Picture of Dorian Gray; Grotesquery is beauty?


I’ve always been interested in the story of Dorian Gray, a classic novel written in 1891 by Oscar Wilde features the story of Dorian Gray, who commissions a portrait of himself as an attractive young man and who sells his soul for an ever-young visage. As he continues his life he becomes more and more corrupt and evil, his portrait reflecting his true nature as time goes on, with his flesh aging and rotting and all things beautiful in the painting become grotesque.
This portrait was painted by Ivan Albright in 1943-4 and was commissioned as a piece to be featured in the movie adaptation of Wilde’s book. Though the movie was shot in black and white, Albright decided to use vivid colors in his painting to get across the truly horrifying nature of the changes. The picture currently hangs in the Art institute of Chicago
The picture itself follows the classical format of the wealthy aristocrat who has hired an artist to depict the commissioner in the best light possible, and at first, at the beginning of the story, the portrait depicts a beautiful young man in his prime. As time goes on, however, the portrait is warped into its current form. The colors of the piece become synonymous with rust and decay. The coloration is indicative of rusting iron, or bruising flesh, the desaturated reds and spots of gradations to the cooler colors making it seem like the painting is becoming bruised and battered.
However, it isn’t just the colors that indicate the ‘rotting’ nature of the painting. The walls are shown to having peeling wallpaper, the carpet becomes crumpled and stained, the wooden table next to Dorian has rotted and chipped. Dorian himself has aged and become stricken with blisters and boils, even his right hand has become damaged, his fingers splayed unnaturally with flesh and tendons showing. His clothes have become torn and weathered.
But beyond all this the thing that shows the most warped nature of the painting is the reality bending, almost Lovecraftian hallucinations involved in the painting. The once plain and flat background become warped, images of strange creatures and half-seen figures reach out and bubble up beneath the surface of the painting.
All of these things lead the viewer to become disgusted with the image, and yet…cannot look away. This is painting is considered by some to be Ivan Albrights greatest painting for the fact hat the viewer simply cannot look away. Part of this is Albright’s great ability to add huge amounts of detail to a painting force the user to search for every boil and blemish, every fold of flesh, every single intricacy depicted in the portrait. This plays on one of the most interesting facets of human psychology; the fascination with the grotesque. This phenomenon, the inability to look away from something horrific, is a common aspect of human nature, and Albright uses it brilliantly in this painting.
I was originally drawn to this piece when I first saw it in person at the Art Institute of Chicago, without context was both repulsed by it and fascinated by it. I did some research on the painting’s origin.
While the painting itself is fantastic, there are some things I’ve yet to understand about it fully; though Dorian does look aged and haggard, the proportions on his right arm seem to be a bit short in comparison to his left arm. And while he is supposed to be decrepit and aging, his arched back seems to be at odds with his left hand, his hand not lining up with where the sleeve seems to suggest it’d be. Despite the minor physical proportion quibbles, which may after all just be indicative of further ‘warping’ by Albright, I still find the piece to be at once and paradoxically beautiful and grotesque.


1.) What do you think about Dorian’s expression in this piece is meant to convey?
2.) How does the lack of a unified sense of color effect the piece?
3.) What is the significance of Albright’s choice to bend the perspective in certain parts of the painting?

Matthew Moon


10 thoughts on “Picture of Dorian Gray; Grotesquery is beauty?

  1. I wish I could offer an intelligent response. I remember reading the story and liking it. Then when I came across the painting, I thought it was a captivating and compelling piece. That it’s dark and so textured is simply amazing to me.

    I don’t know how to address your questions, even. I’m really not good at interpreting creative stuff whether it’d be art or creative writing, but, I’ll give it a shot here.

    In your last paragraph, it does seem like you noticed some detail that I didn’t pick up on – the painting seems a little busy to me. And, along with that, it seems a little ‘faded’, in some way, like it’s behind a sheen of plastic, so, I can’t get all the detail. But, as you said, I did notice warped background and the arms being a little different in length. I don’t think I’d have noticed that had you not pointed that out.

    Overall, I found your blog entry compelling and it allowed me to take things in that I wouldn’t have, giving me a greater eye for detail, at least in this painting. Thanks much for sharing.

  2. As described, the picture is so horrific it could scare a blind man in a dark alley. But as mentioned, the picture draws one in to look for the intricate details.

  3. I first saw Albright’s work at the Art Institute in the 70s when I was a teenager. I was fascinated, as well, although I was more curious than repulsed. Actually, I had planned on doing my blog on Albright’s “That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door), so I understand how compelling his work can be. This painting perfectly captures Wilde’s vision of the portrait in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, however, it is Albright’s unique style of detail and macabre imagery that interests me. I interpret his work as a statement on aging–that beauty is fleeting and that there is no escaping death and decay. As a baby boomer, this theme is starting to hit a little too close to home. What I couldn’t relate to in my teens and would have never crossed my mind at the time was the concept of aging in a youth obsessed American culture. Personally, I don’t see any advantages to aging, although I can accept that others may disagree. Thank you for sharing such an interesting subject!

