Lectures/Literary criticism/George Eliot/Middlemarch and the Nazarenes

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This lecture is intended to provide background on the Nazarene School of painters and how they are connected to George Eliot's novel, Middlemarch.


  • The Lukasbund (Brotherhood of Saint Luke), or German Nazarene, was an organization of German painters that began in 1809
  •  The original six members were from the Vienna Academy (Johann Friedrich Overbeck, Franz Pforr, Ludwig Vogel, Johann Konrad Hottinger, Peter von Cornelius, and Wilhelm von Schadow)
  •  Their purpose was to return to moral and religious painting in a reaction against Neoclassical painters
  •  They believed that religion was more important than mechanical artistic structure

Nazarenes and George Eliot[edit]

  •   George Eliot went to Germany in 1854 and stayed until 1855. During this stay she met many Nazarene painters and wrote about her experience in her journals.
  •   In 1860, she traveled to Rome and visited Nazarene painters.
  •   According to Michael Mason, Eliot was able to experience the painting movement that would inspire the British Pre-Raphaelite movement and transform English painting upon her return to England

Nazarenes in Middlemarch[edit]

  •   The character Naumann is seen as a Nazarene painter
  •   Michael Mason believes that the Naumann represents "an anticipation of the Pre-Raphaelites"
  •   Hugh Witemeyer believes that such an idea is wrong, and that Naumann represents a fusion of Johann Friedrich Overbeck and Josef von Fuhrich.
  •   Dorothea’s honeymoon is remarkably similar to the visits between Eliot and the Nazarenes in Germany and in Rome.
  •   Naumann’s use of Mr. Casaubon for Saint Thomas Aquinas is similar to Overbeck’s The Triumph of Christianity in the Arts. Eliot did not see the painting while in Germany, but most likely saw it later.
  •   Naumann’s clothing is remarkably similar to the description of Overbeck in Eliot’s journal.
  •   Historically, Overbeck would be too old to be Naumann, but Fuhrich was the right age. Fuhrich is a possible match to Naumann, because Ladislaw’s description of a painting by Naumann is similar to Fuhrich’s Triumph of Christ. This painting was described in Eliot’s journal during her time in Germany.

Possible interpretations[edit]

  •   Dorothea’s views represents Eliot’s views on the painters and Naumann is included in the work to further connect Eliot with Dorothea..
  •   Naumann is included in the work to allow Eliot to comment on German Romantic attitudes that promoted Medieval/Christian works over Classical works. She was then able to comment on how Romanticism was seen by the English, especially by those in the provincial areas.
  •  Naumann "educates" Dorothea about Christian art and explain the iconography behind the paintings. Dorothea is unable to fully understand, but Witemeyer claims that Naumann’s attempt is welcomed. (p. 152)
  •   The Nazarenes represent a “retrograde” in art, and Eliot believed that later art was more realistic. Also, the Catholic depiction of saints was something that Eliot did not enjoy. This forms the basis of Ladislaw’s parody of Nazarene symbolism. Witemeyer claims that Ladislaw speaks for Eliot "when he notes the limitations imposed upon the works by the inescapable egotism of the workers." (p. 157)
  •   However, Eliot also connected “Nazarene art and Anglican sensibilities”, and Casaubon’s buying of a painting connects the thoughts of Causaubon with those of Naumann. (Witemeyer p. 157) But Casaubon is also searching for the “key to all mythologies”, which is a quest that he cannot achieve. Casaubon’s death and Dorothea’s uniting with Ladislaw can have meaning on which side is correct.
  •   Mason sees the Nazarene influence as connected to Lydgate’s intellectual pursuits. Eliot is describing outside intellectual movements that breaks "the otherwise carefully sustained geographical frame of the novel." (Mason p. 423)
  •  Joseph Wiesenfather believes that Dorothea "is a Puritain with the right moral impulse who is cut off from the deeper truths of nature and history and culture because she does not know the language of art." (p. 365) However, Wiesenfather describes Naumann’s description of art as "the corruption of the language of art." (p. 366) In reaction to Naumann, Dorothea embraces Ladislaw’s philosophy of "fanaticism of sympathy… the best piety is to enjoy – when you ca". (Wiesenfather, p. 370, referring to ch 22.) Dorothea wants a realistic form of art that is based on experience and relates to the culture. (Wisenfather p. 370)
  •  Abigail Rischin interprets the Nazarene art and the time in Rome as provoking a subtle exploration part of a subtle eroticism. Casaubon is not mentioned as impotent, "but the indication she [Eliot] leaves here [during the honeymoon] and elsewhere in the novel invite that inference." (p. 1129) The honeymoon, a time of change and discovery, becomes something old and worn out; Rischin claims, "the reader learns in the scene immediately following the one at the museum, during her honeymoon Dorothea has discovered with horror her husband’s lack of passion – intellectual, emotional, and physical." (p. 1129)


  • Beaty, Jerome. "History by Indirection: The Era of Reform in Middlemarch," Victorian Studies, I (1957): 173-179.
  • Haight, Gordon S. George Eliot: A Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968
  • Mason, Michael York. "Middlemarch and History," Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 25, No. 4. (Mar., 1971): 417-431.
  • Rischin, Abigail S. "Besides the Reclining Statue: Ekphrasis, Narrative, and Desire in Middlemarch," PMLA, Vol. 111, No. 5. (Octo., 1996): 1121-1132.
  • Wiesenfather, Joseph. "Middlemarch: The Language of Art," PMLA, Vol. 97, No. 3. (May, 1982): 363-377
  • Witemeyer, Hugh. "George Eliot, Naumann, and the Nazarenes," Victorian Studies, Vol. 18, No. 2. (Dec., 1974): 145-158