A Modernist Icon: What is Virginia Woolf Known For?

Virginia Woolf is known for her modernist novels, but she was also an aspiring art critic and prominent member of the Bloomsbury group.

Jun 15, 2023By Elizabeth Berry, BA English, Italian, & Writing Seminars
what is virginia woolf known for


Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was an English writer and one of the most important authors of modernist novels like Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. In her writing, she pioneered the use of the stream-of-consciousness narrative device and created groundbreaking feminist works. What many people don’t know is that she was also greatly involved in the art world. She was a member of the Bloomsbury group and wrote several essays on art. Her sister Vanessa Bell was a post-impressionist painter. Explore the great Virginia Woolf’s involvement with the early twentieth-century art scene below, from her relationships to her artistic philosophy.


Who Was Virginia Woolf?

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Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford, 1902, via the National Portrait Gallery, London


Virginia Woolf (born Adeline Virginia Stephen; 1882- 1941) was an English writer from South Kensington, London. She was raised in an affluent household alongside her siblings, Vanessa, Thoby, and Adrian. All the children in the home were encouraged to pursue their education. Despite being quite fortunate, Virginia endured many traumas early on in her life including the death of her mother. She was primarily a writer and went on to compose iconic modernist novels including Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse 1927), and Orlando (1928), as well as essays like A Room of One’s Own (1929).


Through her writings, Woolf had a considerable influence on modernism with her unique use of narrative devices. Her novels were often written in a stream-of-consciousness style and included interior monologue in a way the books of her predecessors and contemporaries did not. In addition to being a talented novelist, she was also an art critic and essayist. Through her essays on art criticism, her relationships, and her involvement with the Bloomsbury group, Woolf had a considerable influence on the art world.


The Stephen Sisters: Virginia and Vanessa

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Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell, 1912, via National Trust Collections


To fully understand the impact Virginia Woolf had on the art world, one must look at her relationship with her older sister Vanessa Bell (née Stephen; 1879-1961). Vanessa Bell was a post-impressionist painter and prominent member of the Bloomsbury group, and she and Virginia were very close. Virginia and Vanessa experienced many tragedies in their lives including the deaths of their mother, brother, and father, and these traumas brought them closer together.

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In a testament to their warm relationship, Vanessa painted Virginia many times in a post-impressionist style. In the 1912 work Portrait of Virginia Woolf, one can gain insight into Virginia’s personality and her relaxed state around her sister. The two of them remained close until Virginia’s suicide in 1941, and Vanessa’s paintings of Virginia are important pieces in the Bloomsbury catalog.


A Powerful Partnership: Virginia and Leonard Woolf

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Leonard Woolf by Henry Lamb, 1912, via the BBC


Virginia married Leonard Woolf (1880-1969) in 1912, and their partnership was a powerful force in both their personal lives and artistic developments. Leonard was a British author, publisher, political theorist, member of the Bloomsbury group, and civil servant. Because Virginia had so many mental health struggles in her life, she often relied on Leonard’s reliable nature and support. In 1917, Leonard and Virginia founded a publishing company called The Hogarth Press, which allowed them to publish their own work and the work of those in their circle. Through this publishing company, Virginia printed many of her iconic modernist novels and essays.


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Virginia & Leonard Woolf, via Tate, London


One thing about Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s marriage is that the nature of their relationship was open and freewheeling. Their friends in the Bloomsbury group were open-minded when it came to sex and relationships, and this allowed Virginia to pursue a relationship with Vita Sackville-West alongside her marriage. Vita was a poet who was married to a diplomat and writer, and she and Virginia fell in love and exchanged passionate letters when they were apart from each other. Similar to fellow Bloomsbury member Lytton Strachey’s attitude toward his spouse Dora Carrington, Leonard supported Virginia’s relationships with other people and allowed her to be open to many connections.


The Bloomsbury Group: A Creative and Free Social Environment

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Virginia Woolf by Duncan Grant, 1911, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Virginia’s close relationships with her sister and husband were fostered by her deep involvement in the Bloomsbury group. The group was a collective of artists, writers, and intellectuals who were prominent in England in the early twentieth century. Aside from Vanessa and Leonard, Virginia was also closer to fellow members Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, and economist John Maynard Keynes. As a member of the group, Virginia engaged in a freewheeling social environment that regularly held complex discussions about politics, art, and philosophy. The group would often gather at Vanessa Bell’s Charleston farmhouse home, which became a prominent meeting point for artists and intellectuals.


