From the opening chapter of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre the reader becomes aware of the powerful role that art plays. There is something extraordinary about the pictures Jane admires from other artists, as well as the work she creates herself. Her solitary pastime often operates as an outlet of pain, either past or present, and offers her the opportunity to deal with unpleasant emotions and memories. Jane’s art transcends her isolation by bringing her into contact with others who see it; it functions as a bridge between her desire to be alone and her need for companionship.
Despite her struggles with inner conflict and the people in her life, Jane’s art helps her find personal power, marking her true identity as her own woman. Whether it is her love of drawings or the creations of her own, artwork has provide Jane a means of agency to survive the harrowing conditions afforded to the orphan child, allowing her to emerge as a wealthy, independent social equal.
The first glimpse of Jane’s resourcefulness and mental escape comes from one of the first activities in the novel. She escapes from her powerless place in the hostile Reed household temporarily through a book “taking care that it should be one stored with pictures” (2). She retreats to a solitary window-seat, “having drawn the red moreen curtain nearly close… shrined in double retirement,” and buries herself in Berwick’s A History of British Birds (2). The window offered protection, but not separation from the outside: “At intervals, while turning over the leaves of my book, I studied the aspect of that winter afternoon” (2).
Through the images and quotes contained therein, Jane manages to acquire the only kind of power to she access to- knowledge, “Each picture told a story; mysterious often to my undeveloped understanding and imperfect feelings, yet ever profoundly interesting” (3). Her interpretation of the illustrations provides training for the young girl, who will later produce her own images. Her quest for identity and power has begun, and the young orphan begins to discover how she can begin her journey to find her place as a social equal.
Interrupting her happy retreat, looking at the pictures, is her wretched cousin John Reed. He claims that Jane, as a dependent in his household, has no right to look at books without his permission. As punishment for her transgression, he throws her favorite Berwick’s Birds at her, physically knocking Jane down with its force (3-5). A fight ensues, with Jane comparing Reed’s actions to those of murderers, slave drivers, and Roman emperors. Adults intervene; Jane is blamed for the conflict and is confined to the “red room” where she experiences terrible suffering. In this incident, Jane’s visual pleasure takes the form of looking at art objects in prints and illustrated books. Instead of being a harmless leisure activity, “this looking is regarded by the male character as a provocation, setting off various stratagems aimed to reconfirm rights of ownership by laying down restrictive or subordinating conditions of access” (Kromm 374). Confrontations between Jane and male authority would follow her from her removal from the Reed home to her schooling at Lowood.
Early on in her education at Lowood, Jane finds herself in a situation similar to that of the breakfast room incident at Gateshead. Trying to escape the notice of the headmaster Mr. Brocklehurst. With no massive curtain to shield her this time, she “held [her] slate in such a manner as to conceal [her] face” (62). The “treacherous slate” slipped from her grasp and crashed to the floor. As she “rallied [her] forces for the worst. It came” (62). In a humiliating flight of indignation, Mr. Brocklehurst, placing Jane on a stool for all to see, publically admonishes her for dropping school property. He further attempts to ostracize her from the others by condemning her a liar (information he received from Mrs. Reed, Jane’s wretched benefactress). Jane serves the time, designated by her punisher, sobbing and full of shame.
She realizes that this wrongdoing would eliminate Miss Temple’s promise to teach her drawing and to learn French. Jane descends from the stool in search of Miss Temple, her beloved superintendent, who often “listens to Mr. Brocklehurst’s sermonizing in ladylike silence with her mouth ‘closed as if it would have required a sculptor’s chisel to open it’” (Gilbert 784). Miss Temple kindly allows Jane to speak in her defense, such an unfamiliar concept coming from the Reed residence. Once Jane’s story is corroborated she is rewarded with beginning lessons in drawing and French.
Her subsequent years at the Lowood Institution, although glossed over by Brontë, are when Jane emerges as an artist. Her first sketch is landscape with a crooked cottage whose graphic limitations bring about a daydream that evening in which she envisions a feast of “more accomplished imagery”(72).
