This dissertation brings together literary and art-historical scholarship to demonstrate the way nineteenth-century painting and drawing influenced Victorian narrative. I argue that in novels by William Makepeace Thackeray, Charlotte Brontë, Anthony Trollope, and Charles Dickens, the narrator's point of view is modeled on that of a visual artist and is intended to be imitated by the reader, who can learn to perceive the world artistically, as an artist viewing a subject would do. Using historical accounts of nineteenth-century art-studio practices, I show that this artistic way of perceiving things—artistic perception—tended to have positive social effects between individuals and groups, effects that the novels both describe and promote.
In the first three chapters, on Thackeray, Brontë, and Trollope, respectively, I demonstrate that each author borrows perceptual processes from his or her own early artistic training in order to promote social progress. Thackeray, in Pendennis and The Newcomes, suggests that the physical and conceptual mobility figure painters needed to view a posing model also makes for a useful mobility between classes. Brontë, in Jane Eyre and Villette, presents the emotional and intellectual reciprocity between artist and subject, required by amateur women's “accomplishment art,” as a visual relationship that should inform relationships between men and women. Trollope, in Barchester Towers, The Last Chronicle of Barset, and Ayala's Angel, focuses on the visual value of earthy, dirty workers, who can help keep the world grounded in reality; this idea builds on the Ruskinian idea that labor makes art human and real. The last chapter argues that Dickens, never trained in art, appropriates mobility, reciprocity, and work, casting them as writerly rather than artistic ways of seeing, yet finds in them social benefits similar to those in his contemporaries' novels.
This project engages recent criticism in visual culture, which concentrates on Victorian viewing devices (e.g., the stereoscope, the camera) while undervaluing the eye, a “device” always available; and addresses critical claims that viewers control and dominate those they view, arguing rather for a positive ethical component to the gaze.