Eudora Welty's "Livvie" and the visual arts.
Scholars have long remarked on the visual qualities of Eudora Welty's writing, and Welty herself comments, in the introduction to her collection of photographs, "I've always been a visual-minded person" (Photographs xiv). For many years, she took art lessons and traveled about the Mississippi landscape with a sketchbook. (1) At the University of Wisconsin, Welty intended to major in art but instead decided to major in English and minor in art history (Waldron 40). She comments on her continuing love of visual art: "Well, all my life I've looked at paintings.... I learned what there was in this world mostly from slide lectures, and then I was close to Chicago, which has marvelous art. (2) I used to go down there and look at the paintings" (Personal Interview). Katherine Anne Porter wrote of Welty in her introduction to Welty's first collection of short stories: "For a good number of years she believed she was going to be a painter, and painted quite earnestly while she wrote without much effort" (xiii). Later, Welty became a photographer, producing a collection of photographs that provides a great deal of insight into her time, place, and artistic vision.
Welty's examination of the collection at the Art Institute and her own work in photography and painting broadened her artistic vision. She later turned aside from these pursuits to concentrate on her writing, but her interest and background in the visual arts enabled her to create texts that combine visual and verbal images. In "Livvie" Welty uses the knowledge gained from her art history minor along with her work in photography to create a unique intertextual narrative. The title of her creative thesis at the University of Wisconsin, "All Available Brocade," provides an enlightening description of Welty's technique in "Livvie" (Marr's 22). If we use The Random House College Dictionary definition of "brocade" as "fabric woven with a raised overall pattern" or "to weave with a design," then we can describe "Livvie" as a fabric woven of visual images. Identifying new "patterns" within the larger work enables us to see Welty's story as a truly unique piece of art.
Widely anthologized, "Livvie" is the story of the main character's resurrection from death. Her transformation reflects the changing of the season to spring. This change, however, is fraught with uncertainty and hints of violence. Her marriage to Solomon, a much older man, had been strictly ordered. She was safe and secure, but the house had become more like a prison than a haven. Cash, the young field hand, provides escape for Livvie, but Welty suggests that this escape will require leaving her safe environment and venturing into a world where passion may be found but order must be left behind. The story is deceptively easy to categorize. On the other hand, Ruth Vande Kieft suggests that Welty's work is much more complex than the surface suggests. In "Livvie," she writes, we find "a narrative method disarmingly simple and clear, but a thematic structure far more complex and subtly adjusted to the ambiguities of actual human experience" (48).
In fact, Welty's exploration of the "ambiguities of human experience" led her back to the Middle Ages as she created her story. During the time that she was working on "Livvie," Welty wrote her agent, Diarmuid Russell, that she had been thinking about thirteenth-century France and felt a strange connection to it. She tries to explain, "I suppose the subconscious mind as well as the conscious can take a great liking to some time and place in history and see it in everything--but why? Isn't it mysterious?" (Kreyling, Author 89). Welty states that she had been looking at a work entitled Tres Riches Heures, a copy of an early fifteenth-century illustrated Book of Hours, and had cut out and framed a few of the images (89). The scene for April, her birth month, particularly attracted her. In this image, a group of courtiers acts out a betrothal scene against a brilliant green spring landscape. The couple, wearing blue, exchange rings while young women pick flowers nearby. At the right, a wall surrounds a flowering green garden, and an impressive castle and pond dominate the background. The vivid green of the trees and grass suggests the season of rebirth, echoed by the tableau of the betrothal scene (Tres 5).
