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From Cather Studies Volume 3

Cather's Use of Light

An Impressionistic Tone

Each man painted what he got out of light—what it did to him.

To help suggest more than was actually written on the page and to buttress her attempts to achieve the novel "démeublé," Willa Cather incorporated the element of light into her style. This element also happened to be a supreme concern of impressionist painters of the late nineteenth century, who aspired to the elimination of "clutter "—they were reacting to unnecessarily detailed subject matter, which they felt was too prevalent in the paintings of their predecessors. While certainly some aspects of Cather's style might not be considered impressionistic, she shows to a remarkable extent the impressionist painters' uses of and affinities to light, which essentially helps to "disfurnish" their art. To this end of disfurnishing or simplifying art, Cather, like the impressionist painters, capitalizes on the transfiguring, emotionally evocative power of light as it plays upon objects in her work.

Despite Leon Edel's claim that "one cannot associate Miss Cather with the impressionists, or the subjectivists," and that "she doesn't know the meaning of chiaroscuro" (200), Cather scholarship generally supports the notion that her work shares an affinity with impressionist art. Warren French confidently links her with impressionist tendencies, since "certainly one of the major efforts of artists from Manet to Matisse was to 'disfurnish' . . . their canvases—to eliminate the clutter of the midnineteenth-century genre painters as Willa Cather suggests young novelists are trying to escape the clutter of Balzac's fictions" (238). John Murphy asserts that, given Cather's perceptive comments regarding sunlight in the works of impressionist and luminist landscape painters, it is no surprise that "impressionistic renderings of landscape are prevalent" in My Ántonia ("Alembic" 51). He also convincingly explains how primary aspects of Impressionism in the visual art medium can help the reader comprehend Cather's "intentional, consciousness-filtering method" in her work ("Nebraska" 233). David Stouck argues that some of Cather's novels are pastorals and that pastoral art, because it is highly subjective as well as selective in attempting to evoke certain emotions, is highly impressionistic. According to Stouck, pastoral art is characterized by "vague outline in painting, lyrical description in literature, the dissolve and soft lens of the camera" (36).

Like pastoral art, impressionist art is essentially subjective, but what the impressionists brought to painting was a new perception of atmosphere and space. They discovered that light was what created the value of spaces and that details in a scene were displaced and different fragments of space combined as the artist's angle of vision changed. Atmosphere became more important than scene, and objects could lose their distinct shapes because they were translated into the essence of a sensation, into the perception of the physical world as seen by the artist (Sypher 293). The Utah impressionist painter John Hafen illuminated he need for more subjectivity in painting as he enjoined his contemporaries to "cease to look for mechanical effect or minute finish, for individual leaves, blades of grass, or aped imitation of things, but look for smell, for soul, for feeling for the beautiful in line and color" (Gibbs 44).

Furthermore, the impressionists generally chose to give a pictorial rendering of clouds, wind, and shifting atmosphere enveloped in overall light. The French impressionists, particularly Monet, were primarily concerned with visible changes caused by the condition of lighting, and they captured these fleeting changes in their insistence on mediums of weather, season of the year, and time of day. "The great impressionists Monet, Sisley, and Pissaro carried this concern to the extreme that they no longer painted objects so much as the light on them and the air around them" (Benamou 48). Thus, the impressionist painters, since they were more interested in the atmosphere produced by qualifying light than in details or outlines, came to suggest the chief features of objects with fewer strokes in depicting effects of light in their compositions. This is not to say that they were indifferent to subject matter; generally, impressionist artists consciously selected the "peasantry, contemporary social concerns or the painting of landscapes associated with the common man and often of national . . . physical character and dimensions" (Gerdts 17). Of utmost importance, nevertheless, was the retention of impressions that objects made on the perceptive sensibility of the artist (Boyle 30-31).