  4. I like the piece very colorful and alot going on. Seems to be dark a little to me not sure how to explain it but, it seems like all around the man in the picture there are things going on. Could be that he is in a dark place and in answering one of the questions about his expression it seems to be that he is depressed and said. No happiness comes from this piece. I believe that he looks lost as well with no answers what so ever. Life is fading! not sure how to explain his feeling more than this. But the piece is very interesting and gives you a since of distress. But very nice and coloful.

  5. This is the first time I have heard of the story Dorian Gray I find this to be a very interesting story of a man that sells his soul so that he could be young forever in real life but his actual portrait of him trapped with his soul shows his true age. I can definitely agree with you that all humans are fascinated with disgusting things. For example, I can compare this to when someone YouTubes removing a large pimple it sounds disgusting but you can’t help but not look because even though it looks and sounds gross. It fascinates you because it is not something get you see in everyday life just like this painting that Ivan Albright drew. When I first looked at the piece of art I looked at it 4 to 5 times. It fascinated me at first it reminded me of a zombie because of the person standing looking like it has been possessed or has come back from the dead. The colors and the darkness of the piece of art also draw a lot of attention because even though it looks dark it has a lot of color and life to it. It also made me zoom in on the picture because I wanted to see what was on the floor in the background and on the man. I think this is a very different type of art work because of it referencing a very real problem everyone faces which is old age and death. This picture it has death written all over it and old age but because it has so many colors it gives you a small breathe of life but not really. I think Dorian’s expression is meant to convey many emotions fear, terror, confusion, stress, worry of what had already come to him in this portrait. It’s almost as if the old Dorian is scared of himself and unsure what he is doing in this portrait.

  6. Disgustingly captivating. Two words that definitely describe this work of art. I am fascinated by the story behind this Dorian Gray character as it is my first time hearing it. I also have to say the descriptions in your blog are so vivid, so detailed, and beautifully written. The painting itself seems dark, almost hazy and the blend of busy colors around this figure creates a whole different world. It amazes me how the blurred and rotting textures are symbolic for the passing time and hardened heart of this man. Once young and soulful, then evil took over.

  7. I have heard the story of this piece but this is the first time seeing the picture or that i can remember. I’m not so sure how i feel about it tho. Dorian Gray did a great job incorporating every object in the painting to look as if it was dying along with him but i just found it to be over whelming and to much going on in a such a small area. I feel that he is trying to portray that with no soul everything around as well as yourself with begin to fall apart and dye. If I had to choose i would say my favorite part of this painting is the story. It helps give insight to what the painting means and what state Dorian Gray had to be in to create a piece like this.

  8. I remember the first time I saw this piece at the art institute, it really does stop you in your tracks. I’ve never read Dorian Gray but you just put it on my bucket list. I’m curious about the symbolism of the cat on the left I’m not familiar with the story but it seems as if the cat is staring straight at or even through Dorian. I noticed in your question about how the hands don’t line up. I also noticed there is one on the floor to the left kindof grayed out like a corpse hand as well as almost a second hand falling from Dorians right. Maybe I’m making leaps but it looks to me like the reason none of that lined up is to force you to see maybe some motion of time in the composition.

  9. This piece is definitely one that makes you think. When I saw you post this piece I was shocked at all of its contents. I have never seen or heard of a piece like this, especially one that came with such a dynamic story. How appalling this piece really is.. Its funny though, I feel like I cannot look at this piece for very long because his expression and body language begins to creep me out. It just seems as if he has lost his mind in insanity. When I look at Dorian’s expression, it reminds me of someone who has had a tired some day, or has just come out of a realization because these expressions remind me of someone who is worn out or had realized something extremely puzzling. But I do see where the darkness of colors could mean that Dorian has had dark and hard days that over the years has molded him. I enjoy this piece though, its not a perfect piece, yet the ideal behind it, seems as if it something relative depending on how one understands it.

  10. Hey Matt,

    Great blog! Coincidentally, I had actually seen this piece before on an online forum, and frankly, our discussion was also about the question of the grotesque and it’s place among beauty. It is my contention that just because the painting is a bit eerie in depiction, doesn’t mean it’s any less beautiful. There are many artists that focus on grotesque work, one that comes to mind is Polish painter Zdzisław Beksiński, who’s life work was dedicated to sad, and a particularly creepy work. But the similarities to the Picture of Dorian Gray and Zdzisław Beksiński’s work is very evident: both feature color in a subtle way, and use shading to great effect. I think the work is great, and just because it makes kids cry in Art Museums doesn’t make it any less amazing!

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