The Enlightenment of Lily Briscoe – Jac Saorsa

We welcome our guest blogger, artist Jac Saorsa, with a short story that imagines an encounter between painters from different fictional worlds: Lily Briscoe from Virginia Woolf‘s To The Lighthouse and Claude Lantier from Émile Zola‘s The Masterpiece – a novel that was inspired by – and which apparently ended – Zola’s friendship with the painter Paul Cezanne.

Composed of a collage of elements from the two novels, the story also alludes to the writings of T.S. Eliot and Roger Fry. The Enlightenment of Lily Briscoe is accompanied by a new art work by Jac Saorsa, The Artist’s Eyes, 2021 (above), which is based on a self portrait.

The Enlightenment of Lily Briscoe

by Jac Saorsa

‘The greatest artists appear to be the most sensitive to those qualities of natural objects which are the least obvious in ordinary life precisely because, being common to all visible objects, they do not serve as marks of distinction and recognition.

Roger Fry, Vision and Design, 1920 

It was the summer of 1910. Wispy cirrus clouds skittered nervously across a pale sky as Lily Briscoe, brush in hand, stood before her easel at the edge of the lawn in front of the Ramsay’s house. From where she was standing she had a clear view of the sea and the rocky coastline of the Isle of Skye, and then, at some distance from the shore and standing out starkly in the soft summer light, the lighthouse, a tall, solitary pharos on a rock barely the size of a tennis court. But her canvas was empty. She could not decide on a subject and she chided herself for such procrastination when everything around her was a potential source of inspiration. As a guest of the Ramsay’s, and, she suspected, as Mrs Ramsay’s protege, this was not the first time she had joined the family for the annual sojourn at their summer residence, although she accepted the invitation, every year, with a vague sense of trepidation. She usually enjoyed the stay, but there was always the feeling, albeit subtle almost to the point of being subliminal, that Mrs Ramsay only invited her out of pity for her single status. This unsettled Lily and created a tension between her and Mrs Ramsay that both of them felt, but neither would acknowledge, and for Lily, it seemed to reflect other, wider tensions that were not hers alone but permeated the whole company.

The familial house must have once been an impressive structure. Built of blonde sandstone and of generous proportions, it boasted eight bedrooms and, on the spacious ground floor, a breakfast room and a dining room, a large sitting room with views over the sea as well as a study and an enormous kitchen. The porch on which Mrs Ramsay and James were sitting wrapped around the front and the side of the house, and in the grounds there was a small cottage, which used to be the gardener’s house but was now occupied by Mr Augustus Carmichael, a poet and friend of Mr Ramsay who joined the party every summer. The main house exuded a sense of faded grandeur, a slight shabbiness due to being only minimally maintained, and standing empty for most of the time, save for the family’s annual visit. Surrounded by a wind-torn garden that bordered the lawn upon which Lily was standing, it seemed to brood, as if awaiting a tragedy, on the clifftop. 

This year, as every year, along with Lily and Mr Carmichael, the Ramsays invited one of Mr Ramsay’s fresh-faced and eager students from the university. This time it was Mr Tansley, an unpleasantly egoistic character who seemed oblivious to social niceties and whose remark at the dinner table the night before, ‘Women can’t paint, women can’t write,’ offensive as it was, only added to the anxiety and confusion that Lily had been feeling ever since she arrived. Today, as she struggled to find a subject and the pristine whiteness of her empty canvas rebuked her, the familiar feeling of inadequacy began to rise as the negative forces of societal and artistic expectations took up arms against both her personal situation and her ambition as an artist. 

