Rogier van der Weyden. Portrait of Young Woman. c.1445. Oil on panel. Gemaldegalerie, Berlin, Germany.

Recognizing a Masterpiece:
William Gaddis's Reinterpretation of Flemish Art

by Ted Morrissey

An abridged version of this paper was presented at the Twentieth-Century Literature Conference, University of Louisville , February 2004.


“[H]e evolved a way of using certain available materials in such a manner as to raise old concepts to a new high point of intellectual and spiritual expression. He had the ability to produce singlehanded a whole new way of thinking . . .” (39). This quote from Baron Joseph van der Elst is about the fifteenth-century Flemish painter Jan van Eyck, but it just as easily could have been written by a contemporary admirer of novelist William Gaddis; for just as van Eyck's groundbreaking techniques changed oil painting forever, Gaddis's revolutionary prose style, as revealed in his debut novel The Recognitions (1955), moved American fiction in a new direction, which a generation later would manifest itself in the work of Thomas Pynchon, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut and other postmodern writers. The comparison between van Eyck and Gaddis is natural, of course, considering that the Flemish masters have such a significant role in the author's labyrinthine tome. The main plot of the novel – though the term plot does not quite work for The Recognitions – involves a young artist, Wyatt Gwyon, who masterfully forges paintings in the style of the Flemish guilds; and, therefore, Gaddis makes copious allusions to these Renaissance painters and their works. But more than merely allude to van Eyck and his fellow guildsmen, Gaddis reinterpreted many of their techniques for his unique narrative style. His reinterpretations range from the overall structure of the novel, to its perplexing chronologies, and finally to even the physical details of the scenes and the plethora of characters who move about within them.

It is a well-established fact that The Recognitions was considered something extraordinary when it appeared a decade after the end of World War II. Critics did not know how to respond to it, so most chose to do so in the negative. Strehle Klemtner writes, “The uncertain reception . . . is understandable; the reviews indicate common problems . . . for a casual reader: complexity of event and structure, unusual treatment of character, a difficult narrative surface” (61). She adds, “[ The Recognitions ] left several reviewers with the uncomfortable sensation that Gaddis had poured everything he knew into it” (63). Some readers, however, realized that these difficulties were not the mark of poor writing but rather of excellent writing taken in a new direction. Indeed, “ The Recognitions needed devotees who would keep its existence known until such time as it could be accepted as a classic . . . by those who read well and widely and wish that justice be accorded good books” (Gass vi). But probably even the earliest devotees would not have guessed what Gaddis's work would spawn in American letters. Beer describes The Recognitions as “a predecessor to such massive and difficult fictions as DeLillo's Underworld , Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow , and Wallace's Infinite Jest ” (69). Similarly, Swann writes, “[ The Recognitions ] is a great and exemplary modern novel [which looks] forward to the Pynchon of V. and Gravity's Rainbow , to the Mailer of Why Are We in Vietnam ? and Ancient Evenings ” (101). Therefore, what Gaddis was to American fiction, Jan van Eyck was to European painting, taking it from the medieval world to the modern. Friedländer points out that while it is not true that Jan van Eyck invented oil painting, as was claimed by historians of the sixteenth century, “the urge to paint as he painted could not be satisfied with the media hitherto in use. His search for new processes was stimulated and guided by observation, imagination and creative will” (7). In fact, some two hundred years before van Eyck, a monk developed paint recipes that called for boiling oils (Elst 39). These unrefined oil paints, however, would not allow for the realistic details that van Eyck wanted to include in his compositions. His tinkering and experimentation resulted in a portrait that would change painting forever: the 1434 wedding picture of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife.
In the double portrait, “a problem has been solved that no painter of the fifteenth century dared to set himself against – that of placing two people, in full-length figure, side by side in a richly appointed room . . . . [The painting] can be regarded as the herald of a new conception of the world” (Friedländer 12-13). Perhaps in recognition of the connection between his revolutionary novel and van Eyck's revolutionary painting, Gaddis alludes to the famous work twice in The Recognitions . First, would-be playwright Otto Pivner, looking at a reproduction of the painting in a magazine, makes reference to it in a conversation with Esther, Wyatt's wife: “. . . this, this van Eyck, the white headdress on Arnolfini's wife, how sharp the lines are, look at how smoothly they flow, it's perfect painting in stand oil . . .” (123-24). Then much later, at a Christmas Eve party hosted by art critic and forgery financier Recktall Brown, a guest discusses the sacrilege of using “the portrait of Doctor Arnolfini and his wife in full color” to advertise a laxative (666).