Understandably, few critics have chosen to compare this manuscript to Welty's twentieth-century story, although Michael Kreyling notes the connection in Author and Agent. He comments about the April scene: "In its highly stylized International Gothic peace and symmetry, it seemed so far away from narrative as to be its opposite" (90). He quotes Welty's letter to her agent:
There may be somebody in the world now thinking so hard on the 13th century that in my openness of dream and vacancy of mind I caught it. I guess it will pass--although now I am determined to read and ponder all I am able on the time, and force the connection through and see what is so marvelous to me. I have to, when I can't doubt it--I had to say this to someone. (90)
Kreyling concludes that Welty's story "connects these two logics, the one run by the conscious mind, the other by the subconscious" (90). "Livvie," he explains, "seemed to have outreached its author, not to mention its audience, and Welty was a little concerned that the best of her vision was beyond the control of her narrative skill" (90). Although Welty never indicates whether she was able to "force the connection through," her comments suggest the complexity of the story that emerged.
The Tres Riches Heures of Jean, Duke of Berry, is a devotional book containing prayers recited in honor of the Virgin Mary at the canonical hours ("Book"). Popular beginning in the thirteenth century, such manuscripts were often beautifully illustrated and became collectors' items for the wealthy ("Book"). In the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Books of Hours became widely available to a larger audience with the introduction of new printing techniques. (3) The Tres Riches Heures, one of the most famous examples of these manuscripts, was created by the three Limbourg brothers (Paul, Herman, and Jean) for their wealthy and cultured patron, Jean, Duke of Berry, brother to King Charles V of France (Longnon 15, 19). (4) The manuscript begins with an illustration for each month of the year accompanied by a calendar. Illustrations of the readings from the Gospels, the Hours of the Virgin, and the Masses follow these works. In addition, the book includes five inserted miniatures and the illustrations of the Passion (Meiss, French 167). Contemplation of these beautiful works of art during services provided a link to God, an elevation from the ordinary to the spiritual. On the other hand, the miniatures, especially the calendar pictures, often show the day-to-day lives of aristocrats and peasants along with scenes from the scriptures.
The Tres Riches Heures contains several innovations. Millard Meiss states that no previous Book of Hours contained full-page pictures (French 184). In addition, the painters include calendrical and astronomical information in all but four of the arches over each miniature (184). Meiss comments that the astronomical information imposes an "abstract, rational order on the varied world in the main miniatures below" (185). The miniatures do, however, follow a long tradition of representing the seasons of the year by portraying the common activities of that season (185). January, for example, probably represents the Duke of Berry as he receives guests at a feast to celebrate the New Year (Longnon 173). The abundant gold plate along with his sumptuous robe and heavy gold necklace demonstrate his wealth. In addition, the Limbourg brothers show his link to the royal family in the fleurs-de-lis on the tapestry behind him. The painting portrays the lives of the rich and wellborn with rich colors in the tapestries and in the clothing of the guests, along with its depiction of the sumptuous feast. It also shows the realities of a medieval castle in January: the Duke sits directly in front of a large fireplace and guests gather near to warm their hands at the fire. At the back of the scene, a tapestry depicts a battle among knights: words at the top suggest a representation of the Trojan War as imagined in medieval France (Longnon 173). Meiss comments that the space at the back of the painting is jumbled and confusing. A gate at the top left turns out to be part of the tapestry instead of an approach into the room. The colors of the tapestry are echoed in the dress of the guests "so that the two kinds of reality tend to merge" (Meiss, French 190).
In "Livvie," Welty writes one central narrative with several other narratives contained within the larger structure, a kind of palimpsest with narratives underneath and surrounding the main text. At times, these other narratives threaten the order of the main story with their complexity and ambiguity, but they also contribute to its color and richness. Similarly, the painters of the calendar month of January created several layers of texts in addition to the primary depiction of the Duke receiving his guests at a feast. Viewers see stories in the man's drinking greedily from a bowl in the back or the man and the dog in the bottom right corner. The painters also include several written texts along with the visual ones, including the welcome of the chamberlain, "Approche Approche." Across the top of the tapestry, the painters included a few lines of poetry relating to the depicted scene. The tapestry tells another story of courtly ritual and etiquette. The Duke loved chivalric romances and collected many for his library (Longnon 17). The tapestry relates a distinct story, but it also reflects the Duke's view of himself as a chivalric figure. In his commentary about Welty's preoccupation with the Tres Riches Heures, Kreyling claims that the scene for April "seemed so far away from narrative as to be its opposite," finding little to compare to the story that emerged from the painting (Author 90). In contrast to the careful order in the painting for April, however, the January painting is chaotic and disordered, with the figures in the tapestry all mixed up with the Duke's guests. It is almost impossible to distinguish the tapestry from the scene in front of it.