Lily sensed that she was making her paintings within a period of transition; transition not just in the way she felt personally about her work, but within the art world in general. It was so difficult to allow herself to feel she was part of that world – after all, she was a woman artist – but she still nurtured urgent ambition. It was buried deep and wrapped in a shroud of ambivalence, but it remained, insistent, despite her doubts and it rose up in her as she studied the work of Cezanne, the painter they were starting to call the ‘father of Modern art.’ Lily understood the sentiments of the Impressionist movement, but she knew that it was only a superficial, intellectual understanding that was stifling something else, something more, an excitement that she felt every time she looked at a canvas but which she tried to ignore, for fear of failure. She was feeling the excitement now, as she stood on the lawn, looking out over the sea and searching for a subject. It felt as if the cliff edge itself had become a precipice over which she could either fall helplessly to her death, a talentless nobody, or leap from and discover who she could really be as an artist. Had Cezanne been sent to save her? His impressionist use of colour together with a classical consciousness of the solidity of form filled the void that, for Lily, lay between what she knew and what she felt, but it was his willingness to sacrifice the realism of accurate depiction for sensational reality and the importance of the painting process itself that moved her soul. Lily felt the repressive grip of Impressionism gradually loosening as the need grew in her to really see and sense her subjects. Like Cezanne, she felt like an outsider as she was struggling with her own instincts towards a creative process within which sight and touch could become confused, and she understood, intuitively, the new Post-Impressionist ideas that had been enervating the Impressionist ideals. The most important of these was to be defined much later by Roger Fry, in retrospect, as the work of art being understood not so much the record of beauty that already existed elsewhere, but more ‘the expression of emotion felt by the artist and conveyed to the viewer.’ But unlike Cezanne, and in her own time, she also struggled, as a woman artist, with entrenched attitudes that alienated her within the art world. She knew that despite her passions she was still trying to conform to what was deemed as acceptable and worthy of being called successful, even while struggling with her own variety of crippling self-doubt. As a result, and as a woman of complex emotions, her sense of place within both society in general and her ability to position her work within the predominant art culture were continually compromised. No wonder she felt so tired. The struggle was exhausting

It was hard to think about all of this as she stood there on the lawn, in front of the Ramsay’s house, but the day was pleasantly warm and Mrs Ramsay and her small son, James, were sitting on the porch, the boy at his mother’s feet. As Lily tore herself away from her musings her attention was drawn to the maternal scene and something stirred in her. She knew that Mrs Ramsay saw her as a ‘fool,’ a little Chinese-eyed girl with a puckered face, whereas she, for her part, saw Mrs Ramsay as beautiful, albeit in a strange deceptive way. She also felt Mrs Ramsay’s ‘remoteness’ and longed to traverse the divide that the older woman seemed to place between herself and others in her life, and she was certain that Mrs Ramsay had profound wisdom sealed up in her heart, wisdom that she, Lily, craved. Her thoughts turned to the connection between her painting and her feelings for Mrs Ramsay as she gazed at the maternal scene on the porch. She loved Mrs Ramsay, but could loving make her and Mrs Ramsay one? 

As if in response to these thoughts and to her frustrations, Lily’s gaze gradually commuted the complex image of the pair of figures on the porch to a simple shape, a triangular arrangement of their interlinked bodies. The purplish hue of their cast shadow on the timber floor was starkly silhouetted against the pale, yellow, summer light and this gentle geometry seemed, suddenly, to embody everything she had been searching for. Lily sighed, a complex exhalation of sadness and relief in a brief moment of recognition. ‘Of course,’ she told herself. ‘There is my subject’. 

