A Tale of Two Sisters: A Modernist Collaboration Between Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell

Kayla Schwab


The term “sister arts” is often used to describe the phenomenon in which a work of art such as literature, music, or visual art is inspired or informed by another work of a different art form. Although the relationship between the various forms of art has existed for centuries, the walls between these art forms began to break down during the modernist era. Writer Virginia Woolf and painter Vanessa Bell experimented with their style and ideas during the modernist period both individually as artists and collaboratively as sisters. These new ideas concerned issues of form, space, and time, as well as the adherence to the natural world versus the adherence to one’s authentic and personal human thought. As a result, these shared experiences not only helped them each to develop their own work, but also created an inevitable competition between them. Together, as a sisterhood, Virginia and Vanessa worked to stake their claims as female artists and thinkers to challenge the patriarchal structures that are so deeply rooted in the intellectual world.

Virginia and Vanessa were close growing up and maintained an intimate relationship throughout their adult lives. Their father, Leslie Stephen, was a fairly successful writer who fostered an intellectual atmosphere in the home. Early on, Leslie would lecture his daughters on a breadth of topics in literature, history, and the arts. In 1896, however, Vanessa had the opportunity to study drawing at Arthur Cope’s School of Art three times per week, breaking up the monotony of home schooling (Curtis 58). Virginia, on the other hand, stayed “at home alone, studying her Greek, writing her diary, borrowing books from Leslie’s extensive library of literary classics, or experimenting with her writing style” (58). It was around this time that competition between the two sisters began to blossom. In a draft of A Sketch of the Past, Virginia reflects upon “‘how imperfect’ she had felt compared to Vanessa, ‘how vain and egotistical, irritable’” (58). Much of Virginia’s compulsion to compare herself to her sister derived from her insecurity with her own body. She reflects how Vanessa, who resembled their mother, “‘might have been a famous beauty. [Virginia], though far more intermittent, irregular and ill-kempt than she was, had much more of the average of good looks’” (59). Because of her insecurities, Virginia often made “condescending remarks about the visual arts” (Gillespie 46), such as the claim that painting and literature “both create beauty, but painting is silent, wordless, static, whereas writing documents ‘the flight of the mind,’ the very process by which that beauty is perceived and achieved” (41). She also called painters “ignorant always” (47) because “writers must deal with human aspects of life that painters do not” (48). Writers are “terribly exposed with life,” while painters “withdraw, they shut themselves up for weeks alone with a dish of apples and a paint box” (47).

Despite this competition, the sisters nevertheless not only valued their relationship, but also relied on each other for inspiration and criticism. Much of Virginia’s correspondence with Vanessa reflects their collaboration and sharing of ideas, as well as the tensions that existed between them due to their successes. In many instances, when Virginia takes pride in her work, she defaults to giving credit to Vanessa, or at least devaluing herself in some way. For example, in discussing one of her books, she tells Vanessa “I think the book will be a great success-owing to you; and my vision comes out as much as I had it, so I suppose, in spite of everything, God made our brains upon the same lines, only leaving out 2 or 3 pieces in mine” (Curtis 64). Though Virginia is generous in giving credit to her sister where credit is due, a hint of jealousy remains. In one letter, Virginia writes, “I was hugely impressed, and kept on saying that your genius as a painter, though rather greater than I like, does still shed a ray on mine” (Letters 212). Both Virginia and Vanessa dabbled in many different art forms, especially as children. As their talents diverged, however, the sisters tended to stick to what they were best at. Vanessa’s daughter Angelica reflects on how Vanessa’s “‘feelings were strong, and words seemed to her inadequate. She was content to leave them to her sister and to continue painting’” (Curtis 69). Similarly, “Virginia Stephen gave up her experimentation with the visual arts fairly early,” though evidence shows that “in 1910 she was still trying her hand” (Gillespie 31). Nevertheless, both sisters “paid touching tribute to each other in their chosen media of art and literature […] putting paintbrush to canvas, [Vanessa] was able to capture the essence of Virginia with greater ease” (Curtis 73). Virginia also portrayed Vanessa in several of her works, including The Voyage Out, Night and Day, and, most famously, To the Lighthouse (74). The sisters collaborated on one particular project, in which Vanessa illustrated Virginia’s Kew Gardens (64). Both learned an immense amount from working with each other. Virginia claims that, “‘though they must part in the end, painting and writing have much to tell each other: they have much in common. The novelist after all wants us to see’” (McLaurin 76).

