William Rothenstein Reads Browning: A Study of “The Browning Readers”

William Rothenstein, The Browning Readers 
© Bradford Metropolitan District Council

William Rothenstein, The Browning Readers
© Bradford Metropolitan District Council

     Rothenstein’s The Browning Readers is one painter’s tribute to a favourite poet.  It also offers a fascinating glimpse of the “idea” of Browning at the turn of the century; a pictorial impression of the atmosphere in which his work was read and of the mood it evoked in his readers.  Its original and thoughtful approach to the relationships between reader, writer, artist and spectator sets it apart from the general run of charming but lightweight variations on the popular theme of women reading and places it, a particularly English example, among the masterpieces of the genre from Corot to Hopper.  Together with Rothenstein’s other Browning subjects, “Porphyria” and two paintings from “Parting at Morning,”  The Browning Readers contributes to that alternative critical heritage of “paintings from books” which parallels and supplements the written commentaries of reviewers and literary critics.1

     As a schoolboy, Rothenstein enjoyed Browning and was amused to think that his own parents, German-Jewish merchants, had come to England from a village near Hamelin.  As an art student in the 1880s he spent much time browsing in the Forster and Dyce Collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where he especially admired the portrait study of Browning by Legros, his teacher at the Slade.  He recalled in his memoirs that he and his contemporaries “revered” Browning.2  Painting the portrait of F.J. Furnivall for Trinity Hall, Cambridge, he listened to his sitter hold forth about Browning and the Browning Society;3 he also knew other authorities on the poet such as J.T. Nettleship and Stopford Brooke.  He enjoyed the caricatures and parodies of Browning by his friend Max Beerbohm, especially “A Recollection” and the Pippa passages of Savonarola Brown.4  Rothenstein had little formal education in literature and was never the sort of enthusiast who joined the Browning Society or who read beyond the more popular and accessible poems.  In his lectures on art he would quote a passage such as “The shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades,” from “Fra Lippo Lippi.”  Like many late Victorian readers he thought of Browning as a poet of psychological complexity, with a modern idiom and somewhat robust outlook on life; moreover, as an artist specialising in portraiture, he appreciated Browning’s interest in “characters.”

     Although he disapproved of “literary” painting that tells or implies a story, Rothenstein was committed to the idea of some significant subject matter in art beyond its autonomous pictorial or painterly qualities; this could include various kinds of emotion or experience outside art, including the experience of literature.  He did not paint subjects from books in the way a Victorian artist might transpose or re-imagine a fictional scene; nor, unlike his brother Albert Rutherston, was he much interested in illustration.  Although he was asked by C.R. Ashbee to illustrate Browning’s “The Flight of the Duchess” for his Essex House Press, Rothenstein did not carry out the commission.5  Ashbee would presumably have had in mind something like the black chalk drawings in a vaguely mediaeval but unspecific setting with which Rothenstein illustrated Voltaire’s La Pucelle d’Orléans (The Savoy, I, 1896) and Villon’s La Belle héaulmière aux filles de joie (Manchester City Art Gallery).  Paintings with literary titles, mottoes and inscriptions seemed old-fashioned to Rothenstein’s generation; when he did borrow titles from literature it was as a point of departure for a completely new work (The Doll’s House, Tate Gallery) or for a painting which aimed at achieving some equivalent, but separate, mood (Le Grand I Vert, Manchester City Art Gallery).    Occasionally and conversely, as I shall show, the allusion seems to crystallise after the picture is painted, as a kind of echo of a literary experience which connects but does not merge with the visual experience.

