impressionistic critical idiom. Martin Price argues that Ruskin, for example, is himself fundamentally confused in his use of the term, merging it with the sublime and ultimately eliminating it as a distinct aesthetic category (Price 263), while another recent critic, Malcolm Andrews, states that the picturesque "emerged in the nineteenth century as both a ridiculous cliche and a concept of baffling complexity; and there it remains today" (Andrews 282). It is, however, possible to discern a certain logic behind this "baffling complexity."

When Dickens, Ruskin, and George Eliot invoke and discuss the picturesque, they are invoking a set of residual cultural values that enables them to sharpen and define their collective sense of their own difference from the preceding generation. For the Victorians, the picturesque connotes detachment, connoisseurship, fixed habits of vision, and a lack of sympathy with human suffering: it is an aridly intellectual and aristocratic way of viewing the world. In its place they want to see a new picturesque, one that combines a receptivity to the beauty and charm of the rugged, the timeworn, and the irregular with a refusal to reduce human beings to mere objects for picturesque study.

Charles Dickens's Pictures from Italy (1846) is one of the texts in which this characteristically Victorian understanding of the picturesque first emerges. A number of critics have drawn attention to the peroration near the end of the book in which Dickens calls for a "new picturesque ... with some faint recognition of man's destiny and capabilities" (219), but none has as yet examined the whole book as a sustained interrogation of the picturesque mode, or indeed linked this interrogation to the development of a specifically mid-nineteenth-century understanding of the picturesque. (1) In Italy, Dickens finds himself forced into the purely specular role of the picturesque tourist, a role which leads to conflict between the assumptions and habits derived from the eighteenth-century picturesque tradition and his ineradicable feeling of moral and social obligation to the objects of the picturesque gaze. It is this conflict, in evidence throughout the text, which generates the demand for a "new picturesque," a demand later echoed by Ruskin and George Eliot in their more explicitly theoretical writings on the subject. Pictures from Italy can then be seen as the missing link between Wordsworth and Ruskin, a text in which the detached connoisseurship of the picturesque viewer and the engaged sympathy of the Romantic humanist are held in productive tension with one another. …

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