Willa Cather herself Was keenly aware and appreciative of what the (French and American) impressionist painters had attempted to achieve in their works. Merrill Skaggs presents a brief remark about the knowledge Cather had of the French impressionists. Skaggs senses that Cather's awareness of the French impressionists' techniques in relation to her own becomes obvious in a comment made by Lucy in Lucy Gayheart. In this novel, Lucy and Harry Gordon visit a museum showing French impressionist paintings. To Gordon's negative reaction to the inaccurate details in the pictures Lucy responds "I think some are meant to represent objects, and others are meant to express a kind of feeling merely, and then accuracy doesn't matter" (101). In Skaggs's view, Cather "always seems more interested in capturing something [in her own writing] infinitely harder to hold than mere facts" (21).

This "lack of accuracy" proved to be an admirable quality of a number of American impressionist pieces on display in Lincoln in 1895; Cather lavished praise on them and stated that impressionism in general was "natural enough" (World 126). She felt that "the treating of phases and moods and incidents becomes popular in every art.... While Mr. Benson's 'Firelight' does not at all put Rubens and Rembrandt to shame, it is an excellent picture in its way. If a picture is good, it does not denote whether it is done with a pin point or a palette knife.... Beauty is not so plentiful that we can afford to object to stepping back a dozen paces to catch it" (126-27). She was especially affected by a work of Theodore Robinson, the leading exponent of American impressionism at that time (123). What pleased her in his Scene on the Delaware and Hudson Canal was that it was "full of air and sunlight, its abundance of clear atmosphere gives it a bracing exhilarating effect.... The clouds are such as might float and the thinner ones have a suggestion of rapid motion. It is plainly a morning picture, a few hours later than the misty time that Corot loved to paint" (125). Willa Cather was very sensitive to the emotional, "exhilarating" sensation that was conveyed through the effects of sunlight in this impressionist's work. Furthermore, she seems to have discerned a primary goal of the impressionist painters' efforts: to portray the visible, fleeting changes of atmosphere caused by the condition of lighting.

Notice the awareness Cather had of the powerful, transfiguring effects of sunlight on the Western landscape in the following criticism of Richard Lorenz's In the West. "The sunlight is gentle, not the fierce, white, hot sunlight of the West. Sunlight on the plains is almost like sunlight on the northern seas; it is a glaring, irritating, shelterless light that makes the atmosphere throb and pulsate with heat" (125). It appears that her concern for a more potent and effective portrayal of the Western sunlight is one that she would actualize, through the medium of writing, many years later in the sunny scenes of The Song of the Lark, The Professor's House, Death Comes for the Archbishop, O Pioneers! and My Ántonia.

Willa Cather picked up on the emotional suggestiveness, the "poetry," of various impressionist painters. She admired Gari Melchers, an American painter who used "a modified impressionist style" in his portraits (Boyle 139) because he "got more of the poetry out of common life than any man since Millet" (World 763). The French impressionist Alfred Sisley's Village on the Shore of the Marne was "full of poetry" for Cather because the monotony of light and color on the river scene suggested a satisfying memory of childhood and playing in the rushes on a chilly gray November day (761). It is "an intensely temperamental picture, and its message is for the few. Some peculiarly poignant recollection of the place or some impression painfully sharp, got mixed into the paint as the artist worked, and his mood, somber and beautiful, was caught and transfixed there" (761). Both Sisley and Camille Corot she admired for the impressive way they conveyed their feelings for trees in landscapes. "With Sisley it was the silver poplar, the whole tree permeated and riddled with light like a lattice. Certainly these men . . . got the individuality of the tree established in their inner consciousness" (808).