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The Memoir Club by Vanessa Bell, 1943, via Art UK


The 1943 painting The Memoir Club by Vanessa Bell is a fascinating insight into the social dynamics of the Bloomsbury group and Virginia Woolf’s influence on the collective. Painted two years after Virginia’s 1941 suicide, this painting depicts key members of the Bloomsbury group including Duncan Grant, Leonard Woolf, Vanessa Bell, and Clive Bell. The group is relaxed and informal, and one can gather a sense of their social environment by observing the body language of the figures in these paintings. Three portraits are featured on the wall behind them: Virginia Woolf by Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey by Duncan Grant, and Roger Fry by Vanessa Bell. Although Virginia had passed away, it is clear by the placement of her portrait that she was still a revered figure with considerable influence on the group.


Virginia Woolf’s Art Criticism in Oh, To Be a Painter! 

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Virginia Woolf in a Deckchair by Vanessa Bell, 1912, via the University of Toronto


Though her novels are the best-known aspects of her literary output, Virginia Woolf’s essays on art are important to consider regarding her artistic philosophy. Woolf’s essays in art criticism from the years 1920-1936 are compiled in the book Oh, to be a Painter!, and involve deep reflections on an artist’s relationship with their work and audience. In her essays, she discussed the post-impressionist and fauvist works of her peers like Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, and Roger Fry. Together with Woolf’s essays on feminism, the author’s essays on art criticism established her as an innovative thinker and a figure with a complex artistic outlook.


Sisterly Support: Vanessa’s Book Covers

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Mrs. Dalloway by Vanessa Bell, dust jacket, 1925, via the Cocosse Journal


Many of the Bloomsbury group members worked together on artistic endeavors, and Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell were no exception. For each of the books Virginia published through the Hogarth Press, Vanessa designed the book jacket in the modernist style using abstract shapes, bold colors, and clear typography. Vanessa’s design for the 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway incorporated navy blue and yellow with floral accents at the bottom.


vanessa bell room ones own dust jacket
A Room of One’s Own by Vanessa Bell, dust jacket, 1929, via the Cocosse Journal


Though the original book jackets of Virginia’s publications are highly sought after today, Vanessa’s designs were not so popular at the time. Although many people did not like the covers, Virginia was loyal to Vanessa and continued having her design the dust jackets until her death in 1941. The cover for the 1929 collection of essays A Room of One’s Own demonstrates the stark modernist style of these designs, something that ultimately set Woolf’s work apart from other books at the time. The artwork she chose for her beloved writings says a lot about Woolf’s thinking behind the works and the way she wanted to present her artistic output to the world.


The Exploration of Painting in Virginia Woolf’s Writing

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Lily Briscoe’s Painting by Kate Proudman, 2016, via Kate Proudman Fine Art


Aside from her essays on art criticism, Virginia Woolf also wrote a lot about painting and the artistic process in her fictional works. One example is the 1927 novel To the Lighthouse, which has a character named Lily Briscoe, a painter who has been struggling to complete the same painting for many years. Throughout the novel, the painting becomes a symbol of Lily’s creative and personal development, as she works diligently on making sense of the mess of colors and shapes she has created.


Woolf describes this modernist, abstract painting in great detail through her prose, yet over the years many have interpreted these descriptions differently. In 2016, artist and painter Kate Proudman did a rendition of the work titled Lily Briscoe’s Painting. While creating this work, Proudman read the many descriptions of Lily’s painting that exist in To the Lighthouse and did her best to create a work that is true to the description. Lily Briscoe’s Painting (2016) features geometric shapes, a lighthouse, and a triangular purple shape that is mentioned many times throughout the text.

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By Elizabeth BerryBA English, Italian, & Writing SeminarsElizabeth Berry is a writer from Los Angeles, California. She holds a BA in English, Italian, and Writing Seminars from Johns Hopkins University, and is working towards her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of St Andrews. In her spare time, she writes articles about Italian art, culture, and literature. She loves golden retrievers, the color fuchsia, and kayaking.