Although we often note Willa Cather’s devotion to high art and the frequency with which she depicts art and aesthetic experience in her fiction, we do not seem to have identified her use of ekphrasis as such—ekphrasis being the rhetorical figure that is most simply defined as “the verbal representation of a visual representation” (duBois 45). I do so here in order to illuminate the different values Cather assigns to the work of art and the commercial object as cultural products in The Song of the Lark (1915) and The Professor’s House(1925). In the former, Chicago serves as a setting for the display of what Cather affirms as authentic art; in the latter, the city is a source for the commercial object, which, however aestheticized, Cather views as only a poor substitute for authentic art, mistakenly valued by a society that has lost its artistic integrity. Cather’s use of such a classical rhetorical device as ekphrasis is consistent with her characteristic reliance on traditional literary forms and canonical standards of aesthetic judgment, but it also suggests her operation within a new, modernist aesthetic. As Janis Stout argues, modernists (including Cather) expressed an antipathy to commodity and consumption while simultaneously expanding the function of reading and interpretation to include the world of physical (art) objects (3). Indeed, as I suggest at the conclusion of this essay, Cather uses ekphrasis to advance a critique of modern commodity culture akin to Walter Benjamin’s in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Ekphrasis, with its origins in the classical pastoral tradition, meaningfully echoes the interweaving of the artistic and agrarian worlds in Cather’s fiction. Its presence in The Song of the Lark and The Professor’s House also underscores the extent to which the aesthetic was for Cather the primary portal of human experience.
Ekphrasis: “the verbal representation of a visual representation”—as in, for example, Keats’s description of a Grecian urn in the eponymous ode or William Carlos Williams’s description of Bruegel’s painting in “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” The Western origins of the device are located in ancient Greek literature: Homer’s description of the highly decorated shield of Achilles in the Iliad is often cited as one of the earliest known examples of ekphrasis. Ekphrasis was cataloged as one of the exercises in the progymnasmata, the elementary rhetoric taught in the classical Greek world, formulated in the first century bce and, adopted by Roman writers, was summarily defined in Horace’s dictum ut pictura poesis (“as the picture, so the poetry”). It was used most often in pastoral poetry beginning with Theocritus around 300 bce and in prose narratives of the second century ce, also largely pastoral, such as Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe (c. 200 ce). Ekphrasis was used as the starting point for a poetic or prose narrative, as it is in Achilles Tatius’s Kleitophon and Leukippé (c. 150 ce), for example, in which the narrator begins an account of his amorous misadventures with an ostensible description of a painting of Europa riding the back of the Cretan bull; or in Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” (1842), perhaps a more familiar example, in which the speaker tells the story of his late wife to a viewer of her portrait. Ekphrastic passages were sometimes extended to provide the foundation for an entire narrative, the narrator or speaker returning repeatedly to the details of the picture to move the plot forward, as is the case in Daphnis and Chloe. Ekphrasis may also “still” the narrative while offering us information to enhance our understanding of a character or situation without moving the plot forward, as it does in the Aeneid, when Virgil describes the sorrow Aeneas feels upon seeing the frieze of Trojan War scenes on the temple of Juno in Carthage.
Ancient or modern, the ekphrastic subject is a physical object—a painting, a piece of sculpture, an architectural structure or feature, or a decorated artifact like Achilles’s shield. It might be what John Hollander calls a “notional” or imagined subject in distinction from an actual one (209), as Browning’s portrait and even Keats’s generic vase are, in contrast to the Bruegel painting of Williams’s poem, which hangs in the Musée des beaux arts in Brussels. Whether real or imagined, the material reality of the ekphrastic subject must be apprehended visually (as opposed, say, to being heard or tasted), and its verbal description likewise allows the reader to imagine it visually.
Like Keats’s poem, Cather’s The Song of the Lark takes its title from the work of art featured in it, the Jules Breton painting young Thea discovers in the Art Institute of Chicago and for which she comes to feel such an affinity. In an ekphrastic passage, the painting is described in terms of what Thea notices about it: “the flat country, the early morning light, the wet fields, the look in the girl’s heavy face” (197). As an ekphrasis, the passage adds to our understanding of Thea’s characterization and her situation in the novel as well as the painting itself: the narrator states that Thea felt those elements in the painting “were all hers, anyhow, whatever was there. She told herself that that picture was ‘right.’ Just what she meant by this,” the narrator goes on to say, however, “it would take a clever person to explain” (197).