She began to mix a purplish hue on her small wooden palette, hurrying, before the idea slipped from her grasp. Cadmium red, she thought, with its deep tendency towards yellow would create a softer purple when mixed with the harsh brightness of ultramarine blue, but the blue was still too strong, too violet, and so she added a little burnt sienna, just to bring down the sharpness. As she worked, she sensed a movement to her left and turned to look again across the garden towards the cliff edge, with the sea beyond. She saw a young man walking slowly toward her, too slowly almost, as if he had difficulty in placing his feet firmly on the ground. Lily was surprised as it was as if he had appeared from nowhere, but she was curious too. He must be a local man, maybe a gardener, she didn’t recognise him as one of the Ramsay’s guests. As the stranger drew closer she was able to see him more clearly and she decided that he looked unusually pale and gaunt. He was oddly dressed too, as if from an earlier time. Lily had to admit that she resented the intrusion, just as she was getting started on the painting, but the young man was obviously coming her way, so she prepared herself to offer him a polite greeting. She was relieved that she had not actually made any marks on the canvas as the idea of anybody, and especially strangers, looking at her paintings always filled her with anxiety. But she need not have worried because somehow, as Claude Lantier finally arrived at her side and gazed at her with deeply set, yet extraordinarily limpid eyes, she understood that he might understand all of that. His gaze was fixating. It seemed to infiltrate every part of her, ‘know’ every part of her and she experienced beneath it an overwhelming sadness which made her realise that she was not the only one who could nurture incessant feelings of self-doubt. Lily somehow knew, without him speaking a word, that this young man was a painter, like her, and that he suffered, as she did. 

‘Sometimes…,’ she said, as if introductions were superfluous and she was simply continuing a conversation that had already begun. ‘Sometimes, even as I pick up my brush and look at the canvas the whole thing changes. It is as if in that moment’s flight between the image and the canvas, you know, the passage from idea to work, that the demons almost bring me to tears and I feel like a frightened child in the dark.’ Lantier simply nodded his head, gravely. ‘And it takes all my courage…’ Lily continued, ‘…all my courage to say, but this is what I see! This is what I see!’ Sometimes it feels as if it is too hard to keep hold of even a miserable remnant of my vision. It seems as if a thousand forces are doing their best to take it from me. And then, I have to admit my inadequacy, my insignificance.’ She stops, suddenly shocked at how open, how emotionally naked she is allowing herself to be, and with a complete stranger. But there was always (it was in her nature, or in her sex, she did not know which) a few moments of ‘nakedness’ before she exchanged the fluidity of life for the concentration of painting. She sometimes felt like an unborn soul, a soul bereft of body, like the lighthouse, perched alone on a rock surrounded by stormy waters and exposed to all the blasts of doubt. Why then did she do it? 

Lantier nodded again. He had released her from his gaze and was looking down at his feet, which were clad in brown leather boots that looked as if he had had them on for the whole of his life, so worn and scuffed as they were. A frown distorted his young face and there was a tension in his whole body that was betrayed by the way he curled his long fingers tightly into his palms. ‘Demons’, he said, simply. 

‘We all have them. The doubts that make us hate painting with the hatred of the betrayed lover. The hatred that is overwhelming because it is full of the desire to fall in love again. In Paris, we all wanted something different. We all felt like you feel now, wanting something but not knowing exactly what. I could not grasp it. If I had, I would have done it. I would have been clever indeed. All I did know, and feel, was that Delacroix’s grand romantic scenes were foundering and splitting, that Courbet’s black painting already reeked of the mustiness of a studio which the sun never penetrates. You understand me, don’t you? We wanted the sun, the open air, a clear, youthful style of painting, men and things such as they appear in the real light. But I failed again. Decidedly, I’m a brute, I never did anything.’

Lily began to feel uncomfortable in this strange young man’s presence. There was an intensity about him that was unlike anything she had ever encountered before, it confused her and almost made her afraid. Why had she said so much? She felt a mixture of emotions, some that drew her to this stranger and some that repelled her. They were such different people she thought, and yet the same. ‘Things change,’ continued Lantier, and raised his head again, not to look directly at Lily, but past her and out to sea. His voice betrayed a soft Provençal inflection beneath the harsher tones of a city dweller, but as he was speaking, and clearly becoming increasingly irritated, the softness all but disappeared. ‘Some of us…’ he growled, ‘some of us can see what is ahead and it makes us constantly dissatisfied, constantly disappointed with what is in the here and now. But I wonder if you do understand. What would you know? Your vision? Just what is that? You are comfortable, and perhaps too comfortable. I suspect you would betray your vision, even if it were real, but it’s not real is it?’ Here he glanced over at the two figures on the porch, then back at the purple, oily mixture on Lily’s palette. ‘Me?’ he said, as if Lily had even asked the question. ‘I would starve rather than commercialise myself by doing bourgeois portraits. I broke with my family and went alone, to Paris, to paint. I had a huge studio in the Impasse des Bourdonnais, but I had to save money, so I moved to the Quai de Bourbon. It was not much of an existence, I could barely afford to eat. And you, here, with your dinner parties and your finery. But I could paint, and that is all I needed. And I could go to the Salon…’

