Reaching For Paradise: John Milton (1608-1674), Milton Illustration,
and Carlotta Petrina (1901-1997)


With the Bible and Shakespeare's plays, Milton's poems are among the most frequently illustrated literary works in English.  During three and a half centuries, more than 190 artists from at least eight countries have created illustrations for Milton's works, using a variety of media.  Of those artists, nearly 150 have made at least one illustration of Paradise Lost.   And since the first illustrated edition, artists have illuminated not only Milton's texts, but their own personal, historically-grounded readings of those texts.  For, as Carlotta Petrina put it in 1992, "all art is of its own time."  Over 300-plus years and in 1400-plus works, artists have emphasized different aspects of Milton's vision.  Each has brought what a reviewer of one artist's work called "other eyes," and Petrina is no exception. 

The earliest illustrated edition of Paradise Lost was published in 1688, with twelve engravings following designs by Dr. Henry Aldrich, John Baptist Medina, and Bernard Lens.  The artists' aim, like that of illustrators of the Bible, was to help readers navigate Milton's complex narrative and to take its moral instruction to heart.  To achieve this end, they borrowed the medieval technique of synoptic narration, representing several scenes within one harmonious design.  Medina, for instance, underscored the epic's literal narrative in his design for Book 9 (fig. 3).  In the shadowed foreground (literally "foreshadowing" the background scenes), Satan gesticulates in "bursting passion" as he prepares to enter the snake as the "fittest Imp of fraud" (PL 9, ll. 97, 89).  The results of this scene move back into the picture plane in a serpentine pattern: (1) Adam and Eve discussing their separate labors, and going off in separate directions with their "rude" gardening tools; (2) Eve encountering the serpent "erect/ Amidst his circling Spires" (ll. 501-502), and holding an apple into which she, "yet sinless," is about to bite; (3) Eve offering Adam the apple and Adam lifting it to his mouth; and (4) the pair lamenting in their "vain Covering" of fig leaves, as the sky gives "first signs" of disturbance with a sudden storm. 

Artists working in the century after 1688 generally followed Medina, Aldrich, and Lens in offering one illustration for each of the poem's twelve books.  But in place of synoptic designs that underscored the sequence of events in the narrative, they began to select individual scenes to represent each book and to depict those scenes theatrically--as if on a stage.  Their Paradise Lost was not so much a Bible as a play, with characters whose psychological motivation became as interesting as the moral outcome of their decisions.  Francis Hayman's designs (1749) clearly illustrate this theatrical trend.  Rather than represent all the major episodes in Book 4, for instance, he depicts only the scene in which Satan spies upon Adam and Eve and breaks into anguished soliloquy (PL 4, ll. 325-94).  Hayman's design (fig. 4) emphasizes the couple's youth and innocence, as well as the malice of the tempter--who grips his spear as he spies upon them conversing at the base of two intersecting trees.  A vine entwines the trees, as the pair entwine their hands.  Both their bodies and the trees form an X-shape, suggesting their "happy nuptial league"; animals play languidly about them--with the exception of a rearing goat, who registers sexual disturbance in this otherwise innocent scene. 

William Blake, working just at the turn of the nineteenth century, signals another shift in the illustration of Paradise Lost: the liberation of Milton's epic from both literal and theatrical representation.  For Blake, "present, past, & future" were eternally and everywhere present, whether embodied in verbal or visual form, or, ideally, in both.  Thus each of Blake's designs symbolically alludes to the whole epic--which, for him, is embodied not in its narrative or in its human drama, but in the "divine body of the Saviour, the True Vine of Eternity."  In his 1808 design for Book 5 (fig. 5), for example, the angel Raphael discourses on the unity of Earth and Heaven, as Eve "ministers naked," a bunch of grapes in one hand and a chalice-like gourd in the other.  In the background, directly above her head, stands the fatal tree, dripping with fruit and enwrapped by the fatal serpent.  But the serpent also represents the crucified Savior, as suggested by the Johannine Christ (John 3.14-15, referring to Numbers 21.4-9)[1]--a point Blake underscores by returning to the image in three more of his twelve designs. 