Before a discussion of how Gaddis reinterpreted the techniques of the fifteenth-century Flemish painters, it is important to note that Gaddis's choice of this group of painters being the focus of his main character's forgeries was quite purposeful. If Gaddis was not planning on fully exploiting what this Flemish group could bring to his narrative – myriad elements, including structure and symbolism – he might have chosen different painters from a different century; specifically, the Dutch painters of the 1600s. And Gaddis had ample reasons to do so. For the techniques of forging itself, Gaddis used the real-life story of Dutch forger Han van Meegeren. Sawyer writes, “When Gaddis drew upon the successful forgeries of Han van Meegeren for Wyatt Gwyon's story, he chose a perfect source to explore the importance of ‘recognition' in a work of art” (51). Because of his own art being ignored by critics, van Meegeren decided to embarrass the experts by forging a painting in the style of Johannes Vermeer, a seventeenth-century Dutch master. After years of painstaking research and experimentation, in 1937 van Meegeren finished The Disciples at Emmaus , which was “indistinguishable in any respect from a Vermeer painted by the master himself” (Arnau 308). This painting was to become the first of fourteen forgeries, most in the style in Vermeer, others in that of Peter de Hoogh, a lesser known Dutch painter (311). The forgeries made van Meegeren fabulously wealthy; however, after World War II, the Dutch government arrested van Meegeren for collaborating with the occupying Nazis by selling a “Vermeer” to Hermann Göring. To save himself, van Meegeren confessed regarding his forgeries and revealed his elaborate techniques for creating what appeared to be aged masterpieces. Van Meegeren's fantastic tale was unfolding in the media just as William Gaddis was beginning to work on what would become The Recognitions . As a result, Gaddis borrowed directly from van Meegeren's methods in writing about Wyatt's forgeries, including the use of “oil of lavender and formaldehyde” and “a little India ink in the cracks” to resemble dirt (248). Sawyer also notes that “Gaddis probably derived the motif of the scent of lavender, which intermittently permeates The Recognitions , from the story of van Meegeren whose house in southern France was constantly filled with the scent of flowers . . .” (53). Gaddis also seemed to appreciate, even share, van Meegeren's contempt for critics. In fact, in the novel, art critic Crémer “guarantee[s Wyatt] excellent reviews” in exchange for “one-tenth of the sale price . . .” (71); Gaddis took this detail from the story of Han van Meegeren, who had received virtually the same offer from a critic (Sawyer 51).

Because Gaddis borrowed so liberally from van Meegeren's story, it begs the question: Why not make Wyatt a forger of seventeenth-century masters, specifically Vermeer and de Hoogh? The only answer can be that Gaddis viewed the Flemish painters of two centuries earlier as a much richer vein for his novel. Indeed, Gaddis seems to have mined that vein for structure, symbolism, character traits, details of setting, and an array of storytelling techniques. Perhaps no other school of painters could be used so successfully as a model of narration than that of the Flemish painters. Best known for their many religious tableaus, the masters composed their altarpieces like theater directors blocking their plays. Van der Elst writes, “The quality of stagecraft in Flemish painting was always to tell the story presented through vividly portrayed actors, distributed according to the importance of their stage business, and in designs that were psychologically as well as spatially composed” (125). Rogier van der Weyden is considered perhaps the greatest narrative painter of the Flemish guilds. Of van der Weyden's Descent from the Cross , van der Elst writes, “It is narrative, but it is far more than that. . . . In no art save that of the ballet can be found such rhythmic cadences” (75). So as William Gaddis soldiered his way through the writing of The Recognitions , he was well served by choosing the Flemish master painters for allusion, inspiration and technique.

Over the last half century, many critics and scholars have attempted to identify and explain the structure of The Recognitions . Comparisons have been made to Dante and Joyce among others, but perhaps the most logical way of viewing the novel – in light of the Flemish influence – is as a Renaissance triptych, where “the central panel is twice the width of the wings,” writes Stonehill (130) 1 . He points out that The Recognition 's central section, with 439 pages in the 1993 Penguin edition, is roughly twice as long as the first and third sections, 274 and 233 pages, respectively. Moreover, the two side panels “mirror each other in details large and small . . .” (130). For example, the novel opens with a discussion of Reverend Gwyon's “ The Spanish Affair . . .as [he] referred to it afterwards” (3). Gaddis continues, “. . . it was this impulse to extend his boundaries which had finally given chance the field necessary to its operation (in this case, a boat bound out for Spain), and cost the life of the woman he had married six years before” (3). Similarly, part 3 (or the third panel) returns to the images of Spain and the sea, though most of the interior sections of the novel take place in New York and Paris . Gaddis describes the seaport of Tibieza de Dios: “It is governed largely by descendants of Spain who live on the central plateau, given work by the American fruit company whose white employees live between ten strands of barbed wire and the sea . . .” (723). These sorts of mirror images abound in the novel. As Stonehill notes, the starting point for I.2 is Paris : “On the terrace of the Dôme sat a person who looked like the young George Washington without his wig . . . . She read, with silently moving lips, [and] was drinking a bilious-colored liquid . . .” (63). A remarkably kindred description appears in the final section of the novel. Gaddis writes, “On the terrace of the Flore sat a person who resembled the aging George Washington without his wig . . . . She was drinking a bilious cloudy liquid and read, with silent moving lips” (938). Yet another example is the Arnolfini wedding picture mentioned earlier; the two allusions counter balance each other, one about midway through part 1, the other near the end of part 2. Amusingly, at almost the precise middle of the “triptych,” where an important religious figure would be positioned, like Christ in van der Weyden's St. John Altarpiece , Gaddis has placed his alter-ego, the novelist Willie: “—Good lord, Willie, you are drunk. Either that or you're writing for a very small audience” (478). William Gaddis, the creator of the world of The Recognitions , positioned himself at its center.

