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  • Oscar Wilde’s Multitudes: Against Limiting His Photographic Iconography
  • Laurence Dumortier

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Fig. 1.

Oscar Wilde, No.

15 Napoleon Sarony, 1882

Library of Congress

IN JANUARY 1882, Oscar Wilde arrived in New York to begin his American lecture tour. To the custom officer’s usual question, he is said to have answered: “I have nothing to declare except my genius.” This often repeated comment may be more legend than truth, but it fit the narrative of the time of Wilde as a brilliant literary celebrity from across the Atlantic come to grandly edify the American public—and it continues to fit our own era’s narrative of Wilde as a self-fashioned creature and master of publicity. Accordingly, soon after disembarking, he arranged to have his portrait taken by Napoleon Sarony, then the city’s preeminent portrait photographer. Sarony claimed to have photographed “200,000 people, 30,000 of whom were famous.”1 If this boast strains credulity—it is hard to imagine 30,000 “famous” people in existence in late-nineteenth-century New York—it remains beyond dispute that he made iconic portraits of such luminaries as Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Wilkie Collins, and Sarah Bernhardt, and that the photographs he took of Oscar Wilde in 1882 left a profound and lasting impact on Wilde’s photographic iconography, indeed on his status as a cultural [End Page 147] icon. Figure 1 shows one of the most memorable of the twenty-seven poses from the series.

In the flesh, Wilde’s “aesthetic” period was short-lived—in fact, the next year Sarony photographed Wilde again, this time with hair cut short, wearing more conventional dress, and with a plain backdrop (Fig. 2). Nevertheless, the posthumous visual life of Wilde-the-aesthete appears endless and seems to take up a disproportionate importance in the iconography of Oscar Wilde. A Google images search of “Oscar Wilde” (Fig. 3) illustrates this predominance. This article will explore why that is and what consequences this overrepresentation of Wilde’s aesthetic period has for our understanding of Wilde as a cultural figure, particularly as a queer icon, and will argue that the overprivileging of the 1882 Sarony session in Wilde’s iconography reflects a contemporary understanding of Wilde’s persona, but it also constrains understanding, doing insufficient justice to Wilde’s complexities and variations over time.

Wilde critics such as Linda Dowling, Alan Sinfield, and Joseph Bristow have for some time been preoccupied with adding nuance to queer conceptions of Wilde.2 If their elegant interventions have decreased the instances of reductionist critical analyses of Wilde’s texts, the continued limiting or flattening out of Wilde’s visual iconography, even in scholarly texts, remains a concern. In fact, the fine Oscar Wilde and Modern Culture: The Making of a Legend3 includes as its frontispiece one of the 1882 Sarony photographs, and each of the twelve chapter headings reproduces the lithographic “copy” of “Oscar Wilde, No. 11” from the same session, in which he is posed in knee breeches and silk stockings. This is, it is true, a nod to Daniel Novak’s “Sexuality in the Age of Technological Reproducibility,” a version of which is included in the volume. Still, it tends to endlessly reinscribe the same “familiar” version of Wilde which is already all around us.

Novak has made the provocative but compelling observation that Wilde’s afterlife is “largely a pictorial one.”4 Wilde’s visual ubiquity—on the covers of editions of his books, all over the Web, and on such various and sundry items as mugs, T-shirts, and tote bags—confirms how potent his image remains in our own time. This ubiquity, however, tends to center on a handful of images from the Sarony session and begs the questions of why this is and of what effects the flattening of Wilde’s photographic iconography has on his cultural status and on our ability [End Page 148] to appreciate his complexity. While Novak and Michael North have written thoughtfully on legal and media issues relating to the Sarony images, and the scholars mentioned in the previous paragraph, among others, have worked to elucidate the biases and...


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