Magic Picture Mania

While writing my review of Harvard University Press’s new edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray, I began thinking about how Wilde’s story combines both original and highly conventional elements. Wilde recognized this. Describing the story to the editor of the Daily Chronicle, he said that it was about “a young man selling his soul in exchange for eternal youth–an idea that is old in the history of literature, but to which I have given new form” (30 June 1890).

Charles Ricketts, detail of his cover for “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” 1891

Digging around the new edition’s extensive bibliography, I found a reference to an article dealing with the generic aspects of Wilde’s novel. Writing about “Magic-Picture Mania in Late Victorian Fiction,” Kerry Powell places Dorian Gray within the context of dozens of lesser known nineteenth-century stories about pictures, and describes the startling popularity of these stories in the Nineteenth Century. The pictures in these tales are, to be more precise, almost always painted portraits; and if they are not always magical, then they are at the very least imbued with “the power of images,” to use David Freedberg’s useful phrase. (Freedberg, incidentally, traces such tales back, way back, to ancient and folkloric sources.) So, for Powell, the Faustian pact Wilde mentions is not really the defining characteristic of the story; it’s just one of many elements that can often be found in these tales of “magic pictures.” Powell lists about a dozen other such motifs.

Eugene Dété after Paul Thiriat, frontispiece to “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1908), wood-engraved illustration


Powell proposes that “Wilde has compiled in his novel a veritable lexicon of motifs associated with magic-portrait fiction” (152). The novel, he expands, collects “themes, situations, and character types that other writers of magic picture fiction had employed before him. But none of his predecessors used so many of these devices, and certainly none was able to manipulate the miraculous portrait itself with such dexterity, and to such marvelous effect, as the author of Dorian Gray” (164).

Objections could certainly be raised about Powell’s thesis, but rather than pursue these further, I’d like to draw attention to what really piqued my interest: the three or four dozen magic-picture stories mentioned in the article, a good number of which were written by well-known authors. I began searching for the full texts of these stories on the internet and most of them were there, having long ago entered the public domain. (It’s yet another reminder of how thoroughly my research activities now depend on the internet and, to name just one exceptionally useful tool, on Google Books.)

Gaston Fay, illustration for Henry James’s “The Story of a Masterpiece” (1868)

The point of this post is to share some of these findings. Here, arranged in chronological order, are eight short or shortish nineteenth-century “magic-picture” stories by seven well-known authors. (I’ve included two by Nathaniel Hawthorne.) Thanks to the magic of the internet, you can access a story by simply clicking on the associated portrait. To whet your appetite, I’ve also prefaced each story with a quote from it.

Magic Portrait Gallery
Nikolai Gogol’s The Portrait (1835): “‘I want my portrait painted. I have not long to live. I have no children, and I do not wish to die altogether. Can you paint a portrait of me that shall be exactly like life?'”

Alexander Ivanov, Portrait of Nikolai Gogol


Nathaniel Hawthorne, Prophetic Pictures (1837): “He had caught from the duskiness of the future–at least, so he fancied–a fearful secret, and had obscurely revealed it on the portraits.”

Charles Osgood, Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1840)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edward Randolph’s Portrait (1837): “It would be almost worth while to wipe away the black surface of the canvas, since the original picture can hardly be so formidable as those which fancy paints instead of it.”

Engraving after C.G. Thompson, Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Edgar Allan Poe, The Oval Portrait (1850): “And he would not see that the tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sat beside him.”

Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe

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Henry James, Story of a Masterpiece (1868): “It seemed to Lennox that some strangely potent agency had won from his mistress the confession of her inmost soul, and had written it there upon the canvas in firm yet passionate lines.” [And click here for the second part of the story.]

LaFarge, Portrait of Henry James (circa 1862)


H. G. Wells, The Temptation of Harringay (1895): “‘Why do you keep moving about then,’ he said, ‘making faces and all that–sneering and squinting, while I am painting you?’ ‘I don’t,” said the picture.”

Herbert George Wells (1943)

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Jerome K. Jerome, Portrait of a Lady (1895): “Once, glancing back over my shoulder, I could have sworn I saw the original of the picture sitting in the big chintz-covered chair in the far corner.”

Jerome K. Jerome

Edith Wharton, The Portrait (1899): “‘My advice is, don’t let George Lillo paint you if you don’t want to be found out–or to find yourself out. That’s why I’ve never let him do_me_; I’m waiting for the day of judgment.'”

Edward Harrison May, Portrait of Edith Wharton (1881)


Works Cited:
Freedberg, David. The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989).
Powell, Kerry. “Tom, Dick, and Dorian Gray: Magic-Picture Mania in Late Victorian Fiction” in Philological Quarterly, vol.62, no.2 (Spring 1983) 147-170.
Wilde, Oscar. The Letters of Oscar Wilde (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.).
_________  (Nicholas Frankel, ed.) The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2011).