In addition to the layers of written and visual texts in both works, "Livvie" and the Tres Riches Heures contain similar motifs of the spiritual journey. All of the Books of Hours depict everyday seasonal tasks along with reminders of the sacred progression of the year. Life was a great circle: the agricultural seasons echoed the cycles of the church year. In Eudora Welty's Achievement of Order, Kreyling suggests that Livvie represents Persephone in her journey back up to the surface of the earth from the place of death to a renewal of spring (25). Welty tries to explain her mental connection to the Middle Ages in a letter to Russell: "How can I speak of this to anyone--they would think I am crazy, and maybe you do, and maybe I am. It all may be just spring fever. Then longen folk to goon on pilgrimages" (Kreyling, Author90). She links her story to Chaucer's famous Canterbury Tales, a series of narratives set in April and framed by a pilgrimage to a holy place. Livvie's and Cash's cuckolding of Solomon also echoes Chaucer's merchant's tale about January and May.
Welty further employs the journey motif in another kind of visual text, a quilt, as she contrasts Livvie's confined life with the opportunities available in the larger world outside Solomon's house. Solomon lies under a quilt with a pattern called "Trip Around the World," and Livvie speculates that he dreams of "journeys and travels on a steamboat to Natchez" (Collected 229, 232). Of course, Solomon's journey is nearly over, while Livvie's is just beginning. She looks out her back door and sees the field workers with hoes and forks "as if they carried streamers on them and were going to some place on a journey" (231). Soon, she will join them on her own pilgrimage into life, perhaps taking the Old Natchez Trace, a pathway signifying journeys from the known to the unknown.
Welty photographed the Natchez Trace area extensively, exploring its historical role in Mississippi's past. She also read Robert M. Coates's The Outlaw Years, a history of the pioneers, thieves, and adventurers who walked this important frontier trail (Kreyling, Author 41-42). By setting "Livvie" "away up on the Old Natchez Trace," Welty links her story to past stories and legends of the American frontier, just as the tapestry in the month of January links the Duke of Berry to the chivalric legend of the Trojan War (Collected 228). On the other hand, in "Livvie" the modern world has left behind the Trace as a mythical setting for frontier tales just as the Trojan War has become a chivalric romance, an ornament to decorate a wall.
In Welty's work, Liwie must reject borrowed narratives to create her own stories. In the house that Solomon built, everything belongs to Solomon. Livvie brings nothing to the marriage. Two calendars hang on the wall, reminders of Solomon's control of time up to now, along with a diploma "from somewhere in Solomon's family" (Collected 229). Photographs of his people are propped on the mantel-shelf, and a table holds his Bible. Livvie possesses no texts of her own except for a photograph of a white baby she had cared for back in Natchez (229). All of these visual and verbal texts demonstrate Solomon's economic power over his young wife. She does not even have enough money to buy a lipstick from Miss Baby Marie, a traveling saleswoman. It is, in fact, a kind of medieval arrangement in which an older man of power, wealth, and prestige marries a younger woman who will be subject to his domination for the remaining years of her life or until she is freed by his death. Livvie's story contains no romance.
