A Touch of Blossom
John Singer Sargent and the Queer Flora of Fin-de-Siècle Art
A Touch of Blossom
John Singer Sargent and the Queer Flora of Fin-de-Siècle Art
“Imaginative, observant, and marvelously playful, Syme's discovery of a vegetal poetics sheds a powerful light on the myths and motifs of modern art. Hers is a vital new voice in art history.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
Assembling evidence from diverse realms—visual culture (cartoons, greeting cards, costume design), medicine and botany (treatises and their illustrations), literature, letters, lexicography, and the visual arts—this book situates the metaphors that structure Sargent’s paintings in a broad cultural context. It offers in-depth readings of particular paintings and analyzes related projects undertaken by Sargent’s friends in the field of painting and in other disciplines, such as gynecology and literature.
“Imaginative, observant, and marvelously playful, Syme's discovery of a vegetal poetics sheds a powerful light on the myths and motifs of modern art. Hers is a vital new voice in art history.”
“If you want to understand the art of John Singer Sargent, read this book. If you want to understand something crucial about European and American culture at the turn of the twentieth century, read this book. With intelligence and wit, Syme moves us far beyond Sargent’s reputation as a glib socialite incapable of modernism. Instead, Syme shows, Sargent was painting an open sexual secret. Using a term from the period, Syme reveals the ‘invert’ implications, and associations, of one artwork after another. She introduces us to the poetics of the plant, the insect, and the bat. Nor is she afraid to write about the most polymorphously perverse sorts of sex, frankly and vividly. Aside from being a brilliant interpretation of Sargent’s work, Syme’s book belongs to the newest and most productive kind of art history: erudite and sensitive, rich in references, comparisons, and analyses of form. A Touch of Blossom brings us into fresh, immediate contact with the beauty of Sargent’s paintings, as if we were seeing them ourselves for the first time.”
“A Touch of Blossom’s contention that Sargent openly pursued an ‘invert’ agenda in his portraits may seem radical to some readers. However, any skepticism, if such exists, soon evaporates in the face of Alison Syme’s cogent, finely crafted argument. Written with wit and grace, and filled with vivid stylistic analyses and ingenious verbal and visual puns, this book is as engaging as the brilliant portraits it examines. Its opulent illustrations and sophisticated design complement Penn State Press’s admirable commitment to breaking down the academic barriers between art and science. The result is a brave and original cultural portrait that rivals Sargent’s own in subtlety, depth, and beauty.”
Alison Syme is Associate Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Toronto.
List of Illustrations
Introduction: The Birds and the Bees
1 La Vie en Rose
2 Lascivious Digitation, or The Importance of Manual Stimulation to the Invert Artist
3 Dr. Octogynecologist
4 Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ladybird
5 The Sting
Conclusion: Leaf Taking
The Birds and the Bees
The work of art always tells the story of the cross-fertilization of the mind by the outside world and of the outside world by the mind.
—Claudette Sartiliot, Herbarium Verbarium: The Discourse of Flowers, 63
The story of art has ever been a melliferous tale of the birds and the bees and the flowers. Plato described the poet as “a light and winged thing,” flitting “like the bees” from flower to flower in the “gardens of the Muses,” and from antiquity through the Renaissance—following the injunctions of Seneca, Virgil, Petrarch, and others—writers wrote “as the bees make honey,” and painters searched “the pictorial gardens” for “their sweet juices.” The ideal artist, according to Carlo Malvasia, “like a bee amongst the flowers,” passed “amongst all things, sampling the most exquisite and most perfect.” Savoring a beautiful arrangement here, an enchanting shade there, the apian painter-poet distilled from diverse nectars a “delicious compound,” a creation that evinced its origins yet was “clearly a different thing from that whence it came.” The true artist, in other words, manufactured a distinctive honey, sprung from imitation yet freshly formulated, which could be identified by those with discerning taste.
In the eighteenth century, Winckelmann’s ideal artist was still beelike, but new models of the artist cropped up with increasing frequency over the next century and a half: Romantic monk, Baudelairean flâneur, Victorian anthropologist, willful primitive, and so on. In the Darwin-informed milieu of the fin de siècle, the analogy of artist and bee regained its potency. Proust at school, for example, was already marked by “the ominous signs of the pure artist,” with his “antennae, his multiply-faceted bee eyes.” The allegory had been modernized, though: a broad cultural awareness of co-evolutionary relationships and the mechanics of pollination occasioned a shift in focus for this metaphorics, from mellification to pollen brushing, fertilization, and floral reproduction.
