EMMA MERKLING // ‘The Sensate Body: Consciousness in Albert Moore’s Art’

This article argues that paintings of Aesthetic Movement artist Albert Moore (1841-1893) from the mid-1870s onwards are works about consciousness and sensate experience, as defined by Victorian physiological psychologists. First, Moore’s depiction of female figures in these works is considered alongside Luce Irigaray’s theories about sensuous experience. The experiences Moore paints are holistic, private, and self-constituting: in them, self-touch is a mediation between inside and outside, self and world. Sensuous experience is envisioned as multiplicitous, involving the whole body. Next, the logic of Moore’s aesthetic system is compared to that of the nineteenth-century ‘graphic method’, whereby instruments tracked and transcribed inner physiological phenomena (such as the circulation of blood). Moore’s paintings are shown to register rhythms analogous to those of the viscera, unfolding in time. Finally, George Henry Lewes’ (1817-1878) theories of physiological psychology are considered alongside Moore’s use of pattern. Lewes’ holistic and corporeal model of psychological experience is similar to that represented by Moore. Both explore (i) the idea of sensation and sentience as experienced and organised by the whole body, and (ii) differing levels of consciousness. Moore’s forms and working method are multi-layered; his paintings are like corporeal weaves, analogues to the sensate body.

Fig. 1: Albert Moore, Apples, 1875, oil on canvas, 29.2 x 50.7 cm, Private Collection.
Fig. 1: Albert Moore, Apples, 1875, oil on canvas, 29.2 x 50.7 cm, Private Collection. Image courtesy of Alamy.com.

In Apples (Fig. 1), an 1875 painting by Albert Moore (1841-1893), two female figures recline on a sofa. They are clearly in a state of deep sleep. Their eyes are closed, eyelids heavy, and limbs relaxed. One figure is particularly sedate, her neck slumped against a pillow and arm limp at her side; the other is slightly less relaxed, fingers outstretched, head resting heavily on her arm. The lips of both are gently parted, suggestive of the slow and rhythmic breathing of deep sleep. The tempo of such somnolent breathing – slow, regular, and lethargic – is carried throughout the painting via wave-form drapery, unfolding across the sofa and the figures’ bodies in an undulating motion. The crests and troughs of this drapery create a sense of steady, flowing movement. This rhythmic unfolding of form is quite literally central to the composition, and persists across the length of the painting – indeed, the bodies themselves seem to participate in it, the curved posture of the figure on the left in particular echoing the sweep of the blue drapery on the lap of her companion. The result is a painting that is imbued throughout with the rhythms of somnolence.

The rhythmic quality of this work, and the altered states of consciousness it depicts, are typical of Moore’s many ‘subjectless’ paintings of women, his sole focus from at least the mid-1870s until his death. Though that rhythmic quality has been remarked upon before, it has not been linked to his depiction of altered states of consciousness like sleep, nor to the centrality of the human body to his compositions.[1] Indeed, Moore’s work is most often discussed as entirely unconcerned with human experience, the real world, the body, and subjectivity entirely. He belonged to the Aesthetic Movement, a late nineteenth-century group of artists and thinkers who shared a belief in the value of ‘art for art’s sake’, as well as the conviction that beauty was art’s ultimate end. Both in the Victorian era and today, critical analyses of Moore’s oeuvre have generally considered his art to represent the purest and most thoroughgoing interpretation of the Aestheticist ethos, at least in part because his pictures do not appear to be ‘about’ anything but art itself: in the words of his contemporary Algernon Charles Swinburne, ‘[their] meaning is beauty; and [their] reason for being is to be’.[2] In most of his paintings, female figures in vaguely neoclassical garb stand or recline in interior settings decorated with beautiful, patterned hangings. His subjects’ expressions are inscrutable, his paintings’ titles uninformative, and his compositions devoid of moral, narrative, and didactic content. The fact that his paintings are thus not about anything is one reason his works are most often discussed as being decorative, modernist, and removed from real-world concerns. But his repeated return to the theme of states of consciousness and the centrality of the body to his compositions, as well as the various rhythmic temporalities woven throughout his paintings and the sensuousness of his works, suggest a more complex and nuanced approach to the human subject than is generally acknowledged.

The reading of Moore’s work presented by this article aligns his interest in rhythmic flow, states of consciousness, and the body with the concerns of contemporaneous physiological psychology, a field devoted to the study of human subjecthood and consciousness as constituted in and by the body. Caroline Arscott has argued that Aesthetic Movement artists were interested in similar issues: their art foregrounded a sort of subjective sensory experience that was understood as an individual’s physical response to stimuli.[3] Some figures associated with the movement, like Walter Pater, linked this type of experience directly with consciousness or sentience itself in a way reflective of arguments made by contemporaneous physiological psychologists. In his famous ‘Conclusion’ to The Renaissance, for instance, Pater suggests that consciousness is formed of a perpetual ‘concurrence of … forces’ within and without the body.[4] He uses rhythmic, corporeal language to describe this process, focusing on the dynamic between a ‘flood of external objects pressing upon us’ and a swirling, private ‘inward world of thought and feeling’ that disperses and processes these forces in the body.[5] In describing the individual’s experience of sensory impressions, Pater uses metaphors of fluidity, ceaseless motion, rhythm, and weaving, and also evokes the circulation of blood and other visceral processes.