Certain aspects of the impressionist painters' techniques and goals were beginning to establish themselves early in Cather's inner consciousness. She was aware in 1895 that there was a possibility of "reproduc[ing] the emotional effect of one art through the medium of another" (On Writing 62). She wrote that H. O. Tanner's use of color in his oriental paintings might be comparable to "Pierre Loti's faculty of infusing absolute personality into environment, if one may compare two such dissimilar mediums of prose and paint" (World 761). She apparently decided that one could compare painting and prose, because in her preface to Stephen Crane's Wounds in the Rain she states, "You see at once that Crane was one of the first post-impressionists; that he began it before the French painters began it, or at least as early as the first of them. He simply knew from the beginning how to handle detail" (quoted in On Writing 69). In her treatment of Crane as an early post-impressionist, she quotes and praises for its economy a passage of his that is, appropriately, riddled with light imagery: "'The sun threw his last lance through the foliage. The steep mountain-range on the right turned blue and as without detail as a curtain. The tiny ruby of light ahead meant that the ammunition guard were cooking their supper.' Enough certainly. He didn't follow the movement of the troops there.... He knew that the movement of the troops was the officers' business, not his" (71).

What is particularly revealing about Cather's synthesis of the impressionist painters' concerns and the writers' goals is to be found in her introduction to Defoe's Roxanna, or, The Unfortunate Mistress. It seems that Cather transformed her earlier comments about Sisley's paintings into her theory of portraying "scenes" in fiction, as she states that the "scene" in fiction is not a mere matter of construction, any more than it is in life. When we have a vivid experience in social intercourse . . . it records itself in our memory in the form of a scene; and when it flashes back to us, all sorts of apparently unimportant details are flashed back with it. When a writer has a strong or revelatory experience with his characters, he unconsciously creates a scene; gets a depth of picture, and writes, as it were, in three dimensions instead of two. The absence of these warm and satisfying moments in any work of fiction is final proof of the author's poverty of emotion and lack of imagination. (On Writing 79-80)

The mood of a recollection that gets caught in Sisley's paint and is transfixed to his canvas becomes the revelatory experience that forms the depth (emotion), the third dimension, of the fiction writer's "scene." The scenes that Cather writes in her novels are often flashbacks of brilliantly lighted experiences or memories.

If Cather was as aware of the impressionists and their techniques as her early commentaries suggest, and if she admired them for their emotional suggestiveness in reference to their skillful, poetic use of lighting, it makes sense to explore the affinities she has with the impressionists in the use of light. As Maria Kronegger states, "Light is the soul of impressionist paintings and the soul of impressionist literature. It is an element of style" (42).

Cather was always conscious of distinctive visual effects, and her awareness of elements of painting in her scenes is sometimes underscored by use of metaphors from painting. Her direct reference to a technique or element of painting was perhaps intended to give the reader more of a sense of the idea she was trying to convey, to give the words of a scene more depth and meaning since the reader might better visualize that scene if it were described as a painted composition. In her 1904 short story "A Wagner Matinee" Cather describes the effect that the brilliant lighting colors and atmosphere might have had on Aunt Georgiana (subjectively interpreted through her nephew with his "tendency to explore his aunt's consciousness through the impressions of the sights and sounds of the physical world around her" [Murphy, "Nebraska" 233]) as she waited for the concert to begin: One lost the contour of faces and figures, indeed any effect of line whatever, and there was only the colour of bodices past counting, the shimmer of fabrics soft and firm, silky and sheer; red, mauve, pink, blue, lilac, purple, ecru, rose, yellow, cream, and white, all the colours that an impressionist finds in a sunlit landscape, with here and there the dead shadow of a frock coat. My Aunt Georgiana regarded them as though they had been so many daubs of tube-paint on a palette. (238)

Conversely, it was the lack of color and lighting that induced Cather to describe the Kansas town in "EI Dorado: A Kansas Recessional" in terms of a poor-quality painting- "It was a country flat and featureless, without tones or shadows, without accent or emphasis of any kind to break its vast monotony. It was a scene done entirely in high lights, without relief, without a single commanding eminence to rest the eye upon" (293-94).

