Monday, 30 November 2015

Art in The Picture of Dorian Gray

Art, like literature and other cultural branches, contributes to shape the history that forms the full impression we have of previous eras today. To understand how certain art styles developed, we need to acknowledge how the public perceived art. You will then find that art is the starting point for, and the result of, many other themes like moral, class, love and the perception of beauty. I will examine the influence of the Victorian art with Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray as the foundation of my arguments. I have also The Picture of Dorian Gray is a novel published in 1890, towards the end of the Victorian era. It is centred on the characters of Basil Halllward, an artist who paints the picture the novel’s titled after, Lord Henry, his friend who finds the object of Basil’s art highly interesting and Dorian Gray, the model behind Basil’s art. The novel begins and ends with the portrait of Dorian, and it is the painting that is the heart of the story. 

The Victorian area treasured Classics. In schools, there could be so much as twenty lessons per week devoted to Classics studies and this education provided students with a cultural advantage. To have studied and forgotten Greek and Latin was admired more than high marks in science. (2011:2) The upper-class Victorians much valued the ideologies and façade from the Classic era and this naturally goes to show in Victorian artwork as well. A Victorian portrait had a touch of modern elegance and represented the class and wealth of the high society which was associated with beauty. The early Victorian art was heavily influenced by Classicism, but went through a change in colour variation where nuances were sometimes altered to give a stronger effect. 

The concept of beauty plays a big role in Wilde’s novel, which is not very surprising as it is a concept Wilde has spoken about frequently and he also held lectures in Aestheticism and real beauty. Considering real beauty in The Picture of Dorian Gray is very interesting from an artistic point of view. Dorian himself modelled for the painting, and when it is finally revealed to him it leaves him perplexed by its beauty as he at first finds it baffling that it is meant to portray himself, but the flattery he received only minutes earlier from Lord Henry makes him view himself differently. It almost seems unrealistic that Dorian is so unaware of his own attractiveness, as Basil and Lord Henry both immediately accept it, but it is often so that we don’t realise our own beauty until it is recognised and pointed out to us by someone else. Unfortunately, with this realisation often comes the hunger for constant confirmation of one’s physical appeal. The portrait is said to have a “wonderful likeness” (1985: 25), and it is clear as anything that the beauty in the picture is the way that Basil sees, and always has seen Dorian. When he was still painting it, he was ecstatic as he caught “-the half-parted lips” and “the bright look in the eyes” that Dorian’s face displayed when Lord Henry was speaking to him. An artist’s work is an object of affection, and because of Basil’s strong affection for Dorian, he notices and appreciates the attributes that only someone who looks particularly close sees in a person. 
 My illustration o"The real Dorian Gray."
After the painting is revealed, it becomes clear that there are different receptions to it in the room. Dorian, now enlightened by Lord Henry’s flattery, appreciates his own beauty for the first time. But as quickly as he is humbled, he despairs, as the portrait is to him now simply a proof of his mortality. He becomes insanely jealous and furious with it, feeling it mocks him by possessing the immortal beauty he will never have for himself. From Lord Henry’s point of view, the artwork promises potential and success for both Basil and Dorian. He compliments Basil saying it is his best work yet and “the finest portrait of modern times” (1985:26), and he encourages Dorian to inspire from it and use his beauty for personal gain. For Basil, the portrait is not just a vision of Dorian, but a representation of his innocence in all its wonderfulness. It is Dorian’s innocence and goodness, as well as his beauty, which Basil has attempted to capture. Dorian, not understanding the emotions that the artist has put into the painting sees only his own physical attractiveness and not his inner beauty. To him, it is proof that he is a work of art as long as he is pretty, and he is wildly offended and upset by the thought. At this point in his life, he is the model representation of what Victorian artists wished to construct; youth, wealth and class. We can see here how society’s perception and acceptance of art manipulates Dorian’s view on his portrait. By the influence of Lord Henry, he now sees the potential he possesses from meeting these requirements, and a greed comes over him when he starts grieving the loss of his youth already. This greed for immortality, the will to live an immoral life to remain beautiful, slowly appears in the portrait and becomes more and more evident as time passes and Dorian becomes notorious for compelling and exploiting people. Of course the examination of the painting in this story goes further than a normal art analysis. It is a metaphor, a symbol, for Dorian’s soul. 