The experimentation that Virginia and Vanessa engaged in, both independently and collaboratively, is deeply reflective of the new ideas developed during the modernist era. Writer Joseph Frank explores the manipulation of space and time in the arts in his essay, “Spatial Form in Modern Literature.” He first identifies the perceived contrast between the “plastic arts,” which involve the physical modulation of media such as paint or clay, versus written or performed art such as literature and music. He also distinguishes between naturalistic and non-naturalistic styles; the naturalistic style adhering to close observation and representation of the “objective, three-dimensional [and organic] world of ordinary experience” (Frank 645). Non-naturalistic style, on the other hand, “abandons the organic world altogether for one of pure lines, forms, and colors” (645). Frank complicates these distinctions with the concept of the “absolute will-to-art, or, better still, will-to-form,” which “cannot be identified with any particular style” (646). This “will” is driven by “spiritual needs” and the desire not to simply represent, but to create a certain type of “climate” (646). Gruber emphasizes Virginia’s integrity as a writer, an idea that fits well into this “will-to-form.” She claims that Virginia would only consider her writing significant if it had been “impelled by inner necessity and modulated by her own ‘vision’ has significance, whether that vision be the impulses of the woman, of the romanticist or the classic poet” (Gruber 63).

One of Frank’s most compelling arguments that unites the “plastic arts” and literature is the claim that audiences of art do not necessarily “delight in the organic exhibited by naturalism with a mere impulse toward imitation,” but rather in the “active participation in the organic which is brought about when we apprehend a naturalistic work of art” (Frank 647). Often, however, the human experience of the natural world “is one of disharmony and disequilibrium,” thus producing “non-naturalistic, abstract styles” (647). According to Frank, modernist works tend to feel “other-worldly,” “primitive” and “transcendental” while simultaneously deviating from naturalism (648).  This change is caused by the employment of more abstract concepts such as “linear-geometrical forms” (647). Ultimately, however, these forms “have the stability, the harmony and the sense of order” that allows them to make sense to people on the individual as well as universal level. In the visual arts, geometry and line often dramatize and simplify the way in which we perceive the world. In Vanessa’s portraits of Virginia, for example, one can see various abstract and geometric techniques employed in the paintings. For example, Vanessa’s brush strokes are very bold and linear, a common feature of modernist and post-impressionist art. Many of the features of Virginia’s figure are comprised of geometric, colorful shapes that are not photo-realistic, yet they recreate the mood that was presumably present while Vanessa was painting. In literature, geometry and line can also be used in expressing time and thought. Virginia’s work, for example, plays with the conventional, linear narrative of pre-modernist literature, and employs repetition to both emphasize and muddle certain ideas and concepts. Gruber claims that “it is through the implicit peculiar vision of her sex that she seeks to penetrate reality”, thus claiming it as her own through her own methods of expression (Gruber 63). Unfortunately, however, “this feminine style is negated by a correlative ‘masculine’ criticism, demanding a verisimilitude in the treatment of life, a denial of metaphors used only as ornament, and a prose which is neither metrical poetry nor the monotonous jargon of a legal code” (68).

Both Vanessa’s and Virginia’s uses of geometry and line help to create form in their work, an important development in modernist art and literature. Bloomsbury critic Roger Fry, in describing a catalogue of modernist art, points out the ways in which the artists “‘do not seek to imitate form, but to create form, not to imitate life, but to find an equivalent for life” (Bloomsbury and Beyond 88). This statement reflects art historian Wilhelm Worringer’s observation of modern art and literature in which the “duality of form and content cease to exist” (Frank 651), where the form ultimately becomes the content. In other words, rather than being used as a way to express an idea, form becomes the idea itself. For example, in many of Vanessa’s portraits, Virginia does not have any facial features, an abstractionist strategy to communicate an even stronger message than if the features were present. In this way, the form of Virginia’s face, or lack thereof, ultimately becomes the content and meaning of the painting itself. In terms of Virginia’s writing, Gruber claims that “a womanly love of details subverts the more rigid sense of form; [Virginia’s] novels have a feminine expansiveness, an apparent irrelevancy which is truer to life than to art” (Gruber 138). In this way, Virginia prioritizes the form and authenticity to life of her work over narrative and plot.