A poetics of vegetal creation became central to literature and the visual arts. As Philip Knight has demonstrated, for example, the history of nineteenth-century French poetry is the “history of its flower poetics” and “floral tropology.” Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal was a literal anthology (from the Greek, a collection of flowers): “I’ve made a new flower,” the poet would write to describe his progress. After Baudelaire, Rimbaud “tried to invent new flowers” along with “new tongues” (new poetic organs as well as languages), and Mallarmé’s performative poetics gave rise to ideal lingual blossomings: “I say: a flower!”
In the field of painting, the representation of the floral environment and its phantasmatically assumed interspecies dynamics effected a radical rejuvenation of the medium across movements and countries over the course of the century. Whistler asserted that “the work of art worthy of the name” had to be made “the way nature produces plants,” and Courbet famously painted “as an apple-tree produces apples.” Des Esseintes, Huysmans’s Decadent paragon in À rebours, declared with characteristic extremism that the only true artists “are the horticulturalists,” and Monet, who considered his garden his “most beautiful masterpiece,” would have concurred. John Singer Sargent’s paintings will be central examples in this book; they seemed, to his contemporaries, to “burst into bloom.”
Courbet’s art was an important precedent for later floriferous aesthetics. The Trellis from 1862 in particular (fig. 1), as Michael Fried has suggested, envisions a fantastically fresh and natural form of painting by the gardener-artist. The shape of the canvas is echoed within the painting by the lattice, across which flowers of the most astonishing variety—poppies, scarlet trumpet vine, anemones, passion flowers, lilies, clematis, rose of Sharon, hollyhocks, and hydrangeas—burst into bloom and out of the frame. Almost twenty years earlier, J. J. Grandville had identified the living vegetable work as one of the modern genres of painting (fig. 2). In the section of Un autre monde titled “Le Louvre des marionnettes,” an illustration of provocative pictures includes a blinding sunrise; a battle scene in which a standard, spears, and limbs equine and human thrust furiously out of the frame; a “womannequin” in a state of semiundress; an Orientalist view of the backside of a urinating camel; and, at the left, parodying Zeuxis’s grapes, a painting of roses, pears, apples, and grapes that grow out of the frame and are pecked at by birds. One of several trends in midcentury art, the fantasy of art as nature vivante, rather than nature morte, became increasingly important as the century progressed. The Zeuxis myth was reworked to emphasize the lure of flora: while John Everett Millais was working on his painting Apple Blossoms in 1858, “the bees used often to settle on the bunches of blossom, thinking them real flowers from which they might make their honey.”
“The way nature produces plants,” to return to Whistler’s formulation, is through cross- or self-fertilization, and as the scientific world came to understand the intricacies of plant reproduction through pollination, many individuals in the artistic world—creators and critics—embraced the metaphorical equation of painters as pollinators, though not necessarily bees. Whistler most famously identified with and signed himself as a butterfly, but he was certainly not alone in this eccentricity: Monet drew the artist and illustrator Jules Didier as an “homme-papillon” with appropriately elongated proboscis (fig. 3), and various writers contended that the butterfly was “the artist’s true symbol.” The identification of the two creatures was not predicated on a fantasy of sublimation—of the artist reborn after struggling in the carnal mire to a state of genius, of increased clarity and scope of vision. Rather, pollinating habits were the shared trait. The butterfly’s flights “from one near object to another” prompted one writer in the Monthly Illustrator to exclaim, “How similar is [the artist] to the insect! What an unparalleled voracity and what a quickness with which he digests impressions!” Other artists were moths, dragonflies, birds, and bats; some even flitted between different pollinator personae. Sargent was at times a wagtail, at times a bee. As we shall see, the concepts of pollination and artistic modernism became intertwined for some of these creative creatures; thus Didier, who had won the conservative Prix de Rome shortly before Monet’s caricature, is restrained on a leash by a centaur—the classical tradition—and not at liberty to seek out his own impressions.
While in the ancient model the apian artist was a divinely inspired gatherer and alchemist whose interior distillation of ideas gave rise to more perfect imitations, the modern painter-pollinator had quite another orientation. A carrier of pigment and pollen between surfaces, the artist’s activity came to be figured as a physical and erotic interaction between creature and environment. The creative organ was no longer the mind, but the hand—a hand conceived not as the instrument of instruments but as an organ co-opted by a drive. As butterflies uncoil and dip their proboscides, and birds their beaks into nectaries, so the artist, naturally, dipped his or her brush. The hand-pollination of plants, in fact, was usually effected by a paintbrush or another artistic implement, such as a pencil or a needle. Artists’ and insects’ instruments were easily conflated; Darwin even tells us that “bees will act like a camel-hair pencil,” intriguingly suggesting, thirty years earlier than Oscar Wilde, that life imitates art rather than the other way around.