     Rothenstein’s first Browning picture was painted in 1891 in Paris, where he was continuing his studies at the Académie Julian and where he found in his fellow student Charles Conder an enthusiasm for Browning that equalled his own.  Conder, who used “Old Pictures in Florence” as a guide book to the Uffizi, was given to improvising rambling prose poems featuring Browning characters.  In a letter he wrote that “One of Browning’s great points to my mind is that he only gives the idea, in many cases, & lets you embody it yourself.”6  Conder’s particularly fin-de-siècle embodiments of Browning’s ideas include the sinisterly voluptuous A Toccata of Galuppi and the decorative but insubstantial cover illustration for Dalhousie Young’s song-cycle In a Gondola.  In contrast to Conder’s rather stale fantasies of eighteenth-century Venice, with their soft silks and watercolours and rapid flowing lines, Rothenstein’s Parting at Morning is sober, lucid and contemporary.  The figure is elongated and flattened, the whole design simplified towards a pure linearity: “about as near to calligraphy as a drawing can go.”7  The influence of Puvis de Chavannes, whom Rothenstein greatly admired, can be seen in the dramatic reduction of artistic means and the static, premeditated quality of the composition; in place of Puvis’ Classicism, however, Rothenstein chooses a strikingly naturalistic, almost sordid, subject.  Few readers can have interpreted the emotional aftermath of Browning’s poem so candidly or so bleakly, and one might imagine that Rothenstein was just using the quotation as an ironic tag for a study of a prostitute.  But Parting at Morning picks up the predominant colour of the poem, the striking gold paint of the background showing up the paleness of the woman’s body.  The model is thin and angular, her figure slightly hunched, as she stands with one shoulder lower than the other, her arms hanging limp, pinioned by the fallen straps of her camisole.  Her gaze is outward to the spectator, melancholy but unsurprised.  Rothenstein was predictably teased by Whistler about his relationship with the model, a Mme. Martin, who had an eight-year-old child; he himself, however, discounted any sexual involvement and emphasised the austerity of his technique: “There was a certain gaunt, wan, Botticelli-like model . . . I made many pastel drawings of her . . . [which] point to a certain economy and severity of treatment at this early stage of my career.”8  It is a remarkable work for an artist of only nineteen, avoiding either false pathos or ninetyish glamour.  For all the superficial dandyism of his Paris years, Rothenstein was never a whole-hearted Decadent; “Not far below the boulevardier, . . . was the boy from Bradford.”9

     Another painting with a title from “Parting at Morning” associates Browning’s poem with a landscape Rothenstein painted several times during the summers of 1908 and 1909, the cliffs near Vaucottes in Normandy.  In Round the Cliff on a Sudden Came the Sea the interest is less in the human “characters” of the poem than in its imagined setting, particularly the inrush of the tide.  By this period Rothenstein had developed a technique of painting thickly, using little or no medium and emphasising mass as well as outline; the vertical weight of the huge, squared-off cliff contrasts with the sweeping movement and broken horizontals of the waves and the scattering of tiny figures on the cliff top.  The relationship of the painting to the poem is oblique but is not merely nominal.  Rothenstein’s misquotation loses the assonance of Browning’s “cape” and “came” but his composition reflects a struggle to depict the visual impact of the conjunction of cliff and sea.  The allusion seems to be a cross-reference rather than a starting-point, a literary pointer to the central “idea” of the picture. 

     In Porphyria Rothenstein paints a completely different kind of Browning picture, imagining a scene which is itself only hinted at by the deranged speaker of “Porphyria’s Lover”: the “gay feast” from which Porphyria has slipped away in order to join her lover and meet her death.  It dates from 1894, when Rothenstein was working in Chelsea.  The model, Marion Gray, posed in a fashionable dress of the 1830s (the poem was published in 1836), one of a collection which Rothenstein, who disliked contemporary women’s clothes, had bought for a few francs at a shop in Montmartre.  Her sensuously-painted neck and cleavage are framed between the pink frill of her bodice and the black velvet band at her throat, the latter adding a sinister note in the context of the poem.  Her hair however is neither yellow, nor long enough to strangle her.  The woman’s attitude is resigned and still, but her thoughts are obviously elsewhere.  She is looking off to one side towards a balding middle-aged man, presumably her husband (“vainer ties dissever”) who is reflected in rear view in a mirror, smoking and talking.  (Charles Conder modelled for the man.10)  The juxtaposition of the curves of the sofa with the woman’s body and of the pink horizontal flounces of her dress with the taut red stripes of the furnishing material hints at the tension and expectancy beneath her stillness.  “Porphyria” sits alone to one side of the three-seat sofa, a black cloak beside her covering the sofa arm and leaving an unenclosed dark area which balances the scene in the mirror and seems to allow a way out of the picture space.  Behind her, and throwing into relief the reds, pinks and skin tones, are the green walls of the room she is about to leave.  The richness of the colouring and “frankness” of the subject matter impressed and shocked the first reviewers; the Cambridge Review, for instance, found it “weird,” and Frederick Wedmore of The Studio reported that “there faces us, dressed in magenta, on a red-striped sofa, some gaunt, singular, mysterious woman — the Mona Lisa of a Brompton side-street.  Is Mr. Rothenstein aware that in the original publication of ‘Porphyria,’ in Bells and Pomegranates, Mr. Browning classed it, with ‘Johannes Agricola,’ as one of two ‘Madhouse Cells’?  The one was a study of religious, and the other, as I take it, of erotic mania.”11  The boldness of tone and composition and unconventional placing of the model were also compared with Manet.12 

     Rothenstein painted Marion Gray several times.  In an oil sketch on an unprimed, unsized canvas entitled simply Woman Standing in a Doorway, she posed in a narrow hallway, one hand against the jamb, half turning to look backwards towards the spectator.  It is tempting, on no evidence, to imagine that Porphyria has actually left the ball and is on the way to her rendezvous.

