I just finished Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar (Ballantine, 2015). And I loved it.
It’s the story of the Stephen siblings of London (Vanessa, Virginia, Thoby and Adrian) who formed the nucleus of the Bloomsbury Group when they moved into a bohemian Gordon Square neighborhood together in 1904.
Vanessa Stephen is 25 years old at the beginning of the novel, and has already studied art at the Royal Academy School of Art, taking painting instruction from John Singer Sargent. Her younger sister Virginia, also single, is recovering from a bad spell of mental illness after the death of their father and has yet to write her first novel.
This novel has as its heart the story of two intensely intelligent, unconventional and competitive sisters. Virginia is jealous and toxically dependent on Vanessa, and feels threatened by Vanessa’s first successes in art and romance. The two sisters are happiest when Virginia poses for a portrait by Vanessa, which she does often. As Vanessa says in the novel:
I always paint Virginia. I tell myself that it is the lean planes of her beautiful face that draw me, but really, it is her company I seek. . . .
She posed for an hour this evening, until the June light failed, her eyes closed in comfort, and her face settled into her hand in a way it never does when she is in conversation. Her fine hair, a paler brown than mine, was swept back from her elliptical face into a loose knot and lay in the shallow curve of her long neck. She did not speak nor try to break the moment but kept impossibly still. When Virginia knows I am watching her, she does not try to be anywhere else.
Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf (1912), Estate of Vanessa Bell
Vanessa Bell, Viginia Woolf [In An Armchair] (1911-12), Oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, London
Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf in a Deckchair (1912), Oil on board, Mimi and Peter Haas. (Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s husband, once said that this portrait was “more like Virginia in its way than anything else of her.”)
Vanessa and Her Sister more than a tale of sibling rivalry and codependence: it’s also about the differences between two forms of art: writing and painting. Priya renews our appreciation for the talent of Vanessa Bell, the lesser known sister, and does a fabulous job exploring and expressing the mind of an artist, which is less accessible than that of a writer. Priya understands that Vanessa feels slighted because their highly literate Bloomsbury crowd seems to prefer words to images. Vanessa broods (p. 66):
Painting does not qualify as work in this family of literati. Work is not work where words are not involved. The unfixed mark of paint alters when it alteration finds. The distribution of colors is a curious sort of hobby to them. A lightweight experiment with insubstantial shade instead of the integrity-bound dimensional shape of letters on a page.
I love how Vanessa (p. 33) explains the mind of a painter:
I think in mass, In color and shape and light and volume and texture. Not in words. Words delicately sewn around an abstract idea leave me feeling large and awkward and with nothing to say. What is the meaning of good? My mind asks “What is the color of good? What size? What light? Where to put the bowl of poppies?”
In 1905, Vanessa experiences the thrill of her first exhibition. A commissioned portrait of her friend Lady Robert Cecil (“Nelly”) is exhibited at the New Gallery in London.
Photograph of Vanessa (Stephen) Bell painting a portrait of Lady Robert Cecil (1905). Source: Tate Archive Showcase.
In the novel, Parmar has Vanessa describe the feeling of seeing her own painting on the walls of a gallery for the first time, knowing it has changed her experience of being an artist (p. 29):
We stood in the gallery. Watching people watch the painting. It was exhilarating but mixed with an elusive bittersweet I could not place. Nelly looked lovelier hanging on that wall than she ever did resting on my easel, but she had grown unfamiliar in the weeks since I handed her over to the gallery. It is true that we do not understand the boundaries and dimensions of what we have created until it is consumed by another. I loved being an artist today.
Vanessa expands her circle of artist friends and her view of the art world. Clive Bell, a Cambridge pal of her brother Thoby becomes a frequent visitor to their Gordon Square Thursday Night “At Homes.” Bell is an art critic, and he and Vanessa share their interest in the leading-edge art scene in Paris, including Manet, Cézanne and Picasso. They discuss the recent Durand-Ruel exhibition at the Grafton Galleries in London, debating whether “it take[s] vision to understand beauty.”