In addition to the artist-as-pollinator, the artist-as-plant was a flourishing paradigm in the nineteenth century. The “precious floweret with which certain of the old masters used to sign their pictures” throve again in the second half of the century, for instance with Albert Moore’s anthemion. Degas wanted the Impressionist group to be called “La Capucine” and to adopt the nasturtium as its emblem, and Oscar Wilde was identified with various flowers: lilies, daisies, daffodils, sunflowers, and green carnations. Nominally vegetal artists abounded, from the fictional Basil Hallward to the living Nathaniel Hawthorne, Pierre Loti, George de Forest Brush, Flora Priestley, and Violet Paget, to name a very few.
Odilon Redon, an artist directly inspired by Darwin, took up the latter’s suggestion that “the petal’s sensitivity to light” was “precocious of our own perception,” drawing the blossom as a receptive organ in There Was Perhaps a First Vision Attempted in the Flower (fig. 4), one of eight lithographs in the Origines series from 1883. In the print a solitary flower unfurls lid after petal-lashed lid, which open onto a central orb in which the iris and pupil appear as a blossom; seeds like tears have fallen from it onto the veined ground. This image of budding vision is simultaneously a model of the developing artist; Redon advised pupils “to cultivate only the flower of their own garden” —a unique plant synonymous with a particular vision. Leonardo was a paradigmatic example of this singular horticultural artistry: “out of the secret places of a unique temperament,” Pater wrote, “he brought strange blossoms and fruits hitherto unknown.” The original flower of art was rare. Max Nordau pathologized those who climbed on the success of others: while the healthy poet was a “chlorophyllic plant,” the degenerate one was a parasitic growth. The issue of rarity, though, was not so key in the popular imagination, where to be prolific was to be floriferous, as another Monet caricature of the playwright Clairville demonstrates (fig. 5).
The floral artist required pollination in order to bring forth flowers of art. Henry James, for whom the artist was often a flower, described his creative process as beginning with “a single small seed,” “minute and wind-blown,” which provided the “germ of a ‘story.’” This “stray suggestion” was a “vital particle,” a pollen-like “grain of gold” possessed of “the power to penetrate as finely as possible.” With a “prick,” “a single touch,” the artist was fertilized; eventually “the flower of conception . . . bloomed.” James recounts the process in microscopic detail, but in other works the advertisement of cross-fertilization is less overt. In Moore’s portrait of William Connal (fig. 6), the sitter’s conspicuously empty buttonhole declares that he is not the flowery sort. His yellow and black bee-striped tie, on the other hand, signals his apian identification, as does the overall color scheme of black, yellow, and gold. Connal employed the honeybee “as his personal emblem” and used it on his stationery. In the picture, his head is turning toward the anthemion above his shoulder, his golden moustache tantalizingly close to brushing the flower. The nature of the reproductive connection between pollinating model-bee and artist-flower is thus delicately invoked.
Linked to contemporary theories of cross-fertilization, the floral birth of the work of art was also a modern version of the enduring fantasy of artistic parturition. During the Renaissance the “conception” and gestation of children and ideas were considered analogous acts: “the works I leave behind shall be my children,” Michelangelo declared. Sir Philip Sidney figured his poetic self as “great with child to speak,” and when he could not express himself he felt “helpless” in his “throes.” In the nineteenth century the trope of the artist as fecund, multiparous mother was still very much in circulation. The painters Claude Lantier and Bongrand in Zola’s L’oeuvre, for example, both suffer from morning sickness and birth pangs. The fiction of art’s botanical reproduction, however, had the benefit of diverting attention from the collision of ground and vehicle in the creation-as-procreation metaphor: the bother that men cannot bear children. In fact, the fantasy of vegetable reproduction could allay anxieties stemming from physiological incapacity of whatever sort, and was an alternative form of imaginary reproduction for both men and women.
