Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Jane Austen's Portrait

I'm home! I had a fabulous time with family in Scotland then on my own in Bath at the Jane Austen Festival. I learned so much, and my current intention is to reinvigorate my blog by sharing my adventure with you. What better place to start than with the lady who made it all happen?

by Cassandra Austen, pencil and watercolor, circa 1810

I flew into London the day before the festival began and spent the night there, so I might have time to visit the National Portrait Gallery. I had missed this museum on my two previous visits because no one else in my traveling party was particularly interested. Other sights always took priority. As it turns out, it was a very good thing for me to go alone, because it allowed me to get lost in the collection for three, undisrupted hours. It was fabulous! Unsurprisingly, I was particularly excited by the many portraits of writers whose works have shaped my life and mind. I am putting together a virtual "scribblers tour" of the gallery for my next Austen Authors post (I'll crosspost here), but I want to use this forum to take a more in depth look at Jane alone.

by James Andrews, watercolor, 1869
published by Richard Bentley, stipple engraving, 1870

Let's be clear up front: the portrait of Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen is easily the most unsatisfying likenesses displayed in the entire gallery. It's really awful, and that is precisely what makes it so intriguing. As the plaque inserted beneath the glass box which contains the portrait so accurately states: "Few English novelists have commanded such popular affection and critical respect as Jane Austen." And this is the best we can do for her portrait? For over a century, artists have used this sketch as the premise for more "satisfying" renditions of Austen. It is this legacy which helps authenticate the portrait: James Edward Austen-Leigh used it as the basis for the watercolor he commissioned in 1869 for use as the frontispiece to his biography, A Memoir of Jane Austen. Painted by James Andrews, it is his watercolor from which the varied engravings of her image are derived. However, there is still dispute over the portraits authenticity. As Claudia Johnson notes in Jane Austen's Cults and Cultures, there is no recorded mention of Cassandra's portrait prior to 1869. The NPG's website states:
This frank sketch by her sister and closest confidante Cassandra is the only reasonably certain portrait from life. Even so, Jane's relatives were not entirely convinced by it: 'there is a look which I recognise as hers', her niece wrote, 'though the general resemblance is not strong, yet as it represents a pleasing countenance it is so far a truth.'
So is this Jane? If so, she appears almost surly in it, as if she can little spare the patience to sit for her sister. Austen-Leigh's biography, which he wrote was conceived "in a spirit of censorship as well as communication," clearly tried to remold his literary aunt into something acceptable to the family's Victorian sensibilities. He gave the public an image of a demure spinster, which does not mesh well with the acerbic nature of the novelist's voice. For this reason I much prefer Cassandra's drawing, even with all its deficiencies, than the prettied up version. I can more easily imagine Jane as an unwilling sitter than a wallflower.  

by Ozias Humphry, oil on canvas, 1788 

There is another portrait: one that fulfills all the expectations that Cassandra sketch so sadly disappoints. The Rice Portrait is the subject of hot debate. I admit: I am biased in its favor, and not just because it would be absolutely glorious were it her! First there is the fact the National Portrait Gallery, in its early days, attempted to acquire the portrait, at the time describing it as a portrait of Austen. It was only after the purchase fell through that the gallery cast dispersions on its authenticity. Next is the fact that while the portrait was long believed to be the work of Johan Zoffany, high definition images of the portrait have recently revealed the signature of Ozias Humphry (who had a history of painting portraits of the Austen family) as well as a date: 1788. The date is important for a variety of reasons but primarily because scholars had previously argued that the portrait, based on the clothing, had to have been painted in the early 19th century, when Jane would have been too old to be the sitter. Elite art historians and scholars are still reluctant to validate the portrait, maybe because it would place such a priceless object in private hands? I watch the debate eagerly for resolution, but there seems to be none in near sight. For more information, please visit www.janeaustenriceportrait.com.

by Cassandra Austen, watercolor, 1804

The only image we have of Austen that is positively, indisputably her is only of her back. As beautiful as Cassandra's other portrait is homely, it is perhaps my favorite of them all. How appropriate that we cannot see her disputed face! The author remains enigmatic, which is just as it should be. After all, every reader of Jane Austen has their own Jane. We hear her narrative voice. She speaks to us with an intimacy few other writers capture. We each have our own vision of who she is, from proper gentlewoman to devilish wit. Perhaps if we were certain what she looked like, our imaginations would not be so free to view her in the guise we choose. 

(Note