Between Me and My Real Self: On Vernon Lee


Arts & Culture


There is in one’s own jottings something curiously unique; and after a lifetime spent in working on my own notes, I still sometimes catch myself feeling as if such manipulation of them came between me and my real self. —Vernon Lee

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.

Her 1884 volume Euphorion was dedicated to him, and her 1896 Renaissance Studies and Fancies concluded with a “valedictory” eulogizing the recently deceased master. There, Lee defended Pater against the imputations of decadence associated with the slogan “art for art’s sake.” His aestheticism was not irresponsible hedonism, she insisted, but a recognition of the power of art to harmonize the self with itself and with the world. Reflecting on this conviction years later, Lee conceded that it was vulnerable to the charge of mysticism or even childishness: “But is anything worth attaining ever attained, whether knowledge or love, without some such brief and hushed moments of expectant childishness?”

As Lee’s farewell to Pater, the 1896 valedictory also marked the conclusion of one phase in her study of aesthetics, for she was already hard at work on the investigations of aesthetic psychology that generated “Psychology of an Art Writer” and “Gallery Diaries.” From her earlier work and her readings of Pater she retained the conviction that the study of aesthetics had to begin with individual experience. But her sense of what constituted aesthetic experience had begun to expand, and in particular, she began to focus on the effects of art on the body of the beholder. In this new inquiry, she was no longer follow­ing Pater but was a student of her lover, the artist and writer Clementina “Kit” Anstruther-Thomson.

Lee and Kit were practically inseparable companions from 1887 to 1898; Lee’s biographer, Vineta Colby, has called their relationship a marriage “in all but a literal sense.” In 1924, Lee wrote that watching Kit approach art, innocent of erudition but finely attuned to her own bodily and affective responses, convinced her that “for ten or more years I had written about art without having really seen it.” Lee was impressed by Kit’s description of the subtle effects of a work of art on her body: quick breaths, sensations of movement, muscular tensions. These effects had nothing to do with the subjects depicted by the artwork but were entirely matters of form: lines, curves, rhythm, movement. Lee and Kit began to wonder if the interaction of form and the body was not in fact the primary moment of aesthetic experience, anterior to any mental impression of beauty. The experience of pleasure would be the effect, not the cause, of such bodily sensations. They found a parallel idea in the new theory of emotion developed independently by William James and Carl Lange, who proposed that what we commonly refer to as the physiological expressions of emotions are in fact identical with emotions. Fear does not cause goose bumps and quicken the heart; it simply is those symptoms. Following the same logic, beauty would not be the cause of bodily responses; rather, the physiological response would constitute beauty.

Here, Lee always conceded, she was following the testimony of Kit, whose body seemed so much more sensitive to artworks than her own and who was so much more adept at registering her physiological responses. Kit was “skilled from childhood in every kind of bodily activity and possessing every kind of dexterity of hand”; in contrast, Lee found in herself “neither facility nor training in bodily activities … Conscious life concentrated, so to speak, on the eye and the literary faculties.” Lee would later recall how Kit’s physical energy totally surpassed her own, how Kit had nursed her when she was ill and had challenged her to stretch the limits of her body as she grew exhausted by continual gallery wandering. In turn, Lee pushed Kit’s mind, encouraging her to work toward a publication of the aesthetic theory they were developing together. In the end, it was Kit who could not bear the intensity of their collaboration. Just before their joint essay “Beauty and Ugliness” appeared in 1897, she suffered a nervous breakdown. Soon afterward, Kit and Lee separated, although they remained dear to one another, and Lee became Kit’s literary executor upon her death in 1921.

Lee always gave “Beauty and Ugliness” pride of place in her aesthetic theory, even as she came to correct and refine it over the years. When she published a volume of collected writings on aesthetics in 1912 under the title Beauty and Ugliness, she reprinted the essay in its entirety at the center of the book. She added a few footnotes but did not change the body of the essay, except by bracketing certain passages where she and Kit now diverged. Lee had come to believe that the bodily responses she had found so compelling in Kit were probably secondary expressions of an essentially mental phenomenon: “empathy,” or, as it was named in German aesthetic theory, Einfühlung.

