Classifying the Renaissance Spirit: The Influence of Nineteenth Century Museum and Science Cultures on Walter Pater's Renaissance

Spring 2011
Eldis Sula

Eldis Sula is a senior English Literature and Language major at the University of Maryland, College Park. His interests include Victorian literature, modern British and American literature, and Renaissance and ekphrastic studies.

It is tempting to read Walter Pater as a lifeless figure who transcends not only the conditions of the Victorian era he lived in, but also of life itself. It is true that when we sift through the details of his public life we find a man, as Arthur Symons describes, “rarely quite at ease” (102). Denis Donoghue tells us that “in company he was often silent, withdrawn, and when he consented to speak he spoke hesitantly, with long pauses between the words, as if he found conversation at regular speed and vivacity an effort” (54). His correspondences with others, anti-confrontational and yielding, reveal a similar reluctance and passivity. Even the innocuous revisions he made within different editions of his works were attempts to evade controversy by blunting passages which did, or could have, offended Victorian sensibilities.

However, it is careless to regard Pater merely as a phantasmal presence silently hovering over the pages of his lush prose, or, for that matter, of his England. His prose, profuse and mannered as it is, is far from autonomous of the interests of the nineteenth century in which he lived. A work of Pater’s that is particularly reflective of his era is the one he is most known for—his Renaissance. The work, it is true, unhistorically treats its historical subject; it treats “the Renaissance,” as Ostermark-Johansen rightly points out, “as a movement in which opposites meet and merge, … as a ‘movement’ rather than as a ‘period’” (88).

Pater’s method, however, is much more in conversation with Victorian discourses than is commonly supposed. The writer’s interest in the Renaissance, after all, is bequeathed to him by the culture of nineteenth-century England, whose interest in Italian artworks was revived by the boom of purchases made by the National Gallery and South Kensington Museum during the late 1850s and early 1860s. With these acquisitions, however, the public museums do not implant in Pater only an interest in subject matter, but a certain manner of processing this interest. Pater’s “love of art for its own sake” (Pater 153), frequently oversimplified by critics as an insistence on art’s autonomy from society, is tempered by nineteenth-century museum display methods, which, despite claims to present an objective, chronologically-ordered history of art, are actually motivated by subjective, nationalist impulses to define and appropriate a comprehensive art-historical culture. Moreover, the scientific language adopted in The Renaissance does not descend from a mere general nineteenth-century interest in science, but from two specific modes of scientific thought. First, Pater’s organizational schema in The Renaissance can be traced back to the influence that taxonomy, which was originally intended for scientific classification, had on museum collecting. Second, Pater’s application of scientific vocabulary to the experience of viewing art emerges from the nineteenth-century development of psychology, which objectively studied cognition and perception. The implicit duality of public museum collections, which comprises the conflicting impulses to objectively collect and to authoritatively appropriate, and the duality of psychological science, which reckons with the problem of empirically observing subjective perceptions, are unresolved in Pater’s aesthetics. Pater’s “art for art’s sake,” as he expresses it in the Conclusion of his Renaissance, is an attempt to balance such conflicting impulses. His aestheticism is more moderate than the radical insistence on art’s complete autonomy promoted by the fin de siècle aesthetes whom Pater influences. And yet, in Pater’s reluctance to lean too far towards either objectivity or subjectivity, Pater anticipates the arguments of twentieth-century Marxists and avant garde artists who decry the paradoxical idea of autonomous art. By reading Walter Pater’s interest in the Renaissance through the dualistic lenses of the public collecting habits and the psychological science which influenced him, we see that the aesthetic system he develops by the end of The Renaissance is characterized by this reluctance. His aestheticism is much more in conversation with the cultural milieu of Victorian England than critics have previously assumed and shaped very specifically by trends in nineteenth-century museum collecting and science.

