Word #4: “esquisse” (n.)


  1. The first slight sketch of a picture, the first thought of a design drawn loosely with a crayon.

Scott Allan, in his recent essay on painter Théodore Rousseau, complicates OED’s entry:

Imperfectly translated as “sketch,” the word esquisse generally designated a preliminary compositional sketch in nineteenth-century parlance. The esquisse was typically smaller than the final tableau and could be treated in an informal, spontaneous manner that was understood to convey the energy of the artist’s initial inspiration. Unlike the analytical étude, in which the artist subordinated himself to the model, often with considerable attention to detail, the esquisse was conceived as a more creative, synthetic work that anticipated, in its emphasis on composition and coloring, the artful unity and overall pictorial effect of the tableau.

Such distinctions, however, were not easily maintained with regard to landscape. An esquisse could be a freely executed study after nature (that is, an étude) that concentrated on a landscape’s principal features or general atmospheric effect rather than its individual details. Likewise, if an étude was in some senses fragmentary, the source of raw material that was to be synthesized in the word of composition, it could equally be framed with an eye to the ensemble. And if the painter enlisted an étude as the basis for a definitive work, it became an esquisse by virtue of its new function. Esquisse and étude were overlapping categories: a landscape sketch might be an esquisse by virtue of its relationship to another artwork (real or potential) or an étude by virtue of its relationship to nature (Unruly Nature: The Landscapes of Théodore Rousseau, 26-27).

Karloff and Causality

Halloween is on a Monday this year, so we’ve begun a very long weekend indeed. For instance, on the beach this morning, my youngest son – he’s one – walked with arms outstretched toward his mother and I had the thought however vaguely of Frankenstein. But of course Boris Karloff was acting like a one-year-old in his infamous portrayal of Mary Shelley’s monster in James Whale’s classic, so this brief observation of mine begs some kind of reflective inquiry. How is it that a cultural artifact influenced by a natural phenomenon begins to replace the recognition – and naming – of that primal phenomenon? My original observation (That baby does a pretty good Karloff) is historically inaccurate and culturally nonsensical: babies are always pulling off Frankensteins because that was the whole artistic idea in the first place. Yet this fact had to be thoroughly mulled over before it became readily apprehended. This is something akin to trying to remember the word for red because your brain had involuntarily replaced it with ketchup. It must be some kind of cognitive cross-wiring, but is it cultural or linguistic? Perhaps these two associations are so deeply embedded in my brain that their causal relation to one another has reversed, or been rendered irrelevant.

In the excellent book The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place 1730-1840: An Approach to the Poetry of John Clare (Cambridge, 1972), John Barrell looks at a similar causal confusion in the idea of the origin of landscape, even thinking about the difference between “a landscape” (a painting) and “the landscape” (the terrain or topology). Barrel writes:

The words ‘landscape’, ‘scene’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘prospect’ (which, as our definition from Johnson shows, could be used in a general, non-local sense) demanded, in short, that the land be thought of as itself composed into the formal patterns which previously a landscape-painter would have been thought of as himself imposing upon it (2-3).

In other words, landscape painting was so fashionable that both culturally and linguistically, rural society became a landscape and understood in terms of the values of landscape paintings, thus flipping the historical context for landscape-painting in the first place. The scholar sets the stage to examine how John Clare will be a poet of “disorder” against early Victorian ideologies of order, containment, rigid legalisms and mass industrialization which are so potent they even show up in the pastoral arts. From Barrel’s point of view (and Clare’s) to see a Karloff impersonation and not a baby is the same as not looking at all.

Come to think of it, isn’t this causal confusion/reversal evident also in the way we now call the monster of Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein, the title of the book naming the horrific “other” of the story and not, as originally written, the family name of the doctor whose whole aristocratic lifestyle becomes a flaming nightmare due to his late-night scientific experimentation?

The stage is set for the weekend.