The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady and The Author of Beltraffio: An Exploration of the Aesthetic in Literature College

Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady presents the reader with a novel that uses literary form in an attempt to frame the life of its female protagonist; the very title – ‘Portrait’ – expresses a double meaning, referring both to the representation of someone’s interior character and also a painting, drawing or engraving of the external body. Art pervades both the structure and narrative of the piece, and how it is presented is integral to our understanding of the novel. Through his writing, James considers contrasting views on aesthetics. On the one hand, he appears to reject the notion that art must serve a didactic purpose, but on the other he refuses to align with the notion of 'art pour l'art’ in his characterisation of the soulless aesthete Osmond. Moreover, writing when traditional art itself was being challenged by the birth of photography, these artistic anxieties are reflected in James’ experimentation with realism – and its limits - as he tries to capture and distill a character whose self-identity revolves around the resistance against being pinned down. Taken alongside The Author of Beltraffio, a short story which embodies this conflict between didacticism and aestheticism, James presents the view that art should...

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