The revived interest in Renaissance Italy which pervades the cultural consciousness of nineteenth-century Britain owes largely to the extensive and important purchases made by the National Gallery and the South Kensington Museum between the late 1850s and early 1860s. The National Gallery saw a rapid increase in ambitious acquisitions under C. L. Eastlake, who was appointed director of the museum’s Select Committee in 1853 (Levi 33). Although the National Gallery’s purchases were for the most part limited to English and occasionally French markets, after Eastlake, the museum refocused its attention to more ambitious prospects under the orders of Prince Albert (Levi 34). Prince Albert, an avid advocate of English art policy, insisted that, as Donato Levi summarizes, “a national collection should not be merely a gathering of choice works, like any private gentleman’s, but must be instrumental to education and to the scientific study of the history and the progress of art” (34). Therefore, after systematically cataloguing artworks according to schools and chronology, the British Government decided that the National Gallery’s collection was lacking most in Italian art from the era of the “revival of the arts” (Levi 34), the era, as Levi explains, comprising work “from the early masters to the painters of the sixteenth century” (Levi 34). With the help of salaried agent Otto Mündler, Eastlake set out to purchase Italian art, focusing primarily on late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century works of the “Florentine, Venetian, and Lombard schools” and their “Umbrian, Sienese, Bolognese, Paduan, Veronese, and Milanese” (Levi 34) subsidiaries.

Meanwhile, near the end of the decade, the staff of the South Kensington Museum similarly set out to collect important Italian Renaissance work. However, the museum’s interest in the era’s art, although parallel to the National Gallery’s, extended beyond paintings and sculptures to various crafted artifacts. The staff was influenced by the collection of Jules Soulages, which included an assortment of objets d’art purchased in Italy between 1830 and 1840 (Levi 34). In his introduction to the collection’s 1856 catalogue, South Kensington curator J. C. Robinson remarks that the Soulages collection “was the result of repeated tours through Italy, made [by Soulages] with the express purpose of acquiring specimens of Art” (Levi 34). Robinson was particularly impressed by the artistic finesse displayed in the majolica, bronzes, and furniture, admiring their simultaneous grace and craftsmanship. Inspired by Soulages’s collection of decorative objects, the South Kensington Museum staff, which also included director H. Cole and superintendent R. Redgrave, traveled through Italy to purchase such ornamental works, focusing on those that were Florentine and from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Robinson’s search was particularly productive. Between 1859 and 1861 he was repeatedly in Florence, Rome, and Naples and, according to Levi, acquired, among other things, “busts and terracotta medallions, plates and bronze statuettes, fragments of chimney-pieces and a ‘cassone,’ a cushion and a miniature frame, as well as a painting” (36). The increasing purchase of such pieces reflects a changing Victorian attitude towards Renaissance objects of social and practical utility. By procuring not only paintings and sculptures—which were automatically considered as having true artistic value—but also decorative objects for inclusion in their public collections, the two British museums emphasized the potential cultural values of common Renaissance objects.

There is an important distinction to be made here between Renaissance and Victorian attitudes towards these objects. Although both eras consider works of art and ornamental pieces as equivalent, the Renaissance assumes this equality while the Victorian era must reconcile a disparity between the two types. During the Renaissance, art was grounded in social and institutional functions. As Baxandall scrupulously argues in his Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy, Renaissance artworks “existed to meet institutional ends” (40) and have since served as “fossils of economic life” (8). We see a premonition of Baxandall in F. Palgrave’s 1840 review of a Florentine edition of Vasari’s Lives. The reviewer admits that Renaissance artists “were chiefly employed in church imagery and ornamentation, as decorators of houses and furniture” (Levi 35). He goes on to explain that “bedsteads, screens, cornices, and other portions of the rooms, were adorned” (Levi 35). It was upon “such works,” in fact, that “the most excellent painters exercised themselves without any shame” (Levi 35). However, although Palgrave admits that it was assumed and common for Renaissance artists to apply themselves equally to art and “ornamentation,” the qualifying phrase “without any shame” indicates a Victorian reluctance to equate the two types of works. The museum acquisitions of the 1850s and 1860s, however, appease this reluctance and re-equalize paintings and ornamental pieces not by assuming the basic social and institutional practicality of these pieces, but rather, by eradicating it. By putting common Renaissance objects on public display alongside paintings, sculptures, and other “high” art, nineteenth-century museums instill them with a renewed value, codifying them as cultural commodities.

