Cover image for The World in Paint: Modern Art and Visuality in England, 1848–1914 By David Peters Corbett

The World in Paint

Modern Art and Visuality in England, 1848–1914

David Peters Corbett


$129.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02360-1

256 pages
8" × 9.5"
22 color/70 b&w illustrations
Co-published with Manchester University Press

Refiguring Modernism

The World in Paint

Modern Art and Visuality in England, 1848–1914

David Peters Corbett

“Corbett is one of very few scholars who are thinking deeply about the future direction of art history, and of even fewer who are doing so in the context of British art. This book has the potential to lead the way not only in its own field but also in art history as a discipline.”


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  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
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Familiar narratives about the nature of English modernism, "tradition," and "periodization," together with the "literary" character of English art from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries, are abandoned in this innovative and important book. In their stead, David Peters Corbett proposes a new way of looking at this painting from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Vorticists.

Arguing that art history has been too reluctant to confront the fundamental question of how and what the consistency and application of paint signifies, Corbett investigates the work of English artists—among them Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Leighton, Watts, Whistler, Sickert, and the modernists of 1914 —through a historical examination of the meanings of the visual in English culture. By revealing that for many artists and thinkers the visual promised to deliver a more profound understanding of the world than language, the book offers a new reading of the art of the period between 1848 and the First World War.

“Corbett is one of very few scholars who are thinking deeply about the future direction of art history, and of even fewer who are doing so in the context of British art. This book has the potential to lead the way not only in its own field but also in art history as a discipline.”
“Suitably, The World in Paint is a visual pleasure because generous illustrations support elegant prose illuminating the threatening promise of ideas expressed only in (and within) paint, describing them for example as ‘ghostly possibilities arising from the absence of strong claims elsewhere, shadows that drift in to occupy vacant cultural space.’ Unquestionably this is an important scholarly contribution to its field and will become a core text for students of English art of a long nineteenth century, a corrective to the hysterical division between the poles of Victoria and the Great War. It also stands as a vivid demonstration of what an unashamed reconnection with the damnably visual aspects of this visual art might come to look like.”
“At its best, it can deal clearly and thoughtfully with small pockets of the subject—the relationship between word and image, for instance, in Wilde's dealings with his illustrator, Charles Ricketts. Corbett's mission is laudable. Let us wish him well, and hope that as well as tackling the avisuality of social art history, he can shake off its ponderous semantic apparatus.”

David Peters Corbett is Professor of Art History and Director of the Research School in British Art at the University of York in the UK.


List of Illustrations



1. Not Material Enough for the Age : Pre-Raphaelite Words and Images

2. Aestheticism and Unmediation: Moore, Leighton, Watts, Whistler

3. Personality, Portraiture, and Illustration: Charles Ricketts and Oscar Wilde

4. Walter Sickert: Surface and Modernity

5. The Aesthetics of Materiality: English Modernism Before 1914





No task is harder than this of translation from colour into speech, when the speech must be so hoarse and feeble, when the colour is so subtle and sublime.

—Algernon Charles Swinburne (on Whistler), “Notes on Some Pictures of 1868,” Essays and Studies, 1875

In May 1900, during a trip he made to Spain with his friend and mentor—the artist, connoisseur, and collector Charles Ricketts—Thomas Sturge Moore, himself a poet, art critic, and occasional graphic artist, found himself standing in front of Titian’s Bacchanal in the Prado (see fig. 51). Struck by the painting, as Ricketts was (and probably under Ricketts’s influence), Moore began to plan what his critics have considered one of his finest poems. “Lines on Titian’s ‘Bacchanal’ in the Prado at Madrid” was published in The Gazelles and Other Poems in 1904. In the poem, Moore concentrated on the sleeping figure of the bacchante in the foreground of the picture and made her a symbol of the ideal identity of the self and the world:

Her flushed face

Breathes up toward open sky with fast-closed lids,—

As though, half-conscious, her complexion knew

Where stirred the tree-tops, where the blue was vast.

. . . torso, loins and thighs,

All hued as clouds are that the morning face.

But this unity, it seems, is precarious, achievable only through the renunciation of consciousness—or its intermittence. In Moore’s poem it is not the controlling self but the body, deprived of conscious awareness and hence transformed into a natural object, all stolid reflective surface rather than depth, that knows the world:


Sleep, oh, and wake no more; Bacchus has kissed

Thy lips, thine eyes, thy brow; thy joy and his

But lately were as one, therefore sleep on:

Be all past woes forgotten in thy dream!

The final lines make this negation of consciousness a precondition for understanding the world. A perpetual absence of the self, personified as the figure of night, promises access to a transcendent and perfected reality:

When the night finds thee, mayest thou still be sleeping!

She then, for ever and for aye, will take thee

To her deep dwelling and unechoing halls;

How could she leave thee? She who owns them all—

Owns all the stars, whose beauty is complete,

Whose joy is perfect, and whose home is peace;

While all their duty is to shine for love.

