THOMAS COOPER // A Monstrous Imagining of Matter and Spirit: Robert Brough’s Fantaisie en Folie (1897)

Fantaisie en Folie was Robert Brough’s (1872-1905) most successful painting and won international acclaim. However, since its acquisition by the Tate it has largely gone by ignored in art historical accounts of late nineteenth-century painting. ‘A Monstrous Imagining of Matter and Spirit: Robert Brough’s Fantaisie en Folie (1897)’ examines Brough’s painting with a fresh perspective. It questions the painting’s current interpretation as an ‘aesthetic moment’, investigating notions of inner vision, the fantastic and monstrous, and the insubstantiality of form, matter and spirit. This article compares Brough and his work with Paul Gauguin, James McNeill Whistler and George Frederic Watts. It moves to consider how the painting might be understood in terms of the relationship between the self and the world, drawing on the writings of Edward Carpenter and William James, and the contexts of Theosophy and Buddhist thought. The article proposes that what is represented is something feared rather than desired.

‘Nothing in the material world endures absolutely unchanged in itself or its conditions, even for the smallest conceivable portion of time. All that is, is forever in process of becoming something else…the constant, eternal change of atoms from one state into another.’

— William Judge, Echoes From The Orient, 1890.

Fig. 1: Robert Brough, Fantaisie en Folie, 1897, oil on canvas, 102.2 x 125.7 cm, Tate, London.
Fig. 1: Robert Brough, Fantaisie en Folie, 1897, oil on canvas, 102.2 x 125.7 cm, Tate, London. © Tate, London, 2018.

The scene is a sparse interior. A muddied but otherwise blank, grey-green wall fills the background. In the shallow foreground there is a cloth-covered table. A female figure is sitting next to it in a chair. Her posture is upright. She is dressed elegantly in a brown velvet dress. On the table stands a Budai figurine. With her right arm, the seated figure takes the end of her sautoir necklace and wraps it around the figurine’s neck. There she holds the pendant of her necklace, gripping it between her thumb and index finger. The necklace – a chain of fine silver, green, blue and maroon beads – is looped around the figure’s neck. It links together the figure and figurine.

This striking tableau is the subject of Fantaisie en Folie (Fig. 1), painted in 1897 by Robert Brough. Fantaisie en Folie was Brough’s most successful painting, exhibited first in London and then in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Paris, Munich, Vienna and St. Louis. On the artist’s bequest, it was given to Tate Britain in 1905, where it now hangs on display, yet goes largely unnoticed.[1] Invariably in scholarship, Brough is mentioned in passing and without exploration. A posthumous Exhibition of paintings & sketches by Robert Brough, A.R.S.A at the Fine Art Society in 1907 and the exhibition Robert Brough, ARSA: 1872-1905, held at the Aberdeen Art Gallery in 1995, are the only retrospective and extensive explorations of his work to date. Both exhibitions showed Fantaisie en Folie, yet neither afforded it critical discussion. Thus far only Kenneth McConkey has devoted Fantaisie en Folie any serious attention and interprets the work as representing an ‘aesthetic moment’.[2]

This article offers a sustained and critical account of this painting, making suggestions as to what it may represent. It unpacks what sort of aesthetic moment we bear witness to and the type of human experience, inflected with complex and contradictory contexts of the late nineteenth century, that is articulated in visual and material terms. I find Brough’s handling of paint and description of form compelling and this article explores the materiality of paint and the representation of physical matter. Part of the framework used engages Victorian materialist aesthetics, drawing on the recent work of Benjamin Morgan to set this up. This article compares Fantaisie en Folie with a selection of works by Brough. In addition, it introduces artworks by artists from different networks and nationalities, such as John Singer Sargent, Paul Gauguin and George Frederic Watts to be appraised alongside Brough’s work. This broader comparative analysis is productive in understanding Fantaisie en Folie. Questions that I feel this painting asks, are raised throughout the article. These questions are used to propel and deepen the analysis. Often they are placed at the end of a section, but their answers are addressed in the subsequent sections.

Fig. 2: John Singer Sargent, Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast, 1882-1883, oil on panel, 32 x 41 cm, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA, USA. © Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA, USA.
Fig. 2: John Singer Sargent, Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast, 1882-1883, oil on panel, 32 x 41 cm, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA, USA. © Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA, USA.

The argument of this article attends to the representation of the self and contends that this plays out in perverse ways in Fantaisie en Folie. The article draws on the writings of Edward Carpenter and William James in addition to the new mind and materialist sciences of the period. At the same time, the line of thought is developed with reference to spirituality, Theosophy and Buddhist theology. This article argues that these contexts co-exist with a discussion of materialist thought. They are mobilised through the Budai figurine and in relation to Watts’ interest in Theosophy and Buddhism. Carpenter’s autobiography makes clear his interest in Eastern theological thought, and his views are considered in my discussion of Theosophical and Buddhist doctrine. The doctrine of transmigration, which suggests an absence of the soul, is especially important for the interpretation laid out here.

Fig. 3: Alfred Stevens, The Present, ca. 1866-71, oil on canvas, 37 x 46 cm, Sir Hugh Lane Bequest, 1917, The National Gallery, London.
Fig. 3: Alfred Stevens, The Present, ca. 1866-71, oil on canvas, 37 x 46 cm, Sir Hugh Lane Bequest, 1917, The National Gallery, London. © The National Gallery, London.

