Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Newly discovered possible portrait of Jane Austen

I read about this via The Guardian. According to Austen scholar Dr. Paula Byrne,

The previous portrait is a very sentimentalised Victorian view of 'Aunt Jane', someone who played spillikins, who just lurked in the shadows with her scribbling. But it seems to me that it's very clear from her letters that Jane Austen took great pride in her writing, that she was desperate to be taken seriously," said Byrne. "This new picture first roots her in a London setting – by Westminster Abbey. And second, it presents her as a professional woman writer; there are pens on the table, a sheaf of paper. She seems to be a woman very confident in her own skin, very happy to be presented as a professional woman writer and a novelist, which does fly in the face of the cutesy, heritage spinster view.

 Here is the 'previous portrait,' referred to by Byrne.

Sketch of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra Austen, 1810, pencil and watercolor. She is generally thought to look "cross,' but I see the baggy eyes and nostril-to-cheek wrinkles as a common amateurish trait in a drawing. [Image: light simple pencil sketch in oval outlined frame of Austen with her arms crossed looking to her right. The skill is amateurish and the proportions of the face are a bit off.]
 And here is the drawing being proposed as a contemporary portrait of Austen:

Graphite on vellum. [Image: softly gradated monochromatic drawing of Austen at a table writing on paper and looking up at and past the viewer. A cat is asleep on the table in front of her. She sits in front of a thick tasseled curtain partially drawn back to reveal a the base of a classical column and what might be an Egyptian column Westminster Abbey with a hazy horizon line. She wears the contemporary dress of around 1815 with what could be a cloth cap or neoclassical laurel crown, a necklaces, a shawl and lace sleeves. Her faces is regal looking due to being placed prominently two-thirds up the page and contrasting with the curtain.]

The debate seems to hinge on whether this is an "imaginary portrait," painted in homage to Austen after her death during her new-found fame in the 1870's; or a contemporary portrait from Austen's lifetime (1815). While Austen would not yet have been famous she did struggle to be seen as a serious writer and could conceivably have commissioned the drawing. I'm no Austen expert or British art history expert but I think it is from 1815. The ethereal aura created by the soft mark-making and lack of chiaroscuro is common to portraits from the Napoleonic Era because it reflects, I believe, the humanistic idealism of the Enlightenment which turned to hard-edged sentimentality in the later Victorian era (such as Ingres or Bouguereau).

Bougeureauiffic naked lady, late 1800s

Portrait by Ingres.

If this were an homage from the 1870s after Austen's death the artist would have made her face more idealized. If they were basing it on the portrait by Cassandra Austen they would have worked with the wide-set eyes, broad face and tight lips to make a heart-shaped cupid's-bow-lipped beauty typical of the era (see Ingres' portrait above). In portraits from around 1815, however, quirky female facial features abound. For comparison's sake here are some other portraits from around 1815:

Another possible portrait of Jane Austen, purportedly by Ozias Humphrey when Austen was around 13. It is referred to as "the Rice Portrait." [Image: full-body portrait of a girl in a white dress walking through a park with a parasol and her dress in movement].

Yet another possible portrait of Austen, by Stanier Clarke, 1815.

Hortense Bonaparte by Fleury-Francois Richard, 1815. This was a much more formal, finished portrait than Austen's as befitted a Bonaparte.

Alexander Ya. Patton (1762-1815) by George Dawe.

Lady Elizabeth Croft by John Constable, late 1700s.

John Quincey Adams by John Singleton Copley.

Louis Alexander Berthier. Engraving after drawing by Eugene Charpentier, 1840.

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