Much later, in her novels, she used painting terminology to suggest (rather than to delineate, as in her short fiction) the impressive quality and ambience of a scene. In the early description of Santa Fe in Death Comes for the Archbishop she seems to be treating a pictorial representation of a scene: "The church towers, and all the low adobe houses, were rose colour in that light,—a little darker in tone than the amphitheatre of red hills behind; and periodically the plumes of poplars flashed like gracious accent marks" (22). (Her attention to the light effects in the poplars is reminiscent of the attention she gave to Sisley's powerful rendering of poplars.) Elsewhere in this novel she employs a painting simile to describe the movement of a dark cloud into the atmosphere: "Dark clouds began boiling up from behind it [the mesa], like ink spots spreading in a brilliant sky" (98). Pages later, another ink spot of a cloud is further delineated by the transfiguring hand of the sun-artist: the sinking sun "edged that inky, ominous cloud with molten silver" (119). Her depiction of these dark clouds is reminiscent of the remark she made in "Light on Adobe Walls" concerning the artist who paints what gives him "personal delight—a conception of clouds over distant mesas . . . that makes one nerve in him thrill and tremble. [That nerve is] the projection in paint of a fleeting pleasure in a certain combination of form and colour, as temporary and almost as physical as a taste on the tongue" (124).

Furthermore, the artist's paint becomes almost tangible in scene after scene of Archbishop: "Seen from this distance, the Cathedral lay against the pine-splashed slopes as against a curtain" (272), and "the sky above the mountain grew black, and the carnelian rocks became an intense lavender, all their pine trees strokes of dark purple; the hills drew nearer, the whole background approached like a dark threat" (272). "The canyons and ravines were wooded with aspens, so that the shape of every depression was painted on the mountain-side, light green against the dark, like symbols" (151). Her depiction of trees as mere splashes of color and the capturing of the fleeting moment of a moving, active atmosphere show her as sharing a major aesthetic concern of the impressionists. Even in an analogy she made between French writers' fiction and the southern French landscape we can see impressionistic overtones: Flaubert and Gauffer's fiction, she wrote, "seems to palpitate with heat, like a line of sand hills in the South that dances and vibrates in the yellow glare of noon" (138).

In Lucy Gayheart Willa Cather uses what seems to be an extended metaphor of a painter's attempt to portray only the meaningful details of a memorable scene. She conveys the emotional state of her character Lucy by having her select only the images that have subjective relevance from the myriad details of the city: Lucy carried in her mind a very individual map of Chicagoa blur of smoke and wind and noise, with flashes of blue water, and certain clear outlines rising from the confusion.... This city of feeling rose out of the city of fact like a definite composition,—beautiful because the rest was blotted out. She thought of the steps leading down from the Art Museum as perpetually flooded with orange-red sunlight; they had been like that one stormy November afternoon when Sebastian came out of the building. (24)

Cather, like the impressionist artist with his wide brush strokes, strives to evade (or throw out of the window) the exact rendering of the details that in themselves do not contribute to the evocation of an emotion and thus to what is "real" for the artist. According to Kronegger, for the impressionists, "reality is a synthesis of pure sensation, modulated by consciousness and changed into impressions" (36). In this passage from Lucy Gayheart we also see that it is the sunlight, caught in a moment of time, that becomes the illuminating force that procures for Lucy a memory of the steps where Sebastian once walked. Cather is clearly giving credit to the transfiguring, emotionally evocative power of light playing on an object.

Cather, like the impressionists, was always extremely conscious of the transforming, transfiguring power of the sun. The impressionists were interested in expressing movement through a fluctuating atmosphere controlled by the "vibrancy of light" (Boyle 31). For Cather, light frequently pulsates and throbs with that vibrancy, and the objects that light falls on are changed as they deflect the almost living quality of light. Thus, many of her sunlit scenes employ verbs that reveal the light as a life force invigorating the atmosphere. In Alexander's Bridge we read, "It was one of those rare afternoons when all the thickness and shadow of London are changed to a kind of shining pulsing special atmosphere; when the smoky vapors become fluttering gold clouds, nacreous veils of pink and amber when all that bleakness of gray stone and dullness of dirty brick trembles in aureate light, and all the roofs and spires, and one great dome, are floated in golden haze" (92). The sunlight at its highest point completely transforms a setting in Italy at the beginning of Archbishop. "The vehemence of the sun suggested motion. The light was full of action and had a peculiar quality of climax—of splendid finish.... It bored into the ilex trees, illuminating their mahogany trunks and blurring their dark foliage; it warmed the bright green of the orange trees and the rose of the oleander blooms to gold; sent congested, spiral patterns quivering over the damask and plate and crystal" (4).