Sitting and Seeing

The subject of a female figure sitting in a chair beside a table or bureau on which an object of taste is placed is not specific to Fantaisie en Folie. It occurs multiple times throughout Brough’s work and it is something to which we need to pay attention. Painted in the same year as Fantaisie en FolieMrs Nicol of Roscobie (1897) shows a profile of a female figure sitting next to a bureau. Holding a newspaper in her left hand and a pair of spectacles in her right hand, Mrs Nicol looks up to face the viewer with a direct stare. The viewer is also addressed in the portrait Dolly Crombie (ca. 1897), which closely parallels the costume in Fantaisie en Folie through the full-length dress, billowing sleeves and high collar. In this work, the figure is also sitting in a near-identical, low-back wooden chair. Moreover, in Sweet Violets (1897) – considered by critics the sister work of Fantaisie en Folie – a woman sits, holds out, and looks towards, a vase filled with violets.[3] Sargent’s Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast (Fig. 2, 1882-1883) is strikingly akin in composition to both Fantaisie en Folie and Sweet Violets. The brown and purple tones used in Madame Gautreau prefigure the purple and maroon palette used by Brough in the sister works. Mrs Nicol of Roscobie also achieves a similar balance of ‘semi-tones of purplish hangings’.[4] This preference for purple may perhaps be identified as of trend for Brough. It has been noted that the composition of Dolly Crombie echoes Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650). For the composition of Fantaisie en Folie, Brough draws from more recent precedents, as Kenneth McConkey establishes, in Alfred Stevens’ The Present (Fig. 3, ca. 1866-1871) and Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Sarah Bernhardt (1879).[5] It is through these comparisons that McConkey characterises the subject of Fantaisie en Folie as an ‘aesthetic moment’. He describes what we see as a moment of reverie in which a fashionably dressed female figure ‘of striking profile’ interacts with a decorative object, engaging in ‘superior’ thought and the ‘beauty of contemplation’.[6] The figure herself becomes an object of beauty for the beholder, who subsequently gains a more conscious awareness of the act of looking as well as his or her own selfhood.[7] The object operates beyond materiality as a talisman, transposing art into life. McConkey draws on Bernard Berenson for some foundation to this unavoidably slippery concept, for whom the ‘aesthetic moment’ abolishes time and space, wherein the beholder is enwrapped in ‘one awareness’ as the self and the object ‘become one entity’: ‘In short, the aesthetic moment is a moment of mystic vision.’[8] However, what exactly is going on here?

McConkey is correct in seeing the figure in a state of reverie. Unmoving and with closed eyes, she is in an attitude of fixed repose. We imagine that she is thinking on the figurine before her as she reaches to it. Yet, her closed eyes put her in opposition to the modes of contemplation presented in The Present and Sarah Bernhardt. In both paintings, the figures look at the objects before them with open eyes. In Fantaisie en Folie this process of engagement through ocular vision is absent; the figure is, in fact, blind. If it is not, to adopt Kate Flint’s terms, through an ‘outer’ vision that the figure in Fantaisie en Folie contemplates the object before her, might this process be mediated through an ‘inner’ vision?[9] Thus the figurine represented is what she is seeing in the imagination of her reverie? In this way, the figurine may be a glimpse or moment of the fantasy alluded to in the painting’s equivocal title. A literal translation of Fantaisie en Folie would be ‘Fantasy in Madness’. However, Caroline Corbeau-Parsons suggests it might be better translated as ‘Unbridled fantasy’.[10] She also suggests the possibility that the title may allude to musical associations – whereby Fantaisie is a fantasia. ‘En Folie’ would then serve to describe a type of uncontrolled or unbridled sensory experience that evokes more of a mood than a narrative. The associations with musical terms and evocation of mood prompt an apposite comparison with the work of James McNeill Whistler, who titled many of his works with musical terms. Brough and Whistler are compared below, but first I want to advance a line of thought around fantasy as the imaginative and creative vision in which the inanimate figurine comes alive in this aesthetic encounter.

Fig. 4: Paul Gauguin, Vision After the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), 1888, oil on canvas, 72.2. x 91 cm, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh.
Fig. 4: Paul Gauguin, Vision After the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), 1888, oil on canvas, 72.2. x 91 cm, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh. © The National Galleries of Scotland.

Critical reviews of Fantaisie en Folie attest to this animation. The figurine was described as a ‘little fantastic but brilliant idol’; noting its fantastic and monstrous qualities, it was reported to be a ‘Chinese monster’ and an ‘aggressive…little monster’; and even referred to as ‘heathenish-looking’.[11] Frequently, these reviews remarked on the figurine’s jewel-like quality: ‘radiating like a jewel’; ‘a splendid jewelled’ figure, bearing ‘a jewel-like brilliancy’.[12] It is clear why such readings held. Brough creates the illusion of the figurine being alive and in motion through paint and colour. The figurine is painted with thin and fluid brushwork. Paint is laid on the ground in circular motions describing the plump face, round cheeks, and curved belly and sack. The paint is thick and stands proud of the support, suggesting something more than two-dimensionality. The figurine is the most brightly coloured element of the entire composition. It sparkles and glistens with painted white highlight. Light seems to bounce off the reflective glaze of its moving surface.