Pater, who belonged to the same social and intellectual circles as Moore and whose seminal ‘Conclusion’ Moore would certainly have read, is known to have been familiar with the work of science writer George Henry Lewes (1817-1878).[6] Lewes was particularly interested in physiological psychology, especially with the idea that an individual’s sentience and psychological experience were products of her sensing body. Like Pater, he stressed the importance of internal and external sensory input, and the individual experience of one’s visceral processes, in contributing to overall sentience: psychological experience was a product of the sensate body, with the internal operations of the body being indispensable parts of the whole. Lewes argued that consciousness was constituted by the body’s registration of sensations pressing in on the body from without, as well as those experienced from within, like the beating heart. This experience was thought to be holistic: consciousness was not the product of any one organ (such as the brain, for instance), but of an activated nervous system operating throughout the body as a whole.[7]

Different levels of awareness and altered states of consciousness were also key concerns in the writing of Lewes and his scientific contemporaries. Lewes argued that sentient organisms are never fully unconscious: though they may be in a state in which they are unaware of specific feelings or sensations, they never cease to be sensate. There is a constant flow of sensory input experienced by an individual, both from her environment and, crucially, her own insides and visceral processes, like the flow of blood and beating of the heart. This constant flow, ‘though [sometimes] inappreciable … [can never] be inoperative’.[8]

Most of Moore’s paintings, particularly from the mid-1870s onwards, treat the theme of figures in different levels of consciousness. Moore routinely painted female figures sleeping, gazing into the distance, lost in thought, or absorbed in some mostly passive activity like reading; occasionally, he painted something closer to attentiveness, his figures’ attention directed beyond our line of sight. Despite the stillness of the – often unconscious – bodies central to his compositions, his paintings seem, like Lewes’ description and Pater’s idiom, to register a sort of ceaseless activity through undulating drapery, repetition of form, and busy pattern, that persists regardless of the state of consciousness of the subjects. This dynamic between stillness and activity contributes to the strange temporality of so many of these paintings, in which time is neither fleeting nor static, but instead appears to unfold before us at a tempo seemingly determined by the state of consciousness of the figures in them.

Moore left very little writing behind, and thus it is difficult to substantiate claims about his art, influences, or intentions through his own words. There is no way of knowing if Moore was familiar with the works of Lewes or other physiological psychologists. Though it is possible that his intuitions about consciousness and sensory experience led him separately to conclusions similar to Lewes’ (and Pater’s) about the body as a site of manifold sensory experience, this article leaves unresolved the issue of causality. Instead, it charts the analogies between Moore’s art and contemporaneous science of mind, exploring the visual, structural, and thematic affinities between the two as a way of approaching various characteristic aspects of Moore’s paintings and practice.

Fig. 2: Albert Moore, Dreamers, 1879-82, oil on canvas, 68.5 x 119.2 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
Fig. 2: Albert Moore, Dreamers, 1879-82, oil on canvas, 68.5 x 119.2 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

The article is divided into three main sections. The first draws attention to the centrality of the sensuous female body in Moore’s works, relying on the feminist, phenomenological theories of Luce Irigaray to draw out the relationship between sensuousness and private sensory experience in his art. The following sections analyse Moore’s approach to physical, sensorial experience and the body through the lens of Victorian physiological psychology. The second focuses especially on rhythmic flow and on physiological techniques of visualising the experience of one’s internal, visceral processes. The third focuses on Moore’s use of pattern in relation to levels of consciousness as understood by Lewes. The scientific theories, processes, and imagery used by Lewes and in physiological psychology more broadly are here deployed as resources to illuminate what I identify as Moore’s characteristically subtle approach to sensory experience. In this reading, his interest in various states of consciousness takes on a greater significance, reorienting our understanding of his work.


The Female Body and Private, Sensory Experience

 Analyses of Moore’s art usually interpret his focus on the female form in terms of his commitment to the ethos of ‘art for art’s sake’. Allen Staley, for example, has suggested that Moore’s female subjects have no significance beyond serving

as mannequins, of no interest in themselves, but … providing the scaffolding for inventive and ever changing formal arrangements devoted primarily to colour, pattern, and paint itself.[9]

In this account, the primary relevance of Moore’s life-long interest in depicting figures in varying states of consciousness is that a sleeping figure is more readily depersonalised than a waking one. Indeed, Lionel Lambourne, using Dreamers (1879-1882) (Fig. 2) and Beads (a work virtually identical to Apples, also of 1875) as examples, states that Moore used the theme of sleep in a ‘conscious attempt to eliminate expressive human emotions’ and to distance his scenes from the ‘real world’.[10] But there is something unsatisfying about reading the female figures in Moore’s art as mere mannequins, and about reducing his repeated return to the theme of altered awareness to nothing more than an attempt to depersonalise his subjects. As Robyn Asleson has noted, Moore’s response to the female body was ‘visceral as well as intellectual ‘: he was not attempting to banish humanity from his art, but rather to find a sensitive balance between nature and the abstract.[11]

Moore’s approach to the female form suggests an understanding of the body as a site of manifold sensory experience. This aligns his work with the theories of twentieth century feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray, for whom woman’s sensual, sensuous experience of herself is related both to eroticism and subjectivity. Though my focus in this article is, of course, on Victorian art and science, theorists like Irigaray can lend the language, clarity, and interpretive tools to shed light on various themes in Moore’s art, like self-touch, multiplicity, sensuousness, and the physical nature of psychological experience.

Fig. 3: Albert Moore, Lilies, 1866, oil on canvas, 29.8 x 47.6 cm, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.
Fig. 3: Albert Moore, Lilies, 1866, oil on canvas, 29.8 x 47.6 cm, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA. Image courtesy of Clark Art.

The subtle sensuality of Moore’s paintings often goes unrecognised, though Asleson has detected it in some of his pictures of women in repose, like A Sofa (1875), a picture nearly identical to Apples.[12] His reclining figures, especially the sleeping ones, are often depicted in suggestive postures of abandon, overwhelmed by dishevelled drapery. The sensuousness of Moore’s paintings stems partly from the tactile quality of this drapery: the pink cloth in Lilies (1866, Fig. 3) and Reading Aloud (1884), for instance, is palpable and fleshy. The fabrics’ undulations compound the effect; Asleson notes that the alluring quality of Moore’s figures stems at least partly from the ‘liquid flow of drapery over and around the contours of [their] bod[ies]’, drawing particular attention to A Sofa and the ‘snaking movement’ of the translucent drapery that ‘exaggerates the curves of the anatomy’ beneath.[13] The rippling undulations of this drapery evoke shivers of pleasure, seeming, in places, to trace excitation, showing where and how the figures’ bodies have moved over time. But such movement itself is not directly represented, and instead the ripples and visual rhythms layered on and around the figures take on the quality of some secret, private experience felt by the figures but unknowable to the viewer, as do the flushed cheeks, small smiles, and gentle self-caresses in overtly sensuous works like Lilies.

