The Relationship between the Artist and his Creation in Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (1891)

Essay, 2015

7 Pages, Grade: 1,70


“What is a portrait good for, unless it shows just how the subject was seen by the painter?” (MS 189 0, is a rhetorical question that also comes to mind when thinking about the relationship between the artist and his creation in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. This essay will examine the artist's attitude towards his model and present two characters who can be called artists. Furthermore, the most important transitions between art and life will be presented. In a last point I will briefly compare the artist as it is presented in the novel with Walter Pater's description of Leonardo da Vinci.

The Picture of Dorian Gray presents Basil Hallward as an artist who's artistic success depends on his model. Basil is the painter of Dorian Gray's portrait. From the beginning of their relationship on, he feels that he found his muse in Dorian, who, in Basil's eyes, embodies the Greek ideal of harmony between body and soul (DG 13). When the artist tells Lord Henry that the young man's “mere personality [...] would absorb my whole nature, my whole soul, my very art itself’ (DG 10) his affection as well as his dependence on his only model become obvious. This can also be seen in the words “I couldn't be happy if I didn't see him every day. He is absolutely necessary to me” (DG 12). Consequently, Basil's art would stop progressing and he might fail as an artist if he lost his inspiration, meaning Dorian. Later in the novel Lord Henry tells the young man that Basil was a brilliant artist only as long as his friendship to Dorian has last (DG 204).

It can be argued that Basil's feelings for Dorian go even further. He might be drawn by a homoerotic desire, which is suggested in a conversation in which Basil admits ”I worshipped you [Dorian]. I grew jealous of every one to whom you spoke. I wanted to have you all to myself’ (DG 110). In these words the artist's romantic affection to his model is clearly not reduced to an artistic one. Ed Cohen even goes as far to assume that Basil tries to resolve his emotional crisis by expressing his feelings of desire in the portrait (EC 807). Therefore it is understandable why Basil does not want to exhibit the picture for the reason of having put “too much of [him]self into it” (DG 6). He clarifies that it would reveal his secret and thus must not be shown to the public. To Lord Henry he explains that “every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. [...] it is rather the painter who [...] reveals himself’ (DG 9). If that is the case then the portrait would have no deeper value to anyone but to the artist :MS quotes Aubrey Beardsley himself (WM 78).

Basil fails as an artist when he faces real life. Only in the last conversation with Dorian, when the painter is forced to look at Dorian's soul in the picture, he realises that he has lived with an illusion all along. Since he met Dorian, Basil only saw what he wanted to see in him (WM 76). One might argue that he does the mistake of imitating life - Dorian - with his art, when in fact it should be the other way around (KB 193[1] ). By loosing his only source of artistic inspiration he fails as an artist and dies at the hands of his former muse.

There are two transpositions of life and art taking place in The Picture of Dorian Gray. The first one happens in the moment in which the portrait is being finished. During the last sitting Henry's words have first visible influence on Dorian when Basil, although highly focused on his work, realises that “a look had come into the lad's [Dorian's] face that he had never seen there before” (DG 21). The artist perpetuates this new facial expression on the canvas and therefore unintentionally captures the most fateful seconds in Dorian's life. Dorian makes the wish to remain young and beautiful while the portrait should grow old instead (DG 28), but he is not yet aware of consequences when he claims “I would give my soul for that” (DG 28). Henceforth Dorian lives his life to the fullest, or to quote Walter Pater “give[s] nothing but the highest quality to [...] moments as they pass, and simply for those moments' sake” (KB 291[2] ). To live this lifestyle means in Dorian's case to live life as if it was an artwork. He only seeks for sensual fulfilment and momentary pleasures, without caring about any consequences because they would leave no marks on his body. For this reason, Basil cannot believe the rumours about Dorian until he sees the young man's soul - his portrait. He is convinced that “Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man's face. [...] There is no such things [hidden vices]” (DG 143).

But not only the young man turns into an artwork. The artwork also becomes vivid. After some time Dorian recognises first changes in the portrait (DG 88). Typically, for Gothic literature, there is no scientific explanation given why the portrait comes to life. Only Basil once seems eager to suggest that the changes must be a result of some chemical processes (DG 150). The portrait can be considered Dorian's doppelgaenger. When Basil wants to destroy his creation; he assumes that Dorian does not like it; the young man cries “Don't [...]! It would be murder!” (DG 29). Since murder can only be committed to a living person the change must have taken place already. Basil also personifies the painting (DG 29) and when the sitter decides to go out with Lord Henry, the artist prefers to “stay with the real Dorian” (DG 31). As a result, the portrait starts taking over Dorian's place by showing the consequences of his lifestyle, while his appearance remains beautiful and pure. Therefore it can be said that, from his wish on, Dorian himself turns into the artwork and the picture comes alive.

The consequences of this transposition are fatal. Dorian reaches a stage where he doesn't feel regretful for the things he does, but the picture sets him under pressure by constantly confronting him with the ugliness of his actions. It might go too far naming Basil a “diabolic agent”, but he certainly contributes to Dorian's downfall by worshipping him and making him aware of his own beauty (JCO 420-421). Trying to free himself from the painting's power Dorian first kills its creator, his former friend Basil, and soon after accidentally kills himself in the intention to destroy the portrait. In this suicidal moment the transposition comes to an end. In conclusion it can be said that it is not possible to exchange live and art, for they are separate spheres and must not be confused (WM 92).

The Picture of Dorian Gray gives ambiguous assignments who the real artist is, having in mind that an artist does not necessarily need to be the creator of paintings, sculptures or architecture. Both, Basil Hallward and Lord Henry can be considered artists, depending on their creation. Certainly the more obvious one is Basil, who appears as a conventional painter. He is the creator of the visual artwork. Surely his portrait initiates Dorian's corruption when the boy objectifies his appearance for the first time (JCO 423). But not only Basil can be blamed for Dorian's moral decay. He only mirrors on canvas what he believes to see in Dorian. In a way The Picture of Dorian Gray also presents Lord Henry as an artist. He can be referred to as Dorian's moral creator because he is the one who has most influence over the young man's thinking and acting. While Dorian is Basil's one true artistic inspiration, for Henry he is far more than that. The young man becomes a model for intellectual experiment (WM 87). Lord Henry believes in the principals of the “new Hedonism”, which can be assumed based on the things he tells Dorian during their first meeting. For instance “Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. [...] A new Hedonism - that is what our century wants.” (DG 25) might remind one of Pater's Renaissance.


[1] KB quotes Oscar Wilde's The Decay of Lying

[2] KB quotes Walter Pater's Conclusion to Studies in the History of the Renaissance

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The Relationship between the Artist and his Creation in Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (1891)
University of Passau
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ISBN (Book)
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Oscar Wilde, Dorian Gray, Creator and subject, fin de siecle, gothic fiction, aestheticism, decadence, doppelgaenger, the picture of dorian gray
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Christina Haupt (Author), 2015, The Relationship between the Artist and his Creation in Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (1891), Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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