Prompted by Harvard University Press’s new edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray,Â I recently wrote about Kerry Powell’s intriguing account of “Magic Picture Mania”–the nineteenth-century craze for stories about magical pictures, especially portraits.
In this post, I will eventually turn my attention to a portrait of Oscar Wilde. But in order to provide a context for this discussion, I first want to consider the following question, which is raised cumulatively by Powell’s account and by the many portraits and editorial notes included in HUP’s Dorian Gray. Can this “magic picture mania” be best explained as an exclusively literary trend (the parameters that concern Powell) or should we understand it as part of a broader cultural phenomenon, as one symptom of the nineteenth-century’s peculiar relationship to portraiture?
The two possibilities are presumably mutually reinforcing, but as an art historian I’m naturally inclined to stress the latter, if only as a strategic corrective to an approach that insulates literature from visual culture. At any rate, consider the following bits and pieces, all of which tend to confirm the assertion that “artistic portraiture was undergoing a renaissance in Britain,” as Nicholas Frankel, the editor of the HUP edition puts it (125).
By 1890, photography had been generating quasi-magical pictures for half a century and had especially helped to stimulate portraiture. More people were now having their portraits taken, and these circulated in greater numbers and in new ways (think, for example, of the carte de visite).
One of my favourite details in The Picture of Dorian Gray concerns precisely this new expanded culture of portraiture. Dressed in mourning clothes, Dorian’s housekeeper wears “a photograph of the late Mr. Leaf [her husband] framed in a large gold brooch at her neck” (176). This prose vignette points to an untold story and one that might parallel Dorian’s, albeit on a more mundane level.Â It too would be about portraiture, dependency and death.
Despite photography, or perhaps partly because of it, portrait painting flourished, too. 1891 saw the founding of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, and five years later the National Portrait Gallery opened its new (and current) premises, just off Trafalgar Square. Living in Chelsea, Wilde was acquainted with many of the district’s notable portraitists, including John Singer Sargent, Charles Shannon, and James McNeill Whistler.
Oscar Wilde actively participated in this growth in portraiture. He sought out some of the most prominent portrait photographers of his day; during his famous tour of America, for example, he visited Napoleon Sarony’s well-known Manhattan studio and posed for him in various different costumes and attitudes. He also commissioned at least one painted portrait of himself.
The resulting work particularly captures my imagination in relationship to The Picture of Dorian Gray. Made sometime between 1882 and 1884, it’s an oil painting by the American artist Harper Pennington and is reproduced in the HUP edition of Dorian Gray. (By the way, not much seems to be known about Pennington and I’d love to find out more about him.)
In his work, Pennington depicts the Anglo-Irish writer assuming a distinguished and somewhat haughty attitude.Â One arm extends smoothly forwards, while the other bends jauntily and accents his high hips and waistline. One hand holds a cane, the other gloves. These are dandyish accoutrements and, despite the carpet, they hint at urban explorations. The pose has royal associations and recalls, for example, Van Dyck’s famous portrait of Charles I, now in the Louvre.
By the late Nineteenth Century, this basic pose had become something of a formula, although we find it in varying degrees of rotation and with any number of adjustments. Drawing attention to the subject’s body as much as his head, it was used for many full-length “swagger” portraits and found to be eminently suitable for male artists and writers. Manet, for example, had used a version of it in his portrait of the artist Carolus Duran, possibly taking his cue from the fact that Carolus is a latinate version of Charles.
Similarly William Merritt Chase, visiting London in 1885, used the pose in his portrait of Whistler, who was also Pennington’s teacher. The pose thus connects three American artists who painted in London.
At least five years passed from the time Wilde posed for Pennington’s portrait to August 1889, when he successfully pitched the idea of The Picture of Dorian Gray to the editor of Lippincott’s Magazine. Those five years would have been long enough for the work to appear to Wilde not just as a different self, but as a distinctly “earlier” self.Â It’s tempting to speculate that in addition to the general vogue for portraiture, this painting would have made Wilde conscious of portraiture’s relationship to aging, time, notions of immortality, and the splitting of self and image–all crucial aspects of his novel.
Like the picture in the story, Pennington’s portrait of Wilde is a “full-length” (67) andÂ “life-sized” (89) work, and would have required lengthy sessions for the artist and sitter; the painting almost certainly represents a far greater investment of Wilde’s time and money than any of the other portraits he commissioned. And there’s a very good reason to think that Pennington would have been in Wilde’s mind in 1889, again in relationship to posing and modeling: early that year, fifteen of the artist’s illustrations had accompanied Wilde’s article about “London Models.”
Celebrity authors, like Wilde, commissioned and sat for portraits; and whether they liked it or not, they also became the subjects of caricatures–no-one more so than Wilde. So in all its variety, portraiture increasingly mediated between authors and readers, helping to shape the image of a writer in the public’s mind. Perhaps, then, we should not be too surprised that writers found the topic of portraiture so compelling. And let’s us not neglect another important yet productive aspect of portraiture: tedium. “It is horribly dull,” opines Dorian Gray in the second chapter of Wilde’s novel, “standing on a platform and trying to look pleasant” (92). While they sat or stood for their portrait, and while conversation with their portraitist lagged, I imagine these authors diverting themselves by inventing stories, even stories about strange pictures.
Later in the 1890s, when Wilde was imprisoned and ruined financially, his friends Ada and Ernest Leverson bought Pennington’s portrait during the sale of the author’s possessions, thus saving it for him. Wilde later joked about the corrupting influence the work might have had on those who had seen it at the Leversons: “I was quite conscious of the very painful position of a man who had in his house a life-sized portrait, which he could not have in his drawing-room as it was obviously, on account of its subject, demoralising to young men, and possibly to young women of advanced views” (letter to Frank Harris, 13 June 1897). Just before his release, Wilde arranged for the picture to be retrieved from the Leversons and stored it in “a small room in Hornton Street, Kensington”. There it stayed while Wilde lived out his remaining days on the continent.
Later in that same letter, Wilde vividly and humorously describes the portrait as a “social incubus.” The language irresistibly recalls another potentially dangerous and parasitic portrait. This other portrait, the one in The Picture of Dorian Gray, also needed to be hidden away from the wrong sort of viewer, even while remaining fully visible to the reader’s imagination. Pennington’s portrait, on the other hand, ended up surrounded by books. It is housed in UCLA’s Clark Library, where, I trust, it is fully visible to all, yet never found to be “demoralising to young [Californians]… of advanced views.”
Powell, Kerry. â€œTom, Dick, and Dorian Gray: Magic-Picture Mania in Late Victorian Fictionâ€ in Philological Quarterly, vol.62, no.2 (Spring 1983) 147-170.
Wilde, Oscar. The Letters of Oscar Wilde (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.).
_________Â (Nicholas Frankel, ed.) The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2011).