Squinting through a Scholar’s Eyes

When you give over a large part of your life to studying a certain period, or genre, or art form, it does strange things to you. I’m not talking about personality issues; the ways in which academic life warp and damage would-be scholars’ lives is probably being discussed, this very moment, on a forum in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Rather, I’m referring to the odd ways in which the things you study begin to creep into your normal, everyday life, turning you into a person you’re sometimes embarrassed to be seen with.

A couple of recent cases. Today, a very able and dedicated student gave a fine oral report on Richard III of England in my Shakespeare class. She referred to the Princes in the Tower, and as she did so, this picture popped up in her PowerPoint presentation:

The Princes in the Tower, John Everett Millais, 1878, from Arttattler.com

I have no complaint about its appearance: it’s a great picture of the two little princes, and it belonged in the presentation. No–my problem was with the psychological obstacle to listening that the picture created for me–because as soon as I saw it, I recognized it as a painting by the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais, famous for his very lucrative paintings, as well as for stealing the virgin-bride (of seven years!) of John Ruskin.

The truth is, I’m an idiot-savant when it comes to art. I know one period of art, and pretty much one genre, fairly well: because I am a student of Victorian literature, Pre-Raphaelite art is really fascinating for me. What astounds me is that it apparently is fascinating for a number of other people. I profess to have little or no artistic taste; I assume that the Pre-Raphaelites were heavy on good intentions and rather light on judgment and execution of their ideals (although I could easily be wrong about this). But when I see these images pop up again and again, I begin to think that these Victorian artists, like their literary counterparts, may have had a good thing going.

Take, for example, the December 2013 cover of Vogue magazine, which caught eye in the supermarket checkout line:


When I saw this, I stopped, grabbed my husband’s smart phone out of his hands, and quickly searched for an image as he stared at me, open-mouthed, holding a carton of eggs in his hands. “There!” I said, triumphantly, showing him what I’d found. I was rewarded with a moment of satisfaction when he seemed mildly impressed at the Frederic Leighton picture I’d found:

Flaming June, Frederic Leighton, 1895 From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flaming_June
Flaming June, Frederic Leighton, 1895
From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flaming_June


There can be no doubt that the Vogue cover artist and photographer had this image of Flaming June (1895) in mind when they designed the cover. But how many of their readers recognized the connection? Presumably very few. Yet I take no small satisfaction in knowing that Victorian art still thrives in our world. It was enough, in fact, to make me buy the only copy of Vogue magazine I’ve ever bought, and it serves as a reminder that my eyes have been permanently changed by a lifetime of literary study.