Writing and Painting: The Fruitful Influence of Vanessa Bell

The following is a guest post by Pauline Schnoebelen:

There is no doubt that Virginia Woolf’s artistic motivations and expectations as a writer have to be examined in relation to her regular acquaintances as well as the cultural and artistic context of her time.

However, a preliminary look into Woolf’s biographic elements on a familial level cannot but throw additional light on her aspirations as an artist and the choice of her aesthetic theories. Paradoxically enough, the environment Woolf grew up in was not suffused with the insatiable quest for artistic creation that Woolf would later become known for.

Indeed, Woolf grew up in a very Victorian household characterized by strict values and obligations, and she received a literary education mainly composed of a reading of the classics.

As both her brothers were sent away to school, she became very close to her young sister Vanessa. Woolf disliked her life under such circumstances intensely, as did her sister.

Yet looking back on her early years, Woolf wrote that “by nature,” both herself and her sister were “explorers and revolutionists” who “lived under the sway of a society that was about fifty years too old for [them].” “It was this curious fact,” she wrote, “that made our struggle so bitter and so violent,” as it encouraged this artistic league that she formed with Vanessa against Victorian values and moral imperatives.

Vanessa Bell (left) and Virginia Woolf (right) in 1902

Although belonging to the private realm, these elements of revolt in her younger years tell as much about Virginia Woolf’s future avant-garde inclinations as they do about a personality already inclined to experimenting and broadening of possibilities of expression.

Moreover, the influence of her sister Vanessa Bell – who was to become a renowned painter herself – was decisive for Woolf’s conception of artistic representation. While Woolf decided to express herself as an artist through writing, Vanessa Bell chose the visual arts and began a career in painting.

Yet, in her work The Sisters’ Arts, which presents a study of their interesting creative relationship, Diane F. Gillespie specifies that as a young woman, Woolf had actually “tried her hand at the visual arts.”

Thus Virginia Woolf began painting for recreation first before it became a way to challenge her own artistic possibilities but also to compete with her sister Vanessa.

Still, in her correspondence, Woolf defends writing as perfectly able to equal painting in its special features and modes of representation.

Although writing eventually dislodged painting, Woolf’s attempts at creating with the brush and Vanessa’s devotion to the visual arts played a significant part in the style of her final prose.

It is highly important to consider the impact of Woolf’s strong relationship with her sister in order to assess the impact of the visual arts on her work. So as “to inspire her writing, to find images, metaphors, relations” and to investigate the capacities of the novel beyond its traditional forms, Woolf looked repeatedly at paintings “by or with Vanessa.”

When Virginia Woolf was still trying to write her first novel The Voyage Out (1915), Vanessa Bell entered upon a very radical period as a painter, cutting out detail and physically accurate representation.

Examples of this particular revolutionary technique can be found in three portraits of Woolf herself painted by her sister in 1912, two of them simply entitled Virginia Woolf, and the last one Virginia Woolf in a Deckchair. Vanessa Bell began painting portraits of people with the face left blank.

Each of the three portraits of Woolf by her sister present this characteristic of a face with no eyes, mouth or nose – that is, without any facial expression to be seen.

These very daring methods of representation cause these portraits to illustrate their subjects’ essential character through the renouncement of human figures and a deep interest in lines and colours.

Virginia Woolf confronted the problem of representation and solved it in similar ways. What’s more, Woolf was extremely intrigued by this unconventional method of realizing a portrait and representing individuality which gradually led her to wonder if the same effect could happen in literature.

As Vanessa Bell’s artistic influence enabled Woolf to dare thinking about an expansion of her own art in order to increase its expressivity, both sisters shared specific values and views of reality.

These common beliefs allowed them to find stimulation in each other’s medium and each other’s work, for “each could imagine what the other would do with certain material or what she would do herself if she worked in the other medium,” thereby providing a fertile breeding ground for an efficient artistic collaboration and creation.

On many occasions, Woolf imagined herself as a painter noting in her diaries and letters how she would render a particular aspect of a scene in certain colours or shapes, as seen in a diary entry written after an absence of a few days where she writes “Still I think if I were a painter I should only need a brush dipped in dun colour to give the tone of those eleven days.”

In a letter to Vanessa Bell, Woolf sincerely admits her admiration for the art of painting, revealing “one should be a painter. As a writer, I feel the beauty, which is almost entirely colour, very subtle, very changeable, running over my pen, as if you poured a large jug of champagne over a hairpin.”

As a matter of fact, for Virginia Woolf, her sister Vanessa was nothing less than a “poet […] in colour,” and answering to her sister’s praise of her novel The Waves, Woolf wrote “I always feel I’m writing more for you than for anybody.”


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