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].


  1. Hi Malin, I was excited to see your blog title, as Dorian Gray is a favourite of mine. Your blog provided a completely new angle to the novel; I found the emphasis on classics in education to be a great detail, that really fleshed out the context in which Dorian Gray was written. The commentary on aesthetics in the novel that follows builds on this, and I feel like I have a much better idea of the way Dorian Gray affected, and was affected by, Victorian culture.

    My favourite element was your rendering of Dorian Gray - amazing! I thought it was a professional illustration.

    Thanks for this

  2. Hello Malin,
    this was a very informative and interesting post. I liked that you had a clear statement in the very beginning, made it very easy to follow your reasoning throughout.
    Your illustration of Dorian Gray is absolutely gorgeous! Loved your post overall.