According to Oscar Wilde, a work of art does not necessarily carry the meaning the artist intended it to. If it is skilfully done, it is beautiful, if it is poorly done, it isn’t. (1985:preface) The three men all view the portrait as great, but they all draw different meanings and emotions from it. Lord Henry, the cynic, sees its use. Basil, the artist, sees truth. And Dorian, with an easily influenced mind, sees his own limitations. Wilde says “it is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors”, which means the painting didn’t corrupt Dorian, it was Dorian that corrupted the painting. Basil feels that Lord Henry had a bad influence over Dorian, but for Lord Henry to have any influence on him, Dorian’s mind must have already been open to it. When his vanity first shows, Basil blames it on Lord Henry, to which the Lord replies “It is the real Dorian Gray – that is all.” (1985:27)
In an interview of “the science of the beautiful”, Wilde explains his theory that beauty can’t be learned, but has to be realised over time. Gradually, a desire for that kind of beauty will develop. This is what happens to Dorian, who has always had the potential in him, but when he is surrounded by words and images of his lovely appearance, he starts appreciating it in a way he hasn’t previously (2009:22). Wilde does encourage an appreciation for beauty, and connects that to life, but through his character Dorian, he shows how fine the balance is between appreciating it by letting its art have a rich influence on your life and obsessing over it and have that obsession bring out your corruptness.
Wilde’s own idea of art being neither right or wrong, simply well or badly performed, defends his writing against the public’s reception of his work. The Picture of Dorian Gray was censored, shamed and attacked for its scandalous and inappropriate nature and was even used against Wilde in the trials that had him arrested, because of its implication to homosexual nature. The book was seen as corrupt, a tool to corrupt society and cause damage, but much like the bible won’t convince any person of Christianity, surely what Wilde means is that any meaning found in his novel depends on the reader and cannot be corrupt in itself. (1890:preface)


Wilde, O. (1985) The Picture of Dorian Gray. Glasgow: Collins Educational Glasgow. Print.
Wilde, Oscar/Frankel. The Uncensored Picture of Dorian Gray: A Reader’s Edition. Ed. Nicholas Frankel. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012. Print

Goldhill, Simon. Victorian Culture and  Classical Antiqutiy: Art, Opera, Fiction, and the Proclamation of Modernity. United States: Princeton University Press, 2011. Print .
Wilde, O. (2009) Oscar Wilde in America: The Interviews. Editied by Matthew Hofer and Gary Scharnhorst. United States: University of Illinois Press.

Bibliography (images):

Ford Madox Brown (1851-52) Ophelia [painting]. 
Malin Hauge (2015) The real Dorian Gray  [drawing].

Sunday, 29 November 2015


Fig. 1. Riots in the city during the Victorian period.

The Victorian Era (1837-1901) is known as a period of changes. It is remarkable for being the century of industrialization and rapid development in medical and scientific branches, and above all, in population growth. Urbanization caused many families to move from the countryside to the cities and so the population in cities increased from 16 million people in 1837 to approximately 37 million in 1901. The rapid growth of cities population provoked indirectly the crime rates to rise. Crimes rose from 5.000 cases in the beginning of the century to around 20.000 in 1840 approximately.