Endings like this, which are typical of Moore’s poetry, imply the disclosure of some final meaning that will resolve the circumstances of the poem in a revelation of mystery, an uncovering of the deep meaning of the world. This disclosure is, in Frank Kermode’s definition of late-nineteenth-century Symbolism, “the image as a radiant truth out of space and time.” In “Lines on Titian’s ‘Bacchanal,’” promised revelation arises out of the nature of Titian’s painting. It is the mystery and silence of the visual, the apparent identity of image and the thing depicted, that Moore translates into the verbal by attributing precisely those qualities of silence and identity to the bacchante and her revelatory surrender of consciousness. Like the bacchante, the painting is “half-conscious,” reflecting the world back to itself. The “complexion” of its paint surface “knows” the world, but in a mysterious, mute fashion. This amounts to a strong claim on behalf of the visual. Moore brings forward its nonlinguistic register as a means—one superior to language—for understanding reality. Moreover, paint’s very superficiality, its literal concentration on the surface of experience, its abjuration of depth, allows it to do this. The surface of the visual and the world itself are identical, inseparable elements in understanding.

As the circumstances under which he saw the Bacchanal might suggest, the “aesthetic partnership” of Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon strongly influenced Moore at this time. Ricketts was a leading member of an English generation concerned above all with cultivating “exquisite taste, refined manners and obscure interests” as “an end in themselves.” Indeed, Ricketts’s and Shannon’s fastidious connoisseurial celebration of the visual qualities of works of art exemplifies the role of Aestheticism in English culture at the close of the nineteenth century. Aestheticism as such is not my focus in this book, but it does play a central role in the history I propose here: it emerged as a response to structural shifts in the art world and in society as a whole. Faced with the fragmentation and diversification of potential audiences in the decades after 1860 and the commodification of art within capital, artists and aestheticians theorized a “natural” or essential split between the interests of art and those of its consumers, so that “art was always a thing exclusively for the expert.” Ricketts reflects the tensions induced by this process of modernization in the contemporary art world. He conducted his career entirely within the commercialized systems of the late nineteenth century, yet his art and aesthetics suppress this experience and define themselves as hermetic practices operating outside and beyond it. “I am turning away from the 20th century,” he wrote of Shannon’s 1898 portrait of him (fig. 1), adding, “to think only of the 15th. . . . I look as if I had written to Ariosto, the book at my side has been sent to me by Aretino.” That evocation of a desired past only served to conjure up the absolute integrity of the work of art, its place outside the desiccated logic of the everyday, its concern with its own imagination.

In 1911 Ricketts wrote the introduction to the catalogue of a large and ambitious London exhibition he had organized at the Grafton Galleries. According to J. G. P. Delaney, his biographer, the introduction—“A Century of Art, 1810–1910”—constituted “an act of homage to the great imaginative artists of the nineteenth century and an answer to Roger Fry’s Post-Impressionist Exhibition held at the same venue the previous year.” Ricketts detested the willing embrace of modernity he detected in the art of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, its “valueless” striving for novelty and its contempt for tradition. He challenged the emergent modernist lineage of 1910 by championing the search for “beauty” conducted by the artists he admired—Alfred Stevens, G. F. Watts, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Puvis de Chavannes—in opposition to the modern. In his essay, Ricketts argued that art in the nineteenth century had been sundered from its culture and confined to the margins without any clearly defined or acknowledged social role. He wrote, “the modern mind has had little hope, less trust, and no belief in art; it has hugged other ideals”—above all, those of materialism and the machine. The absence of patronage and a secure place for the arts within culture had pushed the artist into the commodified, reified practices characteristic of the late-nineteenth-century art world: “If former centuries might be described as eras of Church and State patronage, the nineteenth century is that of isolated and unsupported effort. . . . the moderns have been forced into a direct appeal to the private purchaser, and to the creating of a fashion or appetite for the kind of art which each artist wished to do.”

Ricketts’s own experience is closely matched here. He spent the early part of his career in commercial graphic work to support Shannon, who, unencumbered by financial obligations, was to reinvent the old masters for modern purposes (and later to burst upon an appreciative world). This telling dichotomy enslaved Ricketts throughout his life. He was an active entrepreneur in the art world, and, as the proprietor of the Vale Press, a proponent of commercial publishing ventures. He was also a highly sophisticated and self-conscious aesthete, one devoted to connoisseurship and to the idea of the beautiful made and consumed outside the systems of commerce. His periodical, The Dial (1889–97), promoted Continental Symbolisme within a frankly commercial form of publication that he struggled to remake as hermetic. This combination exemplifies the anxieties modernization brought out in late-nineteenth-century art practice as a whole (fig. 2).