In addition to the common three-section construction, Gaddis borrowed another significant element of the fifteenth-century altarpieces: the disordering of time. The most important breakthrough for the Flemish painters was the capturing of realism, both in rendering people and objects. Medieval art was two-dimensional, but Jan van Eyck and the other Renaissance painters to follow were able to create the illusion of three dimensions in their paintings. Van der Elst writes, “[Van Eyck] had no precedent to follow. He had to teach himself how to master the serious problems involved in the rendering of three-dimensions upon a two-dimensional surface” (123). Once the techniques were discovered – involving diminishing forms, converging lines, and planes of color – the Flemish artists were intoxicated by the possibilities: “[T]hese painters were never satisfied that space should wander gently off into the distance. To them space was so exciting that they created a very deep illusion of it” (123). With the discoveries of photography and cinema, three-dimensionality became commonplace, and people have forgotten how significant the contributions of van Eyck and other painters were. Van der Elst writes, “The opening up of the third dimension, with its powerful effects on far vistas, was as stupendous an artistic achievement as it was an intellectual one” (123). Yet, in spite of their fascination with the possibilities of three-dimensional paintings, the Flemish masters often chose to abandon total realism in their work. One of the remnants of medieval art that they continued to incorporate into their paintings, especially their altarpieces, was the unrealistic representation of time. In order to include more story and symbolism in their narrative pieces, they would sacrifice realism. Van der Weyden's St. John Altarpiece is an excellent example. The triptych shows St. John's birth (left panel), his baptism of Christ (center), and John's beheading (right). Each scene is rendered with microscopic detailing, including iridescent drops of water falling from John the Baptist's fingers to Christ's face. However, in the right panel, van der Weyden chose to distort time by showing both the beheading of St. John – the executioner places the decapitated head on Salome's golden tray – and, in the background, Salome delivering the head to her father, King Harod. Furthermore, in the Gothic arches that frame each of the panel's scenes, van der Weyden has included statuary representing various other saints, but many of the depicted saints lived after John the Baptist's time. In order to include more images and additional narrative, van der Weyden “abandons the concept of temporal unity” ( Masterworks ).

Gaddis also abandons temporal unity in The Recognitions . On the one hand, the novel appears to be realistically linked to history. For example, we are told Reverend Gwyon was “born on the yellow day in Boston when the volcano Krakatao had erupted on the other side of the earth [ August 27, 1883 ] . . .” (60). Moreover, Gaddis keeps reminding us of the narrative's time frame. In parts 1 and 2, the approach of Christmas is mentioned frequently. For example, II.1 begins with Mr. Pivner noticing “[t]he December sky was gray . . .” (281). In part 3, Easter is the temporal lighthouse the characters are focused on. Moore writes, “[T]he passage of time is given such attention that a strict internal chronology is implied for [the] novel” (79). Yet a close reading shows that Gaddis's temporal markers do not always work together. Moore points out that using the Krakatao reference makes the starting year for the novel 1927; however, beginning in the middle of the novel and working backwards indicates 1919 as the year Reverend Gwyon and Camilla set out for Spain (80). In part 3, Gaddis reverses the time order of the third and fourth chapters. The primary action of III.3 deals with Frank Sinesterra/Mr. Yák and Wyatt/Stephan trying to forge an Egyptian mummy in San Zwingli, Spain. Gaddis writes, “San Zwingli appeared suddenly, at a curve in the railway . . .” (776). A few pages later, Sinesterra and Wyatt meet, and “Mr. Yák” tries to convince “Stephan” to go along with his plan: Mr. Yák says, “—Suppose, now listen, just suppose somebody wanted to make one, see?” (786). The chapter continues their misadventures as they steal the wrong corpse from the San Zwingli cemetery and abscond with it via rail back to their rented rooms: “In spite of his weariness, Mr. Yák managed to introduce his guest [i.e., the corpse] into the Pensión Las Cenizas unnoticed . . .” (819). The next chapter, III.4, is largely about Stanley, an organist who composes religious music, and Esme, a model and heroin addict, aboard ship en route to Europe :

—Blessed Mary went a-walking . . .[, sings Esme.]
The prow of the ship lifted from a swell, remained suspended and then dropped into the trough that followed. Everything shook.
—Over Jordan river . . .
—Please, don't sing that, Stanley interrupted. (824)

Yet Wyatt and Stanley were both in New York at Esther's Christmas Eve party in II.7, which means that Wyatt needed some transatlantic time as well. Gaddis omitted Wyatt's ocean crossing to give us his San Zwingli adventure, then went backward chronologically for the shipboard scenes with Stanley and Esme. About Gaddis's distortions of time, Moore writes, “Gaddis [probably] did not feel that a painstakingly accurate chronology was really important to [his] novel. If so, he was right – for indeed the substance of [ The Recognitions ] is not affected by chronological incoherence . . .” (90). In other words, Gaddis sacrificed realism in order to tell the story he felt compelled to tell – just as the Flemish masters abandoned total realism in their narrative paintings by also disordering chronology.