Although guided by their reverence for Quattro- and Cinquecento artwork, the National Gallery and South Kensington Museum voraciously made their acquisitions without regard for the preservation of the Renaissance legacy in contemporary Italy. When criticized for retrieving from Florence important medieval and Renaissance sculptures, some of which were on display in public spaces, J. C. Robinson responded “that the monuments in question were, in every case, either already removed by the respective authorities in whose charge they had been, or else, being private property, were known to be on sale to the first comer” (Levi 40). The claim of entitlement underlying this statement manifests itself more clearly as British acquisitions increase. In his 1860 essay on Ghirlandaio for the Arundel Society, A. H. Layard criticizes the Italian Government for its “petty jealousy of foreigners,” which enacts “laws prohibiting the exportation of all pictures and other works of art without special permission, whilst some of the finest paintings are allowed to decay and perish” (Levi 41). Although he considers himself a genuine promoter of the Italian cause, he insists, out of concern for the country’s “precious relics,” that a “successful struggle for political regeneration is not… always favourable to the preservation of monuments of early art” (Levi 42). The British Empire, then, dutifully takes on the task of saving these precious relics lest they should be destroyed in the political unrest of Italy, thus assuming the authority to designate and rescue important cultural pieces.

Britain was not only interested in preserving the Renaissance legacy, however, but also with weaving it into the fabric of English culture. In the introduction to her Victorians and Renaissance Italy, Hilary Fraser comments on Britain’s booming investment in Renaissance art. She explains:

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the British set up colonies in Italian cities (in particular, Florence, Rome and Naples) and appropriated Italian art for their own collections, and metaphorically they colonized and appropriated Italian culture in their literary and visual representations of Italy and its art and culture. They were as ready to colonize Italy’s past as they were its present, and, in situ, the historical shift was all too readily made. (3)

Fraser’s comments illuminate the imperial implications of the acquisitions made by the National Gallery and South Kensington Museum. When the museum representatives fret for Renaissance artworks during the time of political unrest in contemporary Italy, they are concerned not only with preserving Italy’s rich cultural history, but also with assimilating it into English culture by purchasing artworks and cultural artifacts. In doing so, Britain enriches its cultural history by embedding Renaissance Italy’s within its own. Britain achieves this enrichment by codifying Renaissance culture, first by purchasing paintings, sculptures, and art objects from the era, and then by showing them in its public museums. The precious preserved paintings, burnished metallic mirrors, ornamental chests, and quaint dainty majolica are purchased, all gleaming and magnificent; and put on display in English museums is the sparkling light of the rich history with which they shimmer. The mission of these public museums, then, to democratize culture and present it objectively to an equal public, is ultimately carried out by appropriating it and insisting on its value and relevance. The attempts to make a cultural history accessible and equal to the public are enacted from positions of economic privilege and political power.

In her study on modern museums and collecting practices, Sharon Macdonald notes:

[i]n forming collections, museums recontextualize objects: they remove them from their original contexts and place them in the new context of “the collection.” This recontextualization of objects primarily in terms of other objects with which they are considered to be related, is a fundamental aspect of the kind of collecting legitimized by the museum. In a collection, objects take on additional significance specifically by dint of being part of the collection; and, in most cases, the life of objects once in a collection is notably different from their pre-collection existence. (82)

This passage sums up the process that these appropriated Renaissance objects and artworks underwent when they were displayed in the National Gallery and the South Kensington Museum. These pieces became, as Macdonald insists all pieces become once they are included in collections, “generally culturally marked by distinctive forms and levels of attention, including particular technologies of storage, cataloguing, and display” (Macdonald 82). The processes of museum display transformed them into markers of the past. They were isolated from their original social contexts and, endowed with a cultural value as part of a meaningful collection, were newly intended to be observed, marveled at, but ultimately have no practical or utilitarian value. They, as Macdonald explains, are neither “available for use” nor part of an active economic market, and yet are part of “collections… formed with the ambition of being kept long term or even in perpetuity” (Macdonald 82), a tension which is “simultaneously establishing a likely terminal phase in objects’ lives and attempting to give them a more lasting life and significance” (Macdonald 82). They are, in short, made autonomous.