Artists of the mid- and later nineteenth century used Paradise Lost  to explore a new interest in nature--an interest just beginning to be referred to as "ecological."  Responding to reform movements that followed the vast changes introduced by the industrial revolution, these artists foregrounded, as Milton's earlier illustrators had not, the landscape of Eden and the earth's vulnerability to human choices.  They did so, however, in gender specific ways, using sharply contrasting definitions of space to define Paradise and to suggest its fragility.  While John Martin's enormous mezzotints and Gustave Doré's dramatic engravings present a vast and endless prospect--reducing human beings to proportionate scale within their environment and underscoring their dependence upon it--Jane Giraud's delicate watercolors reduce Milton's vast landscape to the eloquent synecdoche of a flower. 

In two sets of mezzotints made between 1824 and 1827, John Martin represents Adam and Eve as tiny figures in a seemingly infinite expanse of trees and light.  His Eve appears humble and curious, in harmony with the landscape, as she discovers herself in the "liquid Plain" (fig. 6).  Raphael's visit takes up only the lower left corner of an image otherwise devoted to trees and to mountains receding into an invisible horizon (fig. 7)--reminding the viewer how much the angel's discourse concerns nature and its direct connection to spirit: "Differing but in degree, of kind the same" (PL 5, l. 490).  Humankind's fall gives rise, for Martin, to our alienation from nature--and thus directly to the ecological disaster besetting a newly industrial England, as Satan builds his horrifying tunnel-bridge over Chaos (fig. 8), threatening the environment with its terrible dark pollution. 

On the title page to Paradise Lost in her Flowers of Milton (fig. 9), Milton's first woman illustrator Jane Giraud quotes Milton's description of Nature's reaction to the exact moment Eve plucks and eats the forbidden fruit: "Earth felt the wound" (PL 9, l. 782).  She represents this decisive moment with a withering, serpent-wrapped tree; with a rosebush rising up into bare thorn; and with a dying bird, bringing "Death into the world" (PL 1, l. 3).  And she goes on to develop this ecological insight by focusing her entire reading of the epic on flowers, whose story becomes the story of an equally fragile earth.  Human beings, Giraud suggests, are a part of nature, and their actions affect everything in the universe.  In so doing she produces, in 1846, the first ecofeminist reading of Milton. 

Between 1901 and 1954 at least thirty-two sets of illustrations were made in response to Milton's poems-- suggesting that Milton has continued to speak to the urgent concerns of modern readers.  Of these readers, two stand out for the complexity and depth of their Miltonic re-visions, and both were women: Mary Elizabeth Groom (1903-1958) and Carlotta Petrina (1901-1997).  Equal to--if not surpassing--the best of their male predecessors, Groom and Petrina brought a new humanist and feminist strain to the visual interpretation of Milton's epic. 

Carlotta Petrina 

Carlotta Petrina (née Charlotte Kennedy) was born in Kingston, New York in 1901.  She was the only child of Gilbert F. Kennedy, an attorney who later served as a long-time legal advisor to the U.S. Embassy in London, and Helen McCormick Kennedy, an accomplished portraitist who strongly encouraged her daughter's artistic interests.  Charlotte Kennedy was educated in the Kingston schools and, after her mother's early death from cancer, in New York City.  From 1919 to 1921 she trained at the Art Students' League, and then, for the next two years, studied painting at Cooper Union.  

At a dress ball sponsored by the Art Students' League, Charlotte Falconer Kennedy met Giovanni Antonio Petrina, a young artist who was born in Treviso, Italy, but who had been living in the United States since the age of eight.  They married soon after, despite her family's objections to the match.  The bride adopted the Italian equivalent of her own name; the groom changed Giovanni to John; and the couple embarked on independent but mutually supportive careers. 

In 1923, the Petrinas moved to Europe, working and studying in Paris, the south of France, and Italy.  Seventy years later Carlotta Petrina would recall, "In Paris, we bought tickets for figure-drawing classes, as you would for a movie, and worked three hours in the morning and three in the afternoon.  I felt sorry for the models because the studio was so drafty."  For a time the couple had studios near Cagnes-sur-mer in the Maritime Alps.  There, in 1924, their son Antoine was born. 

