Encountering the Niobe’s Children: Vernon Lee’s Queer Formalism and the Empathy of Sculpture
The materiality of sculpture was essential to Vernon Lee’s psychological theory of aesthetics based on the beholder’s physical responses. Through collaboration with her lover Clementina Anstruther-Thomson, Lee developed a theory of embodiment based on German psychological empathy theories which was reliant on gallery rather than laboratory experiments. This chapter focuses on the reception of their work within the psychological circles of the time and, in contrast to interpretation of the two women’s intellectual collaboration as a transposition of lesbian desire, I argue that Lee’s dialogue with Karl Groos around the concept of “inner mimicry” is essential to examine how sculpture also allowed her to explore sexuality plastically. Originating in late-Victorian discourses around formalism, Lee’s aesthetic engagement with the past represents an ethics of embodiment that resonated with modern theories of sexuality.