     For The Browning Readers itself Rothenstein dispensed with professional models and studio settings and painted his wife Alice and her sister Grace Knewstub (later the wife of the artist William Orpen).  The women are no longer participants in dubious situations but “readers” in the secure intimacy of an English interior.  In contrast to the déshabille of Parting at Morning or the fashionable décollété of Porphyria, the women wear the timeless, dark, long-sleeved, round-necked dresses preferred by Rothenstein: “I disliked the high collars, and the gigot sleeves which women wore, and my wife dressed in a way that pleased us both, somewhat after the style of the Pre-Raphaelite ladies.”13  Alice (seated) has a fair, rosy style of beauty far removed from the sultry looks of Marion Gray or the worn, raw-boned features of Mme. Martin.  The pretty, early nineteenth-century London sitting-room, furnished in the modern uncluttered style with plain distempered walls and a few chosen ornaments, including blue china and a rather japonist spray of white blossom, is the Rothensteins’ first home after their marriage, 1 Pembroke Cottages, Edwardes Square.  Conscious, perhaps, of its personal significance for him, and of the special role it played in his development of a recognisably “English” style and subject matter, the artist presented the painting to his parents; after being exhibited in London, Wolverhampton and (possibly) Berlin it hung in his childhood home in Bradford.

     Avoiding the top shelf of yellow-backed French novels, Rothenstein’s sister-in-law stands poised to replace a volume or to pick out a new one.  How (the title aside) do we know that it is by Browning?  Robert Speaight believes that “the artist has made us feel that this girl’s favourite poet is Browning, and not Tennyson or Bridges.  The whole ambience — one might say the whole psychology of the parlour is Browningesque.”14  Speaight does not elaborate, but part of the answer must be that the scene is contemporary, its setting English, domestic and middle-class, its “psychology” naturalistic, and that the readers appear to be absorbed in books they have chosen, adult books which require thoughtful concentration and intellectual involvement rather than escapism or fantasy.  In many pictures of women reading, the book is little more than an accessory to a graceful pose, and the act of reading is synonymous with leisure and blameless relaxation (as reflected in titles such as William Merritt Chase’s Idle Hours, Roderic O’Conor’s A Quiet Read or Sisley’s Le Repos au bord du ruisseau).  Women may be pictured reclining on a sofa (Gilman, Burne-Jones), in a hammock (Lavery), in bed (Claude Rogers) or even under a mosquito net (Sargent).  Nudes are rare and disquieting (Roussel).  The sitters have often fallen asleep, or into a reverie, their book laid aside or their gaze turned away.  The text itself is seldom rendered specific, though its genre may be: the woman lying full length on grass and flowers in Winslow Homer’s celebrated watercolour enjoys The New Novel, while Steer’s reader breaks off to warm her hands at the fire at The End of the Chapter and Alma-Tadema’s late Victorian Classical maidens dreamily give themselves up to The Favourite Poet.  From about 1880, painters of modern life depict women reading a newspaper (Anquetin, Manet, Cassatt) or studying from a specific textbook (Gwen John). 

     Books with readable titles in Victorian genre paintings contribute emblematically to the “meaning” of the picture; the most famous example, Egg’s Past and Present (I), shows us that a woman who reads Balzac will commit adultery.  The Browning Readers, however, offers no story or moral, and does not invite us to speculate on events or significances outside the frame of the picture.  There is no implied judgment (for instance where household tasks are neglected and children left to their own devices while their mother reads).  Rothenstein’s readers inhabit a permanent and stable world, but there is no hint of ennui, or of women’s unwilling confinement within a domestic interior.  The world beyond the window is neither deliberately excluded nor, as in Egg’s The Travelling Companions, made to point an ironic contrast with the women’s obliviousness of it. 