To continue with this notion of the figurine as a projection of the figure’s imagination, we might see the painting as constitutive of two dimensions of vision: the figure in reverie and what is seen in that reverie. Multiple dimensions of vision are represented in Paul Gauguin’s Vision After the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) (Fig. 4, 1888). This was painted in the town of Pont-Aven in Brittany, home to an artist colony established by the Synthesists and other avant-garde artists.  In works typical for the Synthesists forms are rendered in flat planes, bold lines and saturated colours, and the aesthetic response also terms the representation of a subject. Gauguin depicts in bold outlines and block colours a group of Breton women praying after a theological sermon. Against a background of bright red, these women occupy the left side of the canvas. This section is marked out spatially by a branch that cuts across the work in a right to left and upward diagonal. In the right side of the canvas, we see the vignette of Jacob wrestling with the angel. Thus the branch divides the composition in two, separating the praying women who perceive in reverie from the ‘mental image’ of their inner vision.[13] Of Vision After the Sermon, Gauguin wrote to Vincent van Gogh: ‘For me the landscape and the wrestling in this picture only exist in the imagination of the people praying after the sermon.’[14] In this way, of visualising what ‘exist[s] in the imagination’, we find similarity between Gauguin and Brough. Brough visited Brittany in 1894 and Gauguin had been there intermittently between 1888 and 1895. While Brough may not have met Gauguin, he was certainly aware of him and his work, as well as that of the Synthesists, of whom he became a follower.[15] (In Brough’s Breton Girl Herding Cattle (ca. 1896), the influence of the Synthesists is clear as colour and rhythmic line operate in unison to produce light and form. A branch divides the compositional space, echoing the branch employed in Vision After the Sermon.) In comparing Fantaisie en Folie with Gauguin’s Vision After the Sermon, we find a shared engagement with visualisations of inner vision. This supports the argument that the Budai figurine is a visualisation of the imagination.

Both Vision After the Sermon and Fantaisie en Folie feature a flat undecorated ground of subtly varied tones from a single key of colour. In both cases this functions as the background. The bright red in Vision After the Sermon suggests an intensity of some sort, perhaps the tension of the wrestle or acute religious meditation. By contrast, the background in Fantaisie en Folie is a dulled mix of green and grey tones. Its smoky appearance suggests that there is something neither fully visible nor accessible. Placed before this background, the figure and figurine block our access to it. Gauguin uses a branch to divide the praying women and their vision. Brough, however, links figure and figurine together by the necklace. Thus the interaction between subject and object concerns how they operate as ‘one entity’ in a shared space and environment. This will be unpacked below as the type of interaction seen here is considered in terms of materialist aesthetics.


Fantastic, Alive and Monstrous

The question of what the figure is seeing in her imagination requires further discussion. Here I break away from McConkey and argue that this inner vision is not a contemplation of the object’s beauty, but rather how this fantastic object operates unexpectedly. In contrast to the closed eyes of the female figure, the face of the figurine has bright, open eyes. Over the blind figure, it has agency of ocular vision as if by some peculiar shift of sensorial ability. The figure’s haptic engagement directed towards the figurine is transformed and transferred back through its visual engagement: the figurine looks at the figure. If we have any ‘outer’ contemplation at all, the dynamic of this process operates atypically from object to subject. We might find a visualisation of this shift at the point where the figure’s right hand meets the figurine: the Yin-Yang pendant of the sautoir necklace. Here, two swirls of colour, the one above a pale viridian, the other below a mixture of white and brown, rotate in an anti-clockwise motion. The stroke of viridian moves away from the figure towards the figurine, while the stroke of white and brown moves away from the figurine towards the figure. Thus, we have a process of transfer enacted through colour and paint, paralleling the transfer of sensorial ability. In this way, the figurine is not only in opposition to the figure but edges further away from the ‘real’. Furthermore, it does not display characteristics we expect of ceramics: cold, hard, fixed, glazed and inanimate. Unexpectedly, the figurine operates with ocular vision, and moves closer still to the fantastic: existing in the imagination, ‘it is a fantasy’, an object coming alive.[16]