In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “Thumbelina,” an old woman who desires a child resorts to this vicarious form of procreation. A witch gives her a grain of barley to plant in a flowerpot, a large tulip grows, and when it opens, “a tiny little girl” is found sitting “in the center of the flower on the green stigma” (fig. 7). This substitution of blossom for uterus was facilitated by the long-standing association of the female reproductive organs with flowers; Odoardo Fialetti’s seventeenth-century Petal Venus (fig. 8), which depicts the dissected pregnant womb as a gorgeously unfurled bloom, is an exemplary early visualization of this conception. In the nineteenth century the blossom-womb became a common motif in visual culture. A midcentury Valentine (fig. 9) uses a blossom-womb to suggest the birth of Love—the golden-haired, blue-eyed, winged cupid cupped in the pale pink rose’s corolla—as well as the births to which love might lead. Two later, mass-produced examples illustrate the continuing appeal of the theme (fig. 10): on the left, a “congratulations” card celebrates the birth of a child, pictured as a rosy-cheeked baby calmly nestled in the pink and red uterine folds of a flower; on the right, a tulip opens to reveal a thoughtful infant.
Terry Castle has traced the vicissitudes of the birth topos from Plato onward, focusing specifically on the shift from its repudiation in the neoclassical period to its embrace by the Romantics. Alexander Pope had argued that “artistic activity should not be linked, even metaphorically, to physiological processes”; to embrace such a connection would be “to abdicate from intellectual responsibility, from reason, from creative independence.” Works of poet born were therefore troped as deformed, aborted, or otherwise monstrous offspring in the eighteenth century. Early nineteenth-century authors and artists rejected this model, conceiving of artistic creation as an organic, physiological process and exalting the metaphor of the work of art as human birth. This organic fantasy was predicated on the imaginative androgyny considered the mark of the true Romantic (and later the Decadent) artist.
Coleridge introduced the botanical variation of this Romantic birth topos by figuring his poems as vegetal productions. In his criticism, “authors, characters, poetic genres, poetic passages, words, meter, logic become seeds, trees, flowers, blossoms, fruit, bark, and sap.” The shift from the figure of the artist as androgyne to the artist as plant was enabled by the latter’s bisexuality: the German Romantics saw the plant “as a marker of primal undividedness,” its capacity for self-fertilization enabling extraordinary originality. As Novalis put it in “Pollen,” published in the Schlegel brothers’ Athenäum in 1798, “the first genius that penetrated into itself discovered thereby the typological seed of an infinite world.” He identified both genius and its works botanically—his fragments were pollen, “literary seeds” (some of which would “hopefully sprout”), and flowers: “Even philosophy has its blossoms. That is, its thoughts.” At midcentury the Pre-Raphaelites conceived of themselves as such seminal artists and gave voice to their conviction in their journal The Germ. Coleridge’s and these other early examples of vegetal artists and works of art emphasized the plants’ growth, nourishment, and relationship to the environment only insofar as they facilitated the development of an interior world. In contrast, their successors, steeped, as peers of Darwin, in the details of pollinator-plant relationships, pushed the allegory into botany’s expanded field—plants’ contexts and creatural connections—and floral births became the result of cross-pollination.
Critics and historians adapted to this model of art production. In Philosophie de l’art, Hippolyte Taine described his method as “a sort of botany, applied not to plants, but to human works.” He vowed not to neglect the broader milieu in which works of art were created, for “the productions of the human mind, like those of living nature, are only understandable through their environment,” and every region has “its own vegetation and its own culture.” John Addington Symonds, who penned studies of Michelangelo, Whitman, Cellini, Marlowe, and other artists, outlined a similar interpretive model in which the critic would function as a “natural historian of art and literature.”
The cogency of a garden metaphorics imaging artists as pollinators and plants, and artistic creation as cross-fertilization, was predicated on more than a fashion for plein-air painting. Also at stake was something more difficult to attain and too risky or risqué to formulate directly: the naturalization of alternative sexualities and identities. In the last few decades of the nineteenth century, sexologists frequently used botanical and zoological examples of hermaphroditism to explain both the “latent organic bi-sexuality of each sex” and the varieties of sexual behavior “inverts” exhibited. At the time, the terms “sexual inversion” and “invert” were used loosely to indicate a range of nonnormative behaviors and desires, most of which involved multiple sex and/or gender identifications. The hermaphrodite and the invert seem to have entered fin-de-siècle medical discourse “side by side.” Inverts were seen as would-be, “incomplete” hermaphrodites, “psychosexual hermaphrodites,” and evolutionary throwbacks to originary bisexuality. Sexologists catalogued sexual types as Linnean botanists classified flowers, based on the arrangements of their physical and mental sexual characteristics, their combination of pistils and stamens, as it were. If in earlier periods hermaphrodites were considered monstrosities, in the nineteenth century they came to be seen as anomalies.
