Lene Østermark-Johansen (University of Copenhagen) : ‘Walter Pater and Portraiture’
During his relatively short career, the Victorian writer Walter Pater (1839-94) wrote eight completed pieces of short fiction which he entitled Imaginary Portraits. In addition there are several manuscript fragments of Imaginary Portraits in the Houghton Library at Harvard, in very different stages of completion. The term ‘Imaginary Portrait’ contains an apparent paradox; portraits are meant to be likenesses, to include some mimetic element, to be representations in art of a real individual, and the notion of the imaginary undercuts that. In my paper I would like to think about the ways in which portraiture functions within Pater’s texts, about a few contemporary contexts in which we might consider his new and hybrid genre, and about the complex interrelationship between the type and the individual which in many ways is fundamental to portraiture, no matter whether it is literary or visual. I would like to argue that the visual arts are very strongly present in Pater’s texts. He famously never illustrated any of his books, published by Macmillan on cream-coloured, woven paper in austere dark bluish-green bindings with gold lettering on the spine, thus keeping the visual within the realm of the imaginary, making his readers fellow creators who would have to conjure up the images suggested by his writings in their own minds. Yet paintings, in both English and European collections, were important sources of inspiration for Pater, and new readings of his texts bring this visual material to the fore.
Lene Østermark-Johansen teaches English art and literature at the University of Copenhagen. She is the author of Sweetness and Strength: The Reception of Michelangelo in Late Victorian England (1998) and of Walter Pater and the Language of Sculpture (2011). She has published extensively on Walter Pater, A. C. Swinburne, Oscar Wilde, Vernon Lee and Arthur Symons and more broadly on aestheticism. Her critical edition of Walter Pater’s Imaginary Portraits was published to much acclaim in 2014. She is currently working on a monograph about Pater and portraiture at the fin de siècle.