This tension of autonomy pervades Pater’s Renaissance. We note that, like the public museums of his time, he is not singularly interested in examining only paintings and sculptures, but also domestic and decorative pieces. In his chapter on Luca della Robbia, Pater extols the artist for working with common objects. Pater explains that, an accomplished sculptor in low-relief, della Robbia eventually becomes “desirous to realise the spirit and manner of that sculpture, in a humbler material, to unite its science, its exquisite and expressive system of low relief, to the homely art of pottery, to introduce those high qualities into common things, to adorn and cultivate daily household life” (45). He admires della Robbia’s earthenware and pottery because, although they are “common things,” the sculptor works on them with his certain “artistic grace” (45). With their “strange, bright colours—colours of art, colours not to be attained in the natural stone—mingled with the tradition of the old Roman pottery” (45-6), these glazed terracotta pieces reflect both a poised artistry and a perspicacious awareness of the past which characterizes the Italian Renaissance. The effect of these “bright colours,” however, is a value which is markedly distinct from the original use of these objects in the Renaissance. They are “very useful,” Pater explains, not for their utility, but rather, “for summer-time, full of coolness and repose for hand and eye” (46). Della Robbia’s work on pottery offers Pater not any particular enhancement of functionality, but rather, an enhancement of aesthetic experience, a rich and rewarding sensation “carried to its highest intensity of degree” (46).

Pater perceives della Robbia’s objects, therefore, as the types of “specimens of Art” to which Robinson refers in his introduction to the Soulages catalogue. In her study of nineteenth-century England’s interest in the Italian Renaissance, Lynne Walhout Hinojosa recognizes that Pater is equally interested in such pieces of practical utility  as he is in paintings and sculptures. She falters, however, when she discerns him for this interest, claiming, “Pater differs from his predecessors and contemporaries because he focuses not only on ‘high’ art but also on ‘low’ art” (78). The types of pieces Pater includes in his study echo the acquisitions of both “high” and “low” artworks by the National Gallery and the South Kensington Museum. They are not useful for their practical quality, but rather, for della Robbia’s exquisite artistic touch, “the quality which alone makes work in the imaginative order really worth having at all” (46). By including them in his collection of Renaissance art, Pater, like the British museums that include such pieces in this same collection, revaluates them not as functional tools, but as “work[s] in the imaginative order” (46).

Such revaluations are at the heart of Pater’s Renaissance. The writer is devoted to debunking reductive assumptions about Renaissance artists and works. He begins his chapter on Michelangelo, for example, by criticizing the artist’s critics who “have sometimes spoken as if the only characteristic of his genius were a wonderful strength, verging, as in the things of the imagination great strength always does, on what is singular or strange” (47).  His chapter on Michelangelo, however, is invested in redefining the artist’s work not for this medieval stolidity alone, but also for “a lovely strangeness” (47). As “the true admirers of Michelangelo” (47) can discern, “this is the true type of the Michelangelesque” (47), this subtle, balanced combination of “sweetness and strength” (47). This doubleness indicates Pater’s wariness of too narrowly characterizing Michelangelo’s art. He proceeds to clarify this quality, avoiding the divisiveness of Michelangelo’s imperceptive critics, by stressing the “pleasure with surprise [my italics], an energy of conception which seems at every moment about to break through all the conditions of comely form, recovering, touch by touch, a loveliness found usually only in the simplest natural things” (47).

It is important to note that in building his collection, Pater does not go as far as the British museums, which completely cut their displayed art objects off from their original contexts. The writer is insistent on striking delicate balances between the obvious and the latent, between the old and new contexts. Even though he extols della Robbia’s pottery for its “expression” (46), he yields to its original utilitarian context by discussing this quality in terms of its “useful[ness]” (46). Similarly, he avoids divorcing Michelangelo’s “resources of sweetness” (52) from “their exceeding strength” (52). In his essay on the Pleaid poet Jaochim du Bellay, Pater commends the poet’s musical poetry because its distinguishing “silvery grace of fancy” (112) “illustrates rather the age and school to which he belonged than his own temper and genius” (106). The potency of du Bellay’s “sweetness” (112) is not its radical, disconnected individualism; rather, its individualistic power resides in the high, perfect degree to which it exemplifies the manner of Pleiad poetry and du Bellay’s era. Although Pater adopts the recontextualizing methods of the nineteenth-century collections, he does not push them to the contextually conclusive finality that the museums do.