And yet this self-conscious refusal of the modern is also misleading. Given the pressure of modernity on Ricketts’s life and career, it is perhaps not entirely surprising that his analysis in “A Century of Art” should be virtually identical with the account offered later by advanced modernism. In fact, literary historian Peter Bürger calls upon exactly this transition from patronage to the individual artistic entrepreneur operating in the cultural marketplace for the historical framework of his Theory of the Avant-Garde. For Bürger, the avant-garde emerges in response to the perceived marginalization of art within culture and explicitly aims to return art to life, to render art relevant and appropriate to the circumstances of experience once again. Ricketts’s analysis, too, culminates with his desire to achieve “a closer contact between art and the business of life.” He imagines a moment when art’s exile from the center of cultural practice will end, when the dichotomy between the hermetic concerns of art and the concerns of life will collapse into an identity in which art belongs once more to lived experience. In this sense, Ricketts’s sense of the strains on modern artistic practice is comparable to the diagnoses of later modernists, a connection to which I will return at the end of Chapter 5.

Ricketts holds that the cultural marginalization of art had resulted “between the years 1810–1910 . . . [in] a century of continuous effort to renew the language of painting,” but he conceives the nature of that renewal in late Romantic terms. Ricketts believes that the nineteenth century was “a new Renaissance . . . an epoch of hope and endeavour among the artists,” and Stevens, Watts, and Puvis are said to be among the proofs of this statement. But they eschew modernist aspirations, however obsessive their search for new expression and languages in art and whatever the circumstances provoking them into that search. Instead, they and the other nineteenth-century masters Ricketts admires “have been devoted to the search after beauty, beauty of fact, beauty of emotion and thought, and to the revaluation of the scope of art as the emotional equal of the great literature of our time.” The terms in which art responds to its cultural estrangement therefore reflect the late Romantic symbolism for which Ricketts stands. Puvis “like all great masters paints . . . those moods of ecstasy in which we find the love of beauty and ease and grace.” Watts has the power to express what is suppressed and hidden, what lies beneath the surface of experience: “The invisible! The pulsations in the air about a spiritual manifestation, the peculiar rhythm belonging to ‘les gestes insolites,’ the appeal to our emotions by some intuitive use of line, mass, tone, and colour, or expression,—this poetic, or emotional gift has been at the command of the master in many of his imaginative designs.” Watts is “conscious of that something in the human force beyond . . . literalness of rendering”; he is “a painter who [can] turn his pigment into something more than the stuff one squeezes out of tubes . . . the artist who . . . ‘renders the invisible by the visible.’” As in the work of Rossetti and Burne-Jones, “those interpreters of passion as it hides away in the modern human mind, troubled, isolated, and coiled upon itself,” “passion and the love of beauty” in Watts “is no longer outward and expansive, but something which remembers and regrets.” Ricketts resorts to a Symbolist language that looks not at the world that surrounds it but at a different creation, one imagined as a revelation of reality’s inner workings. Art of Ricketts’s sort seeks a representation that will access those aspects of experience elided or covered over by the dominant materialism of industrial capitalism. We can legitimately see him as engaged on that quest to find the eternal beneath the contingent and fleeting that Baudelaire famously identified as the founding principle of modernism —the urgent desire to strip away the veil of matter and to suggest or evoke something of greater truth beneath.

In this project, the capacity of the visual to comprehend the world and reveal its realities plays a central role. As in Moore’s “Lines on Titian’s ‘Bacchanal,’” the visual is highly valued because it can seem to be the world—that is, unmediated reality—and thus the means of directly accessing and understanding experience. Looking toward the end of his life in some notes for a memoir, Moore celebrated this aspect of Shannon’s practice, his visual acuity, his capacity to “look.” He wrote, “Intellectuals generally only look at a work of art long enough to recognize its general character and place it in the catalogue of their knowledge, [but] he made a point of looking at everything as though he had never seen anything like it before. ‘The fresh eye is the seeing eye’ he would say. The eye that thinks it knows all about it only recognizes[,] never discovers.” When you look with the “seeing eye,” you “discover” the world itself. That discovery is an act of revelation, an uncovering and bringing into comprehension of the depths of reality. The visual is both the precise distillation of the world and the channel through which its ultimate, deeper meanings can be revealed and brought to consciousness. The visual thus carries the promise of revelation that Moore persistently seeks in his poetry and that pervades the intellectual life of the Ricketts circle and the English art world at the end of the nineteenth century.

This position poses certain difficulties. How can reality be communicated and not simultaneously betrayed? Shannon objects to the “intellectual” analysis of works of art because of its enthrallment to the generalizing and cataloguing abstraction of words, an abstraction that belies “the fresh eye,” innocently looking. The summary communication of language, sunk in the depths of social rather than transcendent meaning, constantly threatens to distort or traduce the purity of perception assured by the visual. The visual needs translation through the verbal, but the verbal is labile and inadequate, both in its capacity to effect that translation and in its impotence before the meanings that require description. “Words are the most abused and most hackneyed of all art’s mediums. We lie and cheat and bore our fellows with them,” as Moore put it. As a member of the group around Ricketts, Moore shared its preoccupation with these issues. If language was fallen, the visual still held out the promise of immediacy, revelation, and understanding, the possibility of a direct, “unmediated” world, a representation that was exactly the thing itself.

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