Even in the realistic details of their paintings, the Flemish artists sought to communicate symbolic meanings; and this too was reinterpreted by Gaddis. Knight writes, “[T]he Flemish technique of ‘disguised symbolism,' saturating a natural world with a spiritual presence, also offers a model for Gaddis as a novelist” (64) 2 . The Flemish painters created life-like depictions, but often the elements had meaning beyond their literal representation. This disguised symbolism is seen in virtually all Flemish religious tableau, but particularly good examples are paintings of the Annunciation. The paintings, done by innumerable artists, generally show Mary and Gabriel in either a private setting (like Mary's bedroom) or a public setting (like a church). Often, a vase of lilies is present, denoting Mary's purity, but other symbols may not be as familiar to contemporary viewers. For example, van der Weyden's Annunciation includes “a carafe of clear liquid, which may also represent an alchemical union of the sexes” (Losh). Placing Mary in a bedroom and clearly showing the bed in the background, usually in a vibrant red color, signifies her as the bride of Christ. Furthermore, Gabriel's stylized words suspended in air between him and Mary “illustrate Church dogma in which the word of God enters through Mary's ear, perhaps because penetration through the auditory canal seems to offer a logical solution to the problem posed by the mechanics of conception for a vaginally intact Virgin” (Losh). Gaddis seemed to take the concept of disguised symbolism to heart. Knight writes, “The setting of [ The Recognitions ] is naturalistic, but just about everything else is symbolic” (64-5). Included in Gaddis's symbolic structures are references to the Annunciation. In I.7, Wyatt wants to borrow an expensive vase from Recktall Brown “for a week or two” for a forgery he is doing of the Annunciation (257). When Brown asks him why he wants it, Wyatt replies, “—Lilies . . .” (258). Brown counters by pointing out that, like the vase, “—Lilies [are] expensive here too” (258). This scene works perfectly to show the key difference between Wyatt and Brown. Like the lilies, Wyatt is pure in an artistic sense; he wants to paint an Annunciation scene for art's sake and to feel closer to God, just as the Flemish painters did. Brown, meanwhile, is only interested in art for its monetary value; he sees the lilies as an unnecessary expense. Another reference to the Annunciation is in II.1 when several characters attend a drag party in Harlem. A guest discusses the concept of Mary being impregnated via her ear, saying, “Do you know why nuns must have their ears covered? My dear, so they won't conceive! The Virgin conceived that way, the Logos entered her ear” (313). This reference seems to be associated with the babble, including media babble, that saturates the novel. One such advertising intrusion comes from a maker of sleeping pills: “——Hi, gang! Your friend Lazarus the Laughing Leper brings you radio's newest kiddies' program , The Lives of the Saints , sponsored by Necrostyle ” (365). Gaddis is suggesting that in the modern world the word of God no longer enters our ears, but instead we are all impregnated by tacky advertising slogans – giving birth, then, not to saviors but to consumers.

It is noteworthy that Wyatt is to paint the Annunciation in the style of Hubert van Eyck, and it is equally noteworthy that later in the novel his final forgery is Death of the Virgin as a Hugo van der Goes. Gaddis obviously chose both Flemish painters for their biographical connections to his fictional Wyatt Gwyon. Hubert van Eyck is an enigmatic figure in art history. He may have been Jan's older brother. An inscription on the Ghent altarpiece suggests that Hubert began the work and his younger brother eventually finished it (Friedländer 7). However, no other works have been positively linked to Hubert, whereas Jan is clearly the artist of record for numerous altarpieces, portraits, and even illuminated books (8-9). Therefore, over the centuries other theories have arisen about Hubert, including that he “was neither Jan's brother nor a painter, but a sculptor who carved an elaborate frame for the [Ghent] altar” (“Eyck”). Hubert's enigmatic quality suits Wyatt's character. In the beginning of the novel he is a boy being raised as a Calvinist by his Aunt May; then his father introduces other Christian and pre-Christian ideologies into the household after returning from Spain. Wyatt proceeds to study for the priesthood, but rejects the idea to pursue his interest in art, which goes from producing original paintings to forging the Flemish masters. Gaddis represents Wyatt's lack of a concrete identity by making him nameless for most of the novel. In I.3 Gaddis uses Wyatt's name for the last time in the novel: “Wyatt picked [Esther] up, and carried her across the dark room” (118). Most of the time he is simply unidentified, but in III.3 Sinesterra/Mr.Yák decides to give Wyatt a Swiss passport claiming his name to be “Stephan something” (785), and immediately Gaddis adopts the name for reference to Wyatt: “—I feel like one [i.e., a mummy], said Stephan with his back against the wall” (786). Two chapters later Wyatt's name changes again when he is talking to the novelist Ludy at the Real Monasterio; he says, “—People I've never seen before in my life call me Stephen” (867). Gaddis uses “Stephen” for the remainder of the novel, and this is the name that Wyatt's parents intended to call him in the first place: “Months before the boy's birth, he and Camilla had agreed, if it were a son, to name him Stephen” (27). But Gwyon and Camilla forgot about the decision until after Wyatt was already baptized. So it seems appropriate that Gaddis would choose the spectral Hubert van Eyck for Wyatt's forged persona because his young artist has no definite identity.

The choice of having Wyatt paint a Hugo van der Goes later in the novel is also quite appropriate. Van der Goes was a genius but had trouble with alcohol and mental instability. Friedländer writes, “[Goes] was not averse to wine and was often a victim of fits of melancholy that sometimes mounted to delirium” (32). He left the Ghent guild in 1473 and spent the remaining years of his life in a monastery: “Perhaps Goes placed himself under monastic discipline as a protection against his own passions, perhaps he was driven into the ecclesiastical stronghold by religious scruples” (32). Wyatt's manic personality mirrors van der Goes's. Wyatt is often drinking. In I.3, Gaddis writes, “He got up and poured himself another glass of brandy” (137). Near the end of the novel, “Mr. Yák” tries to find “Stephan” and enters his hotel room. On top of “the armoire there was a small forest of bottles, transparently green with emptiness” (820). Wyatt's mental instability is demonstrated several times, including when he stabs art critic Basil Valentine with a penknife after Recktall Brown has fallen down the stairs and died: “. . . damn you, damn you, damn you, [Valentine] cried throwing both hands up before his face as the short blade stabbed him once, and again, and again . . .” (692). Wyatt also seems insane when he encounters Ludy on the path near the monastery. Ludy has fallen and cut himself, and Wyatt can seem to respond only by maniacally quoting Macbeth . Gaddis writes,

Stephen burst into laughter again, more loudly, standing there with the bird. —Yes, yes who would have thought, the old man . . . he laughed more loudly, at the slight and so faintly colored streak, — to have had so much blood in him! . . . (897)

Also like van der Goes, Wyatt retreats to a monastery for salvation. And Gaddis provides some indication that the rest of Wyatt's life will be more peaceful. Wyatt claims that, like Thoreau, he will try “to live deliberately” and “simplify” (900). It seems clear that Gaddis chose Hubert van Eyck and Hugo van der Goes to be the painters that Wyatt forges because of their obvious biographical connections to his fictional character.