Each imaginary scene is one she anticipates producing with her own hands: picturesque landscapes with ruins, lowing cattle that recall Dutch painters like Cuyp, butterflies hovering near roses, birds pecking at fruit. Through this elegiac, bucolic, wish-fulfilling dreamscape, she sees herself become adept at making “freely-penciled,” rather than minutely copied, renderings of the natural world intensively and expansively observed. (Kromm 377-378) Jane’s goal is clearly much higher than reproducing other’s works. She sees herself acquiring the skills of a professional artist. Jane learns at Lowood that she can create and lose herself in alternate worlds when she draws and paints. She shows the ability to envision a cheerful life different from her circumstances. However, following Miss Temple’s departure from Lowood, Jane returns to feelings of isolation. Once again she finds solace gazing out a window, realizing the promise the other side has to offer.
Her “restless desire” of life outside the classroom leads Jane to seek employment elsewhere. It is through her preparations to leave Lowood that the reader learns of Jane’s growth and achievement as an artist. Her “pictorial facility is a landscape, a watercolor given to the superintendent of Lowood, who had interceded on her behalf with Brocklehurst to obtain for Jane a reference and permission to leave the school” (Kromm 379). The painting was framed, and placed prominently “over the chimney-piece,” in the parlor at Lowood. Her painting is one of several accomplishments that impress Bessie, the Gateshead servant who visits upon learning of Jane’s departure for her next job at Thornfield.
Bessie thinks the painting is beautiful: “It is as fine a picture as any Miss Reed’s drawing-master could paint, let alone the young ladies themselves, who could not come near it” (90). Jane now possesses the accomplishments of a lady, and “to a degree which will ensure her economic independence as a teacher. The picture Bessie sees is not described; it has no significance for Jane other than as a social gesture…it functions simply as a milestone on her advance to independence” (Milligate 316). Jane’s artistic confidence and her newly acquired “social status,” follow her to her next adventure at Thornfield.
During her time as a governess, Jane’s art continues to gain the attention of others. Shortly after Rochester’s first appearance at Thornfield, he summons Jane and tries to get to know Jane’s qualifications as governess for Adèle. Rochester asks to view again some of her work the young girl had shown him, adding, “I don’t know whether they were entirely of your doing: probably a master aided you?” (124). Jane vehemently denies his accusation, yet Rochester remains skeptical. He orders Jane to “fetch her portfolio,” and investigates her work, promising her, “I can recognize patchwork” (124). Somewhat satisfied after his perusal, that the work is from one hand, a hand that she confirms is her own.
Focusing his attention on three watercolors he asks Jane, “Where did you get your copies?” When Jane replies “Out of my head,” he continues to goad her, “That head I see now on your shoulders?” (124). Jane passes his critical judgment without becoming unsettled. She offers her own critique of her work that is occupying Rochester’s attention: “her judgment upon them was ‘nothing wonderful’ because her manual skill was not quite able to capture the vivid subjects that she had imagined with her ‘spiritual eye’” (Gates 36).
The watercolor landscapes, although produced at Lowood, are far from the scene that been so admired: “A seascape, a landscape, and polarscape respectively, each fantastic natural setting has the disturbing feature of a dead, fragmented, or cropped figure” (Kromm 379). In the seascape, a wrecked ship’s mast rises above the water in “composition dominated by rough seas and clouds.” A lone cormorant sits on the mast with a sparkling bracelet in its mouth “pecked from the arm of a woman’s corpse lying almost submerged in the foreground” (Kromm 379). The second painting shows a leafy, grassy hill with a large stretch of dark blue twilight sky.
“Rising into the sky” is a bust-length view of a woman: “She is an allegorical figure, her gauzy lineaments and crown justifying her description as a ‘vision of the Evening Star.’ The pleasant otherworldliness of this princess-like delineation is subverted by the account of her features, which include wild-looking eyes and hair streaming in enervated disarray” (Kromm 379). The third watercolor is a polarscape whose winter sky is “pierced” by the peak of an iceberg against which a gigantic head rests, its forehead supported by two hands. The focus “is entirely placed on the singular head whose black, bejeweled turban registers a note of orientalist exoticism. The eyes of this giant are glazed, fixed, blank, communicating only a sense of despair” (Kromm 379).
