Text: H. Wells Phillips, “Poe’s Usher: Precursor of Abstract Art’,” from Poe Studies, vol. V, no. 1, June 1972, pp. 14-16


[page 14, column 2, continued:]

Poe’s Usher:
Precursor of Abstract Art”

Purdue University

It is generally conceded that Edgar Allan Poe, in an effort, largely successful, to create a mood, sacrificed (willingly or inadvertently) both characterization and plot. When in “The Fall of the House of Usher” we thus read, “We painted and read together. . . ,” it is perhaps not unnatural that we anticipate further comment which will be convincing of the scene (1). What follows — Poe’s description of Roderick Usher’s painting — is more than a little surprising, and though we know that Poe had definite thoughts about art and the artist, we discover in the picture an aspect of his work on which little light has been shed (2). His description of the canvas is, in itself, incisive precursory comment both on Usher’s psychological state and on what is to follow in the nineteenth-century painting world as abstract, or at least abstracted, art. Were we, in other words, to ask ourselves who at that time in America, by his description of an imaginary canvas, was to predict what a painting can or may become, we may point to Poe as one of the isolated voices, if not the only voice.

His years do not seem to coincide at any time with [page 15:] those of major influences by which an empirical knowledge of painters or painting could engender such an utterance. During his early boyhood visit to England, he might have been shown, though we have no way of knowing, a Constable or Turner, or a Reynolds, or some of the Academicians who were popular; very remotely, there may have been work of the Classicists David, Gerard, or Ingres for John Allan or teachers to show him. Gericault was not to visit and paint in England until after Poe left; Delacroix did not exhibit until 1822; and thus, although both influenced American Romanticism, there is no question of such influence in Poe’s description.

Although Poe may have seen Fuseli, who lived in England from about 1775 until he died, and whose strong linear quality was reminiscent of Blake (and others like him), it is doubtful that even that painter’s prominence would have left an impression on the young Poe. Unless the older Poe was simply dropping Fuseli’s name, he would have to have seen his paintings in America to gain a lasting impression. Another possibility, equally remote, would have been Daumier: he first appeared in print in 1832, and Poe would have to have seen his work in a magazine, if it got to America at all.

There is no question that Poe looked at paintings; but ideas on painting, similar to those expressed in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” it would seem, he generated within himself. “In my view, if an artist must paint decayed cheeses, his merit will lie in their looking as little like decayed cheeses as possible.” That is, artistic truth does not lie in simple limitations. Art, moreover, is “the reproduction of what the Senses perceive in Nature through the veil of the soul” (3). The latter of these observations is well related to the narrator’s comments in “The Fall of the House of Usher”:

By the utter simplicity, by the nakedness of his designs, he arrested and over-awed attention. If ever mortal painted an idea, that mortal was Roderick Usher. For me at least . . . there arose out of the pure abstractions . . . an intensity of intolerable awe, no shadow of which I felt ever yet in the contemplation of the certainly glowing yet too concrete reveries of Fuseli.

One of the phantasmagoric conceptions of my friend, partaking not rigidly of the spirit of abstraction, may be shadowed forth, although feebly, in words. A small picture presented the interior of an immensely long and rectangular vault or tunnel, with long low walls, smooth, white, and without interruption or device. Certain accessory points of the design served well to convey the idea that this excavation lay at an exceeding depth below the surface of the earth. No outlet was observed in any portion of its vast extent, and no torch, or other artificial source of light was discernible; yet a flood of intense rays rolled throughout, and bathed the whole in a ghastly and inappropriate splendour. (“Usher,” pp. 121-122; my italics)

Although certain discrepancies intrude upon an otherwise consistent description, here is an extremely comprehensive body of ideas. They reflect such impressive insight into the evolution of representational painting that one is reluctant to dismiss them as amateur revelation. Expert art history commentary, in fact, as well as thought from modern artists, abounds with similar reflections upon that evolution. In speaking of primitive West African art, Helen Gardner, art historian, refers to it as “. . . never too far from nature, or completely abstract, for that would destroy its interest as representation, its relevancy to the world of human experience.”4 When she compares traditional Byzantine iconography and [column 2:] composition with Giotto’s departure from them, she observes: “The proponents of [the former] . . . construct forms out of purely formal elements — line, light and dark, texture — with little or no regard for the natural appearance of what is represented. The tendency is toward abstraction, and if carried to its logical conclusion would result in pure geometry “ (p. 473; my italics).

We are reminded directly of Usher’s painting when we read Andre Malraux:

Modern art is . . . the annexation of forms by means of an inner pattern or schema, which may or may not take the shape of objects, but of which, in any case, figures and objects are no more than the expression. The modern artist’s supreme aim is to subdue all things to his style. . . .

Just as a certain sequence of chords can abruptly make one aware of the world of music, thus a certain compelling balance of colors and lines comes as a revelation to one who realizes that here is a magic casement opening or’ another world (5).

When Malraux speculates what would happen if Tintoretto had been commissioned to paint three apples on a plate without any kind of a setting, he says: “Thus the painter, when he abandoned transfiguration, did not become subservient to the outside world: on the contrary he annexed it. . . . And the crucial discovery was made that, in order to become painting, the universe seen by the artist had to become a private one, created by himself” (p. 120; my italics).

Were design alone to be traced through art history, one could argue convincingly that pure geometry is frequently a common denominator, and Usher’s painting would seem to bring continuity to this principle. An important, though not immediately discernible, example can be found in Hieronymus Bosch, fifteenth-century surrealist painter. His bizarre and shocking views into Hell (his own schizoid interpretation of civilization) sublimate completely his design which is often a landscape or architectural framework receding deeply into space. Both background and figures have strong lineal qualities, and color delineation is sharp and contrasting.

If our point of reference is contemporary art, we may find even stronger indications at which Poe might have been hinting. Frederick Gore, painter and teacher, in speaking to painters, points out an aspect of expressionism which we may relate to Poe’s description: “Expressionism gives us the extreme example of design ordered to emotional demands: the composition is conceived to give us the utmost drama and the forms are then pulled this way or that way the psychological forces to which the painter seeks to respond “ (6). His further treatment of the dynamics of painting, with special reference to Piet Mondrian, we may again relate to Usher’s painting: “But just as all sensory experiences derive from movement, so we can say that all composition aims at movement. . . . The movement of the composition is in varying movement of the parts: the line which carries the eye at greater speed and then slower, the close or separated changes of colour and tone, the slow or fast development of a shape. . . . Diagonals .. since they are associated with off-balance, the direction of thrust of energy and friction, are symbols of motion” (Gore, p. 72; my italics). We see, then, that Poe lacked no conviction in describing the effort of a skilled painter, an artist striding far beyond the romanticized setting in which Poe places him. Usher would have to convey the [page 16:] impression of the tunnel with a knowledge of “moving” composition. Moreover, references to totally abstract, nonobjective art are not without a few similarities to what Usher puts on his canvas. Leger, for example, in notes published in Montreal in 1945, tells us: “Objects, contrasts, modeling — all have disappeared. What is left are a few colors, a few lines, blank spaces without depth, rendered with very pure, very precise relationships. There is respect for a thin, stiff, sharp vertical plane. This is a true, incorruptible purism. . .” (7).

Consistent with his mental anguish, Usher tries to portray and vivify the artistic truth and direction of his own private world, a path to oblivion. The movement of a simple rectangle, a precise shape, obviously painted on the diagonal of his small canvas, draws the eye quickly to the focal point of the composition. All but what is essential in that eerie world of minimum color and contrast has been eliminated. That there is, according to Poe, no source of light, and yet a quickly converging perspective, leads us to imagine a simple, flat and somewhat modern design. Whether line or color (presumably white or tones of gray) carries the deepening perspective is not clear; either or both would convey flatness since there is no single source of light, though by the phrase “a flood of intense rays” bathing the scene Poe may have meant a color quality other than white.

The painting, in any case, is a highly stylized depiction dictated by Usher’s emotional response to his situation. Noteworthy is that no school of semi- or non-representational painting which might have guided Poe’s description became prominent until long after he was dead, and then not in America. But more to the point is that at the root of a painter’s diversity is a specific conception of reality, his own notion of existence. Matisse said, “We are born with the sensibility of a given epoch of civilization. We are not masters of what we produce: it is imposed on us” (Seuphor, p. 16). It is curious that Poe, in a process not explainable, imposes on Usher’s sensibilities not a concept of a Romantic, even Gothic, atmosphere, but one apparently ahead of his time both artistically and psychologically.



(1) Edgar Allan Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” in The Selected Poetry and Prose of Edgar Allan Poe ed. T. O. Mabbott (New York: Modern Library, 1951), p. 121. References to “Usher” are to this convenient edition.

(2) The relationship of Roderick Usher’s art to his sanity is ably discussed by Maurice Beebe, “The Universe of Roderick Usher,” rpt. in Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Robert Regan (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967), pp. 127-128. Paul Ramsey’s “Poe and Modern Art,” CAJ, 18 (1959), 210-215 came to my attention after the present article had been written and accepted.

(3) Edgar Allan Poe, The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe ed. James Harrison (1902; rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1965) XVI, 28.

(4) Helen Gardner, Art Through the Ages (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1948), p. 401.

(5) Andre Malraux, The Voices of Silence, trans. by Stuart Gilbert (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1953), pp. 119 and 320; my italics in each case.

(6) Frederick Gore, Painting: Some Basic Principles (London: Studio Vista, 1965), p. 66; my italics.

(7) Michel Seuphor, Abstract Painting: Fifty Years of Accomplishment, From Kandinsky to the Present, trans. by Haakon Chevalier (New York: Harry N. Abrams, n.d.), p. 24.


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