In addition to the triptych-like structure and misrepresentation of time, another important link between the Flemish masters and William Gaddis is nothing less than how each artist approached the creative process. The painters created ambitious, large-scale works by bringing together myriad figures and objects rendered in minute detail. But they did not use the principles of geometry to construct their compositions. Knight writes, “The Flemish painters were, of course, not as strict as the Italians in their application of perspective. Theirs was not a ‘correct' perspective, mathematically conceived, but one acquired from a close study of nature” (62). Van der Elst describes their technique of composition as “not premeditated; it is not worked out by compass and ruler. Yet, it is not accidental” (124). Because the Flemish painters perfected this natural perspective, they were able to successfully render large paintings with numerous subjects and objects. Van der Elst writes, “The mastery of scale required to make a whole large unit blend with its elements and yet, on closer view, dissolve into other smaller wholes is a skill which reached its highest perfection at the hands of Jan van Eyck” (124). These descriptions of Flemish art as an organic balance of multiple perspectives that work together to complete “a whole large unit” seem to pertain to The Recognitions as well. Admirers and detractors alike acknowledge the book's broad and complicated landscape. Strehle Klemtner writes,

It is vast in scope, covering a span of thirty years and ranging from New York to Europe . It is encyclopedic in knowledge . . . . Several levels of discourse are included: from graffiti to sermons, from inebriated party chitchat to serious debates of aesthetic principles. (62-63)

But Gaddis's vast novel is composed primarily of intricate exploration of small moments between its numerous characters. There is summary of course; in fact, Gaddis begins in a mostly expositive mode: “Nevertheless, [Reverend Gwyon and Camilla] boarded the Purdue Victory and sailed out of Boston harbor . . . . On All Saints' Day, seven days out and half the journey accomplished, God boarded the Purdue Victory and acted . . .” (4). However, the great majority of the novel is in scene, and these scenes are often characterized by long strands of dialogue. For example, II.7 (with its approximately 80 pages) is essentially Esther's Christmas Eve party rendered in dialogue and close attention to detail. The chapter begins thusly:

—It reminds me rather of that convent, the one at . . . Champigneulles, was it? Near Dijon , said a tall woman, looking around her. —The one that was turned into a madhouse.
—I know what you mean, said the girl beside her.
—Everyone keeps changing size. The tall woman looked at her quizically, and noted that both of her wrists were bandaged. She took a step back; the girl took a step forward. —What do you do ? (568)

This opening exchange is emblematic of Gaddis's style for most of the novel. Furthermore, Gaddis self-consciously acknowledges the importance of vast artistic expression and the simultaneous attention to minutiae through the voices of his characters. Stanley , talking with literary agent Agnes Deigh, alludes to Aristotle, saying, “. . . all the work should fit into one whole, and express an entire perfect action . . .” (616). Earlier, a character compares the Flemish paintings to “a writer who can't help devoting as much care to a moment as to an hour” (460).

While Gaddis borrowed from the Flemish masters for significant elements of his book – like its overall structure and its misrepresentation of chronology – perhaps the painters's most profound influences were in the specific details of composition they lent to The Recognitions . These details include Gaddis's use of color, his inclusion of Gothic architecture as a framing device, and his focus on characters's hands and eyes (including lifeless eyes). Color was a crucial element of composition for the Flemish painters. In fact, the proper usage of color was one of the main concerns of the guilds. Van der Elst writes, “The guilds taught the members the use and significance of symbols, the mystic meaning of colors, and innumerable legends of the saints” (39). In the actual painting process, application of the colors was a painstaking procedure that left nothing to chance. Van der Elst explains,

When the monochrome was completed, a coat of flesh color in an oil medium was laid over it. Over this flesh tint the colors were spread thinly in a shining coat, and the details were drawn in with white. Other films of oil followed the first. . . . [The painter] understood the peculiarities of this material, for he directed that each color should be arranged with certainty and put in its place to avoid later changes. (39)

Color served numerous purposes for the Flemish painters, some purposes having to do with composition, others with symbolic meanings. The painters well understood how the eye reacted to color, so they used bright and muted colors strategically to direct the eye's focus within their compositions. In portraiture, subjects most often wore dark colors – browns and grays – and posed against an equally understated background. This approach allowed the subject's face to be the focus of the composition. There are countless Renaissance examples, but an especially good one is van der Weyden's Portrait of a Lady (c. 1450-60). His subject poses in a brown dress with fur trim of slightly darker brown, while the plain background is gray-black with perhaps a touch of very dark green. The dark colors help us to focus on the woman's face, which is highlighted further by being framed in a gauzy white head-piece which descends to rest on an off-white collar. In essence, everything fades from our view except the woman's delicately rendered face. Martin writes, “In many ways this portrait is more powerful in its expression of form (of the feminine skull set against the stiffly starched headgear) than in its expression of personality” (plate 5). In narrative tableaus, color was used quite differently. Bold colors enable the central subjects to draw the eye in pictures often crowded with figures and objects. For example, in van der Goes's Adoration of the Magi (c. 1470), there are six significant figures but dozens of people on the perimeters of the frame and in the background. Centered in the painting are Mary and the infant Christ, while Joseph is to her right and the three kings, or magi, to her left. Mary wears a gown of brilliant blue and vibrant purple, while Joseph is in clothing of washed-out red and the three kings are adorned in bolder shades of red. The people of lesser importance in the painting are in muted colors or pale yellows. In contrast, the naked Christ child is in the center of the picture set off because of his refulgent ivory skin tone. These “islands of color” are used “to reinforce the sense of space and distance” ( Masterworks ). So the Flemish painters expertly used combinations of bright colors and muted colors to draw attention to specific elements of their compositions.