The January tapestry aside, the Limbourgs do not portray chivalric romances in all of their calendar miniatures. Most depict the everyday lives of the poorer classes during the different seasons. February reveals another segment of medieval life, showing peasants in a cold and snowy world where their main occupation is to sustain life. In the left corner of the miniature, the painters open a wall to show a room in a humble wood house with a roaring fire and peasants warming themselves before it. While two of the peasants pull their clothes all the way up to their knees, exposing themselves to the warmth, one woman delicately lifts her skirt to the fire. Outside, sheep huddle in a shed, and birds eat straw in the farmyard. In the distance, a man cuts wood, and another heads up a hill to a snow-covered village in the distance. Meiss notes several distinctions in the February painting. First, the painter depicts visual depth by creating a hill leading to a village in the background. The peasant trudges up this hill to a distant destination in the landscape. In addition, Paul Limbourg, who probably drew most of the miniatures, created smoke for the chimney, but he also drew the vapor of one peasant's breath as he or she hurries through the courtyard to the warmth of the house. He shows footprints leading from the house out through the gate, another innovation in the visual arts (French 187). Notable also is the portrayal of exteriors and interiors. The Limbourgs constructed the exteriors of the house, shed, and silo, all enclosed by a low fence, but the viewer is led into the interior scene of the peasants warming themselves intimately at the fire.
In "Livvie," Welty, too, focuses on interiors and exteriors, carefully constructing Liwie's house and yard. In Gothic Traditions and Narrative Techniques in the Fiction of Eudora Welty, Ruth D. Weston sheds light on the theme of confinement in several of Welty's stories, specifically mentioning Livvie, who is "essentially carried into captivity, however benign, at age sixteen by her aged husband" (136). Welty's visual depiction of Livvie's surroundings reinforces this theme. Solomon's house and yard are a series of geometric shapes, with everything symmetrical and orderly. Inside the house, Welty writes, "the doors of the safe were always both shut, and there were four baited mousetraps in the kitchen, one in every corner" (Collected 229). Outside, Nature has been subdued, the "clean dirt yard with every vestige of grass patiently uprooted and the ground scarred in deep whorls from the strike of Livvie's broom" (229). A rose bush grows on each side of the steps with "tiny blood-red roses" growing in "threes" (229). Even the porch has an "even balance" (229).
Solomon also attempts to "confine" evil spirits that might approach the house by hanging colored bottles on every branch of a line of crape-myrtle trees. Livvie "was familiar from the time she was born with the way bottle trees kept evil spirits from coming into the house--by luring them inside the colored bottles, where they cannot get out again" (229). Significantly, at the end of the story Cash picks up a rock and throws it into the bottle trees, presumably releasing the evil spirits by loosing them from the glass bottles (229). With these meticulous descriptions of Solomon's house and yard, Welty uses visual techniques to achieve a realistic setting for her stories. She also manipulates setting to add to the meaning of her story. Livvie has assisted in the creation of her own prison, enclosing herself in the stifling order of her home.
In his discussion of the calendar picture for February, Meiss notes the similarity of the interiors/exteriors used for "The Adoration of the Magi," a later illustration in the Tres Riches Heures. As in the scene for February, the artists represent distance with hills and a careful diminution of objects in the background (French 187). Like the small village at the top of the illustration for February, the Limbourg brothers include a walled town in the background of "Adoration" with a magnificent Gothic cathedral. The eye of the viewer moves upward from the sacred figures near the bottom to a hill with shepherds and sheep and, near the top of the miniature, the walled town. Another similarity is the small building on the left side of the painting that frames the scene of Mary holding the Christ Child. The walls are open, again linking exterior with interior. In contrast to the humble scene for February, the "Adoration of the Magi" depicts religious figures with golden halos and rays shooting down from heaven along with the rich treasures and wealth from the Magi.