Inverts were not only intimately identified with hermaphroditic flowers, however; they were also imagined as pollinators. Arthur Schopenhauer, in the 1859 edition of The World as Will and Idea, likened the pederast to a fly: “The sense of beauty which instinctively guides the selection for the satisfaction of sexual passion is led astray when it degenerates into the tendency to pederasty; analogous to the fact that the blue-bottle (Musca vomitoria), instead of depositing its eggs, according to instinct, in putrefying flesh, lays them in the blossom of the Arum dracunculus, deceived by the cadaverous smell of this plant.” Beyond the fact that both heterosexual male and pederast are imaged as female blue flies here, Schopenhauer’s analogy is anything but straightforward: it links sexual deviance with a variant aesthetics (an errant “sense of beauty”) and alternate form of procreation, both of which are natural, if not the norm, and even perhaps enviable (some might, after all, prefer a flower to rotting flesh).
Whether identifying as pollinators or plants, invert artists working in diverse disciplines mobilized the ideas of cross-fertilization and the hermaphroditic sexuality of flowers to “naturalize” sexual inversion—a strategy most famously employed by Proust in the orchid and bee scene of À la recherche du temps perdu. In Proust’s novel, the narrator, playing botanist, watches for the arrival of an insect to fertilize the rare orchid of his neighbor, the duchesse de Guermantes, which has been put out into the courtyard of their Paris hotel in the hope that an insect carrying the particular pollen required will make an appearance. While he waits, concealed behind the shutters of an open window, a chance encounter of the baron de Charlus and the tailor Jupien outside gives rise to a natural historical tableau vivant. Jupien is mesmerized by Charlus; at first rooted to the spot “like a plant,” after a moment he begins to strike “poses with the coquetry that the orchid might have adopted on the providential arrival of the [bumble]bee.” Charlus, in turn, “humming like a great bumble-bee,” is lured by the tailor’s flowery wiles into his abode. At this moment a bee, perhaps the very one the orchid and the narrator have been awaiting, flies into the courtyard. The young voyeur, however, chooses to follow the Jupien-Charlus courtship; the “beauty” of its “naturalness” steadily increases, and it results in a “fertilization.”
E. M. Forster employed similar imagery to naturalize the male lovers in Maurice. In the gardens at Penge, the batlike Maurice, who “liked being out of doors, among the robins and bats, stealing hither and thither bare-headed,” finds himself stirred by the evening primroses “expanding in the shrubbery.” While wandering in the park at night he twice bumps into Alec Scudder, a gardener and “haunter of shrubberies,” who is not recognized at first by sight, but rather by touch in the darkness: “he struck against corduroys, and was held for a moment by both elbows” (later he finds himself “strolling on and again colliding with corduroys”). After two brushes with the floral Alec, Maurice returns inside to discover that his head is “all yellow with evening primrose pollen.” Later that night Alec climbs into Maurice’s room and their fertilizing contact resumes.
Such twentieth-century examples of homoerotic pollination have nineteenth-century precedents. Like the narrator in À la recherche du temps perdu, Dorian Gray is initiated into the world of sexual perversion when he witnesses a scene of pollination. It occurs outside the studio of Basil Hallward, creator of the portrait that will be endowed with life. His mind having been prepared by the vegetable painter’s admiration of his beauty and Lord Henry Wotton’s probing comments, which set him “vibrating and throbbing,” Dorian sees a furry bee “creeping into the stained trumpet of a Tyrian convolvulus. The flower seemed to quiver, and then swayed gently to and fro.” Fifty years earlier, in Balzac’s Illusions perdues, the flower-poet Lucien de Rubempré, né Chardon (thistle), author of Les marguerites (an anthology), is contemplating suicide and carrying a large bunch of sedum (yellow flowers), when he meets his black and golden bee in the form of the Abbé (abeille) Carlos Herrera. George Bauer has demonstrated that the meeting of Lucien and Carlos in the novel became “a model for gay horticulture” and inspired Proust. As we shall see, however, the chance outdoor meeting is but one of many botanical trysts and tropes used to describe variant sexual behaviors.