Still, this recontextualization is central in Pater’s project in The Renaissance. The goal of his book, however, is not just to recontextualize individual artists and works. Rather, in the same way that Victorian museums redefined Renaissance art by including art objects among paintings and sculptures in their collections, so does Pater expand what is meant by the Renaissance by including different types of works by artists from different countries and eras in his collection. He writes that people “are accustomed to speak of the varied critical and creative movement of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as the Renaissance, and because we have a single name for it we may sometimes fancy that there was more unity in the thing itself than there really was” (102). However, for Pater, the unity of the movement is not defined by the historical period of the Italian Renaissance. As Hinojosa points out, “Pater suggests especially in Italy the Renaissance generated this new human spirit and spread it throughout culture so that there was a ‘common air’ in which all communicated in a ‘spirit of general elevation and enlightenment’” (76). Therefore, she continues, “Pater’s definition of the Renaissance is open-ended and can be applied to any person in any age” (76). And indeed, it is. Of course, it is present in the Italian artists, but what is more important in Pater’s construction of the Renaissance is that he locates the ebullient spirit of the Renaissance in works by artists who lived outside of Italy, and before and after the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In his Myth of the Renaissance in Nineteenth-Century Writing, J. B. Bullen stresses the importance of Pater discovering the germ of the Renaissance not in Italy at all, but in medieval France. Bullen argues that once “Pater had arrived at this new view of the Middle Ages he was in a position to formulate his most mature and considered view of the Renaissance as a whole” (286). By beginning The Renaissance with the medieval French tales of Amis and Amile and of Aucassin and Nicolette, Pater is able to formulate a more fluid Renaissance. As Bullen points out, “By eliding the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and by shifting the sources of the Renaissance to France, [Pater] could circumvent the unresolved nexus of opposition which had for so long been associated with the history of Renaissance Italy” (286), thus allowing Pater to heal “that rupture between the middle age and the Renaissance which has so often been exaggerated” (Pater 2). Pater’s “medieval Renaissance” (Pater 2), “the discovery of alternative ontologies within the Middle Ages” (Bullen 287), allows him to reconcile “the collision between Hellenism and medieval Christianity, and between reason and faith, [which] obstructed cultural continuity” (Bullen 287).

In tracing its sources back to medieval France, Pater opens up the Renaissance as the mark of a temperament rather than the name of a historical period. This allows him, in turn, not only to track its early stages, but also to follow the spirit of the Renaissance as it manifests itself in different genres, locations, and historical periods. Thus, the “strange interfusion of sweetness and strength” (64) that pervades Michelangelo’s sonnets is equally present in Botticelli’s “poetical” (34) paintings, which fuse “the charm of story and sentiment, the medium of the art of poetry, with the charm of line and colour, the medium of abstract painting” (34). And in the late sixteenth century, this instinct crops up again in France, in the “sweetness” (112) of Joachim du Bellay’s songs, and, later, in eighteenth-century Germany, in the “Hellenic spirit” (114) of Pater’s pagan Winckelmann.

This conception of the Renaissance is useful to Pater, however, not only so he can prove that a Renaissance temperament was alive before and after the Quattro- and Cinquecento, but so he can locate it in his contemporary England. We see throughout Pater’s book references that nod to his modern nineteenth century’s engagement with the Renaissance, and that this spirit of the Renaissance is still very much alive in Victorian England. In a footnote, he reminds us that Michelangelo’s “sonnets have been translated into English, with much skill, and poetic taste, by Mr. J. A. Symonds” (53). He nods to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s repositioning of (what was still thought to be) Giorgione’s Fête Champêtre in his sonnet, “For a Venetian Pastoral.” And he tells us that a “graceful translation of… some… poems of the Pleiad may be found in Ballads and Lyrics of Old France, by Mr. Andrew Lang” (112). By citing artists and eras that may seem at first disparate—collecting them from medieval France, Quattro- and Cinquecento Italy, eighteenth century Germany, and even his own Victorian England—and discussing them in terms of the Renaissance, Pater recontexualizes the historical period as an “ahistorical, value-laden” (Bullen 287), “complex movement” (Pater 1). His “Renaissance emerges as a force for heightened awareness within any culture—an essential part of ‘the life of the human spirit,’ medieval, fifteenth-century, or modern” (Bullen 287).[1]

If we wish to consider the relationship between Pater and Victorian museum culture, it is important not only to consider the artworks collected in The Renaissance as Pater’s collection, but also the manner in which they are displayed. In the same article on modern collecting referenced above, Sharon Macdonald discusses museum collecting in a broader intellectual context:

