Tag Archives: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Birth Anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe – The Oval Portrait

19 Jan

Edgar Allan Poe was born on this day in 1809. It must have been a cold and dreary winter’s day in Boston when his parents, traveling actors, welcomed him into this sad world. If he had been a girl, he would have been named Cordelia because his mother was a fan of William Shakespeare and often played roles from his plays. But he was a boy and they named him Edgar instead, again a theatre-inspired name from the play “King Lear”, more about it here. Now is as good opportunity as ever to indulge in his poetry or prose, and I decided to remind you all of his perhaps the shortest short story called “The Oval Portrait” (1842) which lingers in the memory long after one reads it; the shortness and the vague ending leave one wanting more, and the complex ideas about the conflict of life vs art, reality versus the world of imagination, and the idea of art feeding on life and ultimately destroying it. These ideas carried within them a seed which, long after Poe’s death in 1849, traveled over the ocean and blossomed into sumptuous flowers; the “l’art pour l’art” philosophy and later Aesthetic movement and Oscar Wilde’s “Dorian Gray”.

This story seems to have been particularly appealing to the French Nouvelle Vague director Jean-Luc Godard because in his film Vivre sa Vie or My Life to Live (1962), there is a scene where a young man is reading a fragment of the story to the main character Nana, played by Anna Karina who was Godard’s wife at the time. Their marriage was already falling apart because he was apparently too absorbed to even notice her or anything besides his films. Everything he wanted to say, he expressed through the art of film. Just like the painter in the story, Godard saw Anna, his beautiful blue-eyed wife only through the camera lens. You can watch the clip here if you’re interested.

“The Oval Portrait” starts as a Gothic tale with an unnamed narrator coming into a strange castle and becoming enamored with a portrait of a beautiful young woman on the wall, but the plot soon jumps from the narrator to the story about the portrait itself and its history, again there’s “the most poetic topic in the world” according to Poe himself; the death of a beautiful woman, a pale wistful bride and her half-mad artist husband. Here is the entire story accompanied by some portraits of pretty women painted around the same time the story was originally published:

Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, Bildnis eines Mädchens (Portrait of a Young Girl), 1840

THE CHATEAU into which my valet had ventured to make forcible entrance, rather than permit me, in my desperately wounded condition, to pass a night in the open air, was one of those piles of commingled gloom and grandeur which have so long frowned among the Appennines, not less in fact than in the fancy of Mrs. Radcliffe. To all appearance it had been temporarily and very lately abandoned. We established ourselves in one of the smallest and least sumptuously furnished apartments. It lay in a remote turret of the building. Its decorations were rich, yet tattered and antique. Its walls were hung with tapestry and bedecked with manifold and multiform armorial trophies, together with an unusually great number of very spirited modern paintings in frames of rich golden arabesque. In these paintings, which depended from the walls not only in their main surfaces, but in very many nooks which the bizarre architecture of the chateau rendered necessary- in these paintings my incipient delirium, perhaps, had caused me to take deep interest; so that I bade Pedro to close the heavy shutters of the room- since it was already night- to light the tongues of a tall candelabrum which stood by the head of my bed- and to throw open far and wide the fringed curtains of black velvet which enveloped the bed itself. I wished all this done that I might resign myself, if not to sleep, at least alternately to the contemplation of these pictures, and the perusal of a small volume which had been found upon the pillow, and which purported to criticise and describe them.

Long- long I read- and devoutly, devotedly I gazed. Rapidly and gloriously the hours flew by and the deep midnight came. The position of the candelabrum displeased me, and outreaching my hand with difficulty, rather than disturb my slumbering valet, I placed it so as to throw its rays more fully upon the book.

But the action produced an effect altogether unanticipated. The rays of the numerous candles (for there were many) now fell within a niche of the room which had hitherto been thrown into deep shade by one of the bed-posts. I thus saw in vivid light a picture all unnoticed before. It was the portrait of a young girl just ripening into womanhood. I glanced at the painting hurriedly, and then closed my eyes. Why I did this was not at first apparent even to my own perception. But while my lids remained thus shut, I ran over in my mind my reason for so shutting them. It was an impulsive movement to gain time for thought- to make sure that my vision had not deceived me- to calm and subdue my fancy for a more sober and more certain gaze. In a very few moments I again looked fixedly at the painting.

That I now saw aright I could not and would not doubt; for the first flashing of the candles upon that canvas had seemed to dissipate the dreamy stupor which was stealing over my senses, and to startle me at once into waking life.

