Seeing Art Through Austen’s Eyes
By JENNIFER SCHUESSLER
Published: May 24, 2013
On May 24, 1813, Jane Austen went to a crowded art gallery on Pall Mall in London, looking for Mrs. Darcy.
“I dare say Mrs. D. will be in yellow,” Austen wrote that morning to her sister, referring to the romantic heroine whose happy ending she had sketched out in “Pride and Prejudice,” published four months earlier.
She came back disappointed, having failed to spot a ringer for the former Elizabeth Bennet among the actresses, aristocrats, royal mistresses and assorted well-married ladies on the gallery walls, which were covered with portraits by Joshua Reynolds. “I can only imagine that Mr. D prizes any picture of her too much to like it should be exposed to the public eye,” Austen wrote jokingly later that evening.
But now, precisely 200 years later, an ambitious online exhibition called “What Jane Saw” will allow modern-day Janeiacs to wander through a meticulous reconstruction of the exhibition and put themselves, if not quite in Austen’s shoes, at least behind her eyes.
“It’s the closest thing to time travel on the Web,” said Janine Barchas, an associate professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, who led the project.
Such time travel is on a lot of Austen fans’ minds in this year of global celebration of the 200th anniversary of “Pride and Prejudice.” And “What Jane Saw,” which went live just before midnight London time on Thursday, can be seen as a scholarly answer to extravagant bicentennial reanimations like the Netherfield ball, the BBC’s recent staging of the dance where Darcy and Elizabeth shared some pivotal banter.
But a reconstruction of the Reynolds show would be of interest, scholars say, even if Austen had never gone anywhere near it. It was the first commemorative museum show dedicated to a single artist, and perhaps the first modern blockbuster, attracting as many as 800 people a day. There were celebrities in the crowd — both Lord Byron and the prince regent attended the red carpet opening — and also on the walls, where the first thing visitors saw were portraits of George III, the reigning monarch, and the theatrical grande dame Sarah Siddons, juxtaposed in an Annie Leibovitz-like array.
The exhibition “was a wonderful moment in the history of celebrity culture,” said Joseph Roach, a professor of theater and English at Yale University and the author of “It” (2007), a cultural history of the charisma that distinguishes “abnormally interesting” people. “There was a new kind of royalty emerging.”
And Austen, Ms. Barchas said, would have been as interested in that new royalty as any modern reader gobbling up TMZ updates about Kate Middleton and Brangelina. In her recent book, “Matters of Fact in Jane Austen,” Ms. Barchas traces the way Austen wove sly nods to actresses, artists, parliamentarians and scandal-ridden aristocrats into her novels — almost “in the spirit of a preteen adorning a bedroom with Justin Bieber posters,” as one reviewer put it.
Ms. Barchas’s celebrity-centric reading of Austen is part of a growing body of scholarship that emphasizes the worldly, history-minded side of a writer long seen as a country mouse preoccupied with timeless truths. But assembling “What Jane Saw” required meticulousness more typical of construction engineers than of paparazzi.
The gallery, in a building that was subsequently demolished, was recreated using the 3-D modeling software SketchUp, based on precise measurements recorded in an 1860 book. Ms. Barchas and her team then spent a summer working out how the 141 paintings listed in a 20-page pamphlet sold at the exhibition were arranged on the walls, a process that involved a lot of Rubik’s Cube-like playing around.
“I feel pretty sure this is the way the exhibit was actually hung,” Ms. Barchas said.
Seeing the pictures on virtual walls, scholars who have visited the Web site say, reveals juicy “hidden narratives” that the viewers of 1813, including Austen, would have picked up on. Portraits of the prince regent and his mistress, for example, were kept at a discreet remove, while an image of George III was hung cheekily close to a painting based on “King Lear,” a play whose performance was essentially forbidden at the time, lest it raise uncomfortable thoughts about the current monarch’s madness.
“You can imagine what it would’ve been like as an early-19th-century viewer of this kind of painting as theater,” said Devoney Looser, an Austen specialist at the University of Missouri (who, perhaps not incidentally, appears in her local roller derby as Stone Cold Jane Austen). “That would have been a really exciting part of life then.”
Ms. Barchas’s team at the university’s Texas Advanced Computing Center is exploring a “gamified” version of the project, involving 3-D goggles that allow full immersion, including an option of bringing viewers’ angle of vision in line with Austen’s own. (Among the details still to be worked out: was Austen, who was described as tall and slender, closer to 5-foot-4 or 5-foot-8?)
If the notion of a Wii-ready Austen offends purists, others may be happy to see 21st-century technology harnessed in the service of the Divine Miss Jane.
Ms. Barchas recalled a recent conversation with a programmer working on the project’s metadata: “He said, ‘O.K., I’m going to go home now and tell my mother-in-law that I have not been wasting all these years working with computers, because now I am working on Jane Austen.’ ”