Thursday, May 19, 2011

Charlotte Bronte, Artist

I recently saw the new film version of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and enjoyed seeing Jane hard at work on her sketches throughout the movie. I was reminded that all the creative Bronte siblings—Emily, Anne, Branwell and Charlotte—drew and painted as well as writing stories and poetry. The girls would have studied drawing and painting as part of the ‘womanly virtues’ ladies of that period were expected to be competent at in order to be good wives or governesses. I researched that aspect of women’s lives when I was writing my book about a girl painter set in the same time period the Bronte girls were young. Girls’ paintings were genteel accomplishments. The instruction usually involved copying famous works of art.

Charlotte's portrait of her sister, Anne
Charlotte was serious in her desire to be a professional artist. She also drew from life, which she realized was required to become an accomplished artist. Of the Bronte siblings, only Charlotte and Branwell would exhibit their work. But later, in response to her editor’s request that she illustrate the second edition of Jane Eyre, Charlotte wrote:

“I have in my day, wasted a certain quantity of Bristol board and drawing paper, crayons and cakes of color, but when I examine the contents of my portfolio now it seems as if during the years it has been lying closed some fairy has changed what I once thought sterling coin into dry leaves, and I feel much inclined to consign the whole collection to the fire.”

How many painters and illustrators have felt a similar discouragement at times? But how interesting it would be to see how Charlotte would have illustrated Jane Eyre! Apparently she had decided, however, that she did not have the originality to be a professional artist but could instead use her artist’s eye and imagination in her writing. I‘ve always found it an interesting aspect of Jane Eyre that Charlotte gave her heroine artistic ability, having her carry her sketch book around with her. And she described at great length Jane sketching the fascinating Mr. Rochester—beginning with how Jane “had traced on the paper a broad and prominent forehead and a square lower outline of visage….” She detailed the process, feature by feature. "Now for the eyes:  I had left them to the last, because they required the most careful working." Throughout the book she used painterly terms, very visual descriptions and even the names of artists’ colors to help her bring the scenes of her book to life.

Luckily some of Charlotte’s art has survived. I always enjoy seeing the artwork of esteemed writers who are not widely known for their visual art. There are actually quite a few!

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post. Such an interesting insight into Charlotte Bronte's writing -- that she was able to infuse her writing with the eye of an artist. I'd never seen any of her art before. It seems she captured something of her sister Anne's character in this portrait.