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Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Perils of Portraiture

From: Victorian Review
Volume 37, Number 1, Spring 2011
pp. 62-91 | 10.1353/vcr.2011.0023

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One of the most distinctive and neglected features of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetry and life writing is her engagement with the visual arts, particularly portraiture. Recent scholarship on the poet who signed herself "EBB" has focused on her political and social commitments, her theological and philosophical positions, and her role as both literary fan and celebrity. Notably, many of these subjects arise in poems about portraits, such as "On a Picture of Riego's Widow: Placed in an Exhibition" (1826), "The Picture Gallery at Penshurst" (1833), and "A Portrait" (1844). EBB seems to have preferred portraits to other kinds of painting because they provide historical records of individual identities. Moreover, she was as fascinated with the subject of a portrait as she was with the transaction that brought it into being.

Art historians focus on the economic, social, and psychological imperatives that govern portrait transactions—that is, the dynamic and frequently triangular relationships among the portrait artist, the sitter, and the patron, who is sometimes but not always the portrait's recipient (Pointon 184-90; Rosenthal 147-66; West 37-41). This essay argues that Aurora Leigh (1857) brings EBB's lifelong interest in portrait transactions to the fore in order to wrest power over her likeness from painters, photographers, patrons, and recipients as well as to reveal the negotiations involved—with both male and female artists—in creating an iconic image of the woman poet. Having sat for approximately forty-six likenesses during her lifetime, EBB knew the perils of portraiture. With the exception of female artists, few women knew the iconographic conventions of portraiture as well as she, and few were as involved in their fashioning: as a young woman, EBB commissioned her own portraits (both amateur and professional) and, in one humorous incident, even produced her own. In my view, EBB was an exceptional celebrity who both courted her readership through likenesses and, in her poetry and correspondence, wrote about how the reader or viewer should interpret them. Unsurprisingly, a portrait of EBB was the first of a Victorian woman writer accepted by the Trustees of the National Portrait Gallery (Perry 157).

According to Walter Benjamin, works of art in primitive societies had "cult value," and their ritual function meant that they did not leave the occult space that was open only to a select audience (224). But with the "emancipation" of artistic practices from ritual function through the proliferation of reproductive image-making technologies, modern art has acquired an "exhibition value" that is nearly absolute (224-25). By the nineteenth century, portraits held both cult and exhibition value. For example, pictures of children, often referred to as keepsakes, preserved the cult of childhood that Victorian middle-class families held dear. But in the increasingly image-conscious literary marketplace, portraits also served the cult of celebrity, which relied on the exhibition and circulation of likenesses. The reproduction of portraits as frontispiece engravings, periodical illustrations, cartes-de-visite, and electroplated medallions meant that a mass readership could create shrines to authors.

In her correspondence and portrait poetry of the 1830s and early 1840s, EBB registers both a resistance to portraits and a recognition of their necessity. Her portrait narratives (as I call them) reveal the evolution of her visual identity as a female poet, her ambivalence about women's portraiture in Victorian culture, and her belief that poetry, rather than painting, more vividly captures an individual's soul. However, her experience of transatlantic literary celebrity and married life among expatriate portrait artists in Italy helped temper her anxiety and ambivalence about likenesses. I argue that Aurora Leigh (1857) and contemporary correspondence documenting the poet's active quest for an authentic portrait reflect not only public demand for images of literary women but also EBB's unique assertion that female sitters could and should have an active role in their making.

Defining an "Authentic" Portrait: Family Pictures, Portrait Poetry, and Literary Fame

In what might be seen as a kind of higher idealism in portraiture, many Victorians called portraits—whether on paper or canvas, in plaster or marble—"authentic" when they were seen to capture a sitter's moral and intellectual character and provide a glimpse of his...

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