The advancements during the time of Queen Victoria were not only seen in the scientific and industrial branches, but also in the evolution of the newspaper industry. At the beginning of the century, due to the war with France, the Government imposed a high taxation policy that affected mostly upon the production and sale of newspapers. However, from the 1830 all those taxes were halved and gradually abolished. “The duty on advertising was removed in 1853, and this was followed two years later by the exemption of newspapers from stamp duty. Finally, production was made cheaper still by the abolition of paper tax in 1861” (Gray 97)

Nevertheless, the abolition of duties was not the only factor in the expansion of the press. Public education started to spread to towns and more and more people learnt to read, so the percentage of illiteracy reduced and increased the number of readers. The improvements in the telegraph and the printers aided the rapid spread of information. In addition, the circulation of books and libraries increased and new weekly and monthly literary magazines appeared. All those factors and the crimes incensement led to the appearance of the sensational newspapers and novels during that time.

Fig. 2. Lloyd´s Weekly Newspaper

Sensationalism consists of presenting information using exciting or shocking stories to provoke interest to the public or in the case of newspapers, to the readers. In that period, newspapers used this technique in the reporting of crimes and society scandals. It became more important the way the news were presented rather than the story itself. “For example, Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, which had a circulation of 900.000 by 1890, devoted 50% of its content to crime in 1866, and the Daily Telegraph, likewise owed much of its early popularity to its reporting of criminals activities, murders and trials”. (Gray 101)
Press played a very important role in criminal justice, to the extent that the hanging or reprieving of a condemned murder depended on them strongly. According to Thomas Boyle, “reporting of crime was not new; neither was negative criticism of the cultural effects of such publication. What was new […], however, were those elements of quantity of coverage and distribution which naturally accompanied the rising phenomenon of the popular press.” (53)
The press stories of real events were often extravagant. Press could change a simple fact of a minor crime into a very interesting story in order to catch the reader’s attention. Sometimes, it was difficult to discern between reality and fiction.  

Fig. 3. Jar of arsenic, the most known poison of that time.

Poisoning was one of the most common types of crime in the Victorian period because of the easy access to poison in chemists’ shops. Additionally, doctors did not have a very develop system to do autopsies, it was hard for them to tell if people had been poisoned or died from natural causes, for this reason it was more secure for murderers to use poison to kill someone instead of any other weapon.
Rebecca Smith went to the gallows after it had been discovered that she had poisoned seven of her children. Conviction to women who killed their babies was not common in that period. Moreover, as we have said, press played such an important role in society, that in more than one case, thanks to its influence they could avoid people being convicted. For instance, in the case of Emma Wade, “an unmarried domestic servant in Stamford who killed her infant, the newspaper “Lincolnshire Chronicle urged its readers to add their signatures to the mass petition for commutation of the death sentence” (Wiener 112)

Fig. 4. Add of the "recommended" use of poison.

The same could have happened to Rebecca Smith if she would have not confessed the crime. At first, she was only convicted for having poisoned her one-month-old baby called Richard. The jury considered her guilty but recommended mercy because of her poor health. However, she ended up going to the gallows due to her unexpected confession.
She confessed to having killed seven of her children to avoid them dying of starvation. She claimed she had been physically and sexually abused by her husband since the marriage, so that reason could have influenced in her behaviour too.                           

This news was published in the Lloyds Weekly Newspaper in September 2, 1849. The sensational newspaper used that interesting crime to catch the reader’s attention and they wrote it as if it was a tale. The newspaper described all the process and Rebecca’s behaviour until the moment of her death. The aim of the sensational newspapers was to raise the interest of the readers. Not only the news was relevant, but also the draws published in the newspapers were really shocking too.

Fig. 5. Draw of the execution of Rebecca Smith.


“Garotting” was a term invented by the press to refer to a new type of crime. Specifically, it was a new type of violent robbery in which two or three men attacked a victim to steal them. The technique used consisted in one of the robbers grabbing the victim around the neck while the others stole all the things in pockets or any other part of the body. This type of crime interested a lot to the newspapers and they were full of alarming stories.

In the summer of 1862, a member of parliament called Hugh Pilkington was attacked by two “garotters” after leaving the House of Commons. One of the two robbers choked him while the other stole his watch and then, both of them ran off.

Fig. 6. Case of garrotting. Example of how the garroters acted.