Lily was affronted but strangely not shocked by this young man’s continuing rudeness. She simply said, ‘I have always felt that perhaps it is better not to see pictures, they only make one hopelessly discontented with one’s own work. And I am, discontented that is, and…’ 

‘Of course you are!’ Lantier’s scorn seemed to have abated a little as he interrupted her, suddenly excited. ‘But discontent is not dissatisfaction, discontent does not lead to the distraction that drives you to create something beyond what you even imagine is possible. Painting is Life! Life! Life! Oh, what it is to feel it and paint it as it really is! To love it for its own sake; to see it as the only true, everlasting, ever-changing beauty, and refuse to see how it might be ‘improved’ by being emasculated, as naturalism would have us believe. To put life into things, and put life into men! To paint ‘en Plein air’ and to feel nature in the raw. That’s the only way to be a God! It was hard to survive without acceptance but I could see things were changing then, in Paris, for me, and they are changing now for you. You need the courage and the determination to go your own way. Do you have that in you?’

Lily began to realise that Claude Lantier was not as he seemed. She did wonder why Mrs Ramsay, who would have a clear view over the lawn from her seat on the porch, had shown no signs of having noticed him, but she was only curious about this, it did not concern her unduly. Lantier had not given her any reason to like him, but he was the first to take her work remotely seriously, even if he was rough and quite rude, lacking in social etiquette. He challenged her passion for art, as himself an artist, with seemingly little interest in the fact that she was also a woman. He did not simply assume, like Mr Tansley, that her gender rendered her incapable, he only questioned her passion. And he was right in a way, she knew the passion was there but she knew too, with a rising shame, that she was too timid, too caught up in what she felt she should be doing to see beyond it, to allow herself the freedom of expression, to explore her unfettered vision. While she was thinking all of this, Lantier had wandered away across the lawn, but Lily knew, with a strange certainty, that one day he would return. As she watched him leave she whispered his challenge to herself. ‘Do I have the courage and the determination to go my own way? Do I have that in me?’ She turned back to the canvas began to work on the painting of Mrs Ramsay.

It started well. She was happy with the colours she mixed and with the subtlety of the marks she made on the canvas, but doubts started to creep in as the day grew older and the light faded into the haze of early evening. ‘The only way to be a God!’ she thought. ‘What hubris! He is passionate indeed but he is a fool. I am not a God, I never will be. And he never was. I am thirty-three years old and wasting my time standing here, unable to do a thing, playing at painting, playing at the one thing one you do not play at. And I hate it! A brush is the one dependable thing in a world of strife, ruin, chaos, that one should not play with, but I am a woman, I am not a God.’ Looking at what she had achieved at the end of the day she was, as usual, disappointed. She was tired of the all too familiar rise and fall of her self-confidence during the creative process. But somehow, things were a little different this time. Her encounter with Lantier had left her with a niggling doubt about the inevitability of failure. Maybe, just maybe, she could find something of herself, let that passion, which up to now she had subjugated to conformity, breathe and grow in the light. In 1910, Lily was not to know that only a few years later T. S. Eliot would assert that simply conforming for a new work would not really be conforming at all because the work would not be new, and would therefore not be a work of art, but, even without such paradoxical reasoning, she was beginning to question herself, question whether she should allow the self-doubt to take such a hold. Lantier had provoked her, offered her a challenge, and, despite what Mrs Ramsay might have thought, Lily knew that she was not timid, and in fact, she could, and would, rise to it. ‘I should have thinned the colour,’ she thought. ‘I should have made the shapes less defined, but I will not accede to that. I simply do not see things that way. I see colour burning on a framework of steel, the light of a butterfly’s wing lying upon the arches of a cathedral. And, what if I do see things that others can’t? Why should that make me doubt myself?’ She looked at the composition of the painting and saw that the tree in the foreground fought with the purple triangular form in the centre of the picture, the representation of Mrs Ramsay and James. The tree looked wrong, she should move it, and why had she introduced the figures at all, if only to reduce them to this purple shape? Why indeed? Except that if there, in that corner, it was bright, here, in this corner, there was a need for darkness. ‘That is why’, Lily thought to herself. ‘It’s because I feel it. That is enough.’ She raised her gaze to the horizon where the sun was just beginning to set over the sea. All at once, even if just for a moment, her own horizons seemed limitless. 

