Portrait Stories

Portrait Stories

Portrait Stories

Portrait Stories

Synopsis

What makes stories about portraits so gripping and unsettling? Portrait Stories argues that it is the ways they problematize the relation between subjectivity and representation. Through close readings of short stories and novellas by Poe, James, Hoffmann, Gautier, Nerval, Balzac, Kleist, Hardy, Wilde, Storm, Sand, and Gogol, the author shows how the subjectivities of sitter, painter, and viewer are produced in relation to representations shaped by particular interests and power relations, often determined by gender as well as by class. She focuses on the power that can accrue to the painter from the act of representation (often at the expense of the portrait's subject), while also exploring how and why this act may threaten the portrait painter's sense of self. Analyzing the viewer's relation to the portrait, she demonstrates how portrait stories problematize the very act of seeing and with it the way subjectivity is constructed in the field of vision.

Excerpt

“Portrait is a curious bastard of art, sprung on the one side from a desire which is not artistic, nay, if anything, opposed to the whole nature and function of art: the desire for the mere likeness of an individual,” wrote in 1885 the art critic Vernon Lee in an essay entitled, somewhat selfcontradictorily, “The Portrait Art” (212). While in ancient times the desire “for the mere likeness of an individual” could have been judged useful since the individuals depicted were “great men,” whose example could inspire posterity, in the modern period this is no longer the case: everyone can have his or her portrait painted—that is, everyone who can pay. And though throughout history painters of all sorts have been paid for their work, and some of them even grew very rich, the portrait painter’s situation was perceived as different: the reversal of cash flow whereby the painter is paid by the sitter (rather than paying the model) compromises the painter’s freedom and authority. A comment to a portrait sitter attributed to Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres—“I would like to be able to give you 5 francs, Madame, for then you would be forced to hold the pose like the poor girls we pay expressly so to do”—captures this reversal of power relations whose ultimate outcome is the painter’s “servitude” to the whims of his subject.

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