In several more of Cather's novels her depiction of the great power of light cannot go unnoticed. Judith Fryer observes the dynamic use Willa Cather makes of light in Death Comes for the Archbishop and focuses on the powerful effect that even unseen sunlight has on the "undercurrent of the great fact of the land itself" (313) as the bishop and his vicar ride through a rainstorm when "the sky was very low; purplish lead-coloured clouds let down curtains of mist into the valleys between the pine ridges. There was not a glimmer of white light in the dark vapours working overhead . . . and the faces of the two priests were purple and spotted in that singular light" (64-65). Sunlight transforms the land in The Song of the Lark, making it pulsate with life on "one of those still days of intense light, when every particle of mica in the soil flashed like a little mirror, and the glare from the plain below seemed more intense than the rays from above. The sand ridges ran glittering gold out to where the mirage licked them up, shining and steaming like a lake in the tropics" (93). Cather was even aware, like the impressionists, that light determines space. In A Lost Lady, Mrs. Forrester looks back at "green alleys and the sharp shadows, at the quivering fans of light that seemed to push the trees farther apart" (113).

Frequently, Cather describes the force of light in terms of fluidity. In a hydraulic form it has the ability to dissolve contours, to blend colors together or to envelop objects in rivers of undulating brightness. Cather uses this fluid conception of light in numerous variations. She describes the essence of light itself as liquid in O Pioneers! where Alexandra and Emil observe the winter sun fading with a "streak of pale, watery light that glimmered in the leaden sky" (14). In summer, "the pasture was flooded with light . . . and the golden light seemed to be rippling through the curly grass like the tide racing in" (127). The autumn sunlight in Shadows on the Rock "poured over the rock like a heavy southern wine" (33). In Archbishop even a brilliant star "seemed to bathe in her own silver light" (37). In Shadows, when the sunlight is muted by haze, its fluid form takes on a new vitality, the light of the setting sun making the color of twilight seem "thick, like a heavy liquid, welling up wave after wave, a substance that throbs, rather than a light" (233).

As a liquid the light transforms objects through overpowering fluidity. Willa Cather captured these transformations in descriptions vivified by words denoting motion and changing color. The Song of the Lark in particular abounds with representations of sun and moon wreaking havoc on desert formations, turning them into masses of liquid forms: "The desert glistened with light, the sand hills every day went through magical changes of colour" (70). These sand ridges "ran glittering gold out to where the mirage licked them up, shining and steaming like a lake in the tropics. The sky looked like blue lava" (93). Under the moon "the dunes looked like a shining lake" (51). In My Ántonia roads under the moonlight become active bodies of water, "soft grey rivers floating past" (119). Ántonia's eyes are described as "big and warm and full of light, like the sun shining on brown pools in the wood" (23). Trees and plants become vessels for the liquid sunlight in The Professor's House: pine trees "drink up the sun" (263); and over Antonia's orchard "the afternoon sun poured down on us through the dying grape leaves. The orchard seemed full of sun, like a cup" (341). Light is the thirst quencher for all of life: the canyon in Song "was a reality only when it was flooded with the light of its great lamp when the yellow rocks cast purple shadows, and the resin was fairly cooking in the corkscrew cedars" (383).

