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Thackeray and the ‘Old Masters’

Leonée Ormond
Affiliation:
London University
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Summary

Among the great Victorian novelists, Thackeray could probably best be described as a natural connoisseur of the fine arts. George Eliot and Hardy acquired considerable expertise in matters of art, but both set out with a deliberate intention to learn the subject which was very different from Thackeray's comfortable familiarity. This may help to explain why Hardy's novels make more direct reference to painters and their works than do those of Thackeray, although an equally plausible explanation could be found in the later date at which Hardy was writing. After the onset of the Aesthetic movement, reference to the work of the Old Masters, usually for purposes of comparison, became a frequent literary device.

In introducing his knowledge of the fine arts into his novels, Thackeray was conscious that certain painterly techniques could be translated directly into fiction. In Chapter 44 of The Virginians, for example, he adapts the tradition of the conversazione group portrait to give an ironic prologue to Harry Warrington's first meeting with the Castlewood family after he has lost his money. Life becomes a form of art, says the narrator. If we enter a household during a row, there is time for a rearrangement before the guest reaches the drawing room, and finds everybody there engaged just as they should be, reading, arranging flowers or warmly greeting those whose arrival they have been cursing a few seconds before. For a writer as concerned as Thackeray with the gap between appearance and reality, the ideals of beauty and style which are found in great works of art provided a kind of shorthand for the endless folly which his novels dissect. One art form provides a parallel for another, but a parallel which is neither rigid nor overprecise.

Thackeray was emphatically a pre-Aesthetic writer. Had he lived to see the Aesthetes his satirical response would have been devastating. This is not, however, to label him a ‘philistine’. Indeed, his feeling for the eighteenth century played a part in stimulating one of the most important movements in aesthetic taste, the Queen Anne revival.

Thackeray's love of the arts was lifelong. A gift for rapid sketching declared itself in boyhood, and he dreamed of a career as a painter. At eighteen he travelled to Paris and familiarized himself with the collections of the Louvre and the Royal Library.

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Translating Life
Studies in Transpositional Aesthetics
, pp. 233 - 252
Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2000

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