Sunday, December 30, 2012

Imaginary Portraits

Could it really be a lost portrait of Jane Austen...or rather someone's imagined version of the famous author?

I came across this article today highlighting a to-be-released book in January 2013, along with an intriguing graphite on vellum portrait of some lady in an Empire dress, with quill in hand, flattened lace bonnet on her head and pronounced nose, gazing determinedly into the distance.

From the Guardian article:
"The portrait drawing, in graphite on vellum, had been in a private collection for years, and was being auctioned as an "imaginary portrait" of Austen, with "Miss Jane Austin" written on the back. "When my husband bought it he thought it was a reasonable portrait of a nice lady writer, but I instantly had a visceral reaction to it. I thought it looks like her family. I recognised the Austen nose, to be honest, I thought it was so striking, so familiar," Byrne told the Guardian. "The idea that it was an imaginary portrait – that seemed to me to be a crazy theory. That genre doesn't exist, and this looks too specific, too like the rest of her family, to have been drawn from imagination."
Of the experts consulted by Byrne as to the authenticity of the painting, two agreed that it was most likely Jane Austen, while a third thought it to be an imaginary portrait.
The term 'imaginary portrait' appears to have been coined by Walter Pater in 1878, which is well after Austen had passed on. If the dating of the portrait holds (estimated at 1815, based on the clothing details), it might very well be an actual portrait rather than an 'imaginary' one.
Origin of the phrase aside, the only problem with Byrne's assertion that the genre of 'imaginary portraiture' doesn't exist, is that art is full of imaginary portraits of all kinds, some adapted from living humans, others the figments of the artist's imagination and skill.
Here, for comparison, is a portrait of Jane Austen attributed to her sister Cassandra, in which she looks rather cross.
There are more images of Jane Austen in this blog post on Austen blog - real, or reimagined, softened, prettified (turned into a veritable Regency belle by the 'photoshoppers' of the Victorian school of romanticized painting). The portrait of 'Miss Jane Austin' has a lively reality to it, without any attempt to soften the features.

James Austen-Leigh's memoir of Jane Austen is available in full at Project Gutenberg, and is separated from his aunt's era only by the filters of a single generation. Will this new biography by Byrne shed any new light on Jane Austen?
I'm not quite sure. But the portrait, if it is indeed that of Jane Austen (Austin, as the portraitist appears to have spelled it), shows her with a sharper, thinner face than the widely accepted 'only existing' portrait, gazing into a distant future, absorbed in thought, while the cat keeps her company.

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