Cather’s passage, like ekphrasis in general, is primarily interpretive, although ekphrasis may also appear merely decorative. Margaret Anne Doody argues in her study of early narrative that ekphrasis insists upon the viewer’s and the reader’s duty to interpret—not only the ekphrastic subject, but the entire literary work in which it is included. “A good painter,” Doody states, “includes allegorical and encoded meanings; the art of knowing a painting”—and reading the significance of a painting in ekphrasis—“is hermeneutic” (137). By insisting upon interpretation, ekphrasis challenges mimesis; it suggests that the truth of literature transcends mere realism (137); we do not read either Browning’s “My Last Duchess” or Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” as a catalogue raisonné of portraiture or Greek vase painting. Furthermore, as Page duBois states in her study of the use of ekphrasis in Hellenistic epigrams, the reader of an ekphrasis often figures in a “productive triangulation” as he or she is “drawn into judgment in relation not just to the work of art, but also toward the contained viewer and toward the narrator himself” (47), sometimes becoming a “foil for irony” (46)—as in Browning’s poem, which invites the reader to judge the character of the murderous duke, the speaker of the poem who does not seem to realize how much he reveals to the contained viewer and to us when he reports, “I gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together” (ll. 45–46). Ekphrasis, in other words, is normative; it forms the viewing—and reading—subject (Goldhill 2).
As an ekphrasis, then, Cather’s scene in the Art Institute challenges the reader to be “a clever person,” a competent interpreter, in order to discern the relation of Breton’s painting to the novel. The described rural landscape of the painting may remind us a little of Thea’s hometown of Moonstone, Colorado—and even more of the Nebraska landscapes of O Pioneers! (1913) and My Ántonia (1918). But it is the inclusion of the girl’s face in the description of the landscape that delineates what Doody would call the novel’s allegory or code. Just as Williams’s ekphrastic poems on Bruegel’s paintings delineate, as Christina Giorcelli observes, his “poetic program,” matching the poet’s emphasis on the local, the landscape, and common people, and his rejection of foreign models to the painter’s (200), Cather’s ekphrastic passage delineates the “program” of The Song of the Lark. The novel’s program/allegory/code has much to do with the relationship between Thea as an artist and her own local landscape. It stands as an early iteration of the Virgilian theme that will become more explicit in My Ántonia, reflecting Cather’s interest in what David Stouck has defined as “an aboriginal relationship to place” (204), and resonates in the juxtaposition of landscape and girl’s face in the description of the Breton painting. As a künstlerroman, The Song of the Lark is a study in the ways in which a brilliantly talented but culturally isolated girl finds access to the people and experiences that can develop her artistry. The novel muses upon the unlikely value of the people and experiences found in Thea’s indigenous environment, an apparent cultural wasteland featuring small-town characters like an alcoholic piano teacher and a Mexican mandolin player, and experiences like a Sunday-school concert and a train ride to Denver. It is a major contention of the novel that art in fact springs from improbable sources. Even after Thea begins her formal training in Chicago, she “got almost nothing that went into her subconscious self and took root there” (301). The “recollections [that] were a part of her mind and personality” appear common and ordinary and are specific to Moonstone: “the moonflowers that grew over Mrs. Tellamantez’s door, . . . memories of light on the sand hills, of masses of prickly-pear blossoms . . . , of the late afternoon sun pouring through the grape leaves and the mint bed in Mrs. Kohler’s garden” (301). Thea is inspired by the things that mean “home” to her, like the typical French painter Cather spoke of in a later interview, who “doesn’t talk nonsense about art, about self-expression. . . . His house, his gardens, his vineyards, these are the things that fill his mind. . . . When a French painter wants to paint a picture, he makes a copy of a garden, a home, a village. The art in them inspires his brush” (“Restlessness” 11).