The self-touch of female figures in such works is significant. In Lilies, gentle pinks and corals emphasise the softness of the figure’s body and the rosy glow of her cheeks and nipples, and folds of drapery abound; where her hand touches her face, she flushes hotly. Irigaray addresses the significance of woman’s self-touch in This Sex Which Is Not One, writing: ‘woman “touches herself” all the time … for her genitals are formed of two lips in continuous contact’.[14] The image of two lips touching is Irigaray’s most persistent symbol of female sexuality, exemplifying her anti-Freudian account in which women’s bodies, rather than lacking in sexual organs, are replete with them.[15] For Irigaray, in Diana Meyer’s words, ‘the sites of women’s erotic pleasure are manifold, for virtually the entire female body is erotically attuned’.[16] The body with multiple erogenous zones, the body which is constantly in sensuous contact with itself (lips of mouth, of vulva), is, for Irigaray, fundamentally female.[17] Woman’s multiplicity of sex organs also means that this experience is necessarily holistic, involving the whole body. ‘Her sexuality’, writes Irigaray, ‘always at least double [because of the two lips touching], goes further: it is plural’, in stark contrast to the singularity of phallic authority.[18]

Irigaray positions woman in relation to the world around her through sensuous or sensate experience. Because of her multiple erogenous zones, such meaning-making and self-constitution are spread across the whole body. For physiological psychologists like Lewes, selfhood similarly entailed the sensuous positioning of the subject in relation to an environment and the activation of the sensible interface between outside and inside; this process was also, as will be discussed later, dispersed across the whole body. For Lewes, sensation-appreciation – and thus consciousness itself – was a holistic, physical, and formative experience. Summer Star has noted that long before phenomenology proper, Lewes proposed a fundamental principle of relation-perception through a subject’s constant, unthought sensing of bodily orientation … It is a consciousness that is fundamentally of the body.[19]

Though their concerns are of course different, both Irigaray and Lewes conceive of sensation-appreciation as being corporeal and holistic (that is, involving the whole body), and as being involved with the constitution of subjecthood. Irigaray, however, specifically addresses the sensuous and gendered aspects of such meaning-making through sensory experience in a way Lewes does not.

Irigaray’s emphasis on the inherently individual and internal aspects of physical sensuous experience can help us reconsider previous analyses of Moore’s female subjects as mannequins or, in Margaret Stetz’s words, as embodying ‘the notion of the young woman as a spectacle existing only for a moment and inviting consumption’.[20] Indeed, Moore’s figures often seem hostile to the gaze of a voyeur, stressing the private nature of whatever experience they are shown to be having. In Dreamers, for instance, the woken figure looks directly out of the canvas, apparently registering our presence; her gaze is resistant, her body and psychology utterly inaccessible. Where her hand holds her ankle, she forms an impenetrable circuit of self-experience, a closed, unbroken loop of self-touch and the sensation of being touched that seems to emphasise that her whole body is hers alone to access. Moore’s female figures are not portrayed simply as passive receptacles for the male gaze. Instead, they seem demonstrably hostile to the gaze of a voyeur: we are barred from accessing or participating in this private experience of theirs.

Reading Moore’s paintings in the context of physiological psychology helps to draw out their private, sensorial, experiential qualities. Vanessa Ryan has suggested that the Victorian interest in bodily consciousness sometimes expressed itself as a desire to capture and explore what D. H. Lawrence called the ‘sensual … and intuitive’ body, in part by using a ‘language of feelings’ based on the ‘language of neurological anatomy’.[21] Moore’s depictions of sensuous female figures suggest a similar engagement with psycho-physiological ideas about the totality and corporeality of sensory experience. According to Lewes (and Pater), much of this sensory experience is, like neurological anatomy, necessarily internal.


Internal Rhythms, Visceral Processes, and the Graphic Method

In The Physiology of Common Life (1859-1860), Lewes posits a holistic and corporeal view of ‘Mind’ as something constituted by the individual’s whole body, rather than housed in the brain alone. He considers Mind a product of the nervous system, a complex network of organs constituting consciousness.[22] In other words, as Peter Garratt has argued, Lewes sees the mind – ‘including our intuition of selfhood’ – as ‘bound up deeply, perhaps even causally, with the physical processes of the nerve force’.[23] For Lewes, an organism’s nervous system is composed of nerves and ganglia, or nervous centres, through which ‘sensations cross and recross, exciting and modifying each other’. The sum total of this ‘incessant action and interaction of the various parts’ of the system is no less than ‘a feeling of existence’.[24] Lewes’ view is particularly holistic: ‘the organic connexus of parts with a living whole’, he writes, ‘is necessary for the simplest function of each organ’.[25] Since the nervous system, spread throughout the body, is what enables this connexus, selfhood is thus the product of a total system – the result of the whole organism feeling. The notion of the sensate individual constantly receiving and processing sensory input, even when she does not overtly recognise it, is crucial to Lewes’ conception of psychological experience. He wrote of a ‘general consciousness’ which exists above and beyond sensations that can be individually recognised. We do not habitually attend to this consciousness, for our attention tends rather to fall on ‘particular [prominent] sensations … [within] the sensitive panorama’.[26] Nonetheless, consciousness is always there, the human body always sensing.