During the seventeenth century, new ideas about how to organize and order objects into meaningful collections began to supersede some of those that had informed earlier practices. In particular, the idea that there were multiple forms of resemblances, connected by complex and cryptic linkages, came to be replaced largely by the idea that evident physical similarities or dissimilarities between things could themselves point directly to the natural schema… The systematic observation and comparison of objects became a key feature of natural science; and the [Renaissance] cabinet and museum maintained and even strengthened their role as principal means of bringing together and organizing objects in order to attempt to maps the world’s patterns. The curiosity ceased to be such a focus in these newer epistemologies, and notions of typological mapping… gained ground. Taxonomies flourished…

Evident in all of these collecting practices are the notions that objects are meaningful and that collecting and organizing them can be a means of making sense and gaining knowledge of the world. Removing objects from their pre-existing worlds of use and arranging them in a designated space allowed meaning and order to be discerned in the unruly and teeming world of things. (84-5)

Macdonald’s observation is important because it highlights the influence of taxonomies, originally intended for scientific classification, on modern collecting practices. It is through such a systematization of artworks according to school and chronology that the British Government deemed the gap in the National Gallery’s art-historical collection to be of works from the Italian Renaissance. Pater similarly organizes his Renaissance. His collection, based on careful observations of nuanced styles and temperaments, taxonomizes the Renaissance spirit. By classifying its different historical instances according to chronology, Pater attempts to track the development of his common Renaissance in all its rich, particularized manifestations. This insistence on discerning observation and classification is the mark that the nineteenth century’s interest in science leaves on Pater. As we will see, however, for all this interest in scientific classification, Pater’s focus on individual identities and varied tinges of general Renaissance genius is also specifically influenced by the nineteenth-century development of psychology, the science of cognition and perception.

If we agree with Paul Barolsky that in his Renaissance, “Pater becomes all of his subjects, and, as they live through history, their lives become the stages in the life of his transparent protagonist” (60), then Leonardo da Vinci, who is central in The Renaissance, both figuratively as the apex of Renaissance ebullience and literally in the middle of the book, is the figure onto whom Pater most projects himself. “Curiosity and the desire of beauty,” Pater says, “these are the two elementary forces in Leonardo’s genius” (70); and they are also the two most elementary forces in Pater’s acute prose. In the chapter, Pater attempts a thoroughgoing penetration of da Vinci’s psyche. A careful examination of Pater’s rigorous inquiry into the psychology of Leonardo and his conception of the artist as a mystical scientist reveals the intense scientific curiosity that governs the pages of The Renaissance and Pater’s nuanced aesthetics.

For Pater, Leonardo encapsulates “the spirit of the older alchemy” (68). He evocatively describes the artist thus:

Poring over his crucibles, making experiments with colour, trying, by a strange variation of the alchemist’s dream, to discover the secret, not of an elixir to make man’s natural life immortal, but of giving immortality to the subtlest and most delicate effects of painting, he seemed to them rather the sorcerer or the magician, possessed of curious secrets and a hidden knowledge, living in a world of which he alone possessed the key. (68)

What is significant about this representation is not that Leonardo is provocatively enamored of the types of “curious secrets and a hidden knowledge” that Pater’s post-Enlightenment England confidently felt could be revealed by modern science. After all, “The science of that age,” Pater says, “was all divination, clairvoyance, unsubjected to our exact modern formulas, seeking in an instant to concentrate a thousand experiences” (68). Rather, Pater is tantalized by a Leonardo who “alone,” with his sharp, concentrated perception, “possessed the key” to unlock these secrets. Vasari’s Leonardo, as Paul Barolsky reminds us, is the source of Pater’s. “In Vasari’s discussion of Leonardo’s ‘natural philosophy,’” Barolsky explains, “all the seeds are there for the nineteenth-century and especially Paterian view of Leonardo as sorcerer and for the more clinical, professional art-historical view of the artist as scientist” (125). This distinction between the “sorcerer” and the “artist as scientist” is important since Pater is attracted much more to the former. While he is drawn to Leonardo’s scientific inclination, he carefully distinguishes this from a modern scientific disposition because he is not interested in examining the results of the artist’s investigations, but rather the internal processes they undergo—Leonardo’s “alchemist’s dream.” Bullen confirms that this is Pater’s general method throughout the book. His “use of biography,” the critic explains, “is unusual. In his treatment of historical figures, the external life counts for very little, while psychological disposition and temperamental colouring is all” (274).