In her belief that the domestic and the local are the sources of artistic inspiration and that the ordinary objects associated with those environments are the stuff of art, Cather is consistent with the strain of modernism defined by William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost as opposed to that of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. In important ways (e.g., her admiration of European models), Cather is decidedly outside the Williams/Frost tradition, but in her endorsement of the aesthetic value of the local and domestic, her work has much in common with those poets of Paterson, New Jersey, and New Hampshire. And while Breton’s painting, dated 1884, is not exactly a modernist work, it is related to the paintings produced by members of Barbizon school, whose humble agrarian scenes were precursors to the modernist re-envisioning of the familiar made even more startling by painters like Paul Cézanne. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who spent several weeks in 1906 in an ekphrastic thrall repeatedly visiting an exhibition of Cézanne’s paintings in Paris, wrote that Cézanne “lays his apples on bed covers which [his landlady] will surely miss some day, and places a wine bottle among them or whatever happens to be handy. And he makes his ‘saints’ out of such things; and forces them—forces them—to be beautiful, to stand for the whole world and all joy and all glory” (Letters 40).
Moonstone’s prickly-pear blossoms and Mrs. Kohler’s mint bed are for Thea the equivalent of Cézanne’s apples and wine bottles. Although Chicago is the site of significant developments in Thea’s life—her lessons with Harsanyi, the discovery of her operatic voice, her friendship with Fred Ottenburg—Moonstone is the landscape that sustains her imaginatively. The novel depicts Chicago’s harsh economic realities as they affect Thea’s increasing self-consciousness: the “wretchedly conducted” boardinghouses (260) and the cheap clothes to which her finances limit her contrast with the generous comfort of restaurants and carriage rides shared with Fred. But the city, particularized by the novel’s references to the northside neighborhood populated with Swedes, to Lake Michigan and the Pullman Building and the Art Institute, does not impress itself specifically on Thea; it does not take on the qualities of a character in her life, as Moonstone had. It is a “rich, noisy city, fat with food and drink,” “a spent thing” (265), an almost prototypical turn-of-the-century metropolis; with its successful industrialists and businessmen, wealthy art patrons, and struggling workers, it is interchangeable with Pittsburgh, St. Louis, or Cleveland. In Thea’s experience, the city does not ask to be known, does not invite relationship; it remains “simply a wilderness through which one had to find one’s way” (193).
In her response to Breton’s painting, Thea seems to register an enlarged understanding of the importance of the vernacular, the ekphrasis allowing Cather to use what John Hilgart sees as a consistent and typical strategy of “develop[ing] her characters through their perceptual habits” (377). We infer that Thea marks the painting as “hers” for the qualities we, too, discern; we are drawn into a judgment of the painting that coincides with Thea’s, as well as a judgment of Thea herself and of the novel’s meaning. The ekphrasis is proleptic, foreshadowing the next stage in Thea’s perceptual development, which will take place in Panther Canyon, itself a profoundly vernacular landscape. At this point in the novel, Thea, too, realizes that developing her perception is important to her own artistic formation. After her first visit to the Art Institute, “she had a serious reckoning with herself. . . . She remonstrated with herself severely. She told herself that she was missing a great deal. . . . She was sorry she had let months pass without going to the Art Institute. After this she would go once a week” (196). As the fragment of sculpture tells the speaker of Rilke’s ekphrastic poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” the art has told Thea, “You must change your life” (l. 15).
Thea had finally taken herself to the Art Institute at the urging of the boardinghouse owner, Mrs. Lorch, who thinks of it as one of the city’s “points of interest” (194), an opinion that “triangulates” the reader and Thea, who understand (or will, very shortly) that the museum is much more than a tourist site. However, it is also more than a repository of art—it is a social and political space. Ekphrasis, even in the ancient world, very often implies such social and political space. In her examination of third-century bce epigrams, duBois highlights ekphrastic passages that exhibit a high degree of historical knowledge and consciousness of ethnic difference, gender, and class. She makes the point that an ekphrasis often suggests the social and political factors—slavery, women’s restricted roles, and imperialism, among others— that affect the making of a work of art, as well as its display. Doody similarly argues that the ekphrastic subject “is located in a social space,” and that we are always made aware of “the commodification of art” and “what kind of social space the gazing viewer is occupying” (140–41). In modern literature, the ekphrastic encounter typically takes place in a museum or gallery, as it does in The Song of the Lark, because that is where works of art in the modern world—as opposed to the world of Browning’s duke, for example—are most commonly displayed. Cather’s novel does not especially challenge the cultural economy that built the Art Institute on the shores of Lake Michigan, but it does acknowledge the social and political implications of entering that museum. When Mrs. Lorch and Mrs. Andersen, avid readers of the Sunday art column in the decidedly middlebrow Inter-Ocean, urge her to visit the museum, Thea explains that she did not do so the day she first noticed it because “The sign outside said it was a pay-day” (195). Michel Foucault, who defines the museum (along with the cemetery, garden, and library) as a “heterotopia,” “a kind of effectively enacted utopia . . . outside of time,” observes that the individual gains access to such spaces by submitting “to rites and purifications” (n.p.). In Thea’s time and in ours, the rite is most blatantly a financial transaction, and with “no city consciousness” and a nervousness about being parted from her money (193), Thea is reluctant to submit to that rite.
Disciplined and decorous behavior in a gallery or museum serves as an additional rite required for gaining access and is thus another social or political context for an ekphrasis. The demands of classical ekphrasis are consistent with the teachings of philosophers like the Sophist Lucian, who tells us that when we stand in front of a work of art we are not to gasp and gesticulate, but to stand firm and speak as a display of our cultivation (Goldhill 18). Thea, no practiced museumgoer, does not buy a catalog of the collections and so makes up names for the artwork she sees. Uninformed as she might be, she nevertheless responds strongly to the casts and paintings on display: she likes or dislikes them for very specific and clear reasons, and they evoke for her childhood memories and the absence of her beloved brothers. In the Art Institute, Thea begins to see—and, importantly, begins to remember what she has seen before.
In the home of the Nathanmeyers, Thea enters the same nexus that is formed between the art object and viewer in a gallery or museum, where it is often constructed on social class and the market value of art. The Nathanmeyers, a wealthy Chicago family of art collectors and music connoisseurs, will pay Thea fifty dollars to sing at one of their “musical evenings.” She thus gains access to this particular “heterotopia” by virtue of her own talent and Fred’s friendship, but she still must be “purified” by exchanging her “broadcloth church dress” (273) for a more suitable evening dress belonging to one of the Nathanmeyer daughters; Selma, a maid, will assist her. Paintings by Rousseau and Corot, “which the old banker had bought long ago for next to nothing” (276), hang in the Nathanmeyer home, and the music room houses two Steinways (277). Fred directs Thea’s attention to a painting displayed in the hall that he describes as “the most beautiful Manet in the world,” depicting “a woman eating grapes out of a paper bag” (276). This brief ekphrastic passage enforces the “allegory” of the Art Institute passage, the relationship between art and the vernacular. The opening pages of The Song of the Lark featured young Thea, bedridden, recovering from scarlet fever, eating grapes from a paper bag brought to her by a doting Dr. Archie. The ekphrasis thus juxtaposes the domestic space occupied by the sick child enjoying a rare treat and the heady world of Manet, Manet viewers, and Manet buyers. It casts an ironic light upon the social distance between a maid named “Selma”—surely Scandinavian—and the Swedish Norwegian artist Thea, earning her own money in the Nathanmeyer home. And it highlights the way in which Thea enlivens her rendition of “Tak for dit Räd” by informing it with a folktale from her Norwegian grandmother—in other words, making an intuitive connection between the canonical music of Edvard Grieg and the vernacular material transmitted through family, which allows her performance to attain the level of artistry. In so doing, she reminds the sophisticated Nathanmeyers and the reader that the origins of art are often local and domestic. Just as, when Thea hears a performance of Dvorˇák’s New World symphony, she remembers the “high tableland above Laramie; the grass-grown wagon-trails, the far-away peaks of the snowy range, the wind and the eagles” (198–99), Mr. Nathanmeyer, when he hears Thea sing, thinks of “Svensk sommar. . . . She is like a Swedish summer” (280).
Thea’s experience of the cliff dwellings in Panther Canyon parallels the more conventional ekphrasis of the Art Institute passage—and indeed that is its point. In Panther Canyon, Thea is led into further perceptual development, a deeper understanding of the sources and nature of art. In the same way that she had claimed as her own imaginative territory the simple, workaday landscape of Breton’s painting, Thea inhabits the remnants of the cliff dwellers’ civilization. Enacting that “fusion of people and place” (Trout 275) that marks the aboriginal landscape, she “found herself trying to walk as they must have walked, with a feeling in her feet and knees and loins which she had never known before. . . . She could feel the weight of an Indian baby hanging to her back as she climbed” (302). The Song of the Lark, as well as The Professor’s House, derives its presentation of aboriginal culture from Cather’s romantic view of history as a series of heroic conquests, which allowed her to “ignore some of its harsher realities, such as the displacement of the region’s native peoples” (Stouck 203). The novel provides no critique of the Euro-American imperialism that rewards Fred’s wealthy father with “a whole canyon full of Cliff-Dweller ruins” (289). Nor is Thea interested in that critique; Cather constructs her stay at Panther Canyon as a celebration of her relation with aboriginal culture as it had been foreshadowed by the ekphrasis in the Art Institute.
Thea’s empathy with what she understands of the cliff dwellers’ lives and her admiration of their pottery, which had been developed for ceremonial and religious use “far beyond any other crafts” (303), leads her to an epiphanic insight that equates the potsherds with the objects displayed at the Art Institute and with her own artistry. Her leap in perceptual development is evident in Cather’s framing of these ordinary items as ekphrastic subjects, which allows the reader, too, to understand why these objects of everyday use can be considered art. Cather’s representation of the jars as art objects is consistent with the aesthetic she outlines in “The Novel Démeublé”: these jars are not extraneous objects; they exist in Thea’s “emotional penumbra” (40). As she bathes in a canyon pool, a bath that had come “to have a ceremonial gravity” (304), it occurs to Thea that art is but “a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive” stream of life: “The Indian women had held it in their jars. In the sculpture she had seen in the Art Institute, it had been caught in a flash of arrested motion. In singing, one made a vessel of one’s throat and nostrils and held it on one’s breath, caught the stream in a scale of natural intervals” (304).
The ritualistic origin of the jars and the “ceremonial” nature of Thea’s daily bath contribute to the newly perceived artistic quality of the jars. In his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin argues that the “aura” of a work of art, its relation to history and to ritual, is essential to its artistic integrity. Art, he writes, “begins with ceremonial objects destined to serve in a cult” (224). In the modern age, the capacity to reproduce the work of art compromises its integrity by distancing it from those origins. The physical survival of the abandoned cliff dwellings allows Thea rare access to an ancient culture in which art was not removed from its origins. Cather thus expands the ekphrastic mode to frame not only received works of art displayed in the museum and in the collector’s home but the structures and artifacts of the cliff dwellers. The ekphrasis forms us as viewing subjects as Thea’s experience has formed her. Although the aesthetic estimation (and the market value) of such artifacts appreciated significantly throughout Cather’s lifetime, it had not yet reached the canonical status of, say, Roman sculpture or even nineteenth-century French painting. The Song of the Lark reveals its modernist program in Cather’s expansion of ekphrasis to insist (with Picasso, among others) that these ancient artifacts, domestic and indigenous, be valorized equally with classical and more modern art.
In The Professor’s House (1925), Cather complicates her use of ekphrasis, eliding it rather than expanding it, to include a wider array of subjects and to insist even more strenuously on our hermeneutic competence, directing our formation as viewing subjects. The reader of this novel is drawn more deeply into the “productive triangulation” ekphrasis can construct, directed to make a series of aesthetic judgments with modernist cultural and social implications. Here, Cather goes beyond the expanded ekphrasis that accommodated newly valorized objects like the cliff dwellers’ water jars, to an elided ekphrasis that challenges the aesthetic value of the commercial object—that questions, in effect, whether the object should enjoy the privilege of ekphrasis. This inquiry is characteristic of Cather’s post-1922 writing but also fundamental to the modernist cultural critique, with its distaste for commodity and conspicuous consumption (Stout 3).
Tom Outland, who discovers the cliff dwellings while riding the range near the Blue Mesa, is at first only curious about them, but then he comes to admire the ingenuity of the cliff dwellers as he observes more closely the evidence of their artifacts and their architecture. Soon, however, he begins to aestheticize the remnants of the cliff-dweller civilization. He describes the compound of cliff dwellings as “still as sculpture—and something like that” (200) and again, “more like sculpture than anything else” (201). He says they “seemed to have a kind of composition” (201) and that the people who built them had “a feeling for design” (204). Father Duchene agrees that “there is unquestionably a distinct feeling for design in what you call Cliff City” (219) and asserts that the decorated pottery is similar, if not identical, to early Cretan pottery (220). His conflation of the cliff dwellers with the classical world, echoed in Tom’s reading of the Aeneid and Lucretius during his exploration of the mesa, is very like the understanding that flashes upon Thea in Panther Canyon: in both passages, the less familiar art of the ancient Native American world achieves canonical status when characters articulate its essential sameness with more conventionally valorized art. In their display of art, both sites are heterotopian; like Foucault’s museum, they are “outside of time,” Cliff City suggesting “immortal repose” and “the calmness of eternity” (201), Panther Canyon, “the drama that had been played out . . . centuries ago. . . . a continuity of life that reached back into the old time” (304). The atmosphere of Panther Canyon is “ritualistic” (304); Cliff City is “a sacred spot” that inspires “reverence” (221)—and yet both are, above all, domestic environments. As Tom, like Thea, increasingly observes the evidence of the everyday lives of the cliff dwellers—the tool making, the water carrying, and the baby tending—his appreciation for the artistry of the ancient people increases. Like Cézanne as imagined by Rilke, Tom makes a “saint” out of an ordinary object when he names a mummified body “Mother Eve,” and this moment is emblematic of the development in Tom’s perception that leads him to value the “aboriginal relation to the land” so important to Cather (204).
As an extended ekphrasis, “Tom Outland’s Story” records Tom’s shifting perception of the importance of the cliff dwellings and their artifacts, demanding our judgment to shift as well to accommodate the notion that domestic objects, the detritus of a vanished people, might constitute art, and that building a house or shaping a vessel to hold water might be an artistic act. If we look to the ekphrastic descriptions of Tom’s discovery of the cliff dwellings to inform our reading of the novel—to interpret the novel’s allegory or program—we come to understand that The Professor’s House is about people forming new understandings of domestic life and its objects (including houses) and of history and time. The social factors that contextualize Tom’s ekphrastic encounter—the eradication of the Native population from the Southwest and the cultural imperialism that extends to Roddy Blake an offer he cannot refuse for their remains—likewise contextualize the novel as a whole.
Outside of “Tom Outland’s Story,” there are no objects of art, conventionally understood, in the novel—no paintings, no sculpture—but we cannot help but notice that The Professor’s House is filled with color, form, texture, and light. In Godfrey St. Peter’s story, which frames Tom’s, clothes and bodies are aestheticized to a remarkable degree. Professor St. Peter’s physical appearance is described in minute detail and, moreover, specifically as if he were an art object. Not only is his swimmer’s body and Spanish coloring described—his “silky, very black hair” and his “tawny skin with gold lights in it”—but his eyes are described in terms of light and color—“brown and gold and green”—and his beard is a “Van Dyke” (13). His daughter Kathleen, a talented painter, appreciates the “modeling of his head between the top of his ear and his crown,” a description echoed by the narrator, who describes it as “more like a statue’s head than a man’s” (13). The physical appearance of the Professor’s wife and daughters is also recorded in this aestheticized detail. “Mrs. St. Peter was very fair, pink and gold,” and “one did not realize, on first meeting her, how very definitely and decidedly her features were cut” (36). Kathleen “was pale, with light hazel eyes, and her hair was hazel-coloured with distinctly green glints in it” (37). This sort of physical description is very different from the descriptions of Thea’s facial features in The Song of the Lark, for example, which almost always denote qualities of character—“fierce,” “tender,” “bleak” (10, 289)—rather than visual detail. Rosamond’s “silk suit of a vivid shade of lilac” is “admirably suited to her complexion and show[s] that in the colour of her cheeks there was actually a tone of warm lavender. . . . [S]he seemed very tall indeed, a little out of drawing” (58). Seeing Rosamond in a “coat of soft, purple-grey fur,” the Professor remarks, “these things with a kind of lurking purple and lavender in them are splendid for you. They make your colour prettier than ever” (82–83). The painterly and sculptural details of these descriptions identify the members of the St. Peter family themselves as art objects, and our introduction to them is an ekphrastic encounter in itself. Indeed, Doody expands her definition of ekphrasis in the modern novel to include the costumed human body as it is represented in masquerades, charades, and tableaux vivants (401). Modern ekphrasis might then be expanded to meet Valentine Cunningham’s broader definition: a “pausing . . . for some words about more or less artistic works . . . not made out of words” (57). Kathleen, whose furs are a poor second to Rosamond’s stunning (and stunningly expensive) moleskin, draws her father’s—and our—attention to the social space occupied by the beautifully colored Rosamond-object when she tells the Professor that “Rosie comes [to the Guild to sew for the Mission fund] in a handmade French frock that cost more than all our dresses put together” (86). In other words, she corrects her father’s aesthetic interpretation to include the circumstances of display; she insists on acknowledging criteria other than aesthetic in appraising a young woman he wants to see only as pretty. Her insistence forces St. Peter to recognize that Rosamond’s “emotional penumbra,” as Cather called it in “The Novel Démeublé”—the emotional life of the character with which the object is “perfectly synthesized” (48)—is selfish, oblivious of others, materialistic. Kathleen’s perception of the social context for this ekphrasis, and her insistence on separating beauty from moral qualities, is consistent with the program of the novel, which interrogates aesthetic judgment and cultural value. It is no surprise that Kathleen was encouraged to go to Chicago to take art classes, while Rosamond goes there to shop.
In The Professor’s House, Chicago serves as the location for a comparison between the art object and the commercial object. In addition to the reference to the Art Institute, where Kathleen was encouraged to study (65), the Professor is invited to lecture at the University of Chicago (76), and, while he is in the city for the occasion with his wife, Rosamond, and Louie, they attend the opera Mignon. The city is thus presented as a showcase for high culture—opera, academic history, art. It is also a showcase for commercial display: Rosamond’s emeralds are set by a Chicago jeweler (76), and Louie’s choice of hotel, the elegant Blackstone on Michigan Avenue, is compared to the “grimy place on the South side” (92) to which the Professor’s budget would have directed him; there are references to restaurant meals and trains. Chicago is the setting for another kind of display as well, Rosamond’s “birthday dinner in the public dining-room of the hotel” (95), at which she “was presented with her emeralds” (96). The celebration included some of the Professor’s colleagues, who, Mrs. St. Peter tells her husband, “went away from the Blackstone that night respecting Godfrey St. Peter more than they had ever done before” (96). Lillian is “doubtless right” (96)—and the Professor and the reader are both foils for the irony—that the academics are more impressed by their viewing of Rosamond’s emerald necklace fashioned by a Chicago jeweler than by their attendance at St. Peters’s lectures.
It is the house Louie names “Outland,” and the objects associated with it, that the novel’s ekphrasis most strongly challenges. The Norwegian manor house, unlike Thea’s remembered Norwegian folktale, is not connected to either Rosamond’s or Louie’s ethnic history; it represents no fusion of people and place. Unlike Panther Canyon or Cliff City or the landscape of Breton’s painting, it is neither indigenous nor vernacular; it is quite literally, as Scott’s joke has it, “outlandish” (43), a kind of perverse heterotopia. It is a “curated house,” a domestic and ethnic simulacrum. Outland is a museum that will display a reconstruction of Tom Outland’s laboratory; it is a kind of museum, too, in its display of aestheticized objects. The fact that both the American cultural moment and Rosamond and Louie’s taste dictate that the objects on display will be consumer goods rather than art objects reflects Cather’s post-1922 concern with market value’s replacement of aesthetic value. Although the Professor thinks the painted Spanish bedroom furniture, the object of Rosamond’s “orgy of acquisition” (154) in Chicago, is very pretty, when he views it in its social context he understands it is plunder. The historian of conquest and imperialism tells his wife that Rosamond “was like Napoleon looting the Italian palaces” (154). Rosamond’s rapacious consumption of goods is as destructive and offensive as Napoleon’s acquisition of territory. The Norwegian house, the French dresses, the Spanish furniture—as we “pause” in a kind of ekphrasis before these objects, their commodified ethnicity directs us to interpret the displacement of “aboriginal” culture by an economy of conspicuous consumption in the novel as regrettable. In comparison with the aboriginal culture of the cliff dwellers and with the domestic culture of St. Peters’s old home with its French garden, the brave new life of financial prosperity holds little hope for art.
The objects in The Professor’s House are primarily purchased rather than crafted. They are made, of course, but the act of their making is not central to their value. Their most important relation is to the purchaser, not the maker, and the circumstances of their acquisition and the degree to which they aggrandize the owner bespeak their value. On this point, the reader is certainly called into duBois’s “productive triangulation” when Louie directs Kathleen’s attention to Rosamond’s new emerald necklace and explains, “She doesn’t like anything showy, you know, and she doesn’t care about intrinsic values. It must be beautiful, first of all” (107). The irony of the necklace having no “intrinsic values”—and intrinsic values being unimportant to Rosamond and Louie—is that it defines the necklace per se as one of those things inferior to the art object. In her essay “On the Art of Fiction,” written some five years earlier, Cather says that art “is always a search for something for which there is no market demand . . . where the values are intrinsic and have nothing to do with standardized values” (103; Hilgart 379). Lillian St. Peter had earlier commented that an emerald necklace was “a little out of scale” for Rosamond (76). Lillian’s taste in these matters is reliable; we know the necklace most certainly is “showy,” and we know Kathleen the artist knows it.
Benjamin argues that in the modern age, the “exhibition value” of art, to which artistry is only incidental, has replaced its cult or magical or religious value (225). Cather’s use of ekphrasis in The Song of the Lark and The Professor’s House reflects a similar belief that no object, however beautiful, can be considered art when it is disconnected from its ceremonial origins, as the “standardized” object almost necessarily is. Both Thea Kronborg and Tom Outland see art in terms of history and ritual; for them, the remnants of the cliff dwellers retain their ceremonial value. The “ritualistic” atmosphere of Panther Canyon leads Thea to realize that the ancient pottery is art; Father Duchene tells Tom that Cliff City must have been the site of “religious ceremonies” (218, 220), and the remnants of domestic artifacts as well as the body of Mother Eve create in Tom what he calls “filial piety,” the pietas of the ancient Romans (251). Religious ritual is lost to Professor St. Peter—the son of a lapsed Catholic, he must ask the seamstress Augusta to clarify the difference between the Magnificat and the litany of Loreto (99–100)—but domestic ritual remains. Domestic ritual is typically a high order of human endeavor in Cather’s fiction, but the Professor seems unable to transfer his cooking, his gardening, and his daily work habits to the new house. He is unsettled by the shift between commercial and aesthetic values in his world and is “adrift,” as David Stouck describes him, “between the Dynamo and the Virgin” (205). In the absence of art and ceremony, in a world governed by commerce, only a kind of degraded ekphrasis is available to St. Peter: of dressmaker’s forms that remind him of real women, and a tableau vivant of his sons-in-law that allows him a “little joke” (74).
Cather’s description of objects throughout her fiction reflects her own aesthetic sensibility and her sensual apprehension of the material world. In The Song of the Lark and The Professor’s House, Cather finds in the terms of ekphrasis itself the occasion for the kind of painterly description and the modernist interrogation of value that is fundamental to her writing. In The Song of the Lark, Cather’s use of ekphrasis valorizes noncanonical art; in The Professor’s House, it challenges the market valorization of the commercial object. In both novels, the relationship between authentic art and vernacular culture is immensely consequential, its representation constituting a critique of twentiethcentury consumer culture and the criteria of aesthetic judgment. For Cather, beauty and truth reside in what comes from the “aboriginal” landscape and often appears unrefined—not Rosamond’s emerald necklace, but the stones Tom Outland gives to Rosamond and Kathleen, “turquoises, just as they come out of the mine, before the jewelers have tampered with them” (120).
DuBois acknowledges that at least one scholar of antiquity, Ruth Webb, finds this definition of ekphrasis “reductive,” but states that she herself is “still unrepentantly interested” in ekphrasis so defined (45). Versions of this definition of ekphrasis (e.g., “the representation in words of a visual representation” [Bartsch and Elsner i]) recur consistently and unapologetically in the scholarship on ekphrasis. I am indebted throughout this article to the special issue of Classical Philology on ekphrasis, edited by Bartsch and Elsner, and particularly to the discussion of historical and theoretical issues provided in their introduction and in the articles by Cunningham, duBois, and Goldhill.
Romy Kozak argues that Cather used “musical ekphrasis” in her fiction. In my view—which seems to be consistent with the available scholarship on ekphrasis—to qualify ekphrasis as “musical” is to create a unique definition that defies the fundamental ekphrastic relationship between the verbal and the visual.(Go back.)