Similarly, Gaddis uses color to underscore elements in his scenes. In The Recognitions the color green is especially important. For example, a green scarf helps to show the connection between characters and to advance the narrative. Otto is the first to wear the green scarf in the novel. After returning from South America, Otto spends the night with Esme and goes to her apartment the next day wearing the scarf: “Otto said good morning, and came in. He took off his green muffler and tossed it to a chair, where it fell on the floor behind” (207). Otto forgets the scarf and it is apparently picked up by Chaby Sinesterra and taken home, where his father, the counterfeiter, gets hold of it. Gaddis writes, “[Mrs. Sinesterra] went over to a chair, and picked up a green scarf which her son had thrown there. . . . Mr. Sinesterra stood while she put the scarf around his neck” (496). Meanwhile, Otto's father prepares to meet his son and he, too, “put the green scarf around his neck” (502). The green scarves that both Mr. Sinesterra and Mr. Pivner wear on this fateful night are critical to the plot because they account for how Otto mistakes the counterfeiter for his father, neither of whom he has ever met: “[T]he revolving door turned, and from it issued an apparition [i.e., Sinesterra] on a fragmentary blast too weak to do more than flutter the end of the green muffler . . . and [Otto] came forward with his hand extended” (513). This meeting leads to Otto receiving a supply of counterfeit twenty-dollar bills and eventually to his real father being arrested for possessing merchandise purchased with the fake currency. However, Gaddis uses green in numerous other ways as well; in fact, it is the most prevalent color in the book. Here are just a few examples from the novel. While in South America , Otto observes the “endless green of the fan-leaved banana trees” (164), the “green hills” and the “heavy green of the countryside” (167). While he is bound for home via boat, the mirror in Otto's cabin is “framed in wood covered with thick green paint” (167). After Otto arrives in New York, he goes to a party and the apartment's fireplace mantel has “long streaks of green paint” (176). In a scene with Wyatt and Esme, the young forger is mixing a shade of green “where Venice turpentine was being heated with verdigris,” and Esme says it is “beautiful green. Beautiful green from a long time ago, before us” (270). During Esther's Christmas Eve party, in II.7, we're told that Wyatt's eyes are green – “and bearing his green eyes upon her he recovered . . .” (588). Also at the party is a critic in a “green wool shirt” (601); later, the critic is in Esther's bedroom “in the green wool shirt, that and nothing else” and instructs her to watch him masturbate (641-42). In III.3, during a funeral procession near San Zwingli, Mr. Yák observes a “girl on her bicycle, in her green dress” (810). In the next to final scene of the novel, Stanley reports to “the man in the green silk necktie” who “leaped from a lime-green convertible” that Esme is dead (952). While other colors are mentioned in The Recognitions , clearly green occurs most frequently.

Gaddis chose to use green so frequently for its symbolic values. Because of its being the predominant color of plant life, green represents springtime and renewal. As noted earlier, the action of the novel moves through winter (specifically Christmas) and toward spring (specifically Easter). In fact, the novel seems to end on Easter Day, though the chronology is not crystal clear. Moore writes, “. . . Gaddis evidently intended Stanley's death on Easter Day – dying for the sins of the entire dramatis personae of The Recognitions – to carry all the symbolic weight associated with the most important day of the Catholic calendar” (86). Perhaps the homophonic qualities of Esther's name foreshadow this final event; she is, after all, married to Wyatt when he is thirty-three (probably), the age at which Christ died and subsequently rose from the tomb. But Gaddis, always working on multiple levels, no doubt liked green for its other symbolic values as well. In American culture, green has come to represent money and financial power – and certainly these are concerns of the novel, too. The importance of money in America is dramatized by a conversation between Otto and Esther early in the book:

—But I've got to get hold of some money[, says Otto]
—And this obsession you have about money . . .
—Yes but money, you need money to . . .
—You seem to take not having it as a reflection of your manhood.
—But money, I mean, damn it, a man does feel castrated in New York without money. (150-51)

For the Flemish painters, green was also an important color. The meanings of certain colors from medieval times were still in force in the fifteenth century, so much so that men generally wore somber colors to avoid sending indiscreet messages (Elst 45). While blue represented “fidelity,” green meant “amorous love” (45). We are reminded of the medieval romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight , in which the seductress of the castle gives noble Sir Gawain a green sash. It is noteworthy that Otto shows up at Esme's apartment with his green scarf after their casual sexual encounter. Esme is an object of sexual desire for several characters in the novel, including Wyatt, Stanley and Recktall Brown, who offers to publish some of her poems in exchange for sex. In addition to its symbolic importance, green was often used in Renaissance paintings to create depth. Van der Elst writes, “To [create the appearance of depth] the Fleming often used a warm brown foreground, a cool green middle ground, and a cold blue background” (123). Certainly Gaddis uses color, especially green, to add depth to his novel as well.

