When Ouida stopped in Brussels her encounter with the paintings of the recently deceased Anton Wiertz provoked her into an explicit and public aesthetic statement. In a previously overlooked article in the shilling monthly London Society, Ouida offers a portrait of Wiertz as ‘the ideal artist … [whose] life was consecrated to one passion, and that passion—Art.’
The major concern for Ouida in this essay is conventionally Ruskinian – an interesting departure from her satirical view of Ruskin and Ruskinianism in her early two-part short tale “Beatrice Boville” . Her target is the deleterious effect on art of industrialisation and commercialisation. Only the artist who gives in to them will gain public acclaim she says. But public acclaim is by no means the most important criterion of value. Wiertz remains unknown and created no school, says Ouida, because, believing that ‘gold was the murderer of art,’ and ‘a cancer in the breast of humanity’ (‘un cancer [sic] au sein de l’humanité’), he refused to enter the commercial and industrial marketplace. ‘Exalted on the heights of a superhuman purity of purpose and idealism of belief, he had no common bond of connection with the sheer materialism and venal practices of the modern world.’ Wiertz was an anachronistic figure, having more in common, Ouida continues, with the artisanal aims and practices of Italian renaissance artists and of Rubens than with an era in which ‘the colours are bought ready-mixed, the oils are indifferent, the varnishes are adulterated…’ Out of time and out of place, his whole life was a martyrdom. Indeed, Ouida ends her essay with what appears to be a facile comparison of Wiertz to the type of all martyrs, Christ.
They say that when he lay there, lifeless, the peace refused to him throughout his arduous years came on him at the last; and that when the summer sunrise streamed through the ivy shadows of his casement in the glory of the morning, his face was as the face of his Christ ‑ his Christ, who brake asunder the bonds of the grave and rose triumphant in the power of God.
Is Ouida simply promoting in commercially commonplace terms an artist who refused to do so himself – in other words treating Wiertz as the very object of commerce that he refused to become in life? She is doing that, of course. She presumably is getting paid for this article (unlike for her letter to the Morning Post I mentioned in a previous blog) but she is also imagining a Wiertz that has created himself in the image of his own art.
In Ouida’s vision he has managed to overcome after death the alienation from his labour that he had increasingly felt in the last part of his life: in death he returned to become what Ouida regarded as one of his own best art works, the earlier Triomphe de Christ. To show that, Ouida has drawn for us a word picture of his head that Wiertz himself, the artist of horrible decapitations, might have painted had he stuck to his original principles.
Throughout the second half of her article, Ouida criticises late Wiertz for too great an emphasis on the horrible. Instead, she says, Wiertz should have concentrated on the ‘intrinsically beautiful by proportion, by colouring, and by meaning’ as he had done in his earlier works. It is as if her conclusion were restoring to Wiertz the self Ouida felt he should have been. In some senses too, Ouida’s most famous short story, ‘A Dog of Flanders’ which dates from this time, is also a gift to Wiertz of his lost identity: the underdog hero Nello, like Wiertz, came from a very poor background, was self-taught and, when he came to Antwerp, was ‘entranced and subjugated’ by the Rubens altarpieces in Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal in Antwerp. In this sense “The Dog of Flanders”, like the article, is an analogue of the ivory cigarette case she threw to Mario. She is trying to interpret and give meaning to powerful feelings that art has aroused.
Ouida is conjuring from the dead an anti-sensationalist, anti-commercial aesthetic of the romantic period, where the pen or brush mediates a sincere relation between body and text, and the individual imagination is given priority and autonomy. Of course in these “restitutions” she’s thinking about herself and the purpose of her own art. Why write about passion? From the early short stories she had excoriated the use of other people to satisfy one’s own ends and feelings – a conventional enough condemnation of selfish passion. Real love always means accepting the other for what they are and if necessary standing and holding back. Hitherto, even in the novel about the revolutionary heroine Idalia, the personal had triumphed over the political.
Yet the three encounters I have outlined in these three posts – with Mario, with Bulwer-Lytton and with Wiertz – combined with our knowledge of what comes next – the political and aesthetic celebration of a unified Italy in her next novel– suggest that Ouida was turning towards and looking backwards to a political, communitarian romanticism as an alternative to a purely commercial art, seeking to give it the gift of life that the Judas kiss of selfish commercialism had betrayed. Was this one the elements in that complex of factors that guided Ouida towards Italy in 1871?
Oscar Wilde certainly recognised Ouida’s romantic lineage in a review of her novel Guilderoy in 1889:
Ouida is the last of the romantics. She belongs to the school of Bulwer Lytton and George Sand, though she may lack the learning of the one and the sincerity of the other. She tries to make passion, imagination, and poetry part of fiction. She still believes in heroes and in heroines. She is florid and fervent and fanciful. Yet even she, the high priestess of the impossible, is affected by her age….
His attribution to Ouida of affiliation to Sand and Bulwer is certainly correct. Jane Jordan (“The English George Sand? Ouida the French Novel and Late Victorian Literary Censorship”, Anglistica Pisana VI/i (2009): 107-16) and I have discussed the former, and the three encounters I have described suggest the latter and more.
But is there also a fourth encounter in 1871, one with a ghostly revenant that has left only indirect and indistinct traces? All I dare remark for now is that William Rossetti’s edition of the Complete Poetical Works of Shelley had come out with Moxon in 1870 – followed famously by Mathilde Blind’s corrections in the Westminster Review – and that 20 years later Ouida was to publish a long article praising Shelley as the best romantic poet because, according to her, he had “the sentiment and passion of [Italy’s] natural beauty” — and because love underlay his vehement political engagement, just as she was to portray the hero and heroine’s in her next novel, the lyric prose poem in praise of Italy, Pascarel. Did Ouida encounter Shelley too in the Summer of 1871, and was this yet another coal in the steam engine that transported her south? Just as with her enthusiasm for Mario, Ouida would not have been alone in responding to Shelley’s paeans to the visual and narrative pleasures of Italy such as Julian and Maddalo, a poem much praised by Rossetti in his preface, for
How beautiful is sunset, when the glow Of Heaven descends upon a land like thee, Thou Paradise of exiles, Italy!