Fig. 4: Albert Moore, Red Berries, 1884, oil on canvas, 47.6 x 116.7 cm, Private Collection.
Fig. 4: Albert Moore, Red Berries, 1884, oil on canvas, 47.6 x 116.7 cm, Private Collection. Image courtesy of Alamy.com.

As I observed in my analysis of Apples, Moore’s fabrics manifest rhythms analogous to those of Lewes’ description and Pater’s language. Rhythmic flow is similarly evident in the wallpapers and textiles in Moore’s paintings. In works like Dreamers and Red Berries (1884) (Fig. 4), hypnotic wallpaper throbs out at us and pattern churns around bodies. Arscott’s work on the primal energy of the wallpaper of William Morris, another member of the Aesthetic Movement circle, can aid us here. She identifies repetitious elements in Morris’ designs that ‘suggest a unity of living substance which references the human body’, and connects these designs to viscera, specifically the heart. His designs, she concludes, can be understood ‘in terms of the experience of inhabiting the human body’.[27] A similar visual dynamic is at play in the wallpaper in works like Dreamers, which indeed is reminiscent of some Morris designs; they share a dynamic complexity. These flowing rhythms – the complex interlocking pattern of surface and depth – call to mind Lewes’ description of blood ‘weaving’ through the body, ‘a leaping torrent … carried into the depths and over the surfaces of all the organs’, and fabrics in Moore’s work, as well as Pater’s descriptions of the flood of sensory impressions that constitute consciousness.[28] In The Physiology of Common Life, Lewes writes:

the roaring loom of Life is never for a moment still, weaving and weaving … If for a moment we could with the bodily eye see into the frame of man … [t]hrough one complex system of vessels we should see a leaping torrent of blood, carried into the depths and over the surfaces of all the organs … and … back again to the heart.[29]

In this passage, Lewes expresses a desire to see into the body of man, to directly view these visceral processes taking place. Though this desire was impossible to sate in any literal way, nineteenth-century physiology did have a method of identifying and visually translating the inner workings of the body into something one could see: the so-called ‘graphic method’, whereby machines recorded the visceral processes of the body and translated this into a pattern of undulating lines (Fig. 5). In their apparent interest in our experience of our bodies and in tracing tempos analogous to our internal rhythms, Moore’s works share visual affinities and a formal logic with the graphic method, the dominant nineteenth-century method of physiologically investigating, tracing and representing our inner bodily processes.


Fig. 5: ‘The sphygmograph: an instrument (also known as a “pulsometer”) for recording graphically the features of the pulse and variations in blood pressure’, with a chart illustrating the pulse tracings of a sphygmograph. After an engraving originally from Étienne-Jules Marey, La Circulation du sang (Paris: G. Masson, 1881), 214. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, no. 5683579.
Fig. 5: ‘The sphygmograph: an instrument (also known as a “pulsometer”) for recording graphically the features of the pulse and variations in blood pressure’, with a chart illustrating the pulse tracings of a sphygmograph. After an engraving originally from Étienne-Jules Marey, La Circulation du sang (Paris: G. Masson, 1881), 214. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, no. 5683579.

By the mid-nineteenth century, distinct but interrelated branches of physiology had begun to emerge. For all of these, the introduction and use of the graphic method became increasingly important. The graphic method introduced a logical and universal language for practitioners in the form of charts, curves, and graphs, and was facilitated by instruments of measurement, which in physiology were used to illustrate and understand previously invisible internal bodily processes.[30] The graphic method measured, inscribed, and represented time in a standardised and comprehensible way, with instruments of graphic registration mechanically tracking movement over time. Machines like the ‘sphygmograph’ (Fig. 5), for instance, a device perfected by physiologist Étienne-Jules Marey, measured the pulse – an indication of the rate at which the heart pumps blood through the body – and recorded this process as it unfolded over the course of several seconds. As the vein pulsed, the tip of a stylus attached to the pulse-point by a system of levers traced the movement, carving out a series of undulating curves in the smoke-blackened paper. Such graphic imagery translated the invisible, visceral rhythms of the inner body into a systematised and abstracted series of waves, spikes, and curves.[31] These flowing lines are redolent of the rhythmic wave forms in Moore’s paintings; indeed, both can be read as similarly representing various internal rhythms over time.

This temporal element is key to understanding the importance of the graphic method. What was truly novel was its ability to record processes unfolding over time, and represent this in a standardised and comprehensible way. It created a new type of image, one that translated the infinite complexity of the invisible processes of life into a ‘currency’ of visible, stylised curves.[32] Robert M. Brain has written extensively about the presence of this ‘currency of curves’ in the new aesthetics of late nineteenth-century France.[33] Though I do not wish to argue that Moore was directly inspired by the graphic method, I do see analogous unfoldings of line in his works that evoke the same sort of rhythmic flow: as wave-form drapery and patterns in wallpaper, for instance. Indeed, in his 1894 biography of Moore, Alfred Lys Baldry referenced a similar currency of curves, drawing an analogy between Moore’s art and wave forms. His studies, Baldry writes, ‘summarized the constantly repeating ripple, the recurrent clinging and falling apart [of drapery], which, like the advance and recession of a wave, are susceptible of analysis and record’.[34] The choice of a wave for this analogy is apt: waves are necessarily repetitious forms, and the imagery of both transverse and longitudinal waves is present in Moore’s art. In transverse waves, particle motion is perpendicular to wave motion, like the fabric behind the figures on the sofa in Apples; in longitudinal waves, particle motion is parallel to wave motionlike the striations on the rug in Apples.