When normally solid, stable objects become almost animate, swimming entities captured briefly in a moment of time, we see the concerns of the impressionists in Cather's words. Kirschke noted that "many of the impressionists convey through their depiction of water imagery something of the impermanence and insubstantiality of the visible world" (11). A very impressionistic use of light as a hydraulic force that transforms and floods the objects of the desert into swimming masses of kinetic motion is found in Cather's depiction of a sunrise at Panther Canyon: "At first the golden light seemed to hang like a wave upon the rim of the canyon.... The red sun rose rapidly above the tops of the blazing pines, and its glow burst into the gulf.... The dripping cherry bushes, the pale aspens, and the frosty piñons were glittering and trembling, swimming in the liquid gold" (Song 389-90). Here again Cather appears to be speaking for the impressionists, who, as Boyle claims, were noted for their "fluid execution and closely modulated color harmonies" (202.) and whose entire style took on fluidity and luminosity of color (21). In Cather's depiction of the Western lands, it is the colors brought about by changing lights that become fluid: "The desert, the mountains and mesas, were continually re-formed and recoloured by the cloud shadows. The whole country seemed fluid to the eye under this constant change of accent, this ever-varying distribution of light" (Archbisbop 9).

It seems that for Willa Cather there was an integral relation between water and light. She portrays light as a hydraulic substance, and even objects and colors become fluid and impermanent under the light. Furthermore, like other literary impressionists, she was attracted to water, which she consistently used in connection with light. Ponds, lakes, and rivers appear in her novels as reflectors of light, echoing Kronegger's observation that "a river is -for the [impressionist] painter an animated surface of many colors.... In literature, however, the water image is used less to sing the harmony of color and light than to be the basic connection between an initial emotional state and a final emotional state, controlling the protagonist as to his wishes and feelings" (81).

Indeed, the shining pond in O Pioneers! becomes a controlling device for Alexandra's romantic feelings. It is a magnet of light that catches her eyes and draws out her desire, just as it attracts the seagulls over Ivar's property with promise of refreshment. One night while Carl and Alexandra's brothers were swimming in the Bergson pond, Alexandra sat on her kitchen doorstep, inhaled the night fragrance, and "watched the shimmering pool dreamily" (46). However, her romantic dreams changed to practical thoughts as "her eyes went back to the sorghum patch" (46), where she would build a pig corral. She apparently was not ready to indulge in the fantasies represented by the pond. Years later Carl reappeared at the farm and revealed the grand outside world to be a disturbing place. Yet Alexandra persisted in believing that the world could offer her brother Emil more "something" than the farm could, and her attention was drawn to the "silver spot the moon made on the surface of the pond" (123). The pond was the meeting place for Emil and Marie, and Carl saw them at "the bright spot of water" (12) as they hunted ducks. The glittering pond became a romantic respite where Marie decided to dream about her love for Emil —"She felt as the pond must feel when it held the moon like that; when it encircled and swelled with that image of gold" (250). While Alexandra despairs over Marie's betrayal of her trust and Marie's involvement of Emil in a deadly fate, Carl listens and looks out over the shining spot of water. He and Alexandra sit down at the pond, and Carl helps Alexandra to see that the romantic interlude between Marie and Emil was inevitable, given their young, passionate natures. Thus, the bright pond serves as a kind of control for Alexandra's attitude, from her dreamy desires for something beyond the hard realities of farm life to her reconciliation with the inevitable truth of romantic forces that prove fateful for Emil and Marie.

Not only does light have the ability to transform objects in Willa Cather's novels but objects are actually described in terms of reflected light, and their significance is established as a result of the extent to which they absorb, deflect, or refract light. To describe something by what it appears to be at a particular moment in a certain angle of light is to reveal one's perception of reality at that moment. This revelation is a highly subjective reaction. Cather's readers receive a clue concerning the moods and feelings of characters in her novels through the characters' reactions to scenes in which light defines the objects of their visual perception. At these moments it is as if "reality is a synthesis of sense impressions. Impressionist art suggests an emotional reality" (Kronegger 14). In O Pioneers! Emil approaches the orchard where he and Marie used to meet. He wants to be reminded of her, to remember the mulberry tree and the sunny times he shared with her in the orchard. In this state of mind he reaches the orchard when the sun is setting: "Long fingers of light reached through the apple branches as through a net; the orchard was riddled and shot with gold; light was the reality, the trees were merely interferences that reflected and refracted light" (258). Light becomes the emotional reality signifying Emil's bright and intense love for Marie.