Another element borrowed from the Flemish masters is the inclusion of Gothic arches in the composition. Friedländer credits Dieric Bouts for the widespread use of Gothic arches as a framing device for altarpieces: “[E]ven if he did not actually invent it he certainly developed and popularized it (around 1440)” (27). The St. John altarpiece uses this type of structure, “a Gothic portal framework [with] painted sculpture” (26). In addition to providing a highly stylized frame for the paintings, the Gothic arches contain “rich narrative material” (26). Perhaps it was this narrative quality that encouraged Gaddis to make reference to just such an architectural feature several times in The Recognitions . The monastery church of the Real Monasterio de Nuestra Señora de la Otra Vez has a “gothic façade” (856). Ludy then “approached the gray walls whose greatness gave way to delicacy in the gothic tracery of the spandrels over the arched doorway where he knocked” (858). Finally, Ludy is looking for Wyatt/Stephen outside the monastery, and Gaddis writes, “[S]omething like this froze the distinguished novelist now, looking up from the small cloud of steam he'd raised before him, to the figure seated motionless up the hill, outside the arch of the four-door square gothic ruin” (892). In this final example, Gaddis has made Wyatt appear to be a figure in a classically rendered altarpiece, Gothic arch and all. This scene might hint at Wyatt's saintly transformation, except for the ironic touch that while Wyatt is sitting – motionless – in the altarpiece, he is watching Ludy urinate: “[Ludy] hastened to button up the Irish thorn-proof trousers and approach with a greeting to belie his embarassment” (892). So, in typical fashion, Gaddis giveth, and Gaddis taketh away.

The author also reinterpreted the ways that the Flemish masters made use of hands in both their portraiture and narrative paintings. In Flemish portraits, hands were often rendered at the base of the frame to help define the space of the composition, to add a sense of depth, and to balance the color of the face, which was of course the focal point of the painting. For example, in van der Weyden's Portrait of a Young Woman (c. 1450 the subject's “hands are a prelude to the picture” ( Masterworks ). The hands, appearing directly below the young woman's face, provide a strong vertical axis for the painting as well. In short, by including the hands in the portrait, artists were able to create a more interesting composition. In narrative works, hands provide a sense of movement and communicate the attitudes of the subjects. In van der Goes's Adoration of the Magi , the hands of Joseph and the three wisemen definitely add to the painting's narrative quality. Joseph's “open left hand is in deference to the Magi” ( Masterworks ), and, by the same token, the wisemen's hands communicate their adoration of the Christ child. In fact, one of the most luminous objects in the center of the composition, second only to the Christ child, is the praying hands of the eldest king ( Masterworks ). In religious tableaus, hands also helped Renaissance observers to identify subjects. Van der Elst writes, “The artist might dress a female saint in any way that suited his fancy . . . but if he intended her to represent the Magdalene he was careful to place in her hands a pot of ointment”; similarly, St. Barbara was always “holding a miniature tower” (39). Gaddis makes frequent use of hands in The Recognitions . In an early scene with Reverend Gwyon and Wyatt, hands help to show the awkwardness of their trying to communicate. His father is explaining that the Barbary ape passed away: “—Yes, his . . . his time came, Gwyon said, clearing his throat and pulling at one hand with the other behind him” (53). A few moments later, “Gwyon looked away, turned his back and showed his twisting hands behind him” (54). When Wyatt and Esther are briefly reunited at her Christmas Eve party, Gaddis focuses on their hands to heighten the drama and reveal the tension between the two:

—No. Her hands lay in his, under the squared white mass of the shirts, cold nails and soft lined joints against his hard palms.
—The music?
—No. Her thumbs out, and palms up with the weight on them, her shoulders relax, and her hands open further, to draw up as instantly there is no support, first his right hand gone, clearly gone, and then with an instant's paroxysm the left. (588)

Here their hands symbolize Wyatt's leaving her for good. Gaddis continues to use hands to demonstrate the relationship between characters when, in III.3, “Mr. Yák” meets “Stephan” and puts “a hand on the arm beside him to draw the man on” and Wyatt responds, “—I just don't like people's hands on me, that's all” (779). In spite of their partnership to forge a mummy, Sinesterra and Wyatt never completely connect, and “Mr. Yák” has to finish the project by himself.