With its portrayal of the visit of the wise men to see the Christ Child, the miniature suggests another theme in "Livvie." Livvie and Solomon have no children, but Welty mentions babies at several points in the story. She writes of Livvie, "When she tiptoed and stayed so quiet, she surrounded herself with a little reverie, and sometimes it seemed to her when she was so stealthy that the quiet she kept was for a sleeping baby, and that she had a baby and was its mother" (Collected 231). The marriage of Solomon and Livvie is barren, but she dreams of producing a new life. Later in the story, Baby Marie, the cosmetics saleswoman, appears. A mixture of the sacred and the profane, Miss Baby Marie has "a bright halo" around her head, but she, like Cash, is also linked with money (235). Her name further signifies the baby Jesus and Mary, but Joseph is not named. Joseph, like Solomon, is not part of the holy birth. Traditionally, he is portrayed as an older man, cuckolded by God.
Artists in the late Middle Ages often combined important religious depictions with images from daily life, the "sacred" with the "profane." In fact, the seasons of the year were linked to sacred celebrations (Huizinga 223). Just as the guilds put on the religious cycle plays at folk festivals, Martin Conway notes, "Medieval art, like medieval religion, reflected every side of life and tried to express the many moods and humours of men" (3). It was not until the Reformation, he explains, that the sacred and the ordinary were separated (3). In fact, cathedral portals and windows often showed the occupation of the months, "these occupations being as much a part of the Christian religion as were the events of the life of Christ, its founder" (4). Conway describes the paintings of the cathedral of Chartres as examples of how daily life and religion intertwine. In many of the windows, mostly gifts presented by guilds of workmen of the town, the occupations of the trades are depicted. Others portray the daily lives of the nobles who donated them. The paintings in Chartres cathedral and the illustrations in the Tres Riches Heures reflect the rising middle class that will markedly affect the art of the succeeding centuries. The manuscript also demonstrates the belief that the people of the period should be thinking about God at set hours of the day. Thus, religion entered into the daily lives of the people just as the painters included scenes of domestic life in this collection of religious texts.
In her attempt to "force the connection through" between the Middle Ages and her story set in Mississippi, Welty similarly mixes the sacred and profane in "Livvie." She describes Solomon, possessing the name of a wise and rich king of Israel in the Old Testament, as a stern old man lying in his bed "like a throne" (228). A table near him holds his Bible (229). He exemplifies the respectable Christian. Livvie, on the other hand, has begun to explore the changing world outside. She walks along the Trace and finds a graveyard "without a church, with ribbon-grass growing about the foot of an angel" (230). Welty describes the scene: "Scary thistles stood looking like the prophets in the Bible in Solomon's house" (230). Livvie longs for "a stirring of the leaves, and a breaking of the nets" (230). As if in answer to her prayer, she meets Cash on another walk down the Natchez Trace. Welty describes their encounter: "It was a man, looking like a vision--she standing on one side of the Old Natchez Trace and he standing on the other" (235). Cash is dressed in brightly colored clothes: a leaf-green coat, baby-pink satin shirt, and a plum-colored hat with an emerald-green feather. He tells Livvie, "'I been to Natchez ... I taken a trip, I ready for Easter!'" (236). Cash has gone on a journey and returned transformed. Welty's use of color is also significant. Green is the color of spring, of new life. In the middle ages, blue and green were also the colors of love. In The Waning of the Middle Ages, Huizinga remarks that "Blue signified fidelity; green, amorous passion" (249). Later, however, blue and green, in a strange twist, came to be associated with infidelity (250). The color green also indicates a being from another world--fairies or even devils, states a footnote in an edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a manuscript from about the same time period as the Tres Riches Heures (Garbaty 260). Thus, in Cash's costume for Easter, Welty subtly questions Cash's faithfulness as Livvie's new lover.
