Artistic Allusions in Far From the Madding Crowd
In her introduction to the Penguin edition of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, Rosemarie Morgan wrote, “Very many of Hardy’s allusions are, in fact, quite clearly and simply pictorial enhancers designed specifically to address the interest of the educated reader.” I thought it might be useful for my students who are studying the novel this year (and other interested readers) to actually see some of the artworks that Hardy alludes to, so I’ve included as many as I could find here.
Morgan goes on in her introduction:
When, for example, in the shears-grinding scene (XIX), Oak is said to stand ‘somewhat as Eros is represented when in the act of sharpening his arrows’, the implications, aside from the sexual symbolism attached to Eros, are purely iconic, in terms of their function as visual intensifiers. It happens thus. Eros (otherwise Cupid), the boy-god of love and young son of Venus, is traditionally depicted with bow and arrow; he is said to wet with blood the grindstone on which he sharpens his arrows. This is the image depicted in a host of art works. And one of the most popular of these, in Hardy’s time, was Raphael’s suite of thirty-two pictures illustrating the adventures of Psyche — the beautiful maiden loved by the boy Eros, but visited by him only at night; forbidden to seek out his identity, Psyche one night steals a look at him while sleeping; he awakens and flees; she is then enslaved by Venus and treated most cruelly; when these trials end the lovers are wed.
So it was that from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (which calls up ‘Cupid’s strongest bow’), to Rafael Mengs’s painting, ‘Cupid Sharpening His Arrows’, to the statue of Cupid stringing his bow (at the Louvre), or sleeping (Rome), or mounted on a tiger (Negroni), to the array of Cupids in literature (Horace, Ovid, Apuleius, Molière), and to the designer-saturation of Cupids on Victorian mantelpieces, drapes, and even tableware, Hardy was, pictorially speaking, drawing upon a shared cultural heritage of unquestionable familiarity, interest and pleasure to his Victorian contemporaries.
Here is one of the depictions of Venus and Cupid from Raphael’s incredible fresco at the Villa Farnesina in Rome (I’ve actually been here and seen this in person):
Here is ‘Cupid Sharpening his Arrow’ by Rafael Mengs (which is not quite how I picture Gabriel Oak):
And here is the statue ‘Cupid Cutting His Bow from the Club of Hercules’ by Edme Bouchardon at the Louvre:
Morgan outlines another specific example in her introduction:
The same pictorial effect occurs with his allusion to ‘Flaxman’s…Mercury’ (XXXVII). This invokes the painter John Flaxman, whose engraved line-drawing entitled ‘Mercury Conducting the Souls of the Suitors to the Infernal Region’ depicts a scene from Homer’s Odyssey where Mercury (messenger of the gods) is leading Penelope’s suitors off to Hades. While Odysseus was absent during the Trojan War, Penelope was besieged by many suitors; upon his return, with the help of his son, Odysseus killed them. Flaxman’s drawings, engraved by William Blake, were widely admired in Hardy’s day (equally, Homer), and thus provided him with a source of vivid serial images which could be instantly evoked in the minds of his contemporary readers at the drop of one brief allusion. Precursors of cinematographic images, they had the effect of ‘stills’. In their allusive capacity they rely for their effect upon their imagistic pervasiveness within the culture — just as, say, the Mona Lisa (from Da Vinci’s painting in the Louvre to the lyrics of folk-rock to the cinematography of Monty Python) figures pervasively in twentieth-century Western Culture.
As in the Eros allusion where no apt analogue exists (Oak is not a boy-lover furtively pursuing sensual pleasure in the woods at night), the Flaxman set of ‘stills’ bears only the loosest relation to Hardy’s story which focuses, at this point, upon the abashed workfolk emerging from their night drinking with Troy. The bathos inherent in the comparison introduces a mildly comic aspect, but ultimately the allusion functions in common with all others as a form of extratextual dialogue conjoining the reader to the actual process of story-making by virtue of recognizing and sharing a common cultural ancestry.
So that you can feel conjoined to Hardy’s process of story-making, here’s the image being referred to:
Here are some other artistic allusions that Hardy makes during the course of the novel, in chronological order. Page references are to the Penguin edition with introduction and notes by Rosemarie Morgan with Shannon Russell (2000).
Chapter V: Gabriel’s dog George is splotchy grey, “but the grey, after years of sun and rain, had been scorched and washed out of the more prominent locks, leaving them of a reddish brown, as if the blue component of the grey had faded, like the indigo from the same kind of colour in Turner’s pictures” (p. 30). The allusion here is to the artworks of JMW Turner (1775–1851). Here are a couple of examples:
Chapter V: Gabriel “saw the younger dog, standing against the sky — dark and motionless as Napoleon at St Helena” (p. 32). This might have been the image that Hardy had in mind. Just imagine a dog standing there in that manner.