The rhythmic qualities of Moore’s pictures have been discussed by other scholars in connection with his interest in finding, for art, an equivalent to the pure and abstract beauty of musical form. Elizabeth Prettejohn has drawn attention to the harmonious musical proportions of Moore’s pictures – a connection strengthened by the artist’s own evident interest in the theme (he titled one 1868 work The Quartet: A Painter’s Tribute To Music). She notes that spatial intervals in Moore’s works can be ‘exactly quantified, just as the intervals of musical harmony can be formulated mathematically’.[35] The connection can also be extended to physiological graphics: Moore’s works, like music, share with the graphics a concern with rhythms unfolding in time, and translate something invisible and experiential into a visual and readable language. Indeed, contemporary scientists themselves drew analogies between musical notation and graphic records of physical motion, both internal and external.[36] Brain asserts that the formal notation of physiological graphics was similar to a musical score: the horizontal axis measured time, divided into measured intervals, and vertical axis measured differences in intensity.[37] Like the sheet music for a quartet, the graphics could even show processes that took place simultaneously (both assembled on a single sheet, and recording concurrently), and the relationship between these.

Artworks like Apples function similarly, in that there is a sense in them of the passage of time: they do not represent a single frozen moment but something more continuous and complex, tracing the relations of various motions within the living body elapsing over time. Baldry, though speaking of changes in drapery rather than motion within bodies, drew attention to Moore’s interest in visually recording something more temporally complex than the single moment. ‘His was not the narrow and too accurate observation of the instantaneous photograph that misses the idea of action by reproducing one part only out of a continuous succession’, wrote Baldry. Rather, ‘Moore combined a whole series of varying and not really simultaneous movements into a kind of pattern’.[38] In Apples, that pattern can be read like musical notation, or physiological graphs: as progressing sequentially over time, from left to right. If we read Moore’s artworks as mapping bodily rhythms like graphs, then the relations of the human figures to one another in works like Apples and Dreamers must also be understood through their positioning on such a graph. The figures are so similar that if we read the image as if time is elapsing from left to right, they seem more like one individual mapped over time, rather than several caught together as if in a single (‘photographic’) instant. In other words, we see one woman who appears to have turned in her sleep over time. And the striated lines of code beneath her, in the form of the pattern on the rug, seem to confirm this, registering her increasing disturbance in sleep as they increase in frequency and density. David Peters Corbett has proposed a similar reading of the operation of time in some of Moore’s paintings, though he does not expand much on this idea: he writes that Moore’s early painting The Schulamite (1864–66) uses the ‘rhythmical sequencing’ of human figures across the canvas as a substitute for the unfolding of events in time.[39]

Fig. 6: George Henry Lewes, ‘The contents of a molluscan ganglion which has been teased out with needles’, in The Physical Basis of Mind [1874] (London: Trübner & Co., 1893), 250.
Fig. 6: George Henry Lewes, ‘The contents of a molluscan ganglion which has been teased out with needles’, in The Physical Basis of Mind [1874] (London: Trübner & Co., 1893), 250. Image courtesy of the Yale University Medical History Library.

In addition to their evocation of the imagery and logic of the graphic method, mapping the internal rhythms of the body, Moore’s paintings often use pattern in a way that is suggestive of both generalised sensation and an activated nervous system as understood by Lewes. In Red Berries, for instance, a floral pattern swarms over the figure’s body and swells out around her face. If we read this pattern as a visualisation of sensation, this image corresponds with Lewes’ conception of sensory input being received and consolidated throughout the body. The tumescent pillow bulging out as her head sinks into it also suggests an engagement with inside and outside or surface and depth, ‘the incessant simultaneous action of internal and external stimuli’ of Lewes’ description.[40] Visually, the content of Moore’s patterns is often strikingly reminiscent of Victorian diagrams of the ganglia, the loci of sensation. The wallpaper in Dreamers and textiles in works like The End of the Story (ca.1877) evoke illustrations in Lewes’ own text (Fig. 6); indeed, ganglia themselves form their own honeycomb patterns of closely-packed cells. Further, nerve cells and their winding tendrils, also illustrated in Lewes’ texts, form venous and wavy patterns akin to those in Red Berries.[41]

Pattern is often a surface phenomenon, two-dimensional and reductive, though also multiplicitous: it involves a design or motif repeated across a plane. Like the undulating imagery of the graphic method, it can be seen to represent a systematised version of reality, a translation of the natural world into a flattened abstraction. As Baldry and Asleson have noted, Moore was deeply interested in translating ‘Nature’ (life or reality) into systematised form. But the systematised form on which he settled was not necessarily flattened out. Arscott has identified – specifically in the design work of William Morris – an Aesthetic Movement interest in creating pattern that is not simply surface-oriented, decorative, or ‘flat’. She suggests that ‘there is something fleshy about [Morris’] design work’: it ‘deploys its … forms on a surface, yet tells us of depth and not of surface’. This, she argues, leads to a ‘living thickness’ in the designs.[42] Moore’s interest in finding a balance between nature and abstraction can perhaps also be detected in the function of pattern and line in his paintings about consciousness. In these works, Moore rebuilds and re-layers traces of pattern and form in a complex weave. Inasmuch as these patterns and forms evoke the processes of the body, this weave is analogous to that of an individual’s sensory system: it interlaces visceral processes, firing nerves, sensory experience, and different levels of awareness. In Moore’s paintings, unlike Morris’ designs, this effect is not suggested through the patterns themselves, but rather through his deployment of these designs on depictions of fabric and wallpaper, his layering of designs and textiles, and his unique working method.