As a work of art, either visual or literary, progresses toward the abstract, the work is changed not only temporally, but also spatially. In fact, Frank suggests that space, at least in literature, seems to determine time. He claims that “presenting objects in depth gives them a time-value, or perhaps we should say accentuates their time-value, because it connects them with the real world in which the events occur” (Frank 650). Frank claims that

the representation of objects in depth compels the eye to move backwards and forwards in order to grasp the relationship of objects to each other and to surrounding space, and this series of eye movements, taking place in time, lessens the spatiality of perception in a moment of time. Conversely, when depth disappears and objects are presented in one plane, their apprehension in a moment of time is obviously made easier. (Frank 650)

In relation to Virginia’s work, however, I am unsure as to whether I agree with Frank’s analysis. Rather than give depth to particular aspects of the narrative, Virginia treats each character, observation, and thought with the same shallow attention. Similarly, as the content of modernist paintings collapses into a single plane, the entire surface of the painting is oftentimes rendered with the same amount of detail, leaving the viewer with no real direction in where or how to look. As a result, both modernist literature and visual art require much more work on the audience’s part to dig through the various elements and parse the important from the unimportant. Gruber identifies “the contemporary interest in formalism […] as the relationship of shapes, [that] often selects, the unimportant or the extraordinary for material and gives them new values” (Gruber 141).

Virginia’s ideas about moments of “being” rely on very similar language to this concept. In her essay “Moments of Being,” Virginia describes a moment in time in which she comprehended a particular poem: “It was as if it became altogether intelligible; I had a feeling of transparency in words when they cease to be words and become so intensified one seems to experience them, to foretell them as if they developed what one is already feeling” (Moments of Being 93). In this way, Virginia is suggesting that words, concepts and feelings are always floating around in existence, and it is up to individual experiences and emotions to bring certain ideas to the surface. Virginia describes such “moments of being” in a similar fashion; she cannot define the particular characteristics that separate moments of “being’” from “non-being,” but rather relies upon the fact that moments of “being” reveal themselves under individual, personal, and experiential conditions. A primary goal of modernist artists and writers was to express a personal experience using language and imagery that is accessible and interpretable to all. This was no easy task, however; after all, life itself is complicated, and its truths are not always in plain sight. This intention also speaks to what Worringer would call the “‘psychological’ roots of spatial form in modern literature” (Frank 651), and by extension, modernist art. Much of modernist art and literature is concerned with tying different people, places and concepts together in a way that is authentic and personal but also accessible to a wide audience. Because Virginia’s writing is so fluid, the narrative often drifts between things that do not seem to belong together but, in the end, come together as a unified picture. This concept is reflected in the thought process of Lily herself in To the Lighthouse. As she attempts to begin her painting, she reflects: “There was the wall; the hedge; the tree. The question was of some relation between those masses. She had borne it in her mind all these years. It seemed as if the solution had come to her: she knew now what she wanted to do” (To the Lighthouse 147-148).

Virginia experiments with time and space in all of her works; however, her employment of these techniques is particularly effective in To the Lighthouse. Primarily, Virginia’s choice to use an omniscient narrator, or, as some may interpret, no narrator at all, allows for an element of subjectivity that brings each character to the same level, bestowing upon them the same degree of importance. The second section of the novel called “Time Passes” is an excellent display of Virginia’s manipulation of temporality. The title of the section is very self-explanatory; time indeed passes, but in a way that covers an immense amount of information from a very distanced perspective. This section also covers a vast amount of space, for not only does it discuss the Ramsay family, but also England as a whole in the aftermath of World War I. While To the Lighthouse is packed with underlying, modernist concepts of form, space, and time, references to visual art are contained within the narrative itself as well. One scene that displays artistic techniques concerned with color, space and time particularly well features Mrs. Ramsay standing alone by the shore.

[…] but for all that she thought, watching it with fascination, hypnotized, as if it were stroking with its silver fingers some sealed vessel in her brain whose bursting would floor her with delight, she had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness, and it silvered the rough waves a little more brightly, as daylight faded, and blue went out of the sea and it rolled in waves of pure lemon and the ecstasy burst in her eyes and waves of pure delight raced over the floor of her mind and she felt, It is enough! It is enough! (To the Lighthouse 65).

