“As dangerous and uncanny as she is intelligent.” —On Vernon Lee
David Zwirner Books
April 6, 2018

Newly released as part of the ekphrasis series from David Zwirner Books, The Psychology of an Art Writer marks the first-ever English publication of this 1903 text by the singular British aesthetician Vernon Lee.

"A lesbian, a feminist, and an antivivisectionist, she supported women’s suffrage, campaigned against the First World War, and was part of a group investigating the psychology of sex," writes Lucinda Everett in The Telegraph. "What few remember, however, is her groundbreaking contribution to the aesthetics field of art criticism, with a theory so radical it still hasn’t been absorbed into the mainstream."

Also included in this volume are selections from Lee’s "Gallery Diaries" (1901–1904), in which the author recounts her own vivid experiences in front of artworks. On a visit to the Vatican Rooms in Rome, for example, she finds in Raphael’s Liberation of Saint Peter fresco: "A bothering amount of emphasis, gesticulation, realism, something stereoscopic." A foreword by University of California, Berkeley classicist Dylan Kenny, excerpted below, guides the reader through Lee’s writings, contextualizing them against the backdrop of her oeuvre:

Vernon Lee was the nom de plume of Violet Paget (1856–1935), a writer of astonishing range and audacity whose published works include historical studies of art and music, dense treatises on aesthetic psychology, acclaimed travel essays, meditations on gardens, pacifist and feminist pamphlets, and supernatural tales. Her versatility is difficult for us to comprehend, which is one reason why she is not as widely read now as she deserves. Already in her later years, she presented the avatar of a bygone intellectual moment. In a 1920 review of her political-philosophical allegory Satan, the Waster, Bernard Shaw (in fact also born in 1856) saluted her as a figure of "the old guard of Victorian cosmopolitan intellectualism."

Lee’s cosmopolitanism was not restricted to her intellect. Born to English parents in France, she had a nomadic childhood, living all over France, Germany, and Switzerland before finally settling in a villa in Florence, which would remain her home for the rest of her life. She drew intellectual collaborators and adversaries from across Europe, and though she commanded widespread respect, this did not always imply fondness. Henry James warned his brother William that Lee was "as dangerous and uncanny as she is intelligent, which is saying a great deal." Perhaps even to her contemporaries, Lee remained too various to grasp.

Lee’s thoughts on art and beauty seep through her literary criticism, her ghost stories, her historical meditations. She baptized herself as a "student of aesthetics" in her 1881 volume Belcaro, by which she meant that she was turning her attention from art in its historical context to art’s effects on individual experience. It was also in 1881 that she first met Walter Pater, who had laid out a program for such study in the opening pages of his 1873 Studies in the History of the Renaissance: "to define beauty, not in the most abstract but in the most concrete terms possible, to find, not its universal formula, but the formula which expresses most adequately this or that special manifestation of it, is the aim of the true student of aesthetics." Lee openly acknowledged Pater’s influence on her efforts to approach the beautiful through the following decades.

Read the full excerpt of Kenny’s foreword in The Paris Review.