The naturalization of queer encounters in these episodes is not merely a matter of defensive mimicry. Proust also invokes the cross-fertilization analogy to naturalize the offspring of the invert artist’s creativity. Before the Jupien-Charlus scene begins to unfold, the narrator discloses that he had “already drawn from the visible stratagems of flowers a conclusion that bore upon a whole unconscious element of literary production.” This “unconscious element” of creation in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was more complex than the Romantic vegetable’s abdication from reason. The earlier period’s conception of the creative process as a kind of vegetable growth had its roots in German philosophy—specifically in what Meyer Abrams labeled “German theories of vegetable genius” —and as we have seen, reflected a larger shift in the understanding of art, from a “supremely purposeful activity” to one that is “a spontaneous process independent of intention, precept, or even consciousness.” While the fin-de-siècle pollination model of art-making continued to emphasize the activity’s unpurposive character, it stressed art’s roots in instinct, allowing its simultaneously deeply sexual, communal, atavistic, and transspecies qualities to surface. These elements are emphasized in another late nineteenth-century horticultural model of painterly creation deriving from evolutionary theory, which posited that styles of art spring up periodically, as do hereditary traits. “In art as in gardens,” its anonymous author argued in L’Art Moderne, one occasionally sees long ago uprooted or dead flowers appear. Sargent and Whistler are cited as key examples of this “sort of phenomenon of atavism,” the sexual charge of which is suggested by the author’s gloss: “it suffices that a germ, buried no matter how deeply, climbs little by little to the surface and sprays its shoot at the gardener’s beard.”
To return to the cross-fertilizing encounter, however, Julia Kristeva has shown in her analysis of Proust’s Darwinian tableau that in the act of cross-fertilization we realize our innate capacity to multiply and mingle subject positions, to become “at once a space (a bisexual plant) and a force (an ephemeral insect),” or to experience “a becoming-wasp of the orchid and a becoming-orchid of the wasp,” as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari describe it. We need not look to twentieth-century theorists for this insight, however. Michelet describes botany as “nothing other than the science of Love. A science barely distinct from Zoology. They translate each other. Love is the hazy terrain where the animal is flower, the flower is animated.” Love, cross-fertilization, and the creation of art became virtually synonymous in the “pictorial gardens” of the fin de siècle.
That any of these three experiences could induce metamorphosis had been widely acknowledged for some time. Charles Didelot’s 1796 ballet Flore et Zéphire, for instance, is simultaneously the story of a romance, a pollination, and the origins of painting. Zephyr, the wind god, falls in love with the nymph Flora and asks Cupid to help him win her affections. The two immortals journey to Flora’s rose garden. She is momentarily absent, but another attractive young nymph who lies sleeping catches Zephyr’s eye, and the inconstant wind starts stroking her with his wings. She awakes, and Zephyr continues his flirtation. They dance, but when the nymph spies Zephyr’s shadow on a temple wall she decides to trace it, and thus discovers the art of painting. Flora at last appears and Zephyr’s attention reverts to his first love. Cupid, dismayed by the wind god’s fickleness, agrees to unite him with the anemophilous (wind-pollinated) flower of his affections, but only after he has transformed the pair. He removes Zephyr’s wings and gives them to his bride-to-be, grounding the groom. Love, then, literally gives flowers wings and the wind (the pollinator in this story), roots.
In the later nineteenth century, botany and zoology largely took the place of mythology as explanations of such reciprocal metamorphoses, though the idea of eros as agent remained. Interspecies transformations accelerated; in Arthur Symons’s poem “Violet” the femme-fleur’s kisses are floral and birdlike by turns: “How this one clings and how that uncloses / From bud to flower in the way of roses,” while another is “fluttering swift as a bird’s kiss,” a “bird that taps at a leafy lattice.” Subjects became protean, significantly, through their own various and interchangeable acts of art-making, lovemaking, and pollinating. Dance captured this embodied, performative poetics particularly well. Jean Lorrain’s 1882 poem “Bathyle,” about a male dancer in a sailors’ dive, traces the becoming-insect and becoming-flower effected by the performance of pollination: “While he strips rose petals flying from blade to blade, his tunic parts over the roundness of his loins like a lily opening its petals.”
As the century drew to a close, such nonheteronormative manifestations of cross-fertilization became more common. Whistler, Mallarmé, Lorrain, Rodin, and others repeatedly sketched the “woman-flower, woman-bird, woman-dragonfly, woman-butterfly” Loïe Fuller (fig. 11). Considered the first modernist dancer, Fuller debuted at the Folies-Bergère in 1892 and became an instant sensation. She was notably queer; she surrounded herself with a bevy of beautiful young students—“butterflies”—who were always “alternately stroking her hands and kissing her.” In this harem her collaborator and romantic partner of thirty years, Gabrielle Bloch, was an insect, a strange figure “in a black tailor-made” suit who “circulated around the bevy of brightly colored butterflies like some scarab of ancient Egypt.” In her performances Fuller used bamboo rods to extend her arms; with these prostheses she manipulated hundreds of yards of white silk to create her metamorphic dances: Butterfly, Violet, Lily, Orchid, Black Moth. Isadora Duncan emphasized her floral metamorphoses: “she turned to many coloured, shining orchids, to a wavering, flowing sea flower, and at length to a spiral-like lily.” Conversely, Roger Marx imaged her as a pollinator: she “skims the ground with the lightness of a dragonfly, hops and barely settles like a bird, glides, while shaking her trembling wings, like a bat.”
