Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 33 (2002) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
This article is a 'footnote' to two classic works on George Eliot: Hugh Witemeyer's George Eliot and the Visual Arts and The Journals of George Eliot, edited by Margaret Harris and Judith Johnston. When I began to follow the progress of George Eliot and George Henry Lewes round the major art galleries of Western Europe, I soon discovered that many of the paintings which George Eliot mentions in her journal were not what she believed them to be. Some have been reattributed since her lifetime, and others, while still bearing the name of the artist she gave them, were not of the subjects she supposed. One such painting was the Beatrice Cenci in the Barberini Gallery in Rome, which was then believed to be by Guido Reni. This work deceived every writer who looked at it, from Shelley to Dickens, to Nathaniel Hawthorne. In 1881, Thomas Adolphus Trollope even published an article declaring that, although new research had convinced him that Beatrice was not the sitter for the famous portrait, there could be no doubt at all that the artist was Guido Reni.' It is not surprising that George Eliot studied the painting with particular interest when she visited Rome in 1860.
This is a well-documented example of a misattribution, but George Eliot's account of her travels in Europe in 1854 and 1858 is surprisingly full of comparable 'errors'. Nineteenth-century curators felt the need to put a name onto a frame, and, in the contemporary state of scholarship, it was frequently the wrong one. The identity of the painter and the subject of the painting were of considerable importance to George Eliot, and her 'mistakes' can tell us something about her approach to the whole question of artistic creation. It is worth stressing that these errors occurred through no fault of the novelist. We know that Dr Johann Fischer gave her a copy of Franz Kugler's Handbook of Painting in Berlin in January 1855. This must have been a German version of Kugler's volume on the 'German, Flemish, Dutch, Spanish and French Schools', rather than the English translation by Margaret Hutton, originally published by John Murray in 1846 with notes by Sir Edmund Head. Many of Head's notes correct mistakes in Kugler and it is clear that Eliot and Lewes did not know of these. As my title implies, George Eliot, instructed by the guidebooks and manuals with which she travelled, and by the labels on the paintings themselves, was simply, and frequently, misinformed.