After this incident, the press decided to widespread the panic about crime. People became so much frightened that many of them refused to leave their homes when it was dark. The Metropolitan Police decided to increase the number of security on the streets and some people formed groups called “the anti-garottings” to hunt them.

Fig. 7. Example of the anti-garotting collar.

Many newspapers such as The Spectator or The Observer reported news about “garotting”. For instance, The Spectator said: “Highway robbery is becoming an institution in London and roads like the Bayswater road are as unsafe as Naples.” (Gray 111). The panic was devastating the cities and consequently, many innocent people were arrested for being suspicious thieves.

Fig. 8. An example of news from the New Zealand Herald.

The big impact that caused the incident of Hugh Pilkington to the press also provoked, after some time, changes in the criminal justice system. In 1863, a “Garotters Act” was passed which punished and imprisoned people for that kind of crime.



All around my neck, I wear a spiked steel collar,
A revolver and a bowie-knife I carry up my sleeves,
And if any one should ask of me the reason why I wear them,
I'll tell him 'tis to guard myself from these garotting theives.
Last night in walking home a skulking vagabond addressed me,
Says he, "Pray what's o'clock?" and, not intending any pun,
Full in his ugly face I let out my left, and floored him,
Observing as I did so, "My dear friend, it's just struck one!"
So, ruffians all, take warning now, and keep respectful distance,
Or a bullet, or a bowie-knife clean through your ribs I'll send:
Well armed, we'll straightaway shoot or stab the rascal who attacks us,
If SIR GEORGE GREY won't protect us, why, ourselves we must defend.

Punch, December 20, 1862
            Fig. 9. An example taken from the Punch, a cartoon magazine of the Victorian time.

In conclusion, the Victorian press represented a very important source of information for the population in Great Britain during the nineteenth century. People relied completely on the information given and that was probably the main problem of the manipulation of the news. It was a period in which the news turned to be a combination of fact and fiction to catch the reader’s attention and interest. A minor crime was narrated as if it was one of the major crimes ever and so the press was the creator of a panic society. In fact, many of the stories described in the newspapers are nowadays the “key ingredients for the modern soap opera,” for this reason we should change the consideration of crimes at that time and we should start calling them: sensational and novelistic crimes in the Victorian era.

If you want to know more about the criminal society in the Victorian times, you can also watch this video:


Boyle, Thomas. Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead: beneath the surface of Victorian sensationalism. United States. Penguin Group, 1989. Print.

Gray, Drew D. London’s shadows: the dark site of the Victorian City. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010. Web. Available in:

Wiener, Martin J. Convicted murderers and the Victorian Press: Condemnation vs Sympathy, Rice University,2007.Web. Available in:

King, Ed. "British Newspapers 1800-1860." 19th Century British Newspapers. Detroit: Gale Cengage Learning, 2007. Web. Available in:   


FIG. 1: Emsley, Clive. Crime and the Victorians. BBC. History. Web. Digital Image. [Accessed on 25 November, 2015]:

FIG. 2: Lloyd’s weekly newspapers. Digital Image. Google Images. [Accessed on 25 November, 2015]

FIG. 4: Add of a rat poisoned. Google Images. Digital Image.  [Accessed on 25 November, 2015]

FIG. 5: The execution of Rebecca Smith at Devizes, 1849. BBC. Your Paintings. Web. Digital Image.[Accessed on 25 November, 2015]

FIG. 6: Garotters.  Google images. Digital Image. [Accessed on 25 November, 2015]

FIG. 7: Smallwood, Karl. The London garotting panic of the mid-19th century. Today I found out. Web. Digital Image. [Accessed on 25 November, 2015]

FIG. 8: Punishment for garotters. New Zealand Herald. Paper Past.  Web. Digital Image. [Accessed on 25 November, 2015]

FIG. 9: The song of the Anti-Garotter. Web. Digital Image. [Accessed on 25 Novemeber, 2015]