The most striking element of this passage is Virginia’s play with perspective, which reverberates between Mrs. Ramsay’s eyes and the wider scene of waves rolling onto the shore and regressing back into the sea. The many spaces in this passage are layered or superimposed on top of one another, and the descriptions of these spaces are filled with color and light, two artistic elements that work to define a specific space. The temporal aspects of this passage are ambiguous. It is unclear how much time has passed throughout the scene because the imagery is so personal and metaphorical it seems as though this experience could take place at any moment in time. This experience also represents a moment of solitude, sexual liberation and ecstasy for Mrs. Ramsay. For women holding traditional positions in the domestic sphere, independence and solitude are often perceived as dangerous because it allows them to think and act freely. Painting, writing and other forms of intellectual and creative development are viewed in a similar light for women, and this general sentiment is represented in the character of Charles Tansley, who constantly repeats, “Women can’t paint, women can’t write” (To the Lighthouse 86). Lily also feels restricted by “Mr. Ramsay bearing down on her,” making her feel “she could do nothing […] she could not paint” (148).

Virginia devotes much time and space in the novel To the Lighthouse to painter Lily and her creative process. The entire third section of the novel, titled “The Lighthouse,” is driven by the narrative surrounding Lily’s struggle to communicate on the canvas what she sees in her mind. Virginia eloquently describes the struggle to

make the first mark: […] For a moment it stayed trembling in a painful but exciting ecstasy in the air. Where to begin? […] One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions. All that in an idea seemed simple became in practice immediately complex; as the waves shape themselves symmetrically from the cliff top, but to the swimmer among them are divided by steep gulfs, and foaming crests. (To the Lighthouse 157)

The process of painting and creating is described here as a visceral but subconscious experience: “Certainly she was losing consciousness of outer things […] like a fountain spurting over that glaring, hideously difficult white space, while she modeled it with greens and blues” (159). It is clear that Virginia received a lot of insight to the artistic process of visual communication from her sister Vanessa. In one letter, Virginia writes to Vanessa, “I expect the problem of empty spaces, and how to model them, has rather baffled you” (Letters 212). In a later letter, after having been inspired by one of Vanessa’s paintings, Virginia writes, “Isn’t it odd?—perhaps you stimulate the literary sense in me as you say I do your painting sense. God! How you’ll laugh at the painting bits in the Lighthouse!” (Letters 223).  Virginia also admits to knowing that Vanessa had the “tendency to draw vertical lines down the middle of her paintings,” an artistic choice that Virginia works into Lily’s character (Curtis 76).

The collaboration between the sister arts and the exchange of creativity and ideas is more complex than simply one work of art inspiring another. There exist certain ways of perceiving and thinking that blend the visual and literary arts, ones that Virginia and Vanessa seemed to discover as they continued to work together. It is known that “Virginia paid more attention to the formal dimension of her work because of her sister’s critical eye” (Gillespie 10). Virginia also claims she “‘learned to understand painting through…[Vanessa Bell’s] eyes’” (2). The emphasis on close observation is present in both Virginia’s and Vanessa’s works as well, for their “still life paintings and descriptions reveal the pleasure of both sisters in their immediate surroundings” (13). Virginia also found visual images particularly useful in instances in which “words constantly fail to express what people do not or cannot say” (13). Vanessa Curtis identifies the theme of the “inadequacy of words […] and what language can and cannot do” running throughout Virginia’s work (Curtis 40). Virginia also poses, however, the idea that “a painter would be equally incapable of capturing the color of the Parthenon in the setting sun,” calling attention to the limitations of both visual and linguistic representation. Lily, as a manifestation of writing and painting, reveals the ways in which words and images work together:

What was the problem then? She must try to get hold of something that evaded her. It evaded her when she thought of Mrs. Ramsay; it evaded her now when she thought of her picture. Phrases came. Visions came. Beautiful pictures. Beautiful phrases. But what she wished to get hold of was that very jar on the nerves, the thing itself before it has been made anything. (To the Lighthouse 193)

Throughout the novel, but particularly in this scene, Lily is a hybrid of the creative minds of both Vanessa and Virginia, thinking in both visual and linguistic terms.

The strength of the bond between Vanessa and Virginia’s ideas was inherent in the fact that both were female artists struggling to express themselves in a male-dominated society. Virginia herself claims creative “work ‘is the root & source & origin of all health & happiness, provided of course that one rides work as a man rides a great horse, in a spirited & independent way’” (Gillespie 2). She considers her artistic progression to be similar to a traditionally masculine activity and attitude, and thus asserts herself and her power through her writing. Gruber saw this in Virginia immediately, later writing, “Virginia Woolf is determined to write as a woman. Through the eyes of her sex, she seeks to penetrate life and describe it” (Gruber 61). Despite this determination, however, Virginia and Vanessa were not able to work and create without having to overcome certain obstacles. Diane Gillespie discusses the “problems inherent in being artists who were also women,” for they were “subject to restrictions, conflicts, and feelings of inferiority that were less likely to plague male artists” (11). She identifies the “traditional feminine role” of the “Angel in the House” as a main source of patriarchal oppression (11). Added to this type of ideological oppression are the challenges of economic oppression, for “the women painter had sometimes the greater obstacles of getting proper training as well as equipment, a studio, and models” (11).