Moore’s paintings were composed on a complex curvilinear grid system which he used both to determine broad compositional elements and to situate small details. Intersecting lines of his grid, atop which he drew a series of intersecting circles created with a compass, determined figures’ placement and proportions. Like Lewes’ nervous system, Moore’s grid system acted as a network underlying and enabling the larger whole. Moreover, as with that system, parts of Moore’s grid could be ‘triggered’ to produce points of sensory focus: places of intersection on the grid precipitated detail, dictating what Moore painted and where.[43] But this was not a simple, sequential process of production: the form of the grid itself was dictated by the initial image Moore had in mind; his grid was placed over his initial composition, ‘congruous with [its] leading lines’.[44] As in Lewes’ nervous system, there is continuous action and reaction; a ‘cross[ing] and recross[ing]’ of sensations – a process that, in Lewes’ conception, sparks an organism’s feeling of existence and sentience.[45]

The sensate body, in Lewes’ idiom, is comprised of a series of complex, interwoven layers of visceral rhythms, levels of consciousness or awareness, and streams of sensation. In Moore’s art, analogous rhythms, traces, and patterns are layered and interwoven. These layers, like the continuum of consciousness, are not always distinct. Earlier, I discussed how physiological registering devices plunged metaphorically beneath the surface of the skin, translating the ceaseless flow and rhythms of the viscera into a binary realm of white lines on black ground. The curvilinear lines of graphic inscription are reductive traces that transform a complex, three-dimensional, and visceral process into a systematised, two-dimensional logic; similarly, Moore’s patterns were often formalised, binary translations of complex nature. But if Moore’s rhythmic undulations can be thought of as analogous to those of the graphic method, a key difference is that he replasticised these traces – not in a reversal of this process, but in a re-embodiment or rebuilding of form. This rebuilding often, as discussed, is visible as undulating drapery, as well as bodies themselves: in their curved forms, and in their repetition across the canvas. By layering rhythms in this way, Moore made compositions that are suggestive of the sensate body itself, in its complex and many-layered weave of various traces of sensation, nervous agitation, and visceral processes. Moore’s layered canvases can thus be understood as what Arscott, in reference to Morris prints, has called ‘an organic, vital fabric’, built up of ‘co-dependent living elements’, a ‘pulsing weave’.[46]

Let us return to Lewes’ conception of the ever-sensing individual.  In his argument, he uses the complex metaphor of stars in the daytime: invisible to the naked eye, but nevertheless present, overwhelmed by sunlight. Like the sunlight, our ‘general consciousness’ may overwhelm our ability to recognise particular sensations. When we are paying attention to our environment, writes Lewes, we are so preoccupied with it that we pay no attention to ‘the fact of our own existence’. Yet if we close our eyes, block out all sound, and ‘abstract the sensations of touch and temperature’, we become aware of the ‘massive and diffuse sensation’ which all the while has been ‘arising from the organic processes’. We then perceive this feeling for what it is: ‘a vast and powerful stream of sensation, belonging … to the System [that is, the body] as a whole’.[47]

As already mentioned, Lewes and contemporary physiological psychologists were keenly interested in levels of consciousness and varying states of awareness, with sleep a particular preoccupation. In The Physical Basis of Mind (1874), Lewes characterised sleep as a state of ‘unconsciousness’, but not a cessation of feeling: ‘during sleep the nervous centres have by no means their full activity, [but] they are always capable of responding to a stimulus, and sensation will always be produced’.[48] In other words, sensations affect us even when we are unconscious of them. Keren Hammerschlag has drawn attention to visual depictions of a similar phenomenon in the art of Frederic Leighton, with whom Moore was in close artistic dialogue, suggesting that ‘creased, crumpled and folded drapery’ in his art represents ‘the meanderings of the subconscious as permitted by sleep’.[49] The folds of Moore’s drapery can perhaps similarly be understood as representing some meandering trace of consciousness, persistent even in sleep.

But in Moore’s paintings, it is not drapery alone that is suggestive of the operations of consciousness. In Dreamers, for instance, Moore’s consummate work about sleep and consciousness, different patterns seem to connote varying levels of awareness and types of sensation. Dreamers explores the different levels of awareness involved in sleep and waking, challenging the idea that these are wholly distinct states. When read from left to right, this painting can be understood as showing an individual in varying states of consciousness. On the far left, the figure has just fallen asleep, her hand still hovering above her. In the middle, she sleeps more soundly, her body open and relaxed, arm limp at her side. The heads of these two bodies rest against the sofa at a sharp horizontal angle, drawing attention to their containment within the liminal space between the furniture and the upper margin of the undulating fabric above them; their similarity is reemphasised by the grid patterns above. The sofa, in red and rusty tones, frames their torsos; the pattern here, confined to the parts of the body containing the majority of the viscera (stomach, intestines, heart), evokes the ‘massive and diffuse’ internal processes of Lewes’ description, ongoing even in sleep. The third iteration of the figure is awake, though her relaxed posture and distant gaze indicate a state somewhere between sleep and sharp focus. She appears awake enough to consciously register the stream of sensation, but not enough for that stream to have been obliterated by the blinding ‘daylight’ of the waking world. Indeed, her head projects above the rhythmic flow of drapery into a swirling, churning pattern of sensation, whose filigree forms are more rhythmic than diffuse.

There are some significant differences between the woken figure and the sleeping two. Though the former clearly has access to the busier realm of the wallpaper and the latter pair does not, pattern – and thus sensation – is not inaccessible to the ‘unconscious’ figures. The fabric behind them is translucent, and patterns – of grid and wallpaper – shine through; indeed, the central figure’s head extends just beyond the edge of the grate behind her, reaching the wallpapered area. Thus, though the levels of intensity of sensation clearly differ, from diffuse visceral processes, to steady meanderings of the sleeping mind, to churning streams of sensation, Moore softens the boundaries between them.

Fig. 7: Albert Moore, Birds, 1878, oil on canvas, 155.4 x 65.3 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
Fig. 7: Albert Moore, Birds, 1878, oil on canvas, 155.4 x 65.3 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Image courtesy of Birmingham Museums.

