It might be strange to consider the visual arts and literature as existing under the broader category of English studies. Literature in the English language is the obvious fit, be it a novel, a poem, an article, or any other written material. The study of visual art might sound like an odd thing to include among English courses. In most paintings there are no words to read, after all, no text to analyze. So why include courses that look at visual art?
There are a few undergraduate courses this semester that take a look at art through the lens of literature or vice versa. One of them, a course taught by Professor Marion Thain and Professor Peter Nicholls titled “Impressionism and Modernism,” has started the semester by reading impressionistic works—like poems by Oscar Wilde, Arthur Symons, and Rosamund Marriott Wason, or Henry James’ What Maisie Knew—the way we would view impressionist paintings. The course has also covered visual works by the likes of Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, and James McNeill Whistler and has taken special notice of common features that are apparent across all their works and other impressionist paintings. The key point of those common features boils down to this: As the term suggests, impressionist paintings are all about capturing your impression of something. It’s about getting a single moment as you see it, not necessarily as it is, onto canvas, about capturing the landscape or the scene before you before it changes. In a way, it can be like taking a picture of a scene, but with your hand and a paintbrush and not with a camera. Of course, the scene doesn’t freeze itself like a movie still so you can get it all onto the canvas. No, it continues changing. The sunlight keeps moving, shadows keep shifting, colors start to change in front of your eyes.
So what’s the result of trying to paint a single, changing instant? Landscapes and city scenes that might be described as hastily painted, unfinished, or messy. Sometimes the result is unidentifiable (Monet’s Haystacks is a favored example in the “Impressionism” course), but other times it’s clear what the subject is despite the messy outlines and blotches of color (like Edgar Degas’ Dancers, Pink and Green). Regardless of how unidentifiable or messy impressionist paintings may appear, they all share a focus on light, shadow, and color. Along with the obsession of catching a single and ironically constantly changing moment, impressionist artists focus on the impressions that stick with them most.
But how does that apply to literature? In the same way that impressionist paintings are concerned with capturing a single visual moment and portraying an initial impression of that scene to their viewers, impressionist literature can use words to paint a picture in our heads, calling attention to color and light in a scene. Similar to how the shadows of Monet’s Haystacks don’t line up, suggesting that Monet had taken long enough that the sun had drastically moved across the sky by the time he got to the second haystack, words can depict a tide in the process of rising or receding, a sun moving below the horizon, dawn creeping across the sky. But impressionist literature and poetry can go beyond the visual. They use words to immerse the reader in sensations or moments of transition, whether these are striking, visual moments that suggest more than they say—for example, in novels like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—or ambiguous, sensory experiences in poems like Rosamund Marriott Watson’s “A Summer Night.”
Of course, there’s more to visual art than just impressionist paintings, more even than just paintings themselves. Another course in the English department takes what could be considered a humbler approach: “The Rise of the Graphic Novel,” taught by Professor Teresa Feroli, is entirely focused on the art of the comic book. It might be unexpected to encounter “kids’” comics like Spiderman and The Fantastic Four as required reading in a college course, but it can be a refreshing and interesting change from the literary classics we’ve had to read.
“The Rise of the Graphic Novel” focuses on how words and art (can) work together to tell a story. Within a comic, sometimes words only function as dialogue and quick ways to label a location or time; sometimes they describe the image in a panel and provide more information for or narrate alongside the image; and other times they contrast with the image or images they’re paired with to provide completely different information that can evoke a certain tone or atmosphere. The course often focuses on the characters of the comic and the story as a whole, but the art itself is an equally important aspect. Panels might overlap in a way that reflects the storyline, and the borders of the panels or the physical setting of a scene might frame its characters in a way that suggests their freedom or constraint, like in Will Eisner’s Cookalein and The Super or in Rick Geary’s The Saga of the Bloody Benders. In the same way that novels and poems use words, syntax, and even paragraph or line breaks to convey certain thoughts, ideas, or moods, comics—like any other form of visual art—use their own traits (color, dialogue bubbles, panels and the gutter space between them, to name a few) to convey those same things. This is, of course, applicable to film as well, as is suggested by two more undergraduate courses being taught this semester that explore the visual alongside the literary: “Shakespeare and Film,” taught by Visiting Professor Jenny Mann, and “Contemporary Irish Literature and Film,” taught by Professor Kelly Sullivan.
In the context of an English course or not, visual art can offer a challenging or even refreshing chance to use the analytical skills you’ve honed in your literature classes in a new way. While it’s too late to join any of these courses this spring semester, there are numerous opportunities to take a different, visual perspective on things. There are many art galleries here on campus—within Bobst, Kimmel, and a number of other places listed on this site that you can visit for a chance at the visual aspect of English studies. Getting up close and personal with a few paintings might even help you to reconnect with the art of words.