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Victorian Life Through Color Essay, Research Paper

Victorian Life Through Color

The use of color in Victorian literature and art has gone far beyond simple description to form it’s very own sort of diction. Whether reading Victorian prose or looking at a Pre-Raphaelite painting one is drawn in and deeply affected by the arrangement and combination of it’s colors. In the two of these mediums, each color is both powerful and used precisely either to represent a trait or emotion or to compliment other colors to form a greater representation of an idea. Furthermore, seeing these colors in the mind brings out any unconscious association, bias, or preconceived notion of what traits and emotions generally go along with a given color. This use of color is partially why Victorian poetry is so beautiful and compelling to the reader. It describes an onslaught of emotions without ever having to call them by name. Indeed, it can truthfully be said that Victorian literature and art speak to the reader in a language of color.

The first point to look at when examining the Victorian use of color is the general similarity between it’s art and poetry. These mediums, in fact, have gone beyond similarity and become practically interchangeable. In this way, the colors of each poem seem to paint a perfect picture in the reader’s mind. Conversely, each painting seems to tell an involved story that draws the viewer in through it’s use of brilliant colors and color placement. This is why so many of the poems written in this time have been painted over and over again. Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott” alone has probably been painted at least a hundred times. Members of the Pre-Rapaelite Brotherhood saw poetry and painting as sister arts. They believed strongly in the use of bright colors to evoke strong emotional responses. Victorian art and literature both clearly depend on color to bring them to life.

The most obvious use of color association in Victorian painting and poetry is that that is used in relation to it’s female characters. The most desirable women in Victorian art and prose alike are almost always described as pale, pallid, and white. Their coloring represented not only their beauty, but also their sad helplessness and mysterious erotic quality that they possessed. The more gaunt, white, and ghostlike they were, the more attractive and desirable they were considered to be. Tennyson’s most desirable female of all, for example, is characterized by not only having a ghostly white appearance, but is even wearing white clothing. The Lady of Shalott, sailing across a lake, is described as “Dead-pale” and “robed in snowy white.” The colors here show the reader her complete purity and beauty in her willingness to sacrifice her life for love. The perfect Victorian woman, represented fully by only a color.

Another use of color in Victorian art and literature is that phantasmagoric coloring effect used to draw out extreme feelings and reactions from the viewer. In works like these, surreal scenes of color are presented in order to give an overwhelmingly precise view of the dream-like world that the characters are experiencing. Light and darkness are used in ways that entrance anyone reading or viewing them. In paintings like The Enchantment of Merlin, it is not only Merlin that is being enchanted. Swirling greens and purples draw in and capture the viewer. This viewer not only just sees Merlin being enchanted, but through the use of color placement, understands how he is being enchanted and walks away feeling a bit of the vicarious after effects as well. These feelings are not an accident, but instead the intentional utilization of the power of that color has in both painting and poetry.

Much like the white that is associated with the purity of the Victorian woman, red is an extremely powerful color in both art and literature. It represents strong emotion and characterizes certain types of people in this time. The mere mention of the color in this context brings to mind thought of passion, anger, lust, and blood, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. The color characterizes strong will, sometimes to the point of cruelty. A perfect example of this lies in Tennyson’s Maud, in which Maud herself symbolizes the passion of the red rose and the purity of the white lily. These states of being could not be expressed without the use of these colors that create the perfect contrast between the two ways that the narrator sees her. Red also signifies the brutally and violence in life. Even nature is said by Tennyson to be “red in tooth and claw” from devouring itself (Tennyson 1). This is easily understood when read because of the universal language of color in both Victorian art and literature.

Pre-Rapaelite detail is also very important to the use of color in much of Victorian poetry and painting. In these works it is not only which colors are being used, but also how they are being outlined and combined. This hyper realism is employed to give colors a freshness they did not have in previous time periods. Furthermore, bright and detailed colors create bright and detailed feelings and emotions. This is not only true for Pre- Rapaelite paintings, but also poetry and prose as well. The beautiful sisters of Rossetti’s Goblin Market are not simply said to be lying next to each other, but instead are described as “golden head by golden head” (Abrams 1593). By using this description the reader conjures up an image much more detailed and complete. One of two pure and virtuous sisters who truly love and care about each other, as opposed to two who just happen to be lying next to each other at the moment. Detailed use of color in Pre-Rapaelite poetry and painting takes the language of color to a whole new level.

