William Adolphe-Bougeureau (1825-1905), Les Printemps, 1886, oil on canvas, 201.3 x 117.8 cm, Joslyn Art Museum.
When somebody asks me what my favourite book is – which is rarely – I always say, after feigned hesitation, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1920). I don’t have time to say exactly why, except it is funny and poignant with a lightness of touch in questioning the attitudes of Gilded Age New York that doesn’t compromise the narrative. I would also argue it is one of the America’s greatest war novels. Set in the years following the Civil War and written just after World War I (where Wharton served as a nurse in France), the upper-classes of New York may seem the antithesis of war-devastated Europe – but it merely serves as warning of the impossibility, and danger, of remaining rigid to old ideals after monumental moments of change.
The reason for bringing Wharton up though is because yesterday marked the 151st anniversary of her birth and I needed a theme – no matter how tenuous. So using Bouguereau, here’s one more reason to celebrate The Age of Innocence.
In the early stages of the novel, attention is drawn to a painting:
Wandering on to the bouton d’or drawing-room (where Beaufort had had the audacity to hang ‘Love Victorious’, the much-discussed nude of Bouguereau) Archer found Mrs. Welland and her daughter standing near the ball-room door.
Although Bouguereau never painted a picture called ‘Love Victorious’, it is believed the painting over the Beaufort’s drawing room fireplace to be Le Printemps (Scorsese even used it in his film adaptation). Depicting an idealised female form with liberal smatterings of putti, the painting’s function, on one level, is to demonstrate how easily the upper-classes of New York are scandalised. What we infer is that these people, who think of themselves as cosmopolitan, are in fact, compared to Europeans, provincial in taste.
This is complicated, however, because if Wharton herself believes Bourguereau’s work to have been genuinely shocking in the 1870s and ’80s, it would render her novel as provincial as the society it portrays. Instead, Wharton uses Bouguereau because she knows he was an academic, a traditionalist, whose work didn’t provoke, but was rather part of the establishment, consistently exhibited in the annual Paris Salon. Bourguereau’s conservatism then merely emphasises how out of touch all these characters are – the scandalised and the, er, un-scandalised.
Using Eugène Delacroix’s Mademoiselle Rose (1820) as a point of contrast, we can see that while Bourguereau’s paintings are idealised and heavy on symbolism; Delacroix, 60 years earlier, and like his fellow Paris Realists, is boldly literal.
Unaware that the world had upped the nude stakes, Wharton, in a cheeky aside, manages to capture in an instant how out of touch these people really are – politically, culturally and emotionally – to the world around them.
All hail Edith. TA
We may not have published Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, but we have reprinted In Morocco, Wharton’s classic account of journeying to Morocco in the final days of World War I.