The complete artist, then, capitalized on the polyvalence the act of floral fertilization allowed, becoming both a pollinator and a flower. The poet Robert de Montesquiou identified himself as a bat and a blue hydrangea, and, most eloquently, Whistler signed himself not as a butterfly alone but an ecstatic one upon a pansy, copulating with it (fig. 12). Charles Ricketts’s design for the cover of the 1891 edition of Dorian Gray (fig. 13) includes a repeated motif variously identified as a butterfly, marigolds, asphodels, or an abstraction. While Paul van Capelleveen claims to identify it definitively as the hearts of plucked daisies linked by a chain of petals, the simultaneously floral and alate qualities of the motif (the V-shaped pattern appears against the grey ground like a flock of bats in foggy twilight) situate its meaning in the hybrid realm of cross-fertilization. Similarly, Walter Pater’s claim that Michelangelo’s sculpture brings “into one’s thoughts a swarm of birds and flowers and insects” is directly connected to the contemporary invert erotics of artistic pollination, for this model held out an ambrosial promise: the work of art in the age of botanical reproduction allowed the invert artist, as a self-cross-fertilizing creature, to be both a father and a mother, a fertile hermaphrodite, liberated from the typical nineteenth-century invert’s fear of sterility, “the fangs of fruitless longing.”
In this study, John Singer Sargent is my primary example of botanical artistry. He has been called “a painter of natural history of the first rank,” perhaps a surprising accolade for a society portraitist. Interest in the natural world, however, was instilled in him as a child, providing a constant occupation throughout his nomadic upbringing and irregular education. In a letter of 1863 or 1864, FitzWilliam Sargent, the artist’s father, wrote to his parents, “I keep [John] well supplied with interesting books of natural history, of which he is very fond, containing well-drawn pictures of birds and animals, with a sufficient amount of text to interest him in their habits, etc. He is quite a close observer of animated nature, so much so that, by carefully comparing what he sees with what he reads in his books, he is enabled to distinguish the birds which he sees about where he happens to be.” Such observations inspired the painter’s first artistic forays; some of his earliest sketches are of birds among flowers and berries. In later life he remained “ever alert” to the natural world, his “joy over the petal of a flower, over a feather of a small bird, the mystery of the propelling power of a little snake in the grass” noted by his peers. Sargent “knew a great deal about natural history,” and even while studying and working in Paris he continued to add to his butterfly collection.
Unsurprisingly, Sargent found the correspondence between art and vegetal creation compelling. He was a successful horticultural artist, unlike some of his peers. Faced with Sargent’s vegetal fecundity while painting at Calcot in 1888, Dennis Miller Bunker described himself sitting dejectedly “among the ruins” of his own sad “vegetable works,” which were, significantly, rather reactionary efforts. Like Whistler, Sargent considered the genesis of the modernist work of art an act of pollination, and he shared the period’s notion of the artist as both pollinator and flowering plant. Starting in the 1880s, many of his canvases, particularly his noncommissioned paintings, allegorize artistic creation in general as cross-fertilization, and painting more specifically as hand-pollination.
The botanical model’s capacity to naturalize inversion was an essential part of its allure for the painter. An invert himself, Sargent was a friend of many famous inverts and investigators of inversion; his circle included Henry James, Edmund Gosse, Violet Paget (a.k.a. Vernon Lee, a nominal transvestite as well as a floral artist), Oscar Wilde, Robert de Montesquiou (the model for Proust’s baron de Charlus), Dr. Samuel-Jean Pozzi, W. Graham Robertson, Walter Pater, Robert Louis Stevenson, Marc-André Raffalovich, John Addington Symonds, and James McNeill Whistler. Discussion of the vegetable poetics of these artists and writers—Sargent’s polyglot, cosmopolitan coterie—will spring up throughout these pages, for their work illuminates aspects of his and vice versa. As we shall see, for Sargent the “pictorial garden” was a locus wherein modern conceptions of both art and sexuality, ineluctably intertwined for him, could be explored in a material way, through the touch of paint and pollen, and where the heteronormative rhetoric of production dominant in the cultures of Europe and North America could be eluded. Naturalizing both his inversion and his artistic production, Sargent’s oeuvre visually elaborates a period poetics of queer sexuality and implicitly formulates a new sense of artistic subjectivity. An alternative cultural trajectory emerges through close investigation of this fertile period, authorizing alternative modernist genealogies and identities.