Benjamin Morgan explores how the latter half of the nineteenth century was a ‘particularly active moment for seeing the aesthetic domain as a place where matter was invested with mind and observation’, and where matter became ‘spiritualized, animated, and enminded’ in aesthetic objects.[17] This was an outcome of materialist aesthetics, which recast aesthetic experience as a dynamic interaction between a person’s corporeality and the perceived object. Physiological psychologists and the new mind sciences of the second half of the nineteenth century proposed mind and soul to be material matter embodied in a system of nerves, reflex action and sensory phenomena. The self was thrown into dynamic ‘networks of matter, sensations, objects’ and the mind was no longer limited to the body’s interiority; it became an analogue ‘of processual interactions between an organism and environment.’[18] As a result, inanimate objects could become animated and acquire agency. The animation and fantastic characteristics of the figurine in Fantaisie en Folie become more apparent when framed by these terms of materialist aesthetics. Morgan points out that this context offered a new relationship for aesthetic experience, where mind and the object perceived are not two independent entities. Consciousness is not set against the object but ‘suffused by and inseparable from it … such that physical things can become objects of sympathy and love’, but this melding of mind and object did not end there, as this kind of relationship also endowed objects with sentience, agency, and consciousness; ‘or, at least, the line between the conscious self and its nonliving [sic] surroundings could seem philosophically difficult to draw.’[19] I find an endowment of sentience enacted through the figurine in Fantaisie en Folie. However, qualities of sympathy and love are replaced by qualities of the monstrous and fantastic, which disconcert rather than provoke affection. Indeed, Fantaisie en Folie perverts the aesthetic object as a thing of beauty; while it glistens like a jewel, the coy smile of this monstrous little figure is menacing. As explored above, contemporary critics saw in the figurine a monster. Nevertheless, the very representation of substance in Fantaisie en Folie problematises an interaction understood by materialist aesthetics. Moreover, a reading of Fantaisie en Folie in this context does not eclipse an account of spiritualism and immaterial existence, which are explored below.

The depiction of fabric in Fantaisie en Folie is another unexpected element. In interior settings, fabric’s movements are dependent on three external factors: those who place, arrange, wear and use them; atmospheric conditions; and gravity. In Brough’s painting, however, the cloth covering the table seems to be pulled in towards the cushion placed in the centre of the painting between the figure and the chair. In other words, the expected movement is unturned. The gathered folds, visible below the figure’s extended arm, narrow as they near the cushion. The cloth appears as if about to be dragged off the table and take the figurine with it. This table surface itself tilts forward and to the right, again in the direction of the cushion. The pleats and folds of the front of the velvet dress seem to be tugged in the same direction, described in long ‘dragged’ strokes of paint leaving distinct gaps through which the canvas emerge.[20] We find a second instance in which form and the handling of the brush produce a sense of movement and animation and wherein fabric, like ceramic, shifts closer to the fantastic. For ceramic and fabric to move there needs to be substance and solidity in their matter. This requirement is in tension with Brough’s particular means of representing substance and highlights the unusual relationship between materiality and form at play here. I find that materiality is central to how we come to understand and interpret representation in Fantaisie en Folie.

Fig. 5: John Singer Sargent, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, 1889, oil on canvas, 221 x 114.3cm, Tate, London. © Tate, London, 2018.
Fig. 5: John Singer Sargent, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, 1889, oil on canvas, 221 x 114.3cm, Tate, London. © Tate, London, 2018.

In long, sweeping brushstrokes, Brough paints with aqueous and thinned out paint, comparable to Whistler’s ‘sauce’, that is ‘a paint mixture lacking in solidity’.[21] Although there are no surviving records attesting to Brough’s painting technique, he most likely used a similar, aqueous medium to Whistler, that probably first stained the canvas which was then brushed over with a thin layer of paint. There are, nonetheless, several spots where the paint seems to barely be there, as patches of the canvas emerge from underneath the depicted form. The figurine seems to hover as the pedestal on which it stands dissolves; points of the thread of the sautoir necklace vanish; and sections of the figure’s dress, at the thighs and left sleeve in particular, fade into immateriality. As form loses its material substance, it begins to approach insubstantiality. A comparison between the ways in which Brough and Whistler treat the subjects of their work reveals a shared evocation of an undefined and veiled mood, typical of Whistler’s Nocturnes, for example. Jonathan Shirland discusses insubstantiality manifested in Whistler’s black portraits, in which figures emerge from an indeterminate darkness.[22] However, in Fantaisie en Folie the process is reversed: form dissolves and fades away, and the blank grey/green ground underneath is revealed. Absences are foregrounded as definition is withdrawn. We might be led to think that the figure and figurine will disappear entirely into the misty background. If this were the case, the extent of the unbridled fantasy might be lost on us, leaving us only with a blank and muted canvas. Seen another way, the apex of this fantasy might be the viewer imagining the figure and figurine dissolving away to the point of loss. What would happen then?


Insubstantial Material

In the Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums archive, there is a photograph from 1900. It shows the council and members of the Aberdeen Artists Society, assembled in two rows. One row is seated, the other is standing; both are before a gallery wall filled with paintings. Hung in the centre of the wall is Sargent’s Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (Fig. 5, 1889). In the photograph, the figure of Lady Macbeth rises above the rows of artists. Her pose is frozen and her eyes are transfixed upon the crown she holds high. In the photograph, Brough stands beneath and in front of Lady Macbeth, as if about to be crowned. We recognise his ‘graceful, slim figure, with a well-shaped head and neck set well and high upon his shoulders’ and ‘faun-like alertness’ from Francis Derwent Wood’s portrait bust and James Cadenhead’s drawing of Brough.[23] As frequently noted, Brough became Sargent’s protégé and a highly regarded friend of the artist. Sargent painted his portrait and wrote the introduction to the catalogue of Brough’s posthumous exhibition at the Fine Art Society in 1907.[24] He described Brough’s style as having ‘that very rare quality of style that seems to make the actual paint a precious substance’.[25] Critics noted quotations of Sargent’s ‘own bravura manner’ in Brough’s handling of paint.[26]  However, as previously discussed, Fantaisie en Folie reveals Brough’s own idiosyncrasies in treatment of material and subject that are more than ‘precious’.

