Art and Immortality in “A Portrait” by Michael Field and Dorian Gray

While reading the poem “A Portrait” by Michael Field, I was immediately reminded of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray – not only because of the shared theme of the portrait, but also the mutual themes of art and mortality vs. immortality. One can see this theme present in the last two lines of the poem:

“The small, close mouth, leaving no room for breath,

In perfect, still pollution smiles – Lo, she has conquered death!”

By posing as the subject of the portrait the woman achieves immortality, having “conquered death.” In effect, she becomes an object, rather than a person – a static, visual representation of herself. This objectification of bodies relates to the Victorian obsession with material objects and the favoring of aesthetics over ethics, as Robert Mighall states in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Dorian Gray: “For Wilde, art is superior to nature and to life, and aesthetics are always higher than ethics.” (xxv) As an object, the woman’s body becomes sexualized:

“To give her fragile shapeliness to art, whose reason spanned

Her doom, who bade her beauty in its cold

And vacant eminence persist for all men to behold!”

Her body becomes simply a “vacant” shell, whose sole purpose is to look beautiful for “men to behold.” By becoming a portrait, she shifts from the realm of mortality and ethics to the realm of immortality and aesthetics.

In Dorian Gray, however, we see a reversal in the role of art and mortality vs. immortality – Dorian’s body stays young and beautiful forever, while the portrait ages and distorts with every sinful act he commits. In this case, Dorian becomes the immortal, aesthetic object, while the portrait becomes the mortal, ethical living-being. The notion of giving life to art occurs throughout the entire novel, in  which, according to Mighall, Dorian “brings his moral life to the portrait, confusing art with life, and ethics with aesthetics.” (xxv) The result of this confusion of ethics and aesthetics “is disastrous for the work of art; what should have been hailed as ‘one of the greatest things in modern art’ is transformed into a horrifying record of corruption, ‘bestial, sodden, and unclean (…).'” (xxv) Dorian’s ethical reading of the portrait takes on a form of “aesthetic heresy,” and could even be interpreted as being “Dorian’s greatest sin.” (xxv)

A similar example of the confusion of ethics and aesthetics occurs with Dorian’s love for Sibyl Vane – he falls in love with Sibyl’s acting, rather than her person. When Sibyl ties her love for Dorian with her acting, her art is destroyed – she performs badly in the play, and Dorian loses his love for her, because she becomes a “person” rather than an object. The influence of life on Sibyl’s art ultimately leads to her death when she commits suicide, proving that “art is destroyed by life and morality, and that ethics and aesthetics belong to separate spheres of thought and judgement.” (xxvii)

This notion that the realm of art and the realm of life should be kept separate is the basis of the Aesthetic belief, as Oscar Wilde writes in his Preface of The Picture of Dorian Gray: “To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.” (3) According to the Aesthetic movement, art should exist solely as an aesthetic entity, removed from the intention of the artist – ultimately, it should exist purely as “art for art’s sake.”