Her descriptions of her work display the limitless depths of her imagination. They are, as Rochester observes, like something Jane “must have seen in a dream” (126). He asks whether she was happy when she painted them and remarks that she must surely have existed “in a kind of artist’s dreamland while [she] blent and arranged these strange tints” (126). “Here Rochester catches the essence of surrealistic art, which tends toward the kind of involuntarism best known in dreams, aiming at automatism and toward the unconscious. Jane of course was not aiming anywhere” (Gates 37). Jane says she was simply ‘absorbed” and her subjects has “risen vividly on [her] mind” (126).
Jane has the visions but lacks the skill to accurately portray them: “whereas the superintendent’s picture indicated accomplishments with social and economic value, these pictures reveal Jane’s emotional status…she has made little progress” (Millgate 316). Jane is still maturing. The paintings may evidence a halt in her artistic promise, however, the conversation with Rochester, about her artistic promise, ignites a sense of equality between the pair. Jane views Rochester’s investigatory comments as a, “breath of life… he is the only qualified critic of her art and soul” (Gilbert 352). Jane and Rochester’s shared love of art plants the seeds of their mutual affection and appreciation of one another.
Besides using her art as a means to access Jane’s thoughts, Rochester offers Jane’s work to the public. Rochester becomes, “the link that enables Jane to expand her ability to share imagination” (Cassell 112). She informs her reader, “One day he had company to dinner, and had sent for my portfolio; in order, doubtless, to exhibit its contents” (129). “Jane placidly accepts Rochester’s display of her work, perhaps as an affirmation of the value of her talent, or perhaps as a means to communicate her imaginative self with a larger audience” (Cassell 112). Jane takes a risk and allows herself, through her work, to be vulnerable to society’s scrutiny.
Personal scrutiny, in addition to public, accompanies Jane’s work as it transitions from the familiar natural landscapes, to the unfamiliar world of portraiture. Here Jane uses her art as a sort of punishment for not seeing reality.
The way Jane’s creative imagination goes to work on its materials is quite precisely revealed in the genesis of the pictures she actually completes while at Thornfield, those contrasting portraits of ‘a Governess, disconnected, poor, and plain’ and of ‘Blanche, an accomplished lady of rank’ which she intends as medicine for a mind which love of Rochester has infected with wishful thinking. (Millgate 317) Jane’s ivory miniature of Blanche Ingram is executed before Jane has laid eyes on Blanche and is based upon Mrs. Fairfax’s flattering description of her. When Jane asks Mrs. Fairfax for her opinion of Rochester, she says of the woman’s response, “There are people who seem to have no notion of sketching a character, or observing and describing salient points, either in persons or things: the good lady evidently belonged to this class” (104).
However, when describing Jane’s rival for Rochester’s affection, Mrs. Fairfax’s word is bond. Studying her own face in the mirror, she finishes her a charcoal self-portrait in less than two hours, “omitting none of what she calls her defects, the harsh lines and displeasing irregularities of her face, refusing to exercise the artist’s option to use the chalk to soften or blur the sharp planes of her features” (Kromm 382). Jane paints Blanche’s portrait on smooth ivory, “taking a fortnight to finish it, and the result is a Grecian beauty whose features are called smooth, soft, sweet, round, and delicate” (Kromm 382).
Looking at both portraits, she asks herself which woman Rochester would prefer: “The contrast was as great as self-control could desire” (162). The painting exercise becomes a means of self-discipline, and “a way of representing social hierarchical position through the creation of concrete images” (Azim 192). Contemplating the two works, and their disparities, she puts herself firmly in her place. She scolds herself for her romantic fantasies about Rochester that could ruin herself and her career. The contrast between the real and the ideal “is imagined and put forth, to keep in mind the distance between desire and reality”(Azim 193). Here Jane paints out of her mind’s eye, not in order to indulge her imagination, but to control it.