Fig. 6: George Frederic Watts, ‘She Shall be Called Woman’, ca. 1875-92, oil on canvas, 257.8 x 116.8cm, Tate, London.
Fig. 6: George Frederic Watts, ‘She Shall be Called Woman’, ca. 1875-92, oil on canvas, 257.8 x 116.8cm, Tate, London.

Thinking of the 1900 photograph, we might find similarity between the contemplative pose of Lady Macbeth with that of the figure in Fantaisie en Folie. The female figure from Fantaisie en Folie has a similar contemplative pose to Lady Macbeth in the mentioned 1900 photograph. Furthermore, because of the figure’s open eyes fixed upon the object before her, Sargent’s figure reminds us of Brough’s other figures from Sweet Violets and Mrs Nicol of Roscobie, as well as Stevens’s figure from The Present. Fitting into this group is another painting of Ellen Terry, this time painted by her husband George Frederic Watts: Ellen Terry (‘Choosing’) (1864). This portrait shows Terry with her head in profile as she turns to look at a Camellia flower, which she attempts to smell. We see her striking blue eyes, a youthful blush to her face, and her flowing golden hair. Our eye follows the hair down her shoulder and left arm to the violets held in her left hand. These flowers bring to mind Brough’s Sweet Violets, as does his The Blind Girl (1901). In the latter, a blind female figure engages with flowers through scent. Watts explores this type of sensory experience in the painting Eve Tempted (exhibited 1884), second in sequence in The Eve Trilogy.[27] Here Eve is lured by the blossom of the Tree of Knowledge. Her eyes and nose are hidden as she leans into the shrubbery and by whose shadow she almost becomes subsumed.

 Beginning this trilogy is ‘She Shall be Called Woman’ (Fig. 6, ca. 1875-1892).[28] Above a ground that her foot barely touches, the figure of Eve rises and emerges from a swirl of cloud, dust, light, flapping songbirds and flowering lilies. She erupts from the profusion of energy around her and from insubstantial matter into form, while rays of golden light shower down on her torso and scarcely-materialised face. Her golden hair floats about her, half of it in the cloud. The digits of her left hand are becoming realised as a corporeal form. In contrast with the rest of The Eve Trilogy, Watts is doing something different here. He is visualising life emerging and being created out of the indeterminate, showing the force of life itself bringing substance to form. By way of form emerging, we might draw a connection between ‘She Shall be Called Woman’ and Whistler’s black portraits. This does not put ‘She Shall be Called Woman’ in opposition with Fantaisie en Folie, where form dissolves as materiality moves towards insubstantiality. In each, the ontological process of the figure differs clearly in dynamics: one emerges, the other disappears. However, both mobilise a relationship between the material and the spiritual.

Of ‘She Shall Be Called Woman’, Andrew Wilton and Robert Upstone write: ‘The biblical origins of the Eve subjects were left far behind, as the artists developed the idea of a life force, igniting a new set of meanings for the 1890s.’[29] I want to explore what sort of meanings are ignited when paint gives force to life and form emerges in representation. In 1896, Watts’ second wife Mary records in her diaries her husband’s belief that ‘as long as paint & canvas can last’, then the soul, conceived of as ‘the flame’ of the candle of human life, ‘will live’ on after death.[30] The flame consumes the candle of human life. The material burns up and disappears into the air, leaving ‘only a handful of ashes’ which leads Watts to realise ‘how little of us really is material’.[31] Material of the human body is transient and fades as the soul passes on. Paint and canvas, surviving our ephemeral lives, gives substance to a material that lives on. A discussion of material and spirit may seem at odds alongside the context of materialist aesthetics, which is couched in corporeal terms. However, the inescapable appearance of dissolving material operating in Fantaisie en Folie suggest there is credence to thinking about how ideas of the material and spiritual might play out here.

Veronica Franklin Gould suggests Watts’ musings on the dissolving of material and death were stimulated by Edward Carpenter’s Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure (1889).[32] For Carpenter, objects (the material) exist due to ‘a matter of [our] consciousness’ of them.[33] They ‘are only the reflexion of’ our ‘different senses – each individual object being only a case, externalised as it were, and made a matter of consciousness, of the general relation to each other of his own sensations and feelings’, Carpenter forms this argument in an attempt to pursue the ‘Truth’ of science, in other words, understanding what constitutes the self.[34] Seeking the true relation of the self to the world meant moving towards what Carpenter considered a ‘Democracy’. When truly knowing one’s soul and consciously sustaining its condition, as an analogue to the spiritual part of the self, is when we achieve higher wisdom: ‘It is the knowledge which is Space. It is the identification of Space with Consciousness. It is the medium within which Thought may indeed move, but which far surpasses all Thought and imagination in the width and swiftness of its embrace.’[35] While Carpenter’s approach is a metaphysical take on contemporary psychology, the writing of William James offers a more anatomised enquiry into the constituents of the self.


A Precarious Self?

