PublisherDavid Zwirner Books
Size4 ¼ × 7 in | 10.8 × 17.8 cm
An openly lesbian, feminist writer, Vernon Lee—a pseudonym of Violet Paget—is the most important female aesthetician to come out of nineteenth century England.
Though she was widely known for her supernatural fictions, Lee hasn’t gained the recognition she so clearly deserves for her contributions in the fields of aesthetics, philosophy of empathy, and art criticism. An early follower of Walter Pater, her work is characterized by extreme attention to her own responses to artworks, and a level of psychological sensitivity rarely seen in any aesthetic writing. Today, she is largely overlooked in curriculums, her aesthetic works long out of print.
David Zwirner Books is reintroducing Lee’s writing through the first-ever English publication of "Psychology of an Art Writer" (1903) along with selections from her groundbreaking "Gallery Diaries" (1901–1904), breathtaking accounts of Lee’s own experiences with the great paintings and sculptures she traveled to see. Ranging from deeply felt assessments of the way mood affects our ability to appreciate art, to detailed descriptions of some of the most powerful personal experiences with artworks, these writings provide profound insights into the fields of psychology and aesthetics. Her philosophical inquiries in The Psychology of an Art Writer leave no stone unturned, combining fine-grained ekphrases with high fancy and dense abstraction. The diaries, in turn, establish Lee as one of the most sensitive writers about art in any language.
With a foreword by Berkeley classicist Dylan Kenny, which guides the reader through these writings and contextualizes these texts within Lee’s other work, this is the quintessential introduction to her astonishing and complex oeuvre.
Under the pseudonym Vernon Lee, Violet Paget (1856–1935) published a bewildering variety of work, including historical studies; meditative essays on art, music, gardens, and travel; philosophical dialogues; treatises on aesthetic theory and psychology; and supernatural tales. Born to a cosmopolitan English family, she settled in Florence, where she maintained friendships with artists and intellectuals throughout the world, including John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, Edith Wharton, J.A. Symonds, Walter Pater, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and G.B. Shaw. In close collaboration with her partner, the artist Kit Anstruther-Thompson, she was one of the first English thinkers to seriously engage with German empathy theory. Together, they tried to capture the mysterious and complex workings of art on our bodies, our minds, and our social lives; one of the fruits of this investigation was the 1912 volume Beauty and Ugliness, which included and analyzed long excerpts from Lee’s own Gallery Diaries. Partially as a result of her strong pacifist politics and opposition to World War I, Lee became somewhat estranged from the literary establishment, although she continued to write prolifically until her death.
Dylan Kenny is a writer and PhD student in Classics at the University of California, Berkeley. He co-edited the exhibition catalogue Jason Rhoades: PeaRoeFoam (David Zwirner Books, 2015.)