Thought and sensation, though both products of Mind, represent different levels of focus, and while Moore’s works are less concerned with volitional reflection than with the transitional stages of consciousness, they do at times seem to register the point at which generalised sensation coalesces into something sharper. A notable example is Birds (1878, Fig. 7), in which a figure looks up, her gaze engaged rather than disconnected. The plant by her feet seems to register her directed attention: like a sequence of thoughts or specific sensations, diverging and coalescing into distinct points from one central meandering line, the stem of the plant reaches upwards, its branches developing into sharply-delineated leaves and flowers.[50] This more specific train of thought is imprinted upon the diffuse pattern, suggestive of generalised sensation, behind her, following the upward thrust of her gaze. By contrast, in Apples, which shows figures asleep, the rhythms suggested by the fabric are steadier and more lulling. In The Physiology of Common Life, Lewes described the bodily processes during sleep, especially ‘the motion of the heart and the respiratory acts’, as taking place without conscious thought but not without sensation.[51] Indeed, in sleep, the physical processes of the body take on greater prominence in the sensitive panorama than thoughts; and what thoughts do persist are not distinct and focused but more like the diffuse patterns or translucent seeds above the sleeping figures’ heads. The central train is not always visible, and points of sensation shimmer in and out of focus, almost at random.

In Lewes’ conception, consciousness – the awareness of oneself as a feeling being – is the product of a holistic system, with ganglia playing the crucial role of receptors. In works like Dreamers, suffused as they are with rhythmic pulsations, sensuous self-touch, motion and stillness, Moore’s female figures can be read as suggestive of ganglia themselves, centres of neural organisation. They are bodies through which undulating rhythms of experience flow and are consolidated. These figures both participate in and experience this stream of sensation; they at once refer us to the bodies in which these rhythms take place and through which the world is experienced and participate – as points on a temporal plane – in the rhythm and pattern of it all.

Moore died in his early fifties of an ‘internal disease’ that had plagued him since at least 1883, when he had suffered an attack of blood poisoning complicated by pleurisy and congestion of the lungs. In the standard narrative of his life and work, his final years are said to represent a turning away from what Gregory Hedburg calls the ‘pure aesthetic and technical endeavors of the 1870s and early 1880s’ in favour of works with more emotive, sentimental content; what Asleson describes as ‘a re-connection with humanity’.[52] Hedburg, Asleslon, and Baldry alike associate this with Moore’s illness. Perhaps, they speculate, it was a concern with mortality that led him to the ‘psychological insight[s]’ which had fascinated him during his youth but which he had supposedly suppressed for the decades with which my article is concerned.[53] Asleson, however, acknowledges that this apparent change in thematic interest remains a mystery.[54]

Fig. 8: Albert Moore, Midsummer, 1887, oil on canvas, 158.6 x 152.2 cm, Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth. Image reproduced with the kind permission of Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum.
Fig. 8: Albert Moore, Midsummer, 1887, oil on canvas, 158.6 x 152.2 cm, Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth. Image reproduced with the kind permission of Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum.

But it makes just as much sense to suggest that Moore’s ailing body fathered a greater cognisance of what it means to be sensate and sentient, to be a body at a time when that body is degenerating. Moore lived the last decade of his life in chronic pain, with ‘every nerve in continuous tension’.[55] His awareness of his inner sensations – and of what it felt like when the corporeal system was in disrepair – would thus have been acute as he worked on paintings like Red Berries. Indeed, some of his later paintings which are usually placed within the narrative of a return to sentimentality or psychological insight, like A Revery (1892) and Midsummer (1887, Fig. 8), have far more in common thematically with earlier works like Apples and Lilies than with Moore’s late character studies like Portia (1885).

In Midsummer, for instance, three similar figures are shown experience differing levels of consciousness. The central figure sleeps; above her winds a garland of flowers, evoking the meanderings of the unconscious mind. The figure on the left looks up, face illuminated and attention drawn to a leaf relieved against the back wall – a prick of light in the dark. A sensation of warmth created by their bright orange robes suffuses the image, appearing to spread all over the figures: even their faces glow. In the low platform behind them, a rhythmic pattern is imprinted: in its striations of depth and surface, its lines radiating outwards, it mirrors the open fans in the image. And like the shell motif of the plinth and throne, it quotes the lines of Moore’s anthemion — the identifying mark he used instead of a signature.

Moore’s anthemion is a complicated symbol admitting no single interpretation. Often, it seems to function as an analogy to consciousness itself. As a signature, an inherent mark of selfhood, it is an imprint of the artist. It is also visually like the fans, books, and shell motifs populating Moore’s paintings, motifs that are often stand-ins for figures (such as the fan on the right in Dreamers), or semiotic markers of meaning-creation (like the book in Red Berries). Sometimes they are even analogues of different states of consciousness: reading a book involves absorption in an activity to the exclusion of one’s environment. Moore’s anthemion, then, is a mark of subjectivity which often seems to have something to do with the consciousness of himself as a sensate being, in contact with his works, themselves approximations of sentient subjects.

Lewes uses the metaphor of weaving in describing the constitution of the body, and thus the self: ‘the roaring loom of Life is never for a moment still, weaving and weaving’.[56] In their particular temporalities, rhythms, and layers, Moore’s works are also weaving and weaving. These works about consciousness can be understood as complex approximations of the living body and corporeal experience, and approach the direct representation of sentience itself.


[1] See Elizabeth Prettejohn, Art For Art’s Sake: Aestheticism in Victorian Painting (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 101-127, especially 120.

[2] Algernon Charles Swinburne, ‘Notes on Some Pictures of 1868’, in Essays and Studies (London: Chatto and Windus, 1875), 358-380, 361. See also Prettejohn, 127.

[3] Caroline Arscott, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones: Interlacings (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 11.

[4] Walter Pater, ‘Conclusion’, in Donald L. Hill (ed.), The Renaissance [1893] (Berkeley: University of California, 1980), 186-190, 186-187. ‘Conclusion’ was reworked from an earlier essay of 1868: ‘Poems by William Morris’.

[5] Pater, 186-187.