James lays out the three constituents of the empirical self (what modern, western society terms as ‘me’): the material self, the social self and the spiritual self. The material self is manifested in our relation to objects and external environments, which become our own and extensions of the empirical self. He cites an example in clothing, which is compounded in self-identity.[36] The social self is realised by our recognition and relation to those we interact with. To go ignored without human interaction is to be regarded as if ‘we were non-existing things’ while defined through relationships with others, the social self is a flux of infinitely differing descriptions: ‘Properly speaking, a man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognise him and carry an image of him in their mind.’[37] While the material and social selves concern the relation to the outward world, the spiritual self concerns the ‘inner…being’ and one’s ‘psychic faculties’ themselves and when drawing attention to the inner process of thought itself, James describes the form of the spiritual self as a ‘stream of consciousness’.[38] Like the instability met in defining the aesthetic moment, the spiritual self seems unable to be grasped in concrete terms. It might be more productive to think of it as an analogue or a vessel that extends to ‘meet’ feeling and ideation, links ‘that within us to which pleasure and pain, the pleasant and the painful speak’ and mediates ‘the process by which ideas or incoming sensations are reflected or pass over into outward acts’ and where this spiritual analogue is a ‘central nucleus of the Self’ and can be conceived of as synonymous with the soul.[39]

Overlaps are evident in the ideas expressed by Carpenter and explored by James, especially in the latter’s vessel of the spiritual self, which is equivalent to Carpenter’s ‘Space’ of the soul that contains everything in itself’.[40] Both, furthermore, conceptualize the world known to the self as contingent on how the ‘reflexion’ of that world exists through the sensorium. This echoes Watts’ conclusion about the relative relationship between the material and the spiritual, where higher value was given to the latter constituent. Watts wanted to believe it lives on after the candle has burnt out.

Watts was engaged with Theosophy and the question of immortality, elements of which can be found in Fantaisie en Folie.[41] Theosophy was a school of esoteric Eastern thought that drew heavily from Buddhism and Brahmanism. In 1875 the Theosophical Society was founded by a Russian, Madame Helena Pretrovna Blavatsky, who had received teachings directly from Indian Mahâtmas — learned sages and custodians of preserved knowledge ‘of all natural laws for ages’.[42] The society served to promote the ‘Aryan and Eastern Literatures, religions, philosophies, and sciences’ that Theosophy encompassed and with the transfer of the headquarters to India in 1879 their publicity boomed, and by 1888 there were 179 international branches of the society, not just in India but within the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, Japan, and the United States of America.[43] The society and the school it promoted had an international standing by the last decades of the nineteenth century. However, Theosophy was not a formal religion following an absolute God. In the words of Henry Steel Olcott, the first president of the society, it was:

A theory of human brotherhood that inculcates the noblest altruism, that makes every individual realise his kinship with his fellows, his interests in their moral, intellectual, and spiritual welfare; an ideal of human perfectibility most ennobling and stimulating to the highest thinking and living.[44]

As in Buddhism, reincarnation and karma were essential pillars of Theosophical doctrine. In Theosophy human life was an earthly manifestation, or one material moment, of an eternal, ever-changing life-force whose true existence is spiritual in nature. This life-force exists in an infinite, universal, eternal and cyclical chain, where there is no such thing as dead matter. William Judge wrote that:

Nothing in the material world endures absolutely unchanged in itself or its conditions, even for the smallest conceivable portion of time. All that is, is forever in process of becoming something else … “the constant, eternal change of atoms from one state into another”.[45]

This amorphous nature of matter finds visual form in the dissolving materiality in Fantaisie en Folie, as ceramic is enlivened and the fabric is tugged by unknown forces (although we do not know the ‘something else’ these objects are ‘in process of becoming’). Judge’s description of a transient life-force is in concert with Watts’ description of our spiritual post-mortem existence. Carpenter was also engaged with Theosophical thought, for a time, although he would later reject it.[46] Nonetheless, his conceptualisation of consciousness as a ‘space’ resembles Blavatsky’s analogue of the spirit, whose ‘centre is everywhere, because its space is illimitable, the centre of it must be wherever the cognizing consciousness is.’[47]

Both Carpenter and Watts were also deeply interested in Buddhism.[48] In 1879 Edwin Arnold published The Light of Asia, a blank-verse poem collected in eight books describing the life of the Buddha, Guatama Siddhartha.[49] Arnold’s enormously popular work was a great contribution to the interest in Buddhism for the late-Victorian imagination. Several elements of the Eastern thought caught the attention and admiration of the Victorian mind: qualities of the Buddha’s heroic sacrifice and selflessness; Buddhism’s intellectual and philosophical erudition; romanticised notions of locale and religious practice; and, most of all, the religion’s standpoint on morality.[50] Notwithstanding this interest some foundational aspects of Buddhist doctrine were largely ‘unassimilable by the Victorians’ and they responded, for example, to the notions of rebirth, or transmigration with fierce criticism because it considered to be ‘monstrous’ and ‘repugnant’, provoking  fear of being reborn in an animal form and of living in suffering.[51] The terms critics used in the 1890s to describe the Budai figurine in Fantaisie en Folie are striking when considered against this reception. The heathenish monster they saw in the figurine may project fears and concerns over the issue of Buddhist doctrine. Several other concepts were problematic. For instance, the ‘disgusting and awful’ idea that every part of nature may have once been human, as well as the concept of transmigration which reduced the dignity of the species and of man’s exalted position in the order of the universe, subordinate only to God.[52] Philip Arnold draws out further struggles in Victorian reactions to the doctrine, claiming that Buddhism’s ‘insistence on the denial of any permanent entity at the base of an individual’, was critical and continues: ‘The Victorians were quick to perceive the problem: in the absence of soul or self which survives death and enters a new body, what could be reborn?’[53] In short, this was a denial of the soul.