The divide of the Natchez Trace that separates Cash and Livvie suggests another work by the same poet who wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In Pearl, the narrator sees a dream vision of his young daughter, who has recently died. She appears to him on the other side of a river that he cannot cross, although he sees the beauty of the landscape on the other side. In Pearl, the river represents "the boundary between worldly, temporal joys and the eternal felicity of the spirit" (Garbaty 725). In "Livvie," the main character looks across to Cash, who represents those "temporal joys." He embodies the sacred and the profane, the chivalric and the prosaic. He is transformed, "ready for Easter," but he wears clothes most likely bought with money stolen from Solomon (236). Like the knights in chivalric romances, he comes to rescue Livvie from a man who imprisoned her in a kind of "cage," separated from the rest of the world (237). On the other hand, as Solomon wryly points out, Cash is a common field worker, no highborn gentleman. Solomon comments at the end of the story as he confronts Livvie and Cash:
So here come the young man Livvie wait for. Was no prevention. No prevention. Now I lay eyes on young man and it come to be somebody I know all the time, and been knowing since he were born in a cotton patch, and watched grow up year to year, Cash McCord, growed to size, growed up to come in my house in the end--ragged and barefoot. (238)
Solomon claims that he, in fact, had been the gentleman:
When Livvie married, her husband were already somebody. He had paid great cost for his land. He spread sycamore leaves over the ground from wagon to door, day he brought her home, so her foot would not have to touch ground. He carried her through his door. Then he growed old and could not lift her, and she were still young. (239)
Cash represents youth and life, but youth can also be fickle and irresponsible. With Solomon's death, Livvie rejects a more spiritual world and crosses into another country of "worldly, temporal joys" (Garbaty 725).
Both the calendar pictures and Welty's story depict class differences. The scene for August illustrates this theme along with the passage of time and the seasons. An impressive castle dominates the center of the painting. In front of the castle, peasants work in the fields. In the foreground, the Limbourg brothers chose to portray a hunting party. As in most of the other pictures, the painters layer texts, telling several stories. Meiss claims that the illustrations "developed simultaneously the portraiture of persons and of their environment" (Preface 10). In most of the landscapes, the Limbourg brothers constructed a castle in the background, often with a moat or a body of water separating the castle from the fields surrounding it. In the fields, peasants work at various seasonal activities. The aristocrats are carefully separated from the workers, just as Solomon bars Livvie from communication with the tenants on his farm. As in Welty's story, however, the peasants are shown outside in the sunshine carrying on daily activities. They work unencumbered by the heavy, ornate clothes of the aristocracy. The illustration for August, in fact, shows the peasants swimming naked in a river while the men and women in the foreground wear long, ornate robes. Meiss writes of the paintings:
Although the nobility and the peasants are very differently conceived, both of them have been idealized by the Limbourgs. The world is a garden, beautiful and secure, whether one hunts with falcons or mows ripe hay. The latter, it is true, requires physical labor, but in peaceful fields, under a bright sun. When the cold comes, as in February, there is a good fire--of which the unceremonious peasants can take greater advantage than the court in January. And it is country boys who splash in the water in August while the fashionable nobles ride in what must have been uncomfortably warm and confining garb. (Preface 13)
As Meiss points out, although the painters illustrate the usual activities of both classes, the peasants seem to lead more unconstrained lives. They are free to enjoy the activities of the spring and summer months.
Welty constructs a similar scene in "Livvie." Looking out the back door, Livvie sees the men and women working in the spring fields. Welty describes the scene as if it were one of the illustrations: "She could see how over each ribbon of field were moving men and girls, on foot and mounted on mules, with hats set on their heads and bright with tall hoes and forks as if they carried streamers on them and were going to some place on a journey" (231). Welty writes that there was nobody near the house for Livvie to cultivate a relationship with, and that "if there had been anybody, Solomon would not have let Livvie look at them, just as he would not let her look at a field hand, or a field hand look at her" (230, emphasis added). Solomon attempts to circumscribe Livvie's vision, using class as a barrier to separate her from the rest of the world. Later, as she feels "the stir of spring close to her," she looks out the door:
In the middle distance like some white and gold towers were the haystacks, with black cows coming around to eat their edges. High above everything, the wheel of fields, house, and cabins, and the deep road surrounding like a moat to keep them in, was the turning sky, blue with long, far-flung white mare's-tail clouds, serene and still as high flames. And sound asleep while all this went around him that was his, Solomon was like a little still spot in the middle. (232)
In contrast to the dead quiet of the house where Solomon sleeps, outside people shout and call to one another. Significantly, they are also moving forward as if on a journey, in contrast to Livvie's cloistered, static life.
