“In this meticulously researched study of Wharton's novels and short stories, Orlando (Fairfield University) makes a convincing argument for the ways in which Wharton enacted, through her work, a ‘cultural critique that transcends the literary arts.’ Interweaving illustrations of 19th- and early-20th-century art and detailed close readings of Wharton's fiction, the author guides the reader through Wharton's critique of the pre-Raphaelite artists and their vexed representations of women. Thanks to Orlando's impressive knowledge of art history and of Wharton scholarship, this volume secures an understanding of Wharton's place as one of ‘American literature's most gifted inter-textual realists.’ Nor does Orlando sacrifice depth for breadth. So smart and commanding a reader is she that the study's multidisciplinary approach (art history, cultural history, women's studies, US literature, Victorian literature) only enhances its appeal. One leaves this book with a more thorough understanding of Wharton's engagement with the visual arts as well as deeper insight into her complex, often-misunderstood relationship to the representation of women and the emerging feminism of her day. A distinguished contribution to Wharton scholarship.
Summing Up: Essential. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty.”


“Edith Wharton possessed a keen sense of the visual.  This gift, accompanied by a penetrating intellect and impressive knowledge of art and architecture, produced a body of fiction that is both startlingly fresh and allusive.  Noting these connections, Emily J. Orlando has written a thoughtful, informed analysis of Wharton’s engagement with the visual arts, especially with the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  Her book is a welcome interdisciplinary study that enriches our understanding of Wharton specifically and the connections between visual art and American literature generally….Critics have noted Wharton’s reliance on the visual arts but seldom with this study’s depth or specificity.  Orlando convincingly makes the case that Wharton’s work invites and deserves such focused attention.  She traces Wharton’s engagement with important artistic movements of her day and places her analysis of Wharton’s fiction in the context of psychological and biographical scholarship.  Well-researched and persuasively argued, Edith Wharton and the Visual Arts stands out among the growing number of interdisciplinary studies of Wharton.” 

Carol J. Singley, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature Volume 27, No. 2

“More fully than anyone else, Professor Orlando demonstrates the importance in Wharton’s fiction of the Pre-Raphaelite artists, especially the poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti; the paintings by Rossetti, Waterhouse, and others, of women’s bodies in states of trance or death; and the artists’ models (notably Elizabeth Siddall and Jane Morris), whom certain of Wharton’s characters are shown to resemble….In her treatment of the Pre-Raphaelites, the author makes a major contribution to Wharton scholarship.”

Elsa Nettels, author of Language and Gender in American Fiction: Howells, James, Wharton, and Cather

“Orlando argues that Wharton used realism to struggle against the sexualization and objectification of women in art, identifying a progression in her heroines from victims to agents in the visual marketplace over the course of her literary career.  Accordingly, Wharton’s early work reveals how men’s art enshrined women for possession or exhibition, and her later fiction showcases women maneuvering their bodies within the confines of male culture to locate pleasure and power within their objectification.  In The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, and a host of short stories, Orlando highlights moments when characters realize that they either ‘can be circulated as works of art’ or take hold of the reins and ‘elect to circulate themselves.’ When Wharton’s women ‘learn, as a survival tactic, to barter their bodies for their benefit,’ they become capable of ‘direct[ing] and produc[ing] a kind of “body art”’ (28). While Orlando emphasizes that Wharton herself did not celebrate or promote such a strategy and even lamented it, her later writings communicate the notion that women’s decisions to become ‘architects of their own construction as marketable works of art’ are the only definite ways ‘to secure power in a culture of display’ (90). …In their efforts to fashion narratives that embrace the breadth and depth of this writer’s intelligence and sensibilities, both books [Orlando’s Edith Wharton and the Visual Arts and Annette Benert’s The Architectural Imagination of Edith Wharton] illustrate the potential of interdisciplinary inquiry to reshape Wharton studies while speaking to concerns of today’s readers—students, scholars, and teachers alike.”

Maura D’Amore, Legacy Volume 26, No. 1

“An engaging and comprehensive study of Wharton’s representation of women as well as the representation of women by male contemporaries in the visual arts, Edith Wharton and the Visual Arts marks a distinguished contribution to Wharton scholarship.  Offering meticulous readings of key novels and of short stories that have largely been overlooked, in addition to detailed analysis of nineteenth-century images of women, this study corrects an unfortunate misreading of Wharton that has led some critics to hold suspect her depiction of women as well as her sympathies toward them.  Orlando argues convincingly that we must recognize Wharton’s ‘scathing critique’ (4) of the misrepresentations of women sometimes enacted by her male contemporaries and dramatized in the faulty vision of her male narrators….Edith Wharton and the Visual Arts employs its ground-breaking investigation of Wharton’s engagement with Pre-Raphaelite paintings and poetry to highlight what it convincingly argues is Wharton’s ‘realist revision of the sexual politics of nineteenth-century literature and visual culture’ (22-23).  One emerges from the book with a thorough understanding—and a long-overdue critical assessment—of Wharton’s extensive engagement with the art of painting…. Taking its cues as it does from the rich allusions Wharton provided, this splendid study remakes our understanding of Wharton by demonstrating her complex relationship to art, to her own culture, and to the representations of women that she both resisted and created.  Orlando’s thorough knowledge of Wharton scholarship, her skill as a reader and historian of art, and her perceptive close readings of Wharton’s fiction come together with remarkable weight in a book that showcases the value of reading works of literature in relation to the other lively arts.”

Jill Kress Karn, Twentieth-Century Literature, Volume 55, No. 1

“In her autobiography, A Backward Glance, Edith Wharton has much to say about her love of books, such as her intellectual ‘Awakeners’ Goethe, Walt Whitman, Charles Darwin, and Robert Browning, but she reveals little about her taste in painting and the visual arts.  As Emily J. Orlando contends in her excellent study Edith Wharton and the Visual Arts, however, Wharton had an extensive knowledge of the visual arts, one she used in her fiction to reveal her culture’s limited – and limiting – vision of women. Through allusions to art familiar to her audience, Wharton critiqued her culture’s stifling idealization of women and created characters whose very existence served as a means of arguing against its limitations…..Edith Wharton and the Visual Arts is an important book for reading Wharton’s female characters as figures resisting disempowerment not only by their social milieu but also by the very forms of representation that male characters choose as a means to honor them. Through in-depth readings, especially of the lesser-known stories, and reproductions of the paintings being discussed, Edith Wharton and the Visual Arts provides a rich new context for understanding Wharton’s fiction.”

Donna Campbell, The Journal of American Studies Volume 44, No. 2


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