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?