In this fictional re-creation of one of the Limbourg paintings, Welty describes the middle distance and far distance but no foreground. The observer (Livvie) sees the subject from a distance. Thus, the landscape recedes from her. On the other hand, Welty places Solomon, although oblivious to his surroundings, in the middle of her fictional painting, as if he were the nexus around which everything revolves. Surrounding them all are the "wheel," symbolizing time, and the Old Natchez Trace, "the deep road surrounding like a moat to keep them in" (232). High above everything is the "turning sky" (232). In a letter to Russell, Welty explains her comparison of the Old Natchez Trace to a moat: "Maybe you noticed that in my new story the Natchez Trace turned into a moat for a minute. I was writing fast, in the center of my concentration, and put that down, and just left it in" (Kreyling, Author90). In this scene, Welty superimposes another picture onto the historical Natchez Trace, which becomes a moat in an early fifteenth-century French painting. Thus, she creates a kind of visual palimpsest.
Welty's use of visual text, frame, and lighting in her story suggests a close link to her work in photography, a modern art seemingly far removed from early fifteenth-century illustrated prayer books. In fact, "Livvie" emerged from several visual images. On Easter Sunday, 1942, Welty was driving through the black section of Jackson and saw several men in "zoot suits": "satin shirts, pegged trousers, bright socks, long coats with split tails, wide-brimmed hats with turkey feathers--all in pastels" (Kreyling, Author 88). Kreyling writes that this sight "was the catalyst to the spring story" (88). In addition, on one of Welty's drives out in the country, she came upon a house with a bottle tree in front. She claims that this sight directly contributed to her story: "In a very limited way--it was the place really. And it was the bottle tree that made me write it" (More 91). Welty's photograph of the scene shows a path leading to a simple wooden house at the right of the frame. In the center, Welty captures several trees with bottles on the branches along with a blooming peach tree dominating the landscape. The black and white photograph, however, lacks the color and light of the story (Photographs 121).
Welty's use of painting and photography in "Livvie" demonstrates how art, including fiction, emerges from the "real world." The Limbourg brothers used light and shadow, framing, and perspective in their illustrations to convey their close relationship to the world outside. In fact, Meiss claims that "the penetrating study of light evident in all the miniatures led to discoveries that were momentous for Western painting" (Preface 11). In the illustration for the month of March, for example, the plowman and team that dominate the foreground of the picture cast shadows, creating the sense of a single light source. The realistic portrayal of light in the paintings allows them to move beyond "static" images. Instead, they demonstrate the passage of time through the movement of the sun.
The illustration for October contains innovations in perspective and framing. Meiss claims that instead of the ground's moving upward as it recedes, suggesting distance, the illustration achieves perspective "by a regular diminution, by overlapping, and by differences of color and tone. Indeed the brightest area is far away" (Preface 12). In addition, Meiss notes that "Only the scarecrow and a tower suggest a central axis. There are no strong framing forms at the sides, and the two men in the foreground move out of the picture in opposite directions. Never before had the continuity of space beyond the frames been so vividly conveyed" (12). Thus, new techniques in perspective, color, and framing suggest the painting's connection with the observer's vision. In fact, one critic questions whether the artists might have used some kind of optical device to frame their works, "a dark room, a 'light room,' or a frame strung with vertical, horizontal, and transversal strings through which they observed nature" (Longnon 23). The Limbourg brothers possibly used early photographic techniques to impart realism to their illustrations.