Even more significant in The Recognitions than hands is Gaddis's use of eyes, even lifeless eyes; and this technique can also be traced to Flemish paintings. Jan van Eyck and the other Flemish painters to follow perfected the rendering of realistic looking eyes. By using white on top of rich iris colors, the eyes appear to be moist and alive. Van der Weyden's Portrait of a Woman demonstrates this technique. By positioning a dot of white on the border of each black pupil and brown iris at approximately the two o'clock position, he created the illusion of living eyes. Van der Weyden's later portrait, Portrait of a Young Woman , reveals a different approach. For this painting, he decided to make the eyes appear lifeless by not adding dots of light. By this time in his career, van der Weyden had reached the conclusion that realistically rendered eyes “divert the viewer's attention from the composition as a whole” ( Masterworks ). The painter also cast the eyes down and to the side to minimize their hold on the viewer even more. Gaddis, too, focuses much attention on his characters's eyes, and he even makes use of the concept of dead eyes. Otto is deeply affected by Esme's eyes. Gaddis writes, “[H]e looked away from her eyes . . . down at her ringless fingers. Her eyes embarrassed him with their beauty, all at once as she showed them” (199). Later, in II.4, Esme is wandering around Wyatt's cluttered apartment in the process of having a breakdown. She often says the phrase “eyes closed,” perhaps signifying that Wyatt has not seen her true self, only the outward appearance her modeling has projected. While writing a long, rambling note to him about art, Esme applies “rose madder to her lips, and the indigo around her eyes” (471). As that scene ends, Gaddis segues to the next scene in a bar by having a radio announcer say, “——Close your eyes for the next sixty seconds and try to walk around the room . . .” (473). Later, in San Zwingli, Gaddis shows that Sinesterra and Wyatt – the counterfeiter of money and the forger of art – are beginning to resemble each other, but, “perhaps, [it] was only in an expression round the eyes” (801). To demonstrate Wyatt's growing agitation, Gaddis several times describes his “burning green eyes.” Just as van der Weyden gave his young woman lifeless eyes, Gaddis, too, frequently makes use of lifeless eyes in The Recognitions . Eyes that are literally dead are referred to several times in the book, including in the Depot Tavern, where the moose head's glass eyes are mentioned: “Even the twelve-point buck seemed to have a dusty eye on [the empty glass on the bar]” (444). At Recktall Brown's Christmas Eve party in II.8, Basil Valentine crosses the room and “[e]ven the [eyes in a tapestry] avoided him” (659). In San Zwingli, after Sinesterra has left the bar, Wyatt sits “returning the vacant stare of the sardines” (788). Ludy, the novelist, attacks a fish on his plate that “stared up with one round insolent eye, and he severed the head with one blow” (883). Gaddis even alludes to the one hundred eyes of Argus that were “transplanted to the peacock's tail” (202). Certainly Gaddis was not the first writer to concentrate on characters's eyes, but in a novel about forgery, about distinguishing between genuine and fake, real and unreal – being attentive to eyes is especially apropos. Perhaps the inclusion of so many dead eyes is Gaddis's way of saying that such distinctions are all but impossible, or maybe not worth making in the first place.

When readers first encounter The Recognitions , most do not know what to make of it. In terms of the typical apparatus of fiction – characterization, plot, conflict, resolution, symbolism – the novel just does not behave like the usual text. For many, bewilderment is a common reaction. But looking at the book through the lens of Flemish painting seems to bring it into clearer focus. Understanding that Gaddis was not merely alluding to fifteenth-century art but actually incorporating many of these painters's techniques into his unique narrative style explains the novel's odd traits, like its seemingly redundant structure, its obsession with hands and eyes, and its eccentric and aloof main character – the very oddities that have kept The Recognitions from being universally regarded as a great work of literature. Perhaps in the twenty-first century, William Gaddis's book finally will be elevated from a cult classic to a bona fide classic of American letters.


1. Stonehill's interest in The Recognitions is primarily focused on its structure; therefore, noting the novel's triptych-like organization is the extent to which he discusses Gaddis's borrowing from the Flemish painters.

2. Knight has published two studies of The Recognitions that deal with the influence of the Flemish painters on Gaddis's work; both are concerned with fairly broad thematic and symbolic connections.


Works Cited

Arnau, Frank. The Art of the Faker: Three Thousand Years of Deception . Trans. J.Maxwell Brownjohn. Boston : Little, Brown, 1961.

Beer, John. “William Gaddis.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 21.3 (2001): 69-109.

Elst, Baron Joseph van der. The Last Flowering of the Middle Ages . Port Washington , NY : Kennikat, 1969.

“Eyck, Jan van.” ibilio: the public's library and digital archive . 2 Feb. 2003

Friedländer, Max J. Early Netherlandish Painting: From van Eyck to Bruegel . Trans. Marguerite Kay. New York : Phaidon, 1956.

Gaddis, William. The Recognitions . 1955. New York : Penguin, 1993.

Gass, William H. Introduction. The Recognitions . By William Gaddis. New York : Penguin, 1993.

Knight, Christopher. “Flemish Art and Wyatt's Quest for Redemption in William Gaddis' The Recognitions .” In Recognition of William Gaddis . Ed. John Kuehl and Steven Moore. Syracuse : Syracuse UP, 1984. 58-69.

Losh, Elizabeth. “Between the Angel and the Book: The Female Reading Subject of Early Modern Flemish Annunciation Painting.” 20 Jan. 2001. University of California-Irvin. 5 Feb. 2003

Martin, Gregory. Art of the Western World: Flemish Painting . London : Paul Hamlyn, 1964.

Masterworks of Western Art: The Northern Renaissance . Dir. Reiner E. Moritz. Videocassette. Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 2000.

Moore, Steven. “Chronological Difficulties in the Novels of William Gaddis.” Critique 22.1 (1980): 79-91.

Sawyer, Tom. “False Gold to Forge: The Forger behind Wyatt Gwyon.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 2.2 (1982): 50-54.

Stonehill, Brian. “Plagiarizing The Recognitions .” The Self-Conscious Novel: Artifice in Fiction from Joyce to Pynchon . Philadelphia : U of Pennsylvania P, 1988. 114-40.

Strehle Klemtner, Susan. “‘For a Very Small Audience': The Fiction of William Gaddis.” Critique 19.3 (1978): 61-73.

Swann, Charles. “Forging the Old Masters: William Gaddis's The Recognitions and American Fictions Ancient and Modern.” Essays in Poetics 15.1 (1990): 84-104.

Ted Morrissey has been teaching secondary and post-secondary English for 22 years, including at Williamsville High School and as an adjunct at Springfield College in Illinois , where he teaches courses in literature, composition and creative writing. He is also a Ph.D. candidate in English Studies at Illinois State University , his primary focus being American Postmodern literature. His articles on literature pedagogy have appeared in Eureka Studies in Teaching Short Fiction , and his own fiction has been in Glimmer Train Stories , Paris Transcontinental , Eureka Literary Magazine , and elsewhere.

© 2006 Ted Morrissey

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