Often used in the Pre-Rapaelite scenes of the last paragraph, the incredible influence of color on nature is definitely an integral part of the language of color. Intense greens and golds typify the rich textures and settings frequently present in Victorian art and literature. In many of the hyper realistic paintings of the time, the photographic representation meant emphasizing the colors of nature in the background as much as colors of the subject are emphasized. One striking example of this is Millais’s Ophelia, in which the beautiful subject is no more apparent than the bright shades of green in the surrounding riverbank. In this painting, the greens in nature and the green hue of Ophelia herself shows that she has died and her beautiful body has been taken in by and is now one with nature. All of this is clearly displayed through that language that is so prevalent in all of Victorian poetry and painting.

One concept that you cannot escape when discussing color in Victorian works of art and literature is the effect of the pathetic fallacy on color. The pathetic fallacy could arguably be considered the whole cause of the language of color. Why else would color be able to so strongly represent an entire range of views and emotions? More often than not, the character’s state of being completely colors the world around him or her. How else could it be said that “hateful is the dark blue sky” (Abrams 1211)? Skies are certainly not hateful on their own. The character’s mood and emotional state have colored the sky dark blue with hate. Another in a different state might say that the night sky shines like an emerald. The only real difference is that the narrator’s despair has made the blue sky “dark,” a word synonymous with evil and hate. In these instances, the pathetic fallacy literally colors the entire world.

Similar to the red, white, and green colors previously discussed, is the influence of the color gray on much of Victorian art and literature. Like red, gray carries with it it’s own set of associations in Victorian culture. It can even be understood as an emotion in and of itself when it is said that someone is feeling gray. It carries with it ideas of sorrow, loneliness, misfortune, and despair. In Tennyson’s Mariana, the morning is “gray-eyed” because her lover has left her (Abrams 1202). It is understood by the reader completely what a gray-eyed morning is without further explanation. While in In Memoriam by the same author, the old room of the narrator’s deceased friend is described as a “gray flat” (Abrams 1260). I doubt if he is referring to the color when he speaks of the home of the friend that he loved so much. In the language of color, gray might be the single most understood color of all Victorian works of art and literature.

On another theme of color entirely, is the presence of the associations of colors to individual persons. If one is familiar with Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, then they already understand this concept without even knowing it. Like the idea of different melodies being connected to certain characters, so are different colors of the spectrum. These colors, and melodies, are used precisely to evoke particular feelings, associations, and even biases unbeknownst to the reader or viewer of the work. Just as one might associate a light, pleasant, and quick melody with a bird, one might associate a summery gold color with a fresh and special person. No one would connect either of these two images with danger or sorrow because they just do not fit. This is what Tennyson does when he associates his deceased friend, Arthur Hallum, with the color gold frequently throughout his poem, In Memoriam. Gold is always thought of the highest and best, or the most special of all colors. This is clearly how Tennyson felt about Hallum. Colors truly play an important role in personal identification in Victorian art and literature.

Throughout all of Victorian art and literature it is clear that color has an astounding impact on each aspect. Colors show us interpersonal relationships between characters as well as personal identifications of individual characters themselves. Some colors show us how a character is feeling and what a character really wants. Other colors tell us if a character is completely rational or if he or she is letting emotions take over and color the world around them. Finally, colors also show us the feelings of the artist or writer as well, letting us know their personal views or beliefs. All of this evidence undeniably proves that colors has gone beyond just being an adjective. It is an integral part of the identity, emotion, and desire of every character. It has truly transcended all expectations and become it’s own entity, it’s own power, and most of all, it’s own language.

Abrams, A.H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Victorian Age. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2000.

Tennyson, Lord Alfred. In Memoriam (54-56 fragment) 1850. 7 Nov. 2000

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