Edith Cooper and Katharine Bradley, writing under the pseudonym Michael Field, published a book of poems titled Sight and Song in 1892. These poems were all written about specific works of art in which they attempted to “translate into verse what the lines and colours of certain chosen pictures sing in themselves,” without the influence of their own interpretation of the art (Preface). Their poem “L’Indifférent,” written about Antoine Watteau’s “L’Indifférent,” focuses on the fleeting innocence of the boy in the painting, and the homoerotic nature of the painting. Similar ideas of art, gender, and sexuality are explored in A Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, in which Dorian Gray is introduced as a young, innocent, handsome man desired by men and women alike. It is known that Michael Field and Oscar Wilde were not only peers, but good friends according to their letters published in Michael Field, The Poet (pp. 240). Both Wilde and Field use the concept of boyhood to highlight the homoerotic undertones of sexuality present in the fin de siècle.
These homoerotic tendencies are highlighted through the way in which the boy in the painting and Dorian Gray move away from traditional gender roles. Rather than have his feet together, his hands by his side or crossed, with a hard face (the way in which a more traditional male might pose), the boy in “L’Indifférent” poses the opposite. His feet are apart, his arms softly open, and his head tilted to the side. His face looks dreamy. He welcomes the viewer in to see what the painting has to offer. In a strange way he looks almost motherly. Michael Field comment further on his clothing, noting he is wearing “a cloak/of vermeil and of blue,” which not only highlight his wealth, but also his more effeminate appearance (11-12). Field associate the boy with a “human butterfly” (15). They pull from the dual meanings and associations of this word, effectively aligning him with child-like innocence and weakness, but also associating him with a sense of vanity and superficiality. Field speculate that the boy feels as though it is “fate” that he is simply able to “dance where he is found…he was born for [it]” (9, 8, 10). They suggest through this speculation that the boy did not think at all about the space he was dancing in or the reasons for his dancing. Therefore, he was not questioning his actions at all, but rather taking them for granted. He has “no soul, no kiss, / no glance nor joy” (16-17)! The boy is simply going through the motions, but he lacks any substance. Yet, Michael Field observe that the boy is still “old enough for manhood’s bliss,” suggesting that the boy is desirable despite the lack of substance (18). This is followed by the statement that he is a “boy” posing a juxtaposition between his desirability with the innocence of a young boy.
We see how wrong this could go if a boy becomes too fixated on his own vanity, which is only fueled by older males’ desire of them, through the character of Dorian Gray. Before we meet Dorian, Basil describes him as having “a simple and beautiful nature” (Wilde 18). When we meet Dorian, Lord Henry (who is at least 10 years older than Dorian) is immediately erotically intrigued by him. He is transfixed by Dorian’s facial features, describing them his lips “finely-curved, scarlet,” his eyes as “frank blue” and his hair as “crisp gold” (Wilde 21). These intense descriptors of Dorian’s physical features highlight the eroticism in this passage. Lord Henry continues by noting there was “something in [Dorian’s] face that made one trust him at once” (Wilde 21). Before speaking to Dorian at all, Lord Henry already felt could trust him due to Dorian’s “candour of youth… and passionate purity” (Wilde 21). It is unclear if Lord Henry would like to engage with Dorian sexually or to be Dorian, which also highlights this tension of sexual desire and jealousy of youth. Lord Henry continues to fuel Dorian’s ego until Dorian can no longer recognize the person he becomes. The fact that Dorian dies at the end of the story and Michael Field suggest that the boy in the painting must die suggests that these desires to remain young, interlaced with sexual desire, cause problematic power dynamics and assumptions.