Welty's awareness of lighting techniques in painting and photography helped her to depict light and shadow in her fiction. In her photography, she claims that she did not use any artificial lighting, and the used enlarger she obtained from the Mississippi Highway Department had "only one shutter opening--wide open--and the only way you could control or graduate the exposure was by timing it, which you could learn by doing" (Introduction xiii). Thus, without light meters and other modern photographic devices, Welty had to work by instinct and practice. In "Livvie," she uses light to symbolize the main character's freedom from her long imprisonment. Previously, Livvie was forbidden to go outside into the new spring fields and work in the sun with the tenants. Freed from these constraints by Solomon's illness, she meets Gash McCord, the "transformed field hand" who embodies the color and light of spring in his "leaf-green" coat and "emerald green" hat "blowing in the spring winds" (235-36).
Welty's complex story deals with themes of enclosure/escape, gender, the sacred and profane, and class. Her use of visual arts permits her to explore these themes in innovative ways. Weston writes that a "recognition of aesthetic similarities between Welty's fiction and the visual arts is not an attempt to draw lines of direct influence but rather to say that hers is a poetics as much of space and motion, of shape and color, as of language" (66). Weston suggests a link to the American folk artists who used materials on hand to create their art without feeling compelled to realistically depict what they saw around them. She writes, "In spite of the strong presence of nature and human life in such work, then, there is no attempt to create the illusion of fully detailed, representational reality" (65). Similarly, post-impressionist painters and more modernistic painters, who were strongly influenced by "folk art," "abstracted reality, desiring to create form rather than imitate nature" (63). With their broad appeal to the masses and their affordability due to the introduction of the printing press, Books of Hours similarly contain both "fine" and "folk" art, depicting the everyday lives of common people in combination with the "fine art" of the sacred themes. "Livvie" combines photography and painting techniques that reinforce the themes of Welty's multi-layered, multi-dimensional verbal text.
Welty ends the story with a vivid visual image that emerged from her photograph of the same scene. In the photo, she captures the bare trees with bottles on the ends of the branches and a beautiful peach tree in full bloom next to the bottle trees (Photographs 121). She associates Livvie with the blossoming peach tree. After Solomon dies, Livvie drops his watch and moves into "the brightness of the open door" with Gash (239). She is finally free to see the world outside, unconstrained by any barriers. Welty concludes, "Outside the redbirds were flying and criss-crossing, the sun was in all the bottles on the prisoned trees, and the young peach was shining in the middle of them with the bursting light of spring" (239). Solomon's death flees Livvie. On the other hand, she also risks many dangers as she ventures outside well-known boundaries. She is released to discover the "ambiguities of actual human experience" (Vande Kieft 48). Like the paintings in the Tres Riches Heures, Welty's story suggests that life always moves beyond the confines of the page. Livvie's life will be uncertain, but she will make her own decisions about how to live it.
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--. Preface. The Tres Riches Heures of Jean, Duke of Berry. New York: George Braziller, 1989. 9-14.
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--. Introduction. Photographs. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1989. xiii-xxviii.
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--. One Writer's Beginnings. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984.
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(1) In One Writer's Beginnings, Welty describes a children's art class and her college art classes (9). Suzanne Marts mentions Welty's watercolors of the Mississippi countryside in her biography (95).
(2) In her biography of Eudora Welty, Waldron comments on the fine collection of pictures at the Art Institute, including paintings by El Greco, Seurat, Picasso, Cassatt, Monet, Manet, Renoir, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Latrec, Gauguin, Cezanne, Reynolds, Rembrandt, and Delacroix. All of these works would have been accessible to Welty during her time at Wisconsin (40).
(3) Roger S. Wieck notes that about 1,775 different editions of Books of Hours were printed between 1480 and 1600 (22).
(4) The work was mostly likely completed by Jean Colombe (Meiss, Preface 24).
MAE MILLER CLAXTON
Western Carolina University
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|Author:||Claxton, Mae Miller|
|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2005|
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