When Lee and Kit composed “Beauty and Ugliness,” they were unaware of the psychological aesthetics being developed in Germany by Theodor Lipps and Karl Groos, but their work showed striking parallels. Lipps’s theory of Einfühlung (literally “feeling-into”) proposed that in the act of perception, we project ourselves mentally into what we perceive. This would explain, for example, why we might say that a line has “rhythm”: because our eyes follow it with a certain movement and this movement activates memories of former movements, we attribute motion to the line. One point of contention in the debate over Einfühlung was just how much it was a physical process. Lipps maintained that it was purely mental and saw in “Beauty and Ugliness” too much emphasis on the body, evidence of a general “cult of bodily sensations” in psychology. Karl Groos, on the other hand, believed that empathetic projection was always accompanied by minute physical imitation of the form perceived. Later on, Lee came to vaguely associate Kit’s views with Groos and her own with Lipps. But she went further than either of the psychologists wished in making empathy the foundation of our judgments of beauty and ugliness and refusing to suspend the question of why we like some artworks and not others.

After “Beauty and Ugliness,” Lee came to see herself as a fellow traveler of these aesthetic psychologists but always maintained distance. From her villa in Florence, she kept up with their journals and occasionally published in them. She submitted a questionnaire on “the motor element in visual aesthetic perception” to the Fourth International Congress of Psychology in Paris in 1900. The texts presented in our volume originally appeared in the Revue philosophique, a leading journal of psychology. Oswald Külpe, the Würzburg experimental psychologist, respectfully noted in a 1907 literature review that “Gallery Diaries,” though methodologically suspect, showed some promise. Külpe and his students were trying to address the rudiments of aesthetic response in highly controlled settings. A famous Külpe experiment involved flashing projections of ancient Greek artifacts for a few seconds before a spectator to see if they sensed anything like Lipps’s Einfühlung. (The results, such as they were, were negative.) Nothing could be further from Lee’s long walks, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, through the great museums and cathedrals of Italy, already packed with guided tours.

Lee had in fact visited Külpe’s laboratory in 1911and was greatly impressed: “I have come away with the conviction not only that theirs is the future way of studying aesthetics, but also that is the way in which, alas! I can never hope to study them. My aesthetics will always be those of the gallery and the studio, not of the laboratory.” She and Kit, she wrote, were the rear guard of psychological aesthetics, like the dabbling eighteenth-century antiquarians superseded by modern archaeology. What she framed as her untimeliness may be precisely what keeps her interesting. “Gallery Diaries,” relatively free of the technical vocabulary of the psychological aesthetics of her time, provides one of its most compelling documents today. Lee was fascinated by the foundations of aesthetic experience, but she refused to reduce it to those foundations. Artworks work on our bodies. Lee saw that any aesthetic theory had to give an account of the interface between the body and the world but that such an account could not exhaust the experience of art.

It certainly could not fully explain why we might be moved by one artwork and not another or, even stranger, why we might be moved one day and untouched the next. Because Lee never bracketed these questions, her aesthetic theory approaches a theory of the self. Who has not had days of dullness? Who has not tried to force themselves to be moved, to be interested wandering through a museum? For Lee, the experience of boredom, of just not feeling it was as much a problem for aesthetic theory as the experience of rapturous engagement. Blockages like weather, crowds, and heartache were not extraneous variables but essential elements of aesthetic experience. Lee never cast out evidence in advance for the mysterious workings of art. The object of her investigations was the self. The stage of these investigations was the world, where tourists intrude, friends die, days are sunny, you have a tune in your head. All of this is possible evidence for what art does to us.

Lee never intended for her own self-analysis to be the sole foundation for aesthetic theory. She was relentlessly introspective but also committed to collaboration. “Psychology of an Art Writer” and “Gallery Diaries” modeled a method for fellow “psychological workers” as a kind of manual of attention. Lee’s wager in these texts is that aesthetic experience is emphatically individual but not atomized beyond communication, and it is only through such communication that we might refine our understanding of art and its effects. By sketching a capacious picture of the experience of art, they stand as a challenge to the more anemic versions of laboratory aesthetics. The optimism of Lee’s position is that aesthetic theory can be synced up with aesthetic experience. Such a theory, she says, must be social as well as rooted in the body. It must account for boredom as well as rapture. It must take up day-to-day changes as well as long-term fixations. A rich vision of art is a rich vision of the self. There remains much in Lee’s vision of art to guide today’s psychological workers.


Dylan Kenny is a writer and Ph.D. student in classics at the University of California, Berkeley. He coedited the exhibition catalogue Jason Rhoades: PeaRoeFoam (David Zwirner Books, 2015).

Excerpted from the introduction to The Psychology of an Art Writer, by Vernon Lee, published by David Zwirner Books, 2018. Courtesy of David Zwirner Books, New York/London/Hong Kong.