We come today to an illustration for what is, I think, the most beautiful story in Wilde’s collected fairy tales: The Nightingale and the Rose.
In this story, a student pines for a rose to give to his beloved, and thus ensure that she will dance with him. The nightingale goes from tree to tree, looking for an exquisite red rose, offering to sing her most beautiful song in exchange. The bird finds a tree that will produce the rose – but it must be colored red with the nightingale’s own heart’s blood. The nightingale impales herself on a thorn on the tree, singing a beautiful song all night, creating a rich, red rose. Finished, she falls dead.
The student finds the rose and presents it to his beloved, who spurns it in favor of the offerings of a rich boy. The dejected student throws the rose into the gutter, where it is run over by a cart, before going off to study philosophy.
Of course, the story is open to multiple interpretations. Is Wilde making a comment on empty social conventions? Or the cost of things vs. value? The inconstancy of love? Maybe all of these things and more. But your correspondent always thought that Wilde identified with the nightingale. The nightingale is – in the strictest sense – an artist, creating beauty at great cost, only to have the results trampled in the gutter. The artist gives his soul, only for it to be tossed aside. What artist has not, at one time or another, felt the same?
"If you want a red rose," said the Tree, "you must build it out of music by moonlight, and stain it with your own heart's-blood. You must sing to me with your breast against a thorn. All night long you must sing to me, and the thorn must pierce your heart, and your life-blood must flow into my veins, and become mine."
"Death is a great price to pay for a red rose," cried the Nightingale, "and Life is very dear to all. It is pleasant to sit in the green wood, and to watch the Sun in his chariot of gold, and the Moon in her chariot of pearl. Sweet is the scent of the hawthorn, and sweet are the bluebells that hide in the valley, and the heather that blows on the hill. Yet Love is better than Life, and what is the heart of a bird compared to the heart of a man?"
So she spread her brown wings for flight, and soared into the air. She swept over the garden like a shadow, and like a shadow she sailed through the grove.
The young Student was still lying on the grass, where she had left him, and the tears were not yet dry in his beautiful eyes.
"Be happy," cried the Nightingale, "be happy; you shall have your red rose. I will build it out of music by moonlight, and stain it with my own heart's-blood. All that I ask of you in return is that you will be a true lover, for Love is wiser than Philosophy, though she is wise, and mightier than Power, though he is mighty. Flame- coloured are his wings, and coloured like flame is his body. His lips are sweet as honey, and his breath is like frankincense."
Once again, artist Charles Robinson is influenced by Art Nouveau style. It’s important to remember that Art Nouveau, which flourished from the 1890s through the Great War, was more a design style than a new manner of painting the figure. Art Nouveau was primarily a movement within the decorative arts, and book illustration was seen, by many, as mode of decoration. Its curvilinear formations were most often influenced by flowers and plants, or other elements of the natural world. It has a certain sensuous grace, to my eye, and is especially suited to figures that are fantastic or other-worldly.
The dainty illustration here is a wonderful evocation of the Art Nouveau aesthetic. How wonderfully “decorative” is the woman’s dress, festooned with blossoms (so much so, that it looks like an extension of the blossoms topping the garden wall). The intricate line of her body and clothes mirrors the sweeping line of flowers, with her neck almost forming a delicate stem to support the flower of her head. There is a great deal of downward draping from her form – sleeves, earrings and handkerchief – much like the drooping petals of a languid flower. In fact, her lack of feet in some way reinforces the sensation that she, too, is rooted to the ground.
The young swain is indeed a saturnine lover and, looking at him, it is no surprise that he fails to live up to the high standards set by the nightingale. The floral motif is reflected in the student, as well, with the voluminous tunic he wears looking like a flower bud.
The thing I love the most about Robinson’s watercolors is his delicacy of touch and subtle coloration. These pictures are precise and gentle, but never precious. Any additional detail would render the picture too ornate (or twee), but Robinson’s Spartan background serve as the perfect counterpoint.
One last thought about the story. The nightingale, who sings and dies, is a great artist – selfless and brave. I would not be surprised if this was the image of the artist to which Wilde himself aspired. However, unlike the swallow and the Happy Prince, the nightingale is not rewarded in heaven or commemorated on earth. It is possible that Wilde feared that all art is inevitably futile; or perhaps he simply thought that real artists must suffer. In any event, one can only wish writing his tale brought a sense of resolution to him.