[6] Several authors have demonstrated that Pater’s ‘Conclusion’ engages directly with contemporary scientific debates. These authors link Pater’s writing and Lewes’ ‘Mr. Darwin’s Hypotheses’ (Fortnightly Review, 1868). See Andrew Billie Inman, ‘The Intellectual Context of Walter Pater’s “Conclusion”’, in Philip Dodd (ed.), Walter Pater: An Imaginative Sense of Fact (London: Frank Cass & Co., 1981), 39-54, 14; Charles S. Blinderman, ‘Huxley, Pater, and Protoplasm’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 43 (1982), 477-486, 481; and Kanarankis Yannis, ‘The Aesthete as Scientist: Walter Pater and Nineteenth-Century Science’, Victorian Network, 2.1 (Summer 2010), 88-105, 90-91. For a very brief discussion of Pater’s aesthetic influence on Moore, see also, Gregory Hedburg, ‘Albert Moore’, in Richard Dorment, Gregory Hedburg, Leonée Ormond, Richard Ormond, and Allen Staley (eds.), Victorian High Renaissance: George Frederic Watts 1817-1904, Frederic Leighton 1830-96, Albert Moore 1841-93, Alfred Gilbert 1854-1934: An Exhibition (Minneapolis: The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1978), 130-155, 132.

[7] George Henry Lewes, The Physiology of Common Life [1859-60] (London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1860), vol. 2, 6.

[8] Lewes (1860), vol. 2, 66.

[9] Allen Staley, The New Painting of the 1860s: Between the Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetic Movement (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 139.

[10] Lionel Lambourne, The Aesthetic Movement (London: Phaidon Press, 1996), 195.

[11] Asleson, 133.

[12] Asleson, 133. The sensuousness of some of Moore’s paintings was even satirised by his contemporaries: see ‘The Royal Academy’, Judy, or The London Serio-Comic Journal (May 10, 1876), 39.

[13] Asleson, 133.

[14] Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One [1977], transl. by Catherine Porter and Carolyn Burke (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 24.

[15] Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 105.

[16] Diana T. Meyers, Subjection and Subjectivity: Psychoanalytic Feminism and Moral Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 1994), 87.

[17] Grosz, 105; Meyers, 87.

[18] Irigaray, 28; emphasis original.

[19] Summer J. Star, ‘Feeling Real in Middlemarch’, ELH, 80, 3 (Fall 2013), 839-866, 843; emphasis original.

[20] Margaret D. Stetz, ‘The “Aesthetic” Woman’, in Stephen Calloway and Lynn F. Orr (eds.), The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860-1900 (London: V&A, 2011), 179-182.

[21] D. H. Lawrence, introduction to Pansies [1929]quoted in Vanessa L. Ryan, Thinking Without Thinking in the Victorian Novel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 176.

[22] Lewes (1860), vol. 2, 4.

[23] Peter Garratt, Victorian Empiricism: Self, Knowledge, and Reality in Ruskin, Bain, Lewes, Spencer, and George Eliot (Madison: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2010), 152.

[24] Lewes (1860), vol. 2, 73.

[25] George Henry Lewes, The Physical Basis of Mind [1874] (London: Trübner & Co., 1893), 422.

[26] Lewes (1893), 418-419; Lewes (1860), vol. 2, 65; emphasis mine.

[27] Arscott (2008), 97, 88.

[28] George Henry Lewes, The Physiology of Common Life [1859–60] (London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1859), vol. 1, 270-271.

[29] Lewes (1860), vol. 1, 270-271.

[30] Robert M. Brain, The Pulse of Modernism: Physiological Aesthetics in Fin-de-Siècle Europe (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015), 5-6; Thomas L. Hankins and Robert J. Silberman, Instruments and the Imagination (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 30, 113, 137.

[31] For further examples of such graphic imagery, see Étienne-Jules Marey, La Circulation du sang (Paris: G. Masson), 1881, 25, 121. Images and book are online available at https://archive.org/details/lacirculationdu01maregoog. [Last accessed: 27 October 2018]

[32] Brain, 97.

[33] Brain, 97.

[34] Alfred Lys Baldry, Albert Moore: His Life and Works (London: Bell, 1894), 84; emphasis mine.

[35] Prettejohn, 120.

[36] See Brain, 26-27; Christine Poggi, Inventing Futurism: The Art and Politics of Artificial Optimism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 305; and Marta Braun, Picturing Time: The Work of Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 38.

[37] Brain, 28.

[38] Baldry, 84.

[39] David Peters Corbett, The World in Paint: Modern Art and Visuality in England, 1848-1914 (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004), 86.

[40] Lewes (1860), vol. 2, 65.

[41] These and other physiological illustrations can be found in George Henry Lewes, The Physiology of Common Life [1859-60] (London: William Blackwood and Sons), vol. 2, 1860, 10, 12, 13, and George Henry Lewes, The Physical Basis of Mind [1874] (London: Trübner & Co.), 1893, 230, 237. Images and book are online available at https://archive.org/details/b28109247/ and https://archive.org/details/b28065049. [Last accessed: 27 October 2018]

[42] Arscott (2008), 165, 27.

[43] Baldry, 23-24, 81; Prettejohn, 103-104; Asleson, 146.

[44] Baldry, 23-24.

[45] Lewes (1860), vol. 2, 73.

[46] Arscott (2008), 97.

[47] All quotations from Lewes (1860), vol. 2, 67-68.

[48] Lewes (1893), 417.

[49] Keren R. Hammerschlag, ‘The Deathly Sleep of Frederic Leighton’s Painted Women’, Women: A Cultural Review, 23.1 (2012), 201-215, 202.

[50] For more on sequential thought and Victorian psychology, see Caroline Arscott, ‘William Morris’s Tapestry: Metamorphosis and Prophecy in The Woodpecker’, Art History, 36.3 (June 2013), 608-625, 612.

[51] Lewes (1860), vol. 2, 121-122.

[52] Hedburg, 134; Asleson, 177.

[53] Asleson, 177, 180. See also Baldry, 20.

[54] Asleson, 202.

[55] Baldry, 17.

[56] Lewes (1860), vol. 1, 270-271.