For Watts, life after death could be realised through art, because form and life could emerge through paint and canvas. This vision is represented in ‘She Shall be Called Woman’. The biblical origins of the creation of man and woman were left far behind because a new form emerges here. The comparative study of Brough, Whistler, Sargent and Watts throughout this article also suggest that ‘She Shall be Called Woman’ shows the emergence of the New Woman. To elaborate, Sargent and Whistler painted many portraits of this intelligent, educated and independent gender type. The direct stare of Brough’s Mrs Nicol of Roscobie that confronts the viewer speaks a little way to the type. Sargent captured the audacious socialite Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau in the famous Portrait of Madame X (1884). She is shown in a more intimate portrait in Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast, which closely resembles Fantaisie en Folie. Madame Gautreau’s gaze at the drinking glass implies assessment or judgement, perhaps even an aesthetic moment, which brings it even closer to Fantaisie en Folie. Despite the already mentioned similarities in composition and colour, as well as subject/object interaction, Fantaisie en Folie does not present the same type of female subject. Brough’s figure is not identified to a person or group, and a social self is limited to the implied working between artist and anonymous model. The title Fantaisie en Folie and its evocation of mood lead us away from the identity of a specific character or type and towards a more generalised notion of the inner states of being, feeling and thinking. The conclusion drawn here is that a social self, to think of James’s three constituents, is perhaps suspended; the viewer sees, as discussed earlier, a representation of a ‘blind’ woman engaged in an interiorised moment of reverie. The puzzle – of subject, materiality and possible meaning – that is presented in Fantaisie en Folie causes the viewers not to know who they are really looking at. A relationship between the self and the material objects appears present, but the very conditions of those material objects are fantastic and insubstantial. A material self, if there is one at all, is slipping away. Any account of a spiritual self will always be less direct in its visualisation. How the spiritual self is expressed, however, could be understood when taking into account the requisite role played by the sensorium within the analogue, as laid out by James. The haptic engagement directed from the figure to the figurine is not being relayed back along her arm through to the central nervous system. Rather this sensation of touch seems transformed via the pendant and relayed instead through the ocular vision of the figurine; it looks up towards the figure’s head.

Brough’s representation of this head is extraordinary. The head is brilliantly lit and the dramatic profile shows a poised jaw and chin, pursed red lips, a straight nose, and closed eyes. Above, the figure’s thick brunette hair is tied up with a dark pink ribbon. The warm blush on her cheek gives a healthy look to her otherwise pale ivory skin. In contrast to the areas of insubstantial form, the skin of her face is perhaps the most fully realised section of the painting in terms of materiality, yet the head is not attached convincingly to the body. Gaps are distinguished as the canvas emerges between the flesh of her jaw and the high-neck collar of her dress. Moreover, the corner of the mandible below her ear is missing, cut off with an upward stroke of the brush. This unusual representation is made more distinct when compared against similar paintings of female subjects in profile. This is evident in the works by Stevens and Sargent previously discussed. (Among Brough’s Scottish contemporaries, George Henry and Edward Arthur Walton provide similar, additional comparisons. In some of their work, attention is drawn to the neck by way of a hem of a veil, a ribbon or the ruff of a high collar.) To add to this, the ear in Fantaisie en Folie displays no orifice leading to the ear canal and the viewer cannot distinguish the anti-helix or concha. What is shown instead is a flat, almost foetal extremity that does not resemble a functioning human ear. The figure’s ability to hear is impossible, therefore she is not just blind but also deaf. In fact, the five constituents of the sensorium as expressed in Fantaisie en Folie are atypical: touch is warped; sight is shut down; smell and taste are inactive; and hearing is impossible. If the sensorium is unable to properly mediate sensation, then the analogue of the spiritual self becomes problematised and its functioning inoperative. In this way, the painting shows a spiritual self decidedly threatened by its inability to establish itself through sensation and function.

In conclusion, Fantaisie en Folie certainly does represent an aesthetic encounter, but one based on imagining rather than looking. It is not beauty that is imagined but something monstrous and heathenish, which distorts material substance, sensorial operation and possible continuation of the soul. Through a discussion around Carpenter, Watts and James, this article finds the representation of self in Fantaisie en Folie suspended, in the least, and threatened to fail, at the most. The self is not lost or absent, for any form aesthetic engagement would demand its presence. Nonetheless, there is a suggestion of the dislocation of self from the body or the self breaking down in the warped body and environment. Considering the painting as a whole, we could say that complete definition or realisation of form and subject is not quite achieved. This painting arouses ideas of dissolving, fracturing, loss, vanishing – the extent of which we do not know. There is something ominous about the background – an emptiness of space and form. With its sombre and baleful mood, Fantaisie en Folie does not present an opportunity for the soul to continue in paint and canvas. Fantaisie en Folie suggests a vacuous future where the material and spiritual are in precarious states. It is a fantasy we may not wish to happen.