The portrait, I have already said, was that of a young girl. It was a mere head and shoulders, done in what is technically termed a vignette manner; much in the style of the favorite heads of Sully. The arms, the bosom, and even the ends of the radiant hair melted imperceptibly into the vague yet deep shadow which formed the back-ground of the whole. The frame was oval, richly gilded and filigreed in Moresque. As a thing of art nothing could be more admirable than the painting itself. But it could have been neither the execution of the work, nor the immortal beauty of the countenance, which had so suddenly and so vehemently moved me. Least of all, could it have been that my fancy, shaken from its half slumber, had mistaken the head for that of a living person. I saw at once that the peculiarities of the design, of the vignetting, and of the frame, must have instantly dispelled such idea- must have prevented even its momentary entertainment. Thinking earnestly upon these points, I remained, for an hour perhaps, half sitting, half reclining, with my vision riveted upon the portrait. At length, satisfied with the true secret of its effect, I fell back within the bed. I had found the spell of the picture in an absolute life-likeliness of expression, which, at first startling, finally confounded, subdued, and appalled me. With deep and reverent awe I replaced the candelabrum in its former position. The cause of my deep agitation being thus shut from view, I sought eagerly the volume which discussed the paintings and their histories. Turning to the number which designated the oval portrait, I there read the vague and quaint words which follow:

Henry Mundy, Martha Kermode, c. 1840

“She was a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee. And evil was the hour when she saw, and loved, and wedded the painter. He, passionate, studious, austere, and having already a bride in his Art; she a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee; all light and smiles, and frolicsome as the young fawn; loving and cherishing all things; hating only the Art which was her rival; dreading only the pallet and brushes and other untoward instruments which deprived her of the countenance of her lover. It was thus a terrible thing for this lady to hear the painter speak of his desire to pourtray even his young bride. But she was humble and obedient, and sat meekly for many weeks in the dark, high turret-chamber where the light dripped upon the pale canvas only from overhead. But he, the painter, took glory in his work, which went on from hour to hour, and from day to day. And be was a passionate, and wild, and moody man, who became lost in reveries; so that he would not see that the light which fell so ghastly in that lone turret withered the health and the spirits of his bride, who pined visibly to all but him. Yet she smiled on and still on, uncomplainingly, because she saw that the painter (who had high renown) took a fervid and burning pleasure in his task, and wrought day and night to depict her who so loved him, yet who grew daily more dispirited and weak. And in sooth some who beheld the portrait spoke of its resemblance in low words, as of a mighty marvel, and a proof not less of the power of the painter than of his deep love for her whom he depicted so surpassingly well. But at length, as the labor drew nearer to its conclusion, there were admitted none into the turret; for the painter had grown wild with the ardor of his work, and turned his eyes from canvas merely, even to regard the countenance of his wife. And he would not see that the tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sate beside him. And when many weeks bad passed, and but little remained to do, save one brush upon the mouth and one tint upon the eye, the spirit of the lady again flickered up as the flame within the socket of the lamp. And then the brush was given, and then the tint was placed; and, for one moment, the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice, ‘This is indeed Life itself!’ turned suddenly to regard his beloved:- She was dead!

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Reveries of Fin de Siecle

5 Jun

When boredom strikes the best thing to do is to immerse oneself into a completely different mood, place or time period. It is what I always do, and this time I chose fin de siecle.

1900s Charles Hoffbauer

Charles Hoffbauer, At the Ball, 1900s

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In the late 19th century, artists on both sides of the Channel began to question the social norms, and used art to display their radical, often perverse, opinions. They attacked capitalism and European imperialism, questioned the Victorian view on sexuality, promoted pure aestheticism, deemed Western society as hypocritical, delved into vampirism or simply longed for death. Creme de la creme of this new wave of literature includes novels such as A Rebours or Against Nature (1884) by Joris-Karl Huysmans, Oscar Wilde’s notorious The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1892) by Thomas Hardy, The Triumph of Death (1894) by Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), and finally, the beautiful, bleak and disturbing Torture Garden (1899) by Octave Mirbeau.

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L’apollonide (House of Pleasures) 1

A scene from the film L’Apollonide or The House of Tolerance (2011); it’s set in a high-class brothel in Paris at the turn of the century

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In visual arts, the decadent, pessimistic and cynical spirit of ‘fin de siecle’ was demonstrated in a more exciting and vibrant manner and painters such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Felicien Rops, Childe Hassam, Edvard Munch, Jean-Louis Forain and many others produced paintings which satirised the state of society, at the same time giving it a certain dose of glamour which continues to fascinate people even today. Welcome to fin de siecle; the age of un-innocence, where darkness and sins lure from every corner, nightclubs offer nothing but loneliness, pessimism is the meal of the day, seedy salon lights conceal the gritty reality…

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1890. Bal au Moulin Rouge - Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, At the Moulin Rouge, 1890

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The glamour and vividness of fin de siecle is perhaps best captured in paintings of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – the painter of cabarets, dancers, singers, circuses, and prostitutes. With miraculous ability to capture the moment, incredibly good memory, and proneness for sharp observation that spares nobody, Toulouse-Lautrec, sketched dancers, dandies and common folk at places such as Moulin Rouge; the Studio 54 of La Belle Epoque. Imagine him sitting by the small round table, dressed in a black suit, bowler hat and a pair of spectacles, perhaps in the company of the dancer Jane Avril, drinking absinthe and voraciously sketching. Moulin Rouge, the place where silk dresses rustle, glasses cling, and conversations go on through the night, reminds me of the place Morrissey sang about in the song There is a Light That Never Goes Out:

Take me out tonight
Where there’s music and there’s people
Who are young and alive…*

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1885. At the Masked Ball by Jean-Louis Forain (French 1852 –1931)

Jean-Louis Forain (French 1852 –1931), At the Masked Ball, 1885

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I have always wanted to attend a masquerade ball; to be someone else for a night and talk to strangers without having to reveal my true identity, with each mask I could be a different person. Jean-Louis Forain painted a lavishing ‘masked ball scene’ where the lady in a purple-white dress, black opera gloves, a mask and a lace veil stands beside an unmasked gentleman, possibly her love interest for the night. The colour palette for the background, rich wine, sangria and crimson shades, is perfectly suitable for the spirit of the era. The scene itself evokes mystery. What are they talking about? Probably some tittle-tattle with a fin de siecle twist.

The grin on her face and her eyes, barely visible through the mask, suggest she’s gazing at something interesting in the background, while her ‘hunched-back, moustache, hand-in-his-pocket’ companion clutches her arm tightly. Claude Debussy’s Nocturnes is the music for the background of this scene. Roses on her dress remind me of the introduction of The Picture of Dorian Gray: “The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.

1900s The Divine in Blue - Boldini

Giovanni Boldini, The Divine in Blue, early 1900s

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Blue blue, electric blue, dynamic brushstrokes, femme fatale – it must be a work of the Italian painter Giovanni Boldini, famous for his turn of the century portraits of aristocratic ladies. This gorgeous, protruding shade of blue, and the lady’s half-hidden gaze make this portrait a perfect representative for the fin the siecle. Boldini’s portraits, along with some female figures in the novels I’ve mentioned above, all show that a new type of woman fascinated artists and society in fin de siecle. A lady who faints and screams like a virgin in Gothic novels simply wasn’t in tune with the times. ‘A New Woman’ stepped on the scene, and Boldini quickly resorted to his brush and a clear white canvas, to capture her charms and seductiveness.

A good example of a fin de siecle goddess is Clara from Torture Garden – a sadistic, intense, hysteric and beautiful redhead who gets pleasure from seeing tortures. She’s a bit extreme, but I like Mirbeau’s description of her gaze because I think Boldini’s ‘Divine in Blue’ has a gaze similarly pierced on the viewers:

While I was speaking and weeping, Miss Clara was looking fixedly at me. Oh, that look! Never, no, never should I forget the look that adorable woman fixed me with, an extraordinary look in which amazement was mingled with joy, pity and love – yes, love – as well as malice and irony.. And everything.. A look which pierced me through, penetrating into me and overwhelming me body and soul.

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L’apollonide

L’apollonide (House of Pleasures) 2

A scene from the film L’Apollonide or The House of Tolerance (2011); it’s set in a high-class brothel in Paris at the turn of the century

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Another quote from Mirbeau’s Torture Garden, which is just as relevant today:

You’re obliged to pretend respect for people and institutions you think absurd. You live attached in a cowardly fashion to moral and social conventions you despise, condemn, and know lack all foundation. It is that permanent contradiction between your ideas and desires and all the dead formalities and vain pretenses of your civilization which makes you sad, troubled and unbalanced. In that intolerable conflict you lose all joy of life and all feeling of personality, because at every moment they suppress and restrain and check the free play of your powers. That’s the poisoned and mortal wound of the civilized world.

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1895. Childe Hassam - Rainy Night

Childe Hassam, Rainy Night, 1895

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This gorgeous painting by Childe Hassam, Rainy Night, reminds me of a dialogue in Woody Allen’s marvellous film Midnight in Paris (2011), starring Owen Wilson as Gil and Rachel McAdams as Inez:

Gil: I don’t get here often enough, that’s the problem. Can you picture how drop dead gorgeous this city is in the rain? Imagine this town in the ’20s. Paris in the ’20s, in the rain. The artists and writers!

Inez: Why does every city have to be in the rain? What’s wonderful about getting wet?” (Midnight in Paris, 2011, Woody Allen)

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the title of Hassam’s painting – Rainy Night – now, is there a better moment? I always feel such rapture and manic energy when it rains, and this painting evokes the same feelings. The scene shows people bustling in front of a nightclub, opening their umbrellas, ladies pulling up their skirts so they don’t get wet, while the golden lights and warmth and pleasure awaits them just behind the doors. What a contrast; a nightclub with all its vibrancy is a place were one can forget oneself by dancing or drinking to oblivion, and, on the outside, a dreamy velvety night over the big city. I’d forget the nightclub for a night as beautiful as this.

Hassam, as an Impressionist, tended to capture the moment, and he did it beautifully in this watercolour. He captured both the excitement and the tenderness of the night, the evening lights and gentle shades of blue that endlessly flickers and overflows into alluring yellow-golds and dark midnight blue that exceeds in onyx black.

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Jane Asher in Charley's Aunt play

Jane Asher in the play ‘Charley’s Aunt’ (2012)

When I started writing this post I was bored beyond pain, but the decadent world of fin de siecle with all its paintings, film costumes, music and books strangely pulled me in. Cure for boredom became my current obsession.