Monday, December 26, 2016

Stories that feature beautiful portraits

I'm thinking specifically about portraits of story heroines. It's a lovely motif to re-occur in books, especially since it rarely happens to any of us readers. Who among us has actually posed for a professional portrait? The closest I've come is one of those 10 minute sketches from a caricaturist at the Royal Adelaide Show.

What makes beautiful portraits so appealing that they keep popping up in books and history? Maybe the time taken by the artist gives the message that you're worth it. And the discomfort of sitting in one spot for so long may become the subject's own personal sacrifice, adding to the value of the finished work. I've known people who fidget and complain even when they're being asked to pose for a quick photo, let alone a formal portrait.

Perhaps the biggest factor is that the artist puts his own interpretation on a lady's appearance. Even the best photographers have to work with the raw material before them (unless they use photo shop afterwards), but when you end up with a ravishing work of art from a real painter, I imagine you can't help being overcome to think that's the way he sees you. He's taken special care to bring out the features that appeal to him, which you may not have even realised are attractive. By the end, even if you don't think the likeness looks exactly like you, you're willing to go along with the flattery if you believe that's how he sees you.

Here are some of my most interesting picks from both fiction and true life.

I'll start with some novels.
The Hired Girl
1) The Hired Girl
14-year-old Joan Skraggs was housemaid to the Rosenberg family. Their younger son, David, was so taken with her noble aspect that he wheedled her into sitting for him on her days off, so he could paint her in the guise of Joan of Arc. As a result, she fell heavily for him, which the young art student didn't expect. It made for some amusing reading. My review is here.

Miss Billy
2) The Miss Billy Trilogy
We've surely all heard of Pollyanna, but here's a more obscure series by the same author, Eleanor H. Porter. The young artist, Bertram Henshaw, is well known for his 'Head of a Girl' portraiture. He manages to paint a poignant likeness of his wife, Billy, cradling their infant son. It becomes a prizewinner, even though he's hurt his dominant arm badly and must train himself to paint left-handed. It's one of the most touching threads in this story, since he'd been a bit of a drifter in his youth, and had trouble sticking to anything.

3) The Butterfly and the Violin.
The Butterfly and the Violin (Hidden Masterpiece, #1) Art gallery owner Sera James has been intent on tracking down the portrait of a beautiful young Auschwitz prisoner that impacted her in her youth. William Hanover, a wealthy heir, is intent on finding it too, since his grandfather has willed his estate to the painting's unknown owner. Their search eventually enables them to tap into the life of Adele von Bron, the subject of the painting, and discover the circumstances of its execution. My review is here.

4) The Painter's Daughter
The Painter's Daughter Captain Stephen Overtree is captivated by the portrait of a fetching young woman painted by his artist brother Wesley. When he discovers that Wesley has bounded off to Rome, leaving the girl in a serious predicament, he must introduce himself to her and try to sort out his brother's mess. My review is here.

5) Da Vinci's Tiger
This is a fictionalised account of the circumstances which led to Leonardo da Vinci's commission to paint the portrait of young noble woman, Ginevra de' Benci. It's set in the decadent Renaissance Italy, when woman tended to have both husbands and lovers as a matter of course. (The portrait is above, at the top of the page.)

6) Dorian Gray
The Picture of Dorian Gray He's a male addition, but a very noteworthy one. When Dorian saw how wonderful his portrait looked, he vowed to sell his soul if only he could keep his good looks exactly as they were depicted, while the portrait grew old instead.

Now here's a few we all know from popular culture.

6) Ariana Dumbledore
Professor Albus Dumbledore and his brother Aberforth lost their troubled little sister Ariana when they were all only young. Aberforth, her favourite brother, keeps her likeness on his wall, and it's surely more to the crusty old publican than just another mobile, magical photo. His affection for his sister's memory is touching and intriguing.

7) Titanic
Many of us flocked to see this blockbuster in late 1997, because it's what all our friends were doing. The romance between Jack and Rose was on everyone's lips, not only because it was clearly doomed. (They were on the Titanic, after all.) The cheerful, working class boy Jack also happened to be a gifted artist, and his portrait of the girl he fell for was one of the treasures excavated from the bottom of the sea. If you want to see the film again, you surely won't have to wait long. Titanic seems to have taken over from The Sound of Music as most televised movie, from my recent observations.

And a couple of examples straight from history.

8) Anne of Cleves
This true life example is as strange as any story. Henry VIII saw a painted miniature of a gorgeous young foreign princess and demanded her for his next wife. When she arrived, the monarch decided that the artist, Hans Holbein, had flattered her too much, and the marriage was never consummated. I consider Anne of Cleves the hero for girls considered plain. What a narrow escape she had.

9) The Bronte Sisters
The girls had their portrait painted by their enthusiastic brother Branwell. This gem became so well known not because of his talent, but their eventual fame. In fact, I know many people think Branwell's skill probably left quite a bit to be desired, unless the girls really walked around looking like his depictions. A later portrait of his sister Emily has a similar look about it. Charlotte eventually had her portrait done by a different artist, George Richmond. Perhaps she thought it was nice to have someone other than Branwell have a go. The poor chap had a rough time trying to make it as an artist, and you can sort of see why.

And this last one is just to turn everything I've already said on its head. 

10) Good Wives
What a fun inverse of all the above. There's always an exception that proves the rule, so to speak. Louisa May Alcott didn't set out deliberately to debunk my spiel about gender and motivation, but she might as well have. The artist is a girl, the subject is a guy, and her reasons are not what you'd expect. Amy sketches a portrait of Laurie, but not with the intention to flatter him. She wants to give him a visual representation of how lazy and aimless he appears. I love it!

I've come up with ten, but feel as if I've only scratched the surface here. Can you think of any examples to add to my list? Or have you ever been lucky enough to sit for a portrait of your own? Here's to the concept of immortalising one's image, at a certain time of our life, forevermore.

(I'm not trying to diminish a great photo by focusing on portraits. For some great books featuring photographers, see  here.)


  1. What an interesting list! I was particularly intrigued to read of the Billy Triology - I really thought Porter wrote nothing else! An exc blog as usual, Paula.

  2. Hi Rhonda,
    Yes, I'd recommend them. It has a real 1920s, jazz era sort of feeling, since that's when she wrote them. She also wrote a book about a boy named David, who was a bit like a male version of Pollyanna, and it was even more popular than Pollyanna in their time. Look up Porter's books on Wikipedia. It's quite interesting to see which become timeless, and which become forgotten.

  3. How about "Girl with a Pearl Earring" by Tracy Chevalier?

    1. Good call. I've never read that book, although we're very familiar with the painting. I'll have to put it on my TBR list 😊 I've heard good things about it.

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