Last summer, College photographer Meridith De Avila Khan captured Spencer Beall’s image in what turned out to be an award-winning photograph. Beall is in Cochran Library, engrossed in the books spread before her. The then-rising junior was working on her Honors Summer Research project, selecting and translating art commentaries by influential French writers such as Charles Baudelaire and Marcel Proust.
Beall and her mentor, Sweet Briar Professor Marie-Thérèse Killiam, have compiled the translations, paired with images of the referenced artwork, into a 353-page Apple iBook, “Painting With Words: Writers’ Transpositions of Masterpieces into Art,” released in March. The commentaries reveal how modern culture has evolved and how social norms, perspectives and tastes have been shaped by famous artworks and by reactions to them. The compilation shows how art has inspired writers to “paint with words.”
Killiam conceived the idea long ago as a catalogue raisonné of commentaries by famous authors. The research was stalled when Beall, then a first-year at the College, took Killiam’s honors course in literary art criticism. Killiam found in her an able finisher for the work she had begun, particularly translating writings in the public domain.
“Spencer’s choice of texts brought a new, fresher perspective to my project,” Killiam said. “We decided to make those insightful texts available to anyone who might be interested, through online publishing; it was to be a nice journey into the art world seen through the eyes of some of the most eloquent critics and writers.”
Indeed. Beall embarked on it in the summer of 2011 and estimates she has spent more than 500 hours on the project. That includes her time last year as an Honors Summer Research scholar, a paid 40-hour position.
“It was monumental,” she wrote in an email from Paris, where she is studying at the Sorbonne.
The pull was strong, though. After two classes with Killiam, she says, French, art history and history became her passions, along with love for the written word. She is majoring in all three subjects, with a minor in medieval and Renaissance studies. The art commentaries Killiam brought to class, both translated and in French, had fascinated her.
“I remember thumbing through the seemingly endless pages of Eugène Fromentin’s scathing comments on Rembrandt’s most controversial masterpiece, “The Night Watch,” wondering how the simplest elements of a painting — light, color, composition, etc. — could have created such a heated debate among so many viewers, garnering a reputation for the painting as one of the most controversial works in all of art history,” Beall said.
Her interest peaked with James McNeill Whistler’s “Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket,” which precipitated a libel suit when the critic John Ruskin accused the artist of “throwing a pot of paint” in the public’s face.
“Clearly, art has been able to exert an immensely powerful influence on society over the years, and I was eager to learn more,” she said.
That episode also is behind her wish to study and practice art law after she graduates.
How paintings both capture and drive society’s cultural mood was one takeaway from her work. The critics’ commentaries, Beall says, help us understand the “thousand words” each one conveys.
“Every artwork is one of the most important historic artifacts that we have from its time period,” Beall said. “Not only does the work itself provide a visual representation of what life was once like, the comments and criticisms that the artwork has generated present an even richer description of our past.”
She also discovered there’s nothing simple or “mechanical” about translation.
“Writing is never exactly the same once translated into another language,” she said. “It is your obligation to find the very best way to preserve as much of writing’s unique character as possible.”
She says poetry was the most difficult work to translate but, “by far,” they were her favorites. Beall never wavered, according to her professor.
“The translation of those texts was often tricky since it necessitated a thorough knowledge of art and of the writer’s style in order to render it as faithfully as possible,” Killiam says.
“Spencer never lost heart and did not hesitate translating anything beautiful and pertinent, even in the form of poems or philosophical essays. It was a long process, and a difficult one at times, but it was well worth it in the end.”