Vanessa Bell, Interior Scene with Clive Bell and Duncan Grant Drinking Wine, Birkbeck Collection, University of London (painted at Gordon Square – check out the red slippers!)
Vanessa and Clive will marry in 1907 and head off to Paris, where they spend time with their bohemian British ex-pat friends, including Duncan Grant and Henry Lamb. Their artistic newlywed idyll will be interrupted by the birth of their first child Julian within a year of the wedding. Vanessa is blown away by childbirth and her love for the baby. Clive, not so much.
Vanessa Bell, Portrait of Julian Bell (1908)
Vanessa Bell, Portrait of Julian Bell [Sleeping] (1908)
The year Julian is born Vanessa learns that Clive and Virginia have become involved in what is (at the very least) an emotional affair. Their betrayal shakes her to her core and leaves her marriage forever altered, but Vanessa is able to turn to her painting for relief.
In 1909, Vanessa finishes what is now known as one of her most famous early paintings: Iceland Poppies.
Vanessa Bell, Iceland Poppies (1908-9), The Vanessa Bell Estate, The Charleston Trust, Sussex, England.
The painting is chilly and deeply psychological. As Vanessa says in the book:
I am painting well, given all that has happened. I am pleased with my quiet still life and have decided to call it Iceland Poppies. Each time I come back to it, I am surprised at how well I like it: the wintry palette, the antique medicine jar and pale matching bowl, the green glass poison bottle, and the contrasting poppy. Yes, they are right together. Of course, I could fall out of love with it in an afternoon. Rightness can be a transitive thing.
Clive wanted to know if the painting is about Virginia’s suicide attempts. How very obvious of him. He did not see the triplicate nature of the canvas. The three stripes on the wall. The three vessels: two white, one tree. The three flowers flying in the foreground: the two white, turned to the wall, and the one short-stemmed, poppy facing outward and painted in a fresh bolt of red. I alternate. Sometimes I am the white flower and sometimes I am the red.
Vanessa is thrilled when Iceland Poppies is exhibited at The New English Art Club, right alongside John Singer Sargent, Augustus John and Duncan Grant: “So something good has tumbled out of this appalling year.”
In 1910, Clive and Vanessa renew their acquaintance of Roger Fry, famous art critic and former curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Fry asks Clive to help plan his exhibit at the Grafton Galleries, “Manet and the Post-Impressionists.” The show stuns London with the avant-garde art of France, including works Manet, Cézanne, Gauguin, Derain, Matisse, Van Gogh, Seurat and Picasso. After this exhibit, Vanessa’s view of art expands, her style matures and she becomes more and more liberated from convention.
Roger Fry, Self-Portrait (1928)
In 1911, the Bells travel to Constantinople with Roger Fry, and Vanessa and Roger spend much of their time painting side by side. Free from the constraints of a conventional marriage any longer, Vanessa allows a romance to commence with Roger.
Roger invites Vanessa to exhibit in the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibit at Grafton Galleries in 1912, where Vanessa Bell’s painting Nursery Tea will appear in the same room as works by Matisse, Picasso, Braces and Cézanne. Vanessa Bell has become one of Britain’s most noted Post-Impressionists.
Vanessa Bell, Nursery Tea (1912)
Vanessa Bell, Monte Oliveto (1912), Art Gallery of South Australia
Although Vanessa and Her Sister ends here, in 1912, Vanessa will go on to have a long, satisfying career in art. And as we also know, her sister Virginia will have a brilliant writing career, but a tragic life marred by the ups and downs of mental illness. Virginia Woolf will take her own life in 1941. Vanessa survived until 1961, leaving two surviving children, Quentin and Angelica. Her first child Julian would be killed in the Spanish Civil War in 1937.
Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar: Highly Recommended
For Further Reading:
The Art of Bloomsbury by Richard Shone