Jane returns to Gateshead to visit her dying Aunt Reed. Bessie greats her kindly, but Jane otherwise receives a cold greeting from her aunt and cousins. Returning to such a disheartening place, coupled with missing Rochester, Jane uses her art as a means of comfort. She carries her art with her because art supplies her with “occupation or amusement” (250). “Her first sketch there shows her thoughts in line with Rochester’s as she sketches the characters that he often associated with her” (Cassell 116). She draws:
“Fancy vignettes, representing any scene that happened momentarily to shape itself in the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of imagination: a glimpse of sea between two rocks; the rising moon, and a ship crossing its disk; a group of reeds and water-flags, and a naiad’s head, crowned with lotus-flowers, rising out of them; an elf sitting in a hedge-sparrow’s nest, under a wreath of hawthorn-bloom. (236-237) Her fantasies shift to real possibility, she sketches a face-Rochester’s, all in heavy black pencil and complete with flashing eyes (237).
Jane describing her own work and the qualities she seeks to emphasize in the portrait – strength, determination, flexibility and spirit – reinforce what Jane finds attractive in Rochester. The portrait of Rochester is involuntarily made and, in fact, “helps to close the gap between the mind and the representational object: spontaneity, imagination, sexuality, and sexual desire combine to produce a portrait that faithfully represents the painter’s state of mind” (Azim 195). In a time of emotional need, she unconsciously conjures up “a speaking likeness” of the man she loves (237).
After leaving Thornfield, following the interrupted marriage ceremony, Jane’s art provides a temporary asylum, as she grieves for Rochester. During her stay at the Moor house, her artwork earns her the admiration of Diana and Mary Rivers. They are so impressed with her talents that they give her all of their drawing supplies (360). Once again Jane attributes her talents with social status when she remarks, “My skill, greater in this one point than theirs, surprised and charmed them” (360). Their appreciation of her artistic skills, and their generosity help strengthen Jane’s weakened disposition. As Jane struggles to cope with losing everything that mattered to her, her artwork enlivens those around her-especially Rosamond Oliver.
Jane’s art excites admiration, impressing Rochester with its “peculiar” power and “electrifying” Rosamond with surprise and delight. Jane’s painting and sketching quietly “satisfy an impulse toward a kind of display that is itself subordinated to pleasure in looking, as when she happily agrees to sketch a portrait of Rosamond: ‘I felt a thrill of artist-delight at the idea of copying from so perfect and radiant a model’” (Newman 157). Jane’s first description of Rosamond presents a figure seen entirely from an artist’s angle: “eyes shaped and colored as we see them in lovely pictures…the penciled brow…the livelier beauties of tint and ray…” (372).
“The ease with which this terminology is manipulated shows a new detachment in Jane, as well as suggesting a certain superficiality in the figure she exams” (Millgate 319). Even though Jane can use her imaginative faculties to alleviate the pain of reality, she does not separate from reality (Cassell 116). She grieves constantly for the loss of Rochester and her identity. Her art does not offer the same gratifying rewards that it once did. Her work has continued to mature and is evident by Rosamond’s portrait. Mr. Oliver and St. John Rivers authenticate the precision of the portrait. The painting also “causes St John to admit to Jane what she already knows – that he is in love with Rosamond – and it is while he gazes at the picture that he allows himself to give way to his feelings for a set period of time – ‘a little space for delirium and delusion’, he calls it” (Losano 256).
The painting also serves another function. The portrait of Rosamond Oliver brings to fruition, Jane’s aspirations for independence. St. John recognizes her as the rightful heir of a fortune. His proof of her identity consists of a signature in “the ravished margin of [a] portrait-cover,” which Jane confronts as if it belonged to another: “He got up, held it close to my eyes: and I read, traced in Indian ink, in my own handwriting, the words ‘JANE EYRE’” (392). Jane construes her signature as “the work doubtless of some moment of abstraction” and thus disowns it as the product of her own volition, even as it fulfills the conditions of he uncle’s will and her own desires to be financially independent and to belong to a family (Marcus 217).
Jane Eyre’s art is mode of self-expression, revealing in rare glimpses her depth of character and aspirations for independence. As Millgate suggests, “her work is one means of charting her growth to maturity” (315). Beginning in the window-seat at Gateshead, a ten-year-old girl escapes abuse and neglect by escaping through images in her beloved books, through twenty years of creating herself through her art, Jane ends her career as an artist when she becomes Mrs. Jane Rochester. In the account of her married life in the final chapter, all her imaginative activity and visionary skill are devoted to the task of embodying in words, for the benefit of her blind husband. Her gift of words helps her to create a new artist identity-a storyteller.
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