And certainly, Pater’s investigation of Leonardo’s personality enhances his perception of the artist’s extant works. Throughout the chapter on Leonardo, Pater delightfully chases an elusive Leonardo who cannot be pinned down in history or a wealth of completed works, but whose “legend” (64) is vivid and real. The artist’s curiosity yields not necessarily complete artworks and paintings, but rather cathartic revelatory perceptions. Pater wonders at the Leonardo who “worked at his fugitive manuscripts and sketches, working for the present hour, and for a few only, chiefly for himself” (75). The writer is not specifically interested in these incomplete drawings but in the circumstances under which they were produced. He marvels, “Out of the secret places of a unique temperament he brought strange blossoms and fruits hitherto unknown; and for him, the novel impression conveyed, the exquisite effects woven, counted as an end in itself—a perfect end” (75). These “fruits” (75) of the artist’s labor are not as significant as the “unique temperament” (75) whence they came. What is significant is the “novel impression,” the elevating sensation that the perspicacious Leonardo was capable of perceiving. In Pater’s sense of “art for art’s sake,” this is the redemptive quality of a work of art—not the work as an end in itself. However, it is not only a quality of art, for, in the case of incomplete or even unknown works, a contemporary audience can receive this “novel impression” (75) through a Paterian reading of the myth of Leonardo and his exuberant personality. In his account of The Last Supper, Pater re-treads the “effective anecdotes” (76) surrounding the piece. They show Leonardo:

refusing to work except at the moment of invention, scornful of anyone who supposed that art could be a work of mere industry and rule, often coming the whole length of Milan to give a single touch. He painted it, not in fresco, where all must be impromptu, but in oils, the new method which he had been one of the first to welcome, because it allowed of so many after-thoughts, so refined a working-out of perfection. (76-7)

In the passage, Pater describes the involved devotion that guided Leonardo in his brilliant painting of the fresco. But what were the results of this inspired effort? They are described in Pater’s two staccato sentences: “It turned out that on a plastered wall no process could have been less durable. Within fifty years it had fallen into decay” (77). Here, the focus is not on the decayed image on the refectory wall in Santa Maria, but the legends surrounding its painting by the enigmatic Leonardo. In his evocative portrait of Leonardo, Pater expands the aesthetic impression to be a feeling induced not only by art and art objects, but also by tales and myths, by examinations of energetic personas such as Leonardo’s.

Obviously, this is not to say that Leonardo’s complete and preserved paintings are worthless to Pater; in fact, Pater establishes the Mona Lisa not only as a zenith of historiographical themes and tropes, as many critics have repeatedly explained, but also the culmination of impressions that recurred and evolved throughout Leonardo’s life.  In “The Vocabulary of Pater’s Criticism and the Psychology of Aesthetics,” I. C. Small points to the scientific study of psychology in the nineteenth century as a crucial influence on Pater’s thought. As Small explains, “Pater’s vocabulary—impression, pleasure, relative, and discrimination—was culled in the first place from a debate about the physiology and psychology of aesthetics that had entertained most serious British psychologists from about 1870 to 1876” (82). The influence of psychology, then, is evident in the terminology Pater employs in his discussion of aesthetics. However, the impulse for objective observation of perception and the mind is also clear in Pater’s explanation of La Gioconda, as he attempts to track the sources of Leonardo’s famous portrait. The face crops up, Pater explains, all throughout Leonardo’s life, in the studio of Verrochio where the young apprentice copied it over and over, in all the artist’s works, even in “the fabric of his dreams” (79). After this pervasive presence in da Vinci’s life and mind, the face finally manifests “at last in Il Giocondo’s house” (79).