Ten years on: 1920

Lily was back in the Ramsay’s garden. Even though, or perhaps because Mrs Ramsay was dead and James was now a young man, she felt the need to finish the painting that had lain for a decade, untouched and gathering dust, in a cupboard at the old house. As she set the canvas once more on the easel, in the same spot on the edge of the lawn, she remembered the problem with the foreground, the placement of the tree. Move the tree to the middle, she had said to herself then, but she had never been able to and she had never finished the picture. But she would finish it now. The tree itself, in reality, was, like Mrs Ramsay, long since dead. It was cut down by the gardener some years ago but for Lily, it was, as it were, still present in its absence, its demise symbolic of her struggles to free herself from the dependence on self-doubt that had both supported her and yet crushed her for so long. Taking a decisive step towards the canvas she raised her hand within which she grasped her brush. For a moment it stayed trembling in a painful but exciting ecstasy in the air. The half-finished painting was almost more intimidating than the blank canvas had been ten years ago. Where to begin?

Claude Lantier leaned in to watch as she made a decision and placed the first tentative mark on the canvas. A thick slash of opaque green that obliterated half of the offending tree. ‘You must paint with clenched teeth’ he remarked. ‘You must rage against it as soon as you feel nature is escaping you. You can do this despite it all. Believe me, I know how hard it is. With me, the thing is, when it comes to damned painting I could kill my own mother and father! Can you understand that? Art killed me in the end, I reached too far, doubted too much, but what is art, after all, if not simply giving out what you have inside you?’

‘And will it kill me?’ Lily whispered, raising her brush once more. ‘Am I done for? I am forty-four, am I still wasting my time?’

‘I think you know you are not. Despite what I said before. You would not be here, I would not be here if you were wasting your time. Ten years. You have seen change, and life has changed you. But art will always bring you to the brink of life, to the precipice. I fought all my life with the inadequacies that you feel, inadequacies that were greater, deeper than anything society or even history could engender. I agonised over what could have been wrong with my brain that I almost thought I could hear it snap under the strain of my futile efforts. I was terrified that there was something wrong with my eyes that impaired my vision. I felt so many times that my hands no longer my own since they refused to carry out my intentions and it drove me to such distraction. Sometimes creation was a sheer pleasure, but at other times it reduced me to such complete sterility that I forgot the very basics of drawing. It was like being swept up into some sickening vortex and filled with the urge to create while everything was being swirled away from me, my pride in my work, my hopes of success, the very meaning of my life!’

Lily looked up at the young man with a concern that plumbed the depths of pity. ‘You felt that way?’

‘Much of the time.’ Lantier shrugged. ‘And I gave everything away… for the work.’ He had lost much of the arrogance she remembered from a decade before, and he looked in even worse health. His eyes, no longer as piercingly clear, were now darkly hooded, his hair was thin and lank. His whole face had taken on a cadaverous appearance with sunken cheeks and sallow skin stretched tautly across the bones and traversed by deep lines and folds. He seemed to find it difficult to look directly at Lily, preferring instead to rest his debilitated gaze on her canvas. ‘I reached the point where I lived only for the painting,’ he said. ‘The one painting. I sacrificed everything… there was nothing, and no one, else. What was really unbearable was my inability ever to express myself to the limit, my genius refused to give birth to the masterpiece I needed to create, for my own sanity if nothing else, and so I failed. I could not live. Here he paused, and his eyes suddenly flashed with their old light. ‘But my regrets will not be yours’ he growled. ‘No. No more than my achievements will be.’ 

