Caitlin Kuhwald: Jane Eyre’s Watercolors
by Jason Tougaw
The third showed the pinnacle of an iceberg piercing a polar winter sky: a muster of northern lights reared their dim lances, close serried, along the horizon. Throwing these into distance, rose, in the foreground, a head,—a colossal head, inclined towards the iceberg, and resting against it. Two thin hands, joined under the forehead, and supporting it, drew up before the lower features a sable veil, a brow quite bloodless, white as bone, and an eye hollow and fixed, blank of meaning but for the glassiness of despair, alone were visible. Above the temples, amidst wreathed turban folds of black drapery, vague in its character and consistency as cloud, gleamed a ring of white flame, gemmed with sparkles of a more lurid tinge. This pale crescent was “the likeness of a kingly crown;” what it diademed was “the shape which shape had none.” –Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
Jane Eyre fans, get ready. Illustrator and watercolorist Caitlyn Kuhwald is revivifying Jane’s art. Jane Eyre spends a lot of time daydreaming worlds even more menacing than the ones she lives in. A prolific artist throughout the novel, she documents some of these daydreams in watercolor. Of course, drawing and painting would have been essential skills for a Victorian governess, who needed the “accomplishments” of the ruling classes in order to instruct her pupils in them–music, art, a breadth of reading from the classics to the contemporary. Ekphrasis–the literary depiction of a work of art–has a long history, including Achilles’s shield in Homer’s The Iliad, the frescoes in Cervantes’s Don Quixote, the Grecian urn in Keats, the masterpiece in Zola, Dorian Gray’s portrait in Wilde, Icarus falling in Auden, The Goldfinch in Donna Tartt. Like these, Jane Eyre’s drawings are central to plot: Through them, Rochester learns that he has not hired a run-of-the-mill governess, setting in motion is compulsion to seduce her.
The terror of Jane’s watercolors strays pretty far from the routine landscapes or portraits of your ordinary governess. Like an heir to William Blake and a foremother to the surrealists, Jane Eyre is preoccupied with mystical landscapes and morbid bodies. Kuhwald’s recreations tell the story. I’ve included two finished pieces, “Evening Star” and “Iceberg”–as well exploratory illustrations for “Corpse,” a work in progress–along with Brontë’s descriptions of the watercolors from the novel. This is an ongoing project for Kuhwald, who is also considering illustrating some of the dreams and fantasies Jane doesn’t draw in the novel.
The second picture contained for foreground only the dim peak of a hill, with grass and some leaves slanting as if by a breeze. Beyond and above spread an expanse of sky, dark blue as at twilight: rising into the sky was a woman’s shape to the bust, portrayed in tints as dusk and soft as I could combine. The dim forehead was crowned with a star; the lineaments below were seen as through the suffusion of vapour; the eyes shone dark and wild; the hair streamed shadowy, like a beamless cloud torn by storm or by electric travail. On the neck lay a pale reflection like moonlight; the same faint lustre touched the train of thin clouds from which rose and bowed this vision of the Evening Star. –Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
The first represented clouds low and livid, rolling over a swollen sea: all the distance was in eclipse; so, too, was the foreground; or rather, the nearest billows, for there was no land. One gleam of light lifted into relief a half-submerged mast, on which sat a cormorant, dark and large, with wings flecked with foam; its beak held a gold bracelet set with gems, that I had touched with as brilliant tints as my palette could yield, and as glittering distinctness as my pencil could impart. Sinking below the bird and mast, a drowned corpse glanced through the green water; a fair arm was the only limb clearly visible, whence the bracelet had been washed or torn. –Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
Caitlyn Kuhwald is known for her use of bright color, the precision of her detail, and her ability to re-envision the aesthetics of other eras. She’s an artist whose visual voice is ideal for the job of giving visual form to the terror and beauty of Jane Eyre’s artistic vision.