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  • Pater and the Painterly:Imaginary Portraits
  • Lene Østermark-Johansen

Ten Years after Pater's death, George Moore was rereading Imaginary Portraits. He had previously put the volume aside as "somewhat faint, too luscious" for his taste, but by August 1904 he realized that "the book we put aside last year is the book that we read eagerly this year; we are always becoming our books.... Mood follows mood, and whoever keeps the book with him shall read it some day in the right mood, and then his enjoyment will be a unique one." Pater's thin volume had now become a kind of swan song for Moore, "like the end of a long July afternoon before the year has begun to decline," and he celebrated the book as a "happy melodious dream, full of faint colour and dim perfume, flowing on page after page."1 No doubt Moore himself had mellowed since his flamboyant writings of the 1880s and 1890s.2 His cautious reading of the book, which had first appeared on 24 May 1887, is a nostalgic peep back into another era. Yet judging from the considerable number of reprints of the volume in the first decade of the twentieth century, Moore was not alone in being in a delayed mood for Pater. With reprints in 1901, 1902, 1903, 1905, 1907, and 1908, Imaginary Portraits retained its popularity, and by the time the volume appeared in the 1910 Library Edition, some 8,500 copies already existed in print.3

This article probably attempts to do too much, but doing en miniature what others have done in book-length studies, it focuses on two important aspects of Pater's short fiction. First is the volume's contemporary reception in 1887, its cosmopolitanism, reflected in the settings of Pater's brief pieces of fiction and their international afterlife. The second aspect of this discussion is Pater and the painterly, Pater's use of portraiture, the relation between figure and space, foreground and background. His portraits hover between the framed and the fluid, between a rigid adherence to outer form and inner flux which, depending [End Page 343] on how he entered the frame, may well have contributed to Moore's experience of not at first being in the right mood. Pater pushes the genre of portraiture to its limits in his sitterless portraits: elusive protagonists often vanish or die before they are captured in paint, and this tension between the material and the immaterial is fundamental for an understanding of Pater's portraits.

The four texts—"A Prince of Court Painters," "Denys l'Auxerrois," "Sebastian van Storck" and "Duke Carl of Rosenmold"—had first seen serial publication in Macmillan's Magazine from October 1885 to May 1887. Indeed, in the case of "Duke Carl of Rosenmold," published in the May issue, the very same month as the book, the periodical text is probably the later of the two, as the book volume would have gone into print before the journal.4 As a collation of the two texts reveals, Pater abbreviated the ending significantly for the periodical version. Pater the revisionist did go over his texts meticulously every time they were published in a new context, and Imaginary Portraits was no exception.5 Minor stylistic changes on the lexicographical or syntactical level took place, and foreign words were translated, as in the case of "A Prince of Court Painters" where the periodical version has a far more French flavour than the book version. In the case of "Sebastian van Storck," Pater left the first eighty percent of the text unchanged but fine-tuned the philosophical nuances in the last part of his portrait through a number of subtle changes.

Pater reputedly regarded Imaginary Portraits as his most successful writing. When asked "Which is the best of your books?" he is supposed to have answered: "Imaginary Portraits, for it is the most natural."6 His choice of adjective is intriguing, given the highly artful character of the portraits. The annotated edition in which I am currently involved7 requires an similar amount of explanatory notes as Donald Hill's celebrated edition of The Renaissance,8 for the texts are dense with philosophical...


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pp. 343-354
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