Mind’s Eye

John Singer Sargent: Vernon Lee, 1881, oil on canvas, 21 by 17 inches. Tate, London


In her monograph On Beauty and Being Just (1999), the critic and philosopher Elaine Scarry questions the popular conceit of “the gaze,” a look so penetrating, so ravenous, that it imperils its object. “It is odd that contemporary accounts of ‘staring’ or ‘gazing’ place exclusive emphasis on the risks suffered by the person being looked at,” Scarry writes, “for the vulnerability of the perceiver seems equal to, or greater than, the vulnerability of the person being perceived.”1 For the critical theorists who warn against the gaze, a person or artwork is helpless before its audience. But as Scarry reminds us, the classical tradition regards viewers as victims of their jolting encounters with beauty: lookers are assailed, and art assaults.

“The gaze” is a product of the mid-seventies, when feminist film critic Laura Mulvey observed that narrative cinema tends to adopt a lecherous perspective, offering up the female body for male consumption. Critics were quick to identify the same pernicious dynamic in other art forms, which have often depicted women solely for the benefit of a male audience.

But the idea that art submits to its viewers is older, dating back to at least nineteenth-century Germany. Beginning in the late 1800s, so-called aesthetic psychologists like Theodor Lipps and Karl Groos maintained that when we look, we project, foisting our antecedent expectations onto what we see. Perception always involves Einfühlung, empathy, or, more literally, “feeling into,” the imposition of self onto object. But while the word “empathy” might suggest an intimate concern for the object, Lipps was explicit that his theory went in the opposite direction, shifting the locus of control from the external world to its spectators. In 1901 he wrote, “However certain it is that the sensory appearance of a beautiful thing is the object of aesthetic pleasure, it is as certain that it is not its cause. It is me or my ego that is the cause of aesthetic pleasure.”2

It may seem that aesthetic psychology presages Mulvey’s conclusions, but one of Einfühlung theory’s most extraordinary proponents insisted that to empathize with art is to succumb to it. The British aesthetician Violet Paget (1856–1935), who wrote prolifically in French and English under the pseudonym Vernon Lee, is largely forgotten today—but during her lifetime she was hailed by George Bernard Shaw as one of the “old guard of Victorian cosmopolitan intellectualism.” 3A philosopher, critic, journalist, and author of ghost stories, Lee traveled widely and spent most of her adult life in Italy. Her voracious intellectual appetites garnered admiration from the likes of Henry James, who wrote to his brother, William, that she was “as dangerous and uncanny as she is intelligent, which is saying a great deal.”4

Lee was best known for the proto-phenomenological approach to aesthetics that she practiced with her sometime lover and collaborator, Clementina Anstruther-Thomson. The pair admired Groos and Lipps but differed from other Einfühlung theorists in emphasizing the corporeal dimensions of aesthetic empathy. Lee believed that emotions are caused or instantiated by their outward expressions. The transfer of sentiment from artwork to viewer, she posited, was a physical exchange: we inherit an artwork’s affect by closely studying its composition. 

From 1887 to 1898, Lee and Anstruther-Thomson conducted experiments to substantiate this radical thesis, taking their pulses at museums and co-authoring journal articles about the effects of art on the body. After their separation, Lee continued the work, with rich and wide-ranging results. The Psychology of an Art Writer, published this spring as part of the David Zwirner Books ekphrasis series, dedicated to new editions of rare or out-of-print texts, recuperates Lee’s long-neglected meditations. The book comprises selections from her Gallery Diaries, a series of journal entries written between 1901 and 1904 that document her excursions to museums across Europe, and “Psychology of an Art Writer” (1903), an elegant memoir-cum-essay, first published in French in the journal Revue philosophique, that recounts her formative aesthetic experiences and synthesizes some of her findings.

In a mere 108 pages, Lee touches on everything from how sculptures influence our movements to whether the melodies stuck in our heads can alter our opinions of paintings. Psychology is a lucid self-searching exposition, with no trace of the clotting that weights and ages so much Victorian prose. For a diary—a self-proclaimed “psychology”—it is strikingly impersonal. Lee takes stock of her caprices with near clinical detachment, writing about herself as if from outside.

But this is as it should be: by her own admission, Lee exits herself in order to enter into art. In Florence, she enjoys “going into” Giorgione’s Test of Fire of Moses. In Rome, she demands that beautiful sculptures present “a way into the statue”: the problem with the “awful Canovas” is that they are “distinctly looking out of themselves.” Day after day, Lee commends works that admit her and chastises those that exclude her. A piece of art succeeds to the degree that it draws its viewers into its world.

What art offers, according to Lee, is not escape but defamiliarization: to step into an artwork is to take leave of our hackneyed habits of seeing. Lee concedes that “every aesthetic phenomenon consists of an almost inextricable inter-action between the perception of form and the suggestion of the represented object”—between, that is, an artwork’s iconography and its visual character. But “the more a statue makes us look at it, the more it holds us by its reality,” the less we substitute “the word for the form,” and the more the work can “purify and elevate the contents of our consciousness.” In short, artworks shape or expand our field of sensory experience. As Lee wrote with Anstruther-Thomson in an essay titled “Beauty and Ugliness,” changes in corporeal rhythm and orientation are “the actual physical mechanism for the perception of Form.”5

The lexicon of physicality is vivid and varied. Paintings and sculptures often give Lee palpitations or quicken her breath. Of Mantegna’s Uffizi Triptych, she writes, “it is annoying to have the Magi coming downhill into the region of the pit of one’s stomach.” A cathedral in Rome has such a high ceiling that it makes her feel tall.

Ultimately, Lee proposes, it’s not art that imitates life but life that imitates art. It’s true that we complete artworks by following their instructions, even unifying their disparate aspects in acts of sustained attention. But our participation is self-effacing; we shed our visual habits so that we can more wholly obey the dictates of the works we view. 

Years later, phenomenologists would take up a similar line of thinking. Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961), perhaps the best-known phenomenological philosopher, followed Lee in maintaining that art guides action. In his famous 1960 essay “Eye and Mind,” he argues that a painting directs the eye and thereby the body: “rather than seeing it, I see according to, or with it.” 6For Merleau-Ponty, even art-making was a sensually responsive act. “It is by lending his body to the world,” he wrote, “that the artist changes the world into paintings.” For this reason, “the roles between the painter and the visible switch. That is why so many painters have said things look at them.” 7

Too often, we shield ourselves from the probing glances of objects. Lee herself sometimes struggled to cultivate the appropriate receptivity to art. Frequently, she finds herself distracted, afflicted by gloomy moods. But even then, art has the capacity to wrench her out of herself. One day, when she has been suffering from what she calls “aridity,” an “impossibility of seeing art,” she wanders into a church. “The organ’s tune became mine, and the church lived to it.” As she loses herself in the music, she awakens to the building’s beauty. Their mutual intimacy occasions “ten minutes of very concentrated feeling.” The gazer gapes and is gratified. It becomes a joy rather than a violence to succumb to a beautiful thing.