The decade of the 1930's--during which she produced her Paradise Lost illustrations--marked a sharp turning point in Petrina's life.  By 1932 she had exhibited in France and in the United States, gaining acclaim for her draftsmanship in numerous reviews, including several in the New York Times.  During the previous year she had been sent to the Island of Capri (off Naples, Italy) to illustrate Norman Douglas' then very popular novel Southwind  for the Limited Editions Club.  The Guggenheim Foundation awarded her a grant in 1934 to work on lithography in France; a second Guggenheim for book illustration followed in 1935--this in an era when such grants were virtually never awarded to women.  But tragically, during that same year, John Petrina was killed in an auto accident while vacationing in Wyoming with his wife and son.  Carlotta Petrina never quite recovered from the blow. 

Thus it is probably not coincidental that, of the 150 or so artists who have illustrated Milton's epic, no artist has given the viewer a more powerful or tragic sense of its title: Paradise Lost.   Petrina's drawings were profoundly darkened by the personal loss of the beloved husband who was the model for the artist's Adam--as well as by a more public loss, to which Petrina was a witness: Italy's inexorable march into fascism, and all Europe's into the Holocaust that became World War II.  

Petrina was a remarkably apolitical person, one whose intellectual and spiritual home lay deep in the timeless world of myth.  Yet, paradoxically, as the artist herself remarked, "All art is of its own time."  Many artists have represented the powerful scene in which the Son of God bears down upon Satan and the fallen angels in the "Chariot of Paternal Deity,/Flashing thick flames, Wheel within Wheel undrawn" (Paradise Lost  6, ll. 750-51; fig. 15).[2]  But Petrina's is the fiercest of all these images: a nightmare of fascist realism.  An association with Mussolini is almost unavoidable; and indeed the poet vividly remembered seeing Il Duce speak in Venice, at the Piazza San Marco, shortly before she began work on her drawing.   

Petrina's Expulsion too (Paradise Lost 12, ll. 627-49; fig. 21 ) is easily the most terrifying in a tradition going back to the fifteenth-century Florentine painter Masaccio (fig. 10).  Tiny and fragile in a dark wood of menacing, indistinguishable shapes, her Adam and Eve are dwarfed and harried by a conflagration they have inadvertently set into motion behind them.  Unlike earlier Expulsion figures, who manage to dominate the picture plane, Petrina's are utterly overwhelmed--tiny representatives of humanity covering head and face, to ward off terrors quite possibly beyond their capacity to endure.  Petrina's drawings, beyond those of any other Milton illustrator, embody a desolate and apocalyptic sense of history.   

Petrina's unique reading of Paradise Lost  is perhaps most obvious in her representation of the Fall of humankind.  Almost invariably, illustrations of Milton's account--found  in Paradise Lost  9--show both our first parents: most often as Eve offers the forbidden fruit to Adam, occasionally as he succumbs to its "mortal taste" (PL., I, 2).  Petrina chose to ignore completely this crucial moment of choice, reducing Milton's narrative to a single, heartbreaking, iconic image (fig. 18).  In place of a tempted couple, sufficient to stand but free to fall, we find a solitary, half-reclining, half-seated woman--head bent, long hair hanging between anguish-stretched arms, hands clenched on the ground before her, as she weeps a river of tears that spreads toward the viewer and out of the picture plane.  In the somber background, a single, stark, leafless tree spreads gnarled branches atop a dark, volcanically-shaped, hill.  The image is emblematic of Petrina's re-presentation of Milton's epic.  And it is Eve, the woman, who bears the greatest weight--of grief and expiation but also of history itself. 

In Petrina's anguished reading of Milton's poem (as of her own terrible moment in time), history is not so much a narrative as a perpetual flood of human (primarily feminine) grief--a timeless dream from which any notion of human progress is conspicuously and tragically absent.  Her Eve's desolation mirrors Milton's desolate and subjected earth, from Fall to Apocalypse "under her own weight groaning" (PL 12, l. 539). 

Nonetheless, Petrina's own history--the history of both a woman and an artist--continued.  In 1944, again for the Limited Editions Club, she illustrated Virgil's Aeneid, represented here by her design for Book IV of the epic (fig. 26).  The "lovely-bodied Dido," Queen of Carthage, lies dead by her own hand, out of grief and rage at the hero's desertion.  As with Milton's epic, Petrina again captures the full pathos of the poet's narrative in one haunting image.  As broken columns to left and right represent the disaster that must soon befall her people, we witness the bitter repose of a woman who has "died a death . . . not merited or fated,/ but miserable and before her time/ and spurred by sudden frenzy" (The Aeneid, IV, 958-60;  trans. Allen Mandelbaum).    