Pater’s delineation of instances when the face impressed itself upon da Vinci’s mind is an objective treatment of the artist’s perception, of the way Leonardo mediated his experience; such a treatment of the mind was important to Pater, especially when contrasted with his conception of a constantly fluctuating physical life, influenced by nineteenth-century scientists. Pater asserts that the only way to aesthetically perceive art is “to know one’s own impression as it really is, to discriminate it, to realise it distinctly” (xxix). In this claim, Pater introduces the problem of rendering a subjective experience in the most objective “concrete terms possible” (xxix). In her “Intellectual Context of Walter Pater’s ‘Conclusion,’” Billie Andrew Inman reads the first paragraph of Pater’s final chapter in the context of contemporary science, on the grounds that the writer “refers to science by name in the text” (13-4), that he “imitates the style of scientific demonstration” (14), and that “the concept developed in the first paragraph was one of the leading conclusions of biological scientists working in the late 1860s, the physical basis of life, or the absence of any force but chemical forces in all of life’s processes, including thought” (14). This last particular view is especially nurturing to Pater’s sense of the relationship between physical life and perception. In her study, Inman cites an influential 1868 article by George Henry Lewes which presented a revised view of the basic building block of life—it was not the cell, Lewes asserted, but “a microscopic lump of jelly-like substance, or protoplasm” (Inman 14). This novel conception provides Pater with the view that life is governed not by static cell units, but by more fluid elementary matter. The implications of this are, as Lewes continues, “Every individual object, organic or inorganic, is the sum of two factors:—first, the relation of its constituent molecules to each other; secondly, the relation of its substance to all surrounding objects” (Inman 14). Therefore, all physical life is constantly interacting and moving. Certainly, in the first paragraph, Pater’s “physical life” (150) is in “perpetual motion” (150), with the “passage of the blood, the waste and repairing of the lenses of the eye, [and] the modification of the tissues of the brain” (150) constantly in flux. In this conclusion, Pater adapts the scientific climate to construct physical life, not perception, as fluid and “flame-like” (150). Conversely, consciousness, “the narrow chamber of the individual mind” (151), is unexpectedly limited, myopic, and ultimately static. Pater’s “hard, gem-like flame” (152) is the fusion of these two polarized aspects of life and the basis of his aesthetic theory. By asserting that the beautiful external stimuli of fluid physical life must be received and processed by a concentrated, objective consciousness, he develops a sophisticated system comprising two polarized polarities. By mingling these two redefined aspects, he is not merely combining the hard data of physical life and the variability of perception, but rather, doubly intertwining objectivity and subjectivity, thus avoiding the trap of a simplistic duality.

Reading Pater’s aestheticism as a belief in the pure autonomy of art from social and cultural influences is not only reductive, but inaccurate. Pater was highly sensitive to the complexity of cultural and scientific trends of his time, and his aestheticism, influenced by these trends, reflects the nuances. He was keenly aware of the inherent paradox in British museums’ missions to democratize art by appropriating it, and the recontextualization of art that resulted. He was also privy to nuanced developments in science and psychology, which revaluated long-held assumptions about physical life and perception. His sensitivity to both these trends in Victorian thought is evident not only in how they influence his program in The Renaissance, but also in his reluctance to construct an overly simplified dualistic aestheticism in the book. Pater’s aestheticism, as Morgan Benjamin explains, “does not simply retreat into purified formalism on the one hand and onanistic subjectivism on the other. Rather, it persistently raises—without necessarily answering—questions about how the affective experience of material reality mediates subjectivity” (740). Pater’s approach to art and aesthetics is wary of generalizations, reluctant to espouse either objectivity or subjectivity more than the other, and leaves readers, as he would have liked it, “stuck between the two possibilities” (Benjamin 740).


[1] Bullen quotes from Pater’s essay “Poems of William Morris,” Westminster Review 34 (1868), 301.

Works Cited

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Baxandall, Michael. Painting & Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

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Donoghue, Denis. Walter Pater: Lover of Strange Souls. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Fraser, Hilary. The Victorian and Renaissance Italy. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.

Hinojosa, Lynne Walhout. The Renaissance, English Cultural Nationalism, and Modernism, 1860-1920. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

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Levi, Donata. “‘Let agents be sent to all the cities of Italy’: British Public Museums and the Italian Art Market in the Mid-Nineteenth Century.” Victorian and Edwardian Responses to the Italian Renaissance, eds. John E. Law & Lene Ostermark-Johansen, 33-53. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005.

Macdonald, Sharon. “Collecting Practices.” A Companion to Museum Studies, ed. Sharon Macdonald, 81-97. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006.

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Ostermark-Johansen, Lene. “On the Motion of Great Waters: Walter Pater, Leonardo and Heraclitus.” Victorian and Edwardian Responses to the Italian Renaissance, eds. John E. Law & Lene Ostermark-Johansen, 87-103. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005.

Pater, Walter. The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, ed. Adam Phillips. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Small, I. C. “The Vocabulary of Pater’s Criticism and the Psychology of Aesthetics.” British Journal of Aesthetics 18 (1978): 81-87.