     Though Rothenstein suggests that reading is an active pursuit, it takes place peacefully and in a private space.  There is a strong impression of silence surrounding his readers, of concentration without drama.  (Private reading can, of course, be rendered dramatic: if the sitter’s gaze is suddenly diverted, for instance, as in Corot’s Interrupted Reading, or if she seems to be overcome with emotion at what she has just read, as in Duncan Grant’s painting of a Dostoevsky reader, Le Crime et le châtiment.)  The two women in The Browning Readers seem comfortably at ease together though they do not communicate aloud or face each other; they are not locked into the desolate solitariness of Hopper’s readers in Hotel Lobby or Room in Brooklyn.  Whereas it is common for artists to portray two women reading from the same text, often with one looking over the other’s shoulder (Renoir’s pastel The Two Sisters; Ambrose McEvoy’s The Book), Rothenstein positions his readers in connecting but separate spaces so that the books do not provide a focal point on which their gazes may converge.  Neither Alice, in profile, nor Grace, pictured from the rear, meets the viewer’s eye; there is no element of display in the sitters; nor, in spite of there being little legitimate purpose in watching someone reading, is there any feeling of voyeurism in the spectator.  It is as if, by picturing the two women closest to him responding to his own favourite author, Rothenstein has, in the words of Judy Sund on Van Gogh, “conflated the notions of portrait and self-portrait” and painted a picture that is as much “a reflection of the artist as of his model.”15  The sisters can in this way be understood as surrogates for Rothenstein himself; as an embodiment and idealisation of his own experience of reading, inspired as much by inner, verbal images as by direct observation. 

     Rothenstein’s identification with his sitters helped him to solve the problem of significant “content” in painting and to strike the right balance between naturalistic description and underlying design.  There is nothing pretty, chivalrous or ephemeral in The Browning Readers; there is a solidity, even a ponderousness, in the construction and in the impasto, what D.S. MacColl referred to as “a certain gravity that comes of intensity of study.”16  The palette is predominantly green, Goyesque, with areas of brown and grey-black contrasting with the red of the fire and of the seated woman’s neck-ribbon and the white highlights of cuff, neck, statuette and flower.  Light from the window at the left-hand edge of the painting picks out the gold of the fender, of the box on the mantelpiece and of the woman’s hair.  The composition has been much admired, particularly the way the verticals of the bookcase, the fireplace and the standing woman harmonise with the curves of the basket chair, the grate and the seated woman, and the way these lead the eye to the glass and the flower and so back into the picture.  For Roger Fry the essence of Rothenstein’s achievement in such interiors was to simplify the concept of contrast to “the utmost idea of mass and resistance” and “to extract from the familiar forms just that in them which has most significance.”17

     There are comparatively few pictures from Browning, and even fewer successful ones.  The Victorian historical and genre painters, and even the Pre-Raphaelites, failed to do justice to the special qualities of his poetry.  In The Browning Readers Rothenstein found a unique solution to the problem of picturing the poet, by avoiding anecdotal or picturesque subjects and concentrating instead on creating the formal and visual equivalent to the psychological and intellectual experience of reading him.


 1  See Richard D. Altick, Paintings from Books: Art and Literature in Britain, 1760-1900 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1985), p. 248.

 2  Men and Memories: Recollections of William Rothenstein 1872-1900 (London: Faber and Faber, 1931), II, 209.

 3  Men and Memories, I, 368.

 4  See, for example, Mary M. Lago and Karl Beckson, eds., Max and Will: Max Beerbohm and William Rothenstein their Friendship and Letters 1893-1945 (London: John Murray, 1975), pp. 107 and 134.

 5  Letter of C.R. Ashbee to Rothenstein, 29 July 1904, Houghton Library Harvard.  The frontispiece to Ashbee’s edition of The Flight of the Duchess (1905), though attributed in the colophon to Rothenstein, is by Paul Woodroffe.

 6  John Rothenstein, The Life and Death of Conder (London: Dent, 1938), p. 29.

 7  Robert Speaight, William Rothenstein: The Portrait of an Artist in his Time (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1962), p. 46.

 8  Men and Memories, I, 100.

 9  Speaight, p. 78.

10  See Ursula Hoff, Charles Conder (Melbourne: Lansdowne Press, 1972).

11  [Anon.], Cambridge Review, 5 November 1896, p. 52; Frederick Wedmore, “The New English Art Club,” The Studio, IV (1894), 71-75.

12  H[ubert] W[ellington], William Rothenstein (London: Ernest Benn, 1923), p. 22.

13  Men and Memories, II, 4.

14  Speaight, p. 149.

15  Judy Sund, “Favoured Fictions: Women and Books in the Art of Van Gogh,” Art History, XI (June 1988), pp. 255-67.

16  D.S. M[acColl], “The Society of Portrait Painters,” Saturday Review, 1 December 1900, p. 679.

17  “The Art of Mr. Rothenstein,” Nation, 11 June 1910, pp. 382-83.

William Rothenstein, Porphyria

Oil on canvas, 1894 (Private Collection)

William Rothenstein, Parting at Morning

Chalk, pastel and bronze paint on paper, 1894 (Tate Britain)

William Rothenstein, Interior

(Lady with a Hat)

Oil on canvas, 1891 (Museums Sheffield)