During this period, Petrina also took on several academic appointments--at the Pratt Institute, at Hunter College, and at Wesleyan College for Women in Macon, Georgia--but, she said, "I was really no good as a teacher."  When she needed to earn more money, she undertook commercial design at Lord and Taylor's, Saks, and Bonwit Teller.  A stint as Artistic Director at Elizabeth Arden offered a new kind of experience: "I was asked," she said, "to design store displays, gift packages and the like, but not to dirty my hands.  I even had a secretary--the only time in my life.  My designs went to the display studio.  They executed them and I didn't like that."   

The opportunity for real creative expression returned in 1950, when Petrina moved to the Isle of  Capri (where she had illustrated Southwind) and resumed painting full-time, while exhibiting in galleries throughout Italy.  Thirteen years later she returned to New York, settling in the Palisades, near Nyack, in a nineteenth-century building that she renovated as a studio, gallery, and living quarters.   The artist's work from this period recalled her Italian years in its luminous color and mythological subject matter. 

Petrina's paintings combine multiple effects, at times naturalistic and at times fantastical, that evoke layers of human experience.  Within a single work, Petrina may suggest such varied elements as location, narrative, emotions, ambiance, whimsy, and myth; but despite this richness, her inventive and highly independent imagery is never heavy-handed.  The subjects of her paintings appear as dreams, floating through time and space, and they pass in and out of the viewer's consciousness as graceful, poignant symbols of something just barely, but perpetually, out of reach. 

Many of Petrina's visionary landscapes recreate the fantastic shapes, colors, and hazy atmosphere of an idealized Venice.  Facades of palaces compose a striking backdrop for canal scenes where elegant ladies, nude bodies wrapped in flowing garments, glide over the water in narrow gondolas.  The paintings--some more troubling than others, all enigmatic--cast the city's waterways in a shimmering light, and pastel colors produce a sense of the transient, unreal moment.  Yet, despite their unreality, they capture a sense of place: the romantic melancholy and sensual attraction that moved the American novelist Henry James to call Venice "a sort of repository of consolations."   

In Exploration (fig. 27), for instance, Petrina represents a female protagonist who enters a grotto on the prow of a boat.   Golden hair bathed in a mysterious golden light emanating from behind a fountain, the woman leans forward slightly, an expression of mixed anticipation and apprehension upon her face--one reminiscent of Petrina's own youthful face (figs. 28-29)--and expressive of the artist's life-long love of boating (fig. 30).  Beneath the woman's boat, unseen by the protagonist, floats another, submerged female figure, who seems to be reaching to grasp a serpentine figure in darker water, and who appears slightly illuminated by the same golden light that illuminates the protagonist.  The classicized male figures in the niches behind the Lady--half statuary, half mythological apparitions--are accompanied by mythical animals, another of which tops the fountain between them.  Whether threatening or comforting, they, like the submerged female figure, seem to represent some aspect of the protagonist's complex psyche.  And so her voyage becomes a voyage inward--for Petrina almost a definition of art itself.   

In constructing her ethereal subjects, Petrina draws from a repertoire of classical images, yet distances those same forms from the academic tradition she studied so thoroughly.  For example, in Figure Descending a Bridged Stairway (fig. 31), a partially draped male figure strikes a contrapposto pose reminiscent of ancient Greek sculpture.  Yet the contrived gestures of the hands, the curve of the arms, and the swing of the torso all recall Mannerist conventions.  Similarly, the architectural setting evokes the spatial conventions of sixteenth-century Mannerist painting--as well as the work of modern masters like De Chirico and Chagall.  Petrina's works, in short, evoke memories both of epochs in aesthetic history and of the strange, and perhaps universal, constructs of the human imagination.  The reflections we see in the canals of her psyche, she suggests, are also our own. 