Beginning with a broad sweep, my first chapter, “La Vie en Rose,” investigates the nineteenth century’s fascination with the sex lives of flowers by examining evidence from diverse realms: visual culture (cartoons, advertisements, greeting cards, seed catalogues, costume design), the world of botany (treatises and their illustrations), literature, letters, lexicography, and the visual arts. Cataloguing the perversions to which plants were prone and charting the rise of pollinator erotics, I bring to light some little-known queer readings of botanical reproduction, from which the artists in this study took in part their inspiration even as they contributed to this interpretive legacy.
In chapter 2, “Lascivious Digitation, or The Importance of Manual Stimulation to the Invert Artist,” the focus shifts to Sargent’s work, in particular to his often very floral and gender-ambiguous painted hands, which can be situated within an iconographic tradition operating in the work of Gautier, Huysmans, Wilde, Proust, and others that capitalizes on the hermaphroditism of flowers. By grafting onto the hands of his subjects a floral model of hermaphroditic sexuality and exposed “interiority” (flowers’ reproductive organs are on full display), Sargent endowed hands with their own potentially dangerous semantic and narrative life in his pictures, one where the boundaries between species and sexes are blurred, and identity’s very “nature” is queried. Floral hands inevitably give rise to pollinator erotics, and the dramatically brushed appendages in these works intimate interspecies contact.
Chapter 3, “Dr. Octogynecologist,” branches out into Sargent’s coterie to elucidate what the touch of floral hands implies through close analysis of Dr. Samuel-Jean Pozzi’s gynecological treatise and two portraits by Sargent, of the doctor himself and one of his most famous patients, Virginie Gautreau. Pozzi modernized French gynecology and notably popularized the bimanual technique of examination (one hand on the inside, one hand on the outside). Proust describes the creative work of the artist as consisting of a sort of gynecological probing of the outside world, and I argue that just as Pozzi was probing and palpating the space of biological creation, Sargent, whose habitual response to paintings was to caress their surfaces, conceived of his hands as probing the space of artistic creation; the hands in Pozzi’s portrait support this reading. Pozzi’s treatise also provides further insight into the painter’s efforts to naturalize sexual inversion through a garden metaphorics. The gynecologist’s descriptions of the “vegetations” of the womb and other anatomical growths conjure up a pastoral idyll, and these nonprocreative but natural bodily productions exemplify a model of creativity able to reconcile human and vegetable modes of reproduction.
In my fourth chapter, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ladybird,” I read Sargent’s paintings of female children in gardens and conservatories as veiled self-portraits and allegories of the process of painting—the hand-pollination the artist accomplishes with his brush and “pure tact of vision,” as Henry James put it. Two canvases in particular, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose and Miss Helen Sears, picture the very act of hand-pollination. While avowing the naturalness and fruitfulness of the artist’s and invert’s creation, however, these superficially innocent paintings nevertheless register to different degrees Sargent’s anxieties as he negotiated his artistic, sexual, and national identities through them.
Chapter 5, “The Sting,” describes the less nostalgic and often more sadomasochistic practices of other pollinators, such as Whistler (the Butterfly) and Montesquiou (the Bat), and examines Sargent’s portraits of fellow artists, including W. Graham Robertson and Robert Louis Stevenson. These paintings unleash the metamorphic potential of their subjects, who are transmuted into flowers and trees, moths and bees, that partake in scenes of pollination. The anatomy of the architecture in which the sitters are depicted also contributes to another, shadier and more aggressive kind of botanical narrative, one of back-door pollination (some pollinators drill or bite though the backside of the nectary rather than going through the “normal” channel). Both readings are essential to understanding the erotic charge of these works, in which the dangers and pleasures of invert sexuality are addressed.
The Conclusion, “Leaf Taking,” situates Sargent’s model of art in fin-de-siècle poetics and the development of artistic modernism and briefly traces the legacy of this poetics of vegetable artistic production in the twentieth century down two paths. One runs through the field of abstract art, and I follow its metaphorics from Kupka’s paintings of pistils and stamens up to Laib’s pollen fields. The other leads from photography to new media, from the botanical photogenic drawings of Henry Fox Talbot to the homoerotic work of von Gloeden, Gilbert and George, and others.
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