Lily works through many of these issues throughout To the Lighthouse, as her artistic and creative process occurs alongside her thought process of coming to terms with her identity and her asserting herself in society. At times, her thoughts impact her art in a negative way; for example, when she thinks of Mr. Ramsay, she feels “he permeated, he prevailed, he imposed himself. He changed everything. She could not see the colour; she could not see the lines” (To the Lighthouse 149). At other times, however, developing her painting helps her arrive at life decisions, which in turn boosts her confidence in her own artistic abilities. At one moment, for example, she decides “she would move the tree to the middle, and need never marry anybody” (176). The most important revelation of Lily’s occurs at the conclusion of her work and the novel itself:

Quickly, as if she were recalled by something over there, she turned to her canvas. There it was—her picture. Yes, with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? she asked herself, taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision (208).

It is at this moment that Lily arrives at the truth and significance of her artistic career. Throughout the novel, Lily is surrounded by men like Mr. Ramsay who obsesses over notoriety for his own work. Lily, by contrast, realizes that she does not care whether her painting is displayed before a large audience or tucked away in an attic. For Lily, her passion for art has nothing to do with anyone but herself, and she decides she will continue to pursue her passions for her own benefit and growth as a woman. It is with this clarity of thought and claim to autonomy that Lily finally has her “vision” and completes her painting.

Lily’s experience closely resembles Gruber’s description of Virginia’s experiences: “Conscious of the forces against her, she molds herself in her poetic struggle for existence […] the blinding command ‘Thou shalt not do this,’ the commandments of life or style which impel her to create, are distinguished as they are dictated by the critic or by her own poetic impulses” (Gruber 61). Although Virginia clearly had the drive and compulsion to fight-the-man, she did hold certain beliefs about her sister that appear to be contradictory to this attitude. Another source of Virginia’s jealousy lay in the fact that, not only was Vanessa a successful painter, but she was also a successful woman in the eyes of patriarchal society, for she was married and had children. As a result, Vanessa “had to share her energies between painting and motherhood” (Curtis 65). Virginia continued to argue, “somewhat unfairly, that she deserved the career success as Vanessa had got the family life, and she kept a nervous eye on Vanessa’s growing reputation as a painter, deeming it unfair that her sister should have both” (Curtis 67). This entire thought process seems to completely contradict not only Virginia’s personal, feminist viewpoint about art and intellectual growth, but also Lily’s thought process throughout To the Lighthouse. If a woman “need never marry,” why should her family life impact the degree and reception of her success? Perhaps more importantly, how does this impact the development of art and creation for one’s own sake, even if one’s creation is ultimately hidden away in the attic? What is the true meaning of success in Virginia’s eyes?

If nothing else, these questions and inconsistencies reveal the difficulties of being a female artist and intellectual, especially during the time in which Vanessa and Virginia were painting and writing. Virginia and Vanessa remain, without a doubt, symbols of feminine progress in the arts and in society in general, and a large component of this image is tied to their work and contributions to British intellectual society, particularly in the Bloomsbury group. One must not forget, however, the sheer difficulty, or in some cases impossibility, of escaping the patriarchal systems of oppression that are so deeply rooted in society. Even though they were educated, successful, and independent, both Vanessa and Virginia ended up in marriages that they were not completely satisfied with. Even more paradoxically, although Virginia believed Vanessa’s marriage took away from her work, she still envied her for it. Virginia’s and Vanessa’s struggles reveal the immense amount of work that is required to unleash oneself from the social standards prescribed by the patriarchy. Under these circumstances, Virginia and Vanessa did an excellent job, and their work and legacy will live on for centuries to come.


Kayla Schwab ‘17 is an English major and Studio Art correlate. She is the Poetry Section Co-Editor of the Vassar Review and Co-Captain of the Vassar Women’s Varsity Swim Team, and is in the process of completing three senior theses. Kayla hopes to be working in New York City after graduation doing something that would enable her to write and think creatively, but plans to continue to write poetry and make art on the side. 



Works Cited


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Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 1927.