At the age of eighty-three, Petrina moved with her son to Brownsville, Texas, on the Mexican border, where she lived and continued to work almost daily for thirteen more years.  Near Fort Brown, in the historic center of town, she and her son converted an antiquated single-story hotel into a gallery.  There, in 1992, we--two literary scholars and an art historian--had the immense privilege of visiting the artist and interviewing her over the course of two full days (figs. 32-33).  Sitting in her kitchen and courtyard, walking through her studio, we heard her life's story of sorrow and triumph.  We discussed her Milton illustrations with her, page by page--and shared the theories about them that we had published in our articles.  We viewed the wide variety of art in her studio, ranging from sketches of animals and human beings (figs. 34-37) to sculptures in process (fig. 38)

We also strolled with Petrina through the spacious, tranquil rooms of her gallery, where a glowing, golden light revealed a self-contained environment for her on-going reach toward a "paradise within" (Paradise Lost 12, l. 587).  The interior walls accommodated more than a hundred large oil paintings--typically six to eight feet in height--on canvas, plywood, or plexiglas.  Still working on these canvases at 92 years of age, she often had to turn them and work on them sideways.  But, she remarked, the lack of perspective didn't matter much with such dreamy subjects: "Angels," she said, "have wonderful equilibrium."   

In that gallery we saw images inspired by Paradise Lost, but freed from their original narrative context to become personal myths of longing, loss and abandonment, and the conversion of pain into beauty (figs. 39-41).  We saw others that seemed to reflect yet more private myths, featuring sphinx-like animals and sculptures come to life--or people turned to statues (fig. 42).  In Petrina's colorful world people fly, dive, and fall like angels (figs. 43-44) and encounter swan-like birds at the bottom of Venetian stairways (fig. 45).  The chariot of some private deity (perhaps more frightening than the God of Petrina's Paradise Lost, perhaps only more mysterious) emerges from a Venetian archway, filled with golden glory and drawn by powerful horses--the golden horses, perhaps, of San Marco come to life (fig. 46).  And, returning to her life-long love of literary myth (in this case from Ovid), Pyrrha and Deucalion restore a lost humankind after a universal flood by flinging stones over their shoulders that immediately spring to life as men and women (fig. 47).           

Carlotta Petrina died at the age of 96 on December 11, 1997.  But large letters on the stucco exterior still identify the Carlotta Petrina Museum (fig. 32, where Petrina continued until the end to pursue her personal imagery--to reach past the disappointments of daily life toward a "paradise within" that never ceased to beckon.    

Eunice D. Howe, University of Southern California
Wendy Furman-Adams, Whittier College
Virginia Tufte, University of Southern California    


[1] "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life" (KJV). 

[2] Petrina's illustrations for Paradise Lost are used by permission of the Limited Editions Club (New York, 1936) and Antoine Petrina.  Photographs of her work were provided by the William Andrews Clark Library, University of California, Los Angeles.  This essay is part of a larger project that examines the history of Paradise Lost as an illustrated poem.  Tufte also has written and produced a video-biography, Reaching for Paradise: The Life and Art of Carlotta Petrina (La Femina Films, 1994; 55 minutes), which has been presented on PBS Station KMBH, Harlingen, Texas, in 1995; on Channel 35, Los Angeles, 1995-1996; at the annual conference of the National Women's Studies Association at Skidmore College, June 1996; and at Whittier College, March 1997.  Still painting into the last year of her life, Petrina exhibited works from 1990 to 1994 in New York City; in Saugerties, New York; in Brownsville, Texas (where she lived at the time of her death); and in Matamoros, across the Mexican border.  For a general approach to her work on Paradise Lost, see Lloyd F. Dickson, "Against the Wiles of the Devil: Carlotta Petrina's Christocentric Illustrations of Paradise Lost," Milton Studies XXV, ed. James D. Simmonds (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh UP, 1990), 161-90.  For biographical data as well as insightful comparison, see Bruce Lawson's "Unifying Milton's Epics: Carlotta Petrina's Illustrations for Paradise Regained," Milton Studies XXX, ed. Albert C. Labriola (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh UP, 1993), 183-218.  And for an expanded interpretation of her reading of Paradise Lost, see Wendy Furman and Virginia Tufte, "'Metaphysical Tears': Carlotta Petrina's Re-presentation of Paradise Lost, Book IX," Milton Studies XXXVI, ed. Labriola (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh UP, 1998), 86-108.



© copyright 2003 | Whittier College | all rights reserved