Lily struggled to understand what he meant by the last remark. ‘As a woman artist perhaps,’ she thought. She could have been angry but the veiled insult was all too familiar and besides, her pity had turned more towards empathy as she realised the struggles this tragic young man spoke of were echoed, and in many respects perhaps no less tragically, in her own. The emotion of the moment was almost overwhelming as she realised that emotion itself was the key. ‘I see’ she said. ‘Or at least I think that I am beginning to see. Painting insists that one must keep on looking without for a second relaxing the intensity of emotion. The determination not to be put off. One must hold the scene, in a vice, and let nothing come in and spoil it. On a level with ordinary experience, it is simply a chair or a table, and yet at the same time, it’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy. And, one can let go, once and for all, with correctness or incorrectness as a test for even the idea of likeness to nature because that’s not it at all. One must consider only whether the emotional elements inherent in natural form are adequately discovered and the emotional idea could itself depend upon likeness, or completeness of representation. Painting, art, it is the means, and perhaps the most evocative means, of communicating emotion!’ 

Lantier’s face suddenly collapsed into misery and puckered, as if he was on the verge of tears. ‘I told you,’ he said. ‘I told you things would change.’ Lily turned to her canvas and with a curious physical sensation, as if she were simultaneously urged forward and yet held back, she stabbed at the canvas with a quick and decisive stroke. The brush descended. It flickered brown over the white canvas and left a running mark. A second time she did it. A third time. And so, pausing and flickering, she attained a dancing rhythmical movement, the pause and the stroke, the pause and the stroke, as she scored her canvas with brown, running, nervous lines. Together they enclosed a space on the canvas, a space that she felt looming out at her, looming out of the edges of the canvas itself. She looked back at the Ramsay’s house. She looked at the steps, they were empty, she looked at her canvas, it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line, there, in the centre, and it was done. Finished. ‘Yes,’ she said and put down her brush. She felt exhausted but, ‘I have had my vision.’

Lantier, who had been watching her work, suddenly clasped her shoulders and spun her round to face him. She was surprised at his strength, given his debilitated appearance and she felt a stab of fear. What was he going to do? His expression was wild, but not malicious, and she felt, as if channelled through his hold on her, a surge of life that seemed to revitalise both of them as Lantier’s face lit up with a passion, his dull eyes brightened with excitement. ‘We’ve got guts!’ He cried. ‘We’ve got courage! We are the future!’ But then, suddenly and devastatingly shattered, heartbroken and no longer able to utter so much as a word of thanks, he kissed her cheek, gently, kindly, and walked carefully away towards the cliff edge.

What actually is it to fail or to succeed as an artistIn the imagined conversation between Lily Briscoe and Claude Lantier, stretching across time and irrespective of life and death, this ultimately unanswerable question underlies all of the vicissitudes of the creative process as it relates not only to both these characterisations but to artistic practice in general. Chronic anxieties, often covered over with misguided hubris, are perhaps ever-present within any painters approach their work, whatever the context. To quote again from T.S. Eliot, ‘No artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone… You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.’

(Authors note: some of the passages in the above are drawn verbatim or slightly adapted from the Woolf and Zola texts referenced below. I have chosen not to distinguish these passages from my own to maintain the continuity of the narrative as a whole.)

Eliot, T.S., ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent‘, The Egoist, No. 4, Vol. VI (1919)

Fry, Roger, Vision and Design (1920), quoted in Fernie, E. Art History and its Methods, Phaidon Press (1995)

Woolf, Virginia,To the Lighthouse (1927), e-artnow Kindle Edition (2013)

Zola, Émile, The Masterpiece (1886), (Oxford World’s Classics), OUP Oxford (2006)

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