Chapter IX: Hardy describes Liddy: “The beauty her features might have lacked in form was amply compensated for by perfection of hue, which at this winter time was the softened ruddiness on a surface of high rotundity that we meet with in a Terburg or a Gerard Douw, and like their presentations, it was a face which always kept on the natural side of the boundary between itself and the ideal” (p.64). Here are some possible models for Liddy, then.
Chapter XIX: Bathsheba is described turning the winch of the grindstone: “The peculiar motion involved in turning a wheel has a wonderful tendency to benumb the mind. It is a sort of attenuated variety of Ixion’s punishment, and contributes a dismal chapter to the history of gaols” (p.115). In Greek mythology King Ixion was chained to a revolving wheel of fire as punishment for his arrogance in trying to imitate the fire of heaven. This is how it was depicted by Abel de Pujol:
Chapter XIX: “In an instant Bathsheba’s face coloured with the angry crimson of a Danby sunset” (p.117). Here’s what such a sunset looks like:
Chapter XXI: Gabriel shears a sheep: “The clean sleek creature arose from its fleece — how perfectly like Aphrodite rising from the foam should have to be seen to be realized — looking startled and shy at the loss of its garment which lay on the floor in one soft cloud…” (pp.128–9). Maybe you can realise it yourself if you look at this famous depiction of the birth of Venus (Aphrodite) by Botticelli:
And just to make it clear, Aphrodite is supposed to be like the newly shorn sheep there. For comparison here’s the famous Australian painting ‘Shearing the Rams’ by Tom Roberts, painted in 1890 (so unfamiliar to Hardy at the time of writing), which you can see in person at the NGV:
Chapter XXI: “That matters should continue pleasant Mary-ann spoke, who, what with her brown complexion, and the working wrapper of rusty linsey, had at present the mellow hue of an old sketch in oils — notably some of Nicholas Poussin’s” (pp. 132–3). This might be the kind of image Hardy had in mind here, with the woman on the bottom right:
Chapter XLII: “The sadness of Fanny Robbin’s fate did not make Bathsheba’s glorious, although she was the Esther to this poor Vashti and their fates might be supposed to stand in some respects as contrasts to each other” (p. 256). This story from the Bible sees the humble, obedient and dutiful Jewish orphan Esther replace Queen Vashti, cast aside by the king for refusing to come at his commandment. There’s a terrific painting of the newly elevated Queen Esther in the NGV by Edwin Long, painted just four years after Far From the Madding Crowd was published:
Chapter XLII: Bathsheba contemplates Fanny lying in her coffin: “Her hands had acquired a preternatural refinement, and a painter in looking upon them might have fancied at last that he had found the fellows of those marvellous hands and fingers which must have served as originals to Bellini” (p.259). These are the kinds of hands and fingers he was talking about:
Chapter XLV: After Troy awakes in the graveyard, where he has attempted to beautify Fanny’s grave, “The rain had quite ceased, and the sun was shining through the green, brown, and yellow leaves, now sparkling and varnished by the rain drops to the brightness of similar effects in the landscapes of Ruysdael and Hobbema, and full of all those infinite beauties that arise from the union of water and colour with high lights” (p.276). Here’s the kind of landscape he was referring to:
Chapter XLVI: As Troy fears drowning, The Tempest comes to mind: “Many bathers had there prayed for a dry death from time to time and like Gonzalo had been unanswered” (p.282). You will, of course, remember Gonzalo crying “Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of barren ground…. I would fain die a dry death” (I, i, 65–8). Here’s a depiction of the scene:
Chapter XLIX: Inside the circus tent at the fair: “The interior was shadowy with a peculiar shade. The strange luminous semi-opacities of fine autumn afternoons and eves, intensified into Rembrandt effects the yellow sunbeams which came through holes and divisions in the canvas, and spirited like jets of gold dust across the dusky blue atmosphere of haze pervading the tent, until the alighted on inner surfaces of cloth opposite and shone like little lamps suspended there” (p.300). This is the kind of effect Hardy is referring to:
Chapter LIII: After Bathsheba has locked herself away to prepare her husband’s body for burial, Gabriel and the others find her looking like this: “Her looks were calm and nearly rigid, like a slightly animated bust of Melpomene” (p.335). Here’s a statue of Melpomene, one of the nine muses, holding a mask of tragedy, at the Louvre:
Hopefully that gives you a sense of the great visual range of allusions that Hardy makes in his novel (and then, of course, there are all the other allusions to the Bible and works of poetry, but they are adequately explained in the endnotes). I think it’s useful to be able to see the things that he’s alluding to and then you can pretend to be that educated audience that he had in mind who would just automatically know what he was talking about.