[1] See entry dated 12 January 1990 for the Tate’s Catalogue File on Fantaisie en Folie.

[2] Kenneth McConkey, Edwardian Portraits: Images of Opulence (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors Club, 1987).

[3] Edward Pinnington claims ‘the pictures are of similar arrangement’, in Edward Pinnington, ‘Robert Brough, Painter’, The Art Journal (May 1898), 148. Despite their mirroring compositions, however, B. Kendell claims that ‘The girl is more real – less visionary than her companion in the Fantaisie.’ in B. Kendell, ‘Robert Brough’, in Artist: An Illustrated Monthly Record of Arts, Crafts and Industries (31 May 1901), 67.

[4] Pinnington, 148.

[5] Robert Brough, ARSA: 1872-1905 (City of Aberdeen: Aberdeen City Council, Arts & Recreation Division, 1995), 30; McConkey (1987), 110.

[6] McConkey (1987), 110; Kenneth McConkey, Memory and Desire: Painting in Britain and Ireland at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), 54.

[7] McConkey (2002), 54.

[8] Quoted in McConkey (2002), 55.

[9] Kate Flint, The Victorians and the Visual Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 2.

[10] Caroline Corbeau-Parsons, ‘Forgotten Faces’, Tate (Published n.d., Accessed: 29/03/17,

[11] ‘Royal Scottish Academy Exhibition’, The Dundee Courier & Argus (18 February 1898), 4.

[12] Kendell, 65; ‘Art’, The Academy (15 May 1897), 527; Pinnington, 148.

[13] Dario Gamboni, The Listening Eye: Taking Notes after Gauguin (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2011), 16.

[14] Gamboni, 87.

[15] Robert Brough: ARSA, 16.

[16] Pinnington, 148.

[17] Benjamin Morgan, The Outward Mind: Materialist Aesthetics in Victorian Science and Literature (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2017), 9-19.

[18] Morgan, 9, 11.

[19] Morgan, 134, 136.

[20] ‘The Royal Academy’, London Daily News (22 July 1897), 6.

[21] Jonathan Shirland, ‘Embryonic Phantoms: materiality, marginality and modernity in Whistler’s Black Portraits’, Art History: Journal of the Association of Art Historians, 1, 34 (2011), 80-101, 82; Pinnington, 148.

[22] Shirland, 82.

[23] George Percy Jacomb-Hood, With Brush and Pencil (London: John Murray, 1925), 61-62.

[24] See Evan Charteris, John Sargent (London: William Heinemann, 1927); Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray (eds.), John Singer Sargent: The Late Portraits (New Haven and London: Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, 2003); and Devon Cox, The Street of Wonderful Possibilities: Whistler, Wilde and Sargent in Tite Street (London: Frances Lincoln, 2015).

[25] Charteris, 200.

[26] Ormond and Kilmurray, 10.

[27] There are several versions of the Eve trilogy, the last of which (ca. 1865-1897) are now in the Tate and are the examples I am referring to here.

[28] Andrew Wilton and Robert Upstone (eds.), The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Watts: Symbolism in Britain, 1860-1910 (London: Tate Gallery Publishing, 1997), 265. These dates account for Watts’ reworking of the painting, which may have been altered even after 1892; as noted in Wilton and Upstone (267), the painting ‘was largely a product of the 1890s’.

[29] Wilton and Upstone, 267.

[30] Mary Watts, The Diary of Mary Watts, 1887-1904: Victorian Progressive and Artistic Visionary, ed. by Desna Greenhow (London: Lund Humphries in association with Watts Gallery, 2016), 162.

[31] Watts162.

[32] Veronica Gould, G. F. Watts: The Last Great Victorian (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004), 69.

[33] Edward Carpenter, Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1889), 129.

[34] Carpenter (1889), 129-130.

[35] Edward Carpenter (ed.), Light from the East: being letters on Gñanam, the divine knowledge… (London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1927), 21.

[36] William James, The Principles of Psychology (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1890), 292.

[37] James, 293-294.

[38] James, 296.

[39] James, 297-298.

[40] Carpenter (1927), 21-23.

[41] For more on Watts and Theosophy, see David Stewart, ‘Theosophy and Abstraction in the Victorian Era: The Paintings of G. F. Watts.’, Apollo, 3, 138 (1993), 298-302.

[42] William Q. Judge, Echoes from The Orient: A Broad Outline of Theosophical Doctrines (New York: The Aryan Press, 1890), 1.

[43] Henry Steel Olcott, ‘The Genesis of Theosophy’, The National Review (October 1889), 208-210.

[44] Olcott, 210.

[45] Judge, 10-11.

[46] Edward Carpenter, My Days and Dreams, Being Autobiographical Notes (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1927), 240.

[47] Quoted in Judge, 15.

[48] Gould, 258.

[49] Edwin Arnold, The Light of Asia (London: Trübner & Co., 1879).

[50] Philip C. Arnold, The British discovery of Buddhism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 3.

[51] Arnold (1988), 84.

[52] Arnold (1988), 85.

[53] Arnold (1988), 88.