Visualizing Art in Novels

I’ve noticed that when I read novels that describe or include art, I often end up imagining a work of art with which I’m already familiar (even if the description in the novel doesn’t match up perfectly). That being said, I couldn’t help but think of Francis Bacon’s Study after the Velasquez Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953) the whole time I read Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray. It was a little frustrating, especially since my imagination had to constantly morph and tweak the painting to actually fit Wilde’s descriptions. Plus, hey, it’s not that pleasant to continually think about Bacon’s painting for the three hours that it took me to read the book.

For those of you who are not familiar with the Wilde novel, the plot revolves around a beautiful man who essentially sells his soul in order to remain beautiful and youthful. Instead of growing old or ugly, Dorian Gray owns a portrait of himself that shows the effects of age and sin in his life. His own visage constantly remains beautiful, despite the passage of time and horrible things Dorian does in his life. The portrait is described as pretty horrifying, since it gives evidence of Dorian’s black soul.

I recently discovered that a 20th century artist created a painting that was inspired by the The Portrait of Dorian Gray. In fact, Ivan Le Lorraine Albright was commissioned to create a portrait of Dorian Gray for Albert Lewin’s 1945 film adaptation of the novel.

Ivan Le Lorraine Albright, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, 1943

There is a detail of Dorian’s murderous, blood-stained hand here. It’s a pretty creepy painting, don’t you think? Now I feel kind of glad that I visualized something as tame as a Francis Bacon.

Do you visualize certain paintings or sculptures (usually ones with which you are already familiar) when you read novels? Which works of art does your imagination seem to prefer?
  • heidenkind says:

    I remember seeing that painting in the movie and thinking it looked way too modern. But I do visualize paintings I've seen when I'm reading a book… I would be hard not to!

  • e says:

    I think that's very interesting that that is the painting you thought of. I definitely have a mental image of what I think Dorian's painting looked like.

    You are a FAST reader. I know that it isn't a big book, but three hours? Wow! So, did you not like it much? I really like that book. I think it was the only book in HS that I *had* to read that I liked.

  • M says:

    heidenkind, I haven't seen the movie, but if it's set around the turn of the century (like the novel), then Albright's painting would look too modern and out-of-context. If that's the case, the designers should have taken that into consideration! I wonder if the commission included stipulations in regards to style. (I also wonder if only art historians would notice that the painting is too modern!)

    Actually, e, I did like the book quite a bit. I was just frustrated that I kept thinking about Bacon's painting. The novel itself, though, was great. It's quite thought-provoking and witty (in a truly Wilde fashion).

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.