In One of Ours we can see the emotional significance of light playing on buildings when the mood of the soldiers embarking on a journey to France becomes one of dejection. They had anticipated seeing New York clearly, but a hot, misty morning made the tall buildings look "unsubstantial and illusionary,—mere shadows of grey and pink and blue that might dissolve with the mist and fade away with it" (272). In Shadows on the Rock we get a vivid impression of Cécile's joyous mood through her perception of Quebec transformed into reflections of glittering gold. The autumn haze creates a muted atmosphere through which the sun breaks into a splendour of gold light over the Upper Town, a light that, in Cather's characteristic fluidity, "melts" the trees into an emotional sensation: "So many kinds of gold, all gleaming in the soft hyacinth coloured haze of autumn.... Most beautiful of all was the tarnished gold of the elms, with a little brown in it, a little bronze, a little blue, even—a blue like amethyst, which made them melt into the azure haze with a kind of happiness, a harmony of mood that filled the air with content" (229).

Perhaps less related to the suggestion of characters' moods yet integral to a depiction of reality in a fleeting moment of time are the wealth of objects in Cather's works described in relation to light. In Alexander's Bridge the wheels of a carriage become "revolving disks that threw off rays of light" (91). In O Pioneers! Alexandra's lantern is transformed verbally into a "moving point of light" (18), and her brothers became a "flash of white bodies" as they swim in the moonlit pond (46). In Shadows the old French stronghold in Quebec becomes "scattered spires and slated roofs flashing in the rich, autumnal sunlight" (4); the sails of ships are rendered as a "flash" (3) or "gleam of white" (206), and the houses of the Lower Town are a "mere sprinkle of lights along the water's edge" (21). In Song seedling cottonwood trees are "a thread of bright, flickering, golden-green" (372), and in Lucy a train becomes "a long line of swaying lights" (16). The capitol building of Denver in Song "is actually in armour and throws off the shafts of the sun until the beholder is dazzled and the outlines of the building are lost in a blaze of reflected light" (471). In this last description Cather could almost be describing Monet's Rouen Cathedral, a painting in which Monet did not directly catch the outlines of the cathedral's gothic structure but captured the density of the air around it and the play of lights upon it.

Although the examples recounted above in no way exhaust the plethora of references to light in Cather's work, it is apparent that she used light effectively in the painting techniques that helped her achieve the ideal she strove for, the unfurnished novel. Light imagery, which served as the main ingredient of her painting techniques, helped her to suggest the emotional essence of her characters and settings without excessive attention to detail, thus fulfilling a criterion for the novel déneublé. The impressionists' emphasis on elimination of details and their depiction of the light on objects and the air around them find their way expeditiously and impressively into Willa Cather's fiction.


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Boyle, Richard J. American Impressionism. New York: New York Graphic Society, 1974.
Cather, Willa. Alexander's Bridge. 1912. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1977.
——. Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction, 1892-1912. Ed. Virginia Faulkner. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1970.
——. Death Comes for the Archbishop. 1927. New York: Knopf, 1980.
——. A Lost Lady. 1923. New York: Knopf, 1978.
——. Lucy Gayheart. New York: Knopf, 1935.
——. My Ántonia. 1918. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1954.
——. My Mortal Enemy. 1926. New York: Knopf, 1950.
——. O Pioneers!. 1913. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1941.
——. One of Ours. 1922. New York: Knopf, 1979.
——. The Professor's House. New York: Knopf, 1925.
——. Shadows on the Rock. New York: Knopf, 1931.
——. The Song of the Lark. 19T5. Rev. ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1943.
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——. "Nebraska Naturalism in Jamesian Frames." Great Plains Quarterly 4.4 (Fall 1984): 231-37
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