Illustration from THE TALE OF PETER RABBIT by Beatrix Potter
Copyright Frederick Warne & Co., 1902, 2002
For over a century, Beatrix Potter's art, her wonderful imagination have affected children and adults all over the world. There's hardly a person who doesn't know The Tale of Peter Rabbit! Her pictures and stories while charming and delightful, are also deep — and they show something vital and thrilling about imagination which every person, every parent, every child needs to know.
As an artist and teacher I've come to love and value her work even more through my study of Aesthetic Realism, the philosophy founded in 1941 by the great American poet and critic Eli Siegel, whose centenary is being celebrated this year. I learned that there are two kinds of imagination in every person: good and bad. In "Imagination, Reality, and Aesthetics," a chapter from his book Self and World, Eli Siegel explains:
Our deepest hope, the purpose we were born for, I learned, is to like the world by using our mind, our imagination to see other people and things fairly. But we also have another hope — to have contempt, which Mr. Siegel defined as "the addition to self through the lessening of something else." 3 It makes for imagination that is hurtful. We hide — we don't want to see what is true or be honest about our own feelings — and think we are making ourselves comfortable by feeling "I can change any fact I want, see any person or thing in a way that suits me to make myself superior and glorious." It is this ever-so-ordinary use of imagination that makes a person — young or old — ashamed, and is the cause of boredom, depression, unkindness. And it is imagination based on contempt that has made for the greatest cruelty and injustice in the world, including racism, and war. The greatest opponent to contempt is art — because the purpose of art is to respect the world.
As a girl Beatrix loved to draw, and wrote in her Journal about:
Caterpillars by Beatrix Potter, Page from Sketchbook, 1875
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
She and her younger brother, Bertram, kept many pets whom they studied and drew. She wrote about the wonder she saw in a mouse skeleton she was mending: "I thought it a curious instance of the beautifully minute difference and fittings together of the bones." 10
Yet without knowing it she also used her imagination in a way that hurt her. Like many children, she apparently used anger and disappointment with her parents to retreat into herself. She wanted a separate world of her own, aloof from others. In The Tale of Beatrix Potter Margaret Lane writes:
She once confided to an American friend:
"Imagination and aesthetics," Eli Siegel wrote, "make for the meeting of wonder and matter-of-fact." 15
Beatrix Potter wrote many letters to the children of her friends and relatives, one of which, written in 1902 to a little boy who was ill, Noel Moore, was to become a classic of children's literature. I think The Tale of Peter Rabbit, translated into many languages, has affected children so much because it is against a child's dividing the world as wonder from the world as fact. Margaret Lane writes:
But Peter, who was very naughty, ran straight away to Mr. McGregor's garden, and squeezed under the gate!19Did Beatrix Potter want to show that a world which can be terrifying and cause pain, can also please us, and is still a world to be known and liked?
There is humor in this picture as Beatrix Potter captures the awkwardness of Peter, looking out at the garden with wonder. Peter is pleased by what he finds in the garden. We see him enjoying some radishes. But soon he comes face to face with Mr. McGregor who runs after him with a rake. Peter, after losing "one of his shoes among the cabbages," 20 gets caught in a gooseberry net "by the large buttons on his jacket," 21 and after many narrow escapes, "climbed upon a wheelbarrow and peeped over." 22 We see an ordinary rabbit, with that combination of curiosity and timidity rabbits have. And Peter looks out on a world that is both fearful: there is Mr. McGregor, and hopeful — "and beyond him was the gate!" 23 In this drawing, the relation of the precisely drawn vegetable leaves and vines, and Peter's furry coat in the foreground, near us, and the background that gradually dissolves into the pale mist of the forest beyond, is lovely. One of the things I care for in Beatrix Potter's work is the way the distant, unseen world is present in the immediate, factual world we see before us. Though the book is very small, there is a sense of space. Beatrix Potter carefully and beautifully places the picture in that white space that both fixes the image and also allows it to float freely as the soft, blurred edges blend into the white. Her use of the precise outlines and the soft, transparent washes of watercolor also puts together the contained and the expansive, fact and wonder.
"We all of us have pictures of the world in our minds — ," Eli Siegel writes, "and these pictures are of imagination; the beauty and rightness of these pictures depend on how much we can see the world as what it is." 24
Beatrix Potter has been loved and is important as an artist and writer because in The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and in book after book, she shows that we don't have to make up a better world. She shows deeply and surprisingly, that seeing the world we meet everyday, factually "as what it is," will make for the wonder and excitement that is the beautiful, right imagination of art — the true, proud imagination we want in life!
1. Eli Siegel, Self and World: An Explanation of Aesthetic Realism (New York: Definition Press, 1981) p. 151.
2. Ibid., p. viii.
3. The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, number 1330, Sept. 30, 1998.
4. Beatrix Potter, The Tailor of Gloucester, (London: Frederick Warne & Co., 1903), p. 12.
5. Judy Taylor, et al., Beatrix Potter 1866-1943, The Artist and Her World (London: Frederick Warne & Co., 1987) pp. 117, 64.
6. Leslie Linder, The History of the Writings of Beatrix Potter (London: Frederick Warne & Co., 1971) p. 92.
7. Eli Siegel, "Romanticism Is Still With Us" (unpublished).
8. Potter, The Tailor of Gloucester, (London: Frederick Warne & Co., 1903), jacket illustration.
9. Leslie Linder, The Journal of Beatrix Potter (London: Frederick Warne & Co., 1966) p. 106.
10. Taylor, et al., p. 77.
11. Margaret Lane, The Tale of Beatrix Potter (London and New York, Frederick Warne & Co., 1946) p. 138.
12. Jane Crowell Morse, ed., Beatrix Potter's Americans: Selected Letters, (Boston, The Horn Book, Inc., 1982) p. xi.
13. Eli Siegel, Self and World: An Explanation of Aesthetic Realism (New York: Definition Press, 1981) p. 149.
14. Eli Siegel, Aesthetic Realism Class of February 8, 1974.
15. Eli Siegel, Self and World: An Explanation of Aesthetic Realism (New York: Definition Press, 1981) p. 149.
16. Lane, p. 118.
17. Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Peter Rabbit (London: Frederick Warne & Co., 1902, 1987, 1989) p. 9.
18. Ibid., p. 10.
19. Ibid., p. 18.
20. Ibid., p. 29.
21. Ibid., p. 30.
22. Ibid., p. 49.
24. Siegel, p. 146.
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Aesthetic Realism Versus Racism
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Photographic Education through Aesthetic Realism
On the Place of Aesthetic Realism in Culture
"Is a Person an Aesthetic Situation?"
Aesthetic Realism and Anthropology
John Singer Sargent's Madame X
Self-Expression and What Interferes
The Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company