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Elstir and the Hawthorn

Proust was a sort of culture vulture in his day, and in À la recherche du temps perdu, among Marcel the narrator's many discoveries, interpretators and creators of all forms of art become known to him. If he had lived in our era, he would probably be a blogger, but instead his multivolume book transfigures his encounters with the arts and artists. Marcel admires the painting of Elstir, is introduced to him while on vacation at Balbec, finally meets Albertine while at a party in the artist's country home, and uses his introduction to the Duchesse de Guermantes to see the paintings by Elstir in her house in Paris (and also vice versa). In the third volume, The Guermantes Way (in French, Le Côté de Guermantes), Marcel describes Elstir's work:

If, on my visits to Elstir, what I had asked of his painting had been that it should lead me to the comprehension and love of things better than itself, a real thaw, an authentic square in a country town, live women on a beach (all the more would I have commissioned from it the portraits of the realities which I had not been able to fathom, such as a lane of hawthorn-blossoms, not so much that it might perpetuate their beauty for me as that it might reveal that beauty to me), now, on the other hand, it was the originality, the seductive attraction of those paintings that aroused my desire, and what I wanted above anything else was to look at other pictures by Elstir.

It seemed to me, also, that the least of his pictures were something quite different from the masterpieces even of greater painters than himself. His work was like a realm apart, whose frontiers were not to be passed, matchless in substance. Eagerly collecting the infrequent periodicals in which articles on him and his work had appeared, I had learned that it was only recently that he had begun to paint landscapes and still life, and that he had started with mythological subjects (I had seen photographs of two of these in his studio), and had then been for long under the influence of Japanese art.
White hawthorn (Crataegus Laevigata)Most critics and scholars believe that Elstir most closely represents American expatriate painter James Whistler (the two names are almost anagrams of one another), but he may be mixed with elements of Moreau, Renoir, or Vuillard. (I mentioned Whistler in a post on July 28, A Whole New Perspective on Realism, and a Whistler Festival just concluded in Glasgow, where there is a Centre for Whistler Studies at the University of Glasgow.) Although Whistler may not have the famous reputation now as some of his fellow artists of the same period, at the time of his death, he was much beloved in France, as you can see in this monument by Auguste Rodin, La Muse Whistler, made in 1903, the year of Whistler's death, and now in the Musée d'Orsay. As for his resemblance to Elstir, Whistler's career has a lot in common with what Marcel says about Elstir (when Marcel mentions the landscapes he so admires, Proust may have had Whistler's "Nocturne" paintings in mind), and his admiration for Japanese art can be seen in the famous Peacock Room, now in the Freer Gallery of Art here in Washington. In another connection to Proust, Whistler spent over ten years on a portrait of Robert de Montesquiou (Arrangement in Black and Gold: Comte Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac), probable model for Proust's character the Baron de Charlus (see post on December 23, Evocation of a Royalist Past), which is the image I see in my mind when I read about Charlus in the book.

Hawthorn tree in LincolnshireIn the quotation above, Marcel refers to his desire to have Elstir paint those things he finds mysterious in life, such as a lane of hawthorn-blossoms. This is a reference to a memory that is introduced in the first volume (in French, Du côté de chez Swann; in English, Swann's Way), the sight and smell of hawthorn flowers in the church of Combray and in the yard of the Swanns' home. Up to this point in the novel, the hawthorn (aubépine) image is much more pervasive in Marcel's memory than that of the more famous petite madeleine, which is primarily a memory of taste. Here is the first description of the white hawthorn, seen in the church of Combray during the "Month of Mary service" (still celebrated in some places in honor of the Virgin Mary, Queen of May). If you are botanically challenged, the image to the left should help you:
When, before turning to leave the church, I made a genuflection before the altar, I felt suddenly, as I rose again, a bitter-sweet fragrance of almonds steal towards me from the hawthorn-blossom, and I then noticed that on the flowers themselves were little spots of a creamier colour, in which I imagined that this fragrance must lie concealed, as the taste of an almond cake lay in the burned parts, or the sweetness of Mlle. Vinteuil's cheeks beneath their freckles.
Later, while walking with his family, Marcel strays into the Swanns' garden:
I found the whole path throbbing with the fragrance of hawthorn-blossom. The hedge resembled a series of chapels, whose walls were no longer visible under the mountains of flowers that were heaped upon their altars; while underneath, the sun cast a square of light upon the ground, as though it had shone in upon them through a window; the scent that swept out over me from them was as rich, as circumscribed in its range, as though I had been standing before the Lady-altar, and the flowers, themselves adorned also, held out each its little bunch of glittering stamens with an air of inattention, fine, radiating 'nerves' in the flamboyant style of architecture, like those which, in church, framed the stair to the rood-loft or closed the perpendicular tracery of the windows, but here spread out into pools of fleshy white, like strawberry-beds in spring. [. . . After looking away,] I returned to the hawthorns, and stood before them as one stands before those masterpieces of painting which, one imagines, will be better able to 'take in' when one has looked away, for a moment, at something else; but in vain did I shape my fingers into a frame, so as to have nothing but the hawthorns before my eyes.
The image of a hawthorn tree at right shows what Proust is trying to capture, the cascading presentation of flowers.


Anonymous said...

Hello, excuse me for my english, I am italian.
I'd like to tell you my idea about the real identity of Elstir.
I think he was Claude Monet.
He was contemporaneous of Proust,
He lived in Normandie (Giverny, close to Vernon), and he had a great attraction to japanese art, what do you thinkabout it?
I'll be grateful to you if you'll answer to me.
Bye, Mirco

Anonymous said...

This idea has been proposed by many a scholar. Another notion, which I tend to align with, is that the fictional character of Elstir is an amalgam, comprised of parts of many of his contemporaries (Monet and Whistler being the more noteworthy). Someone also suggested that it was Whistler directly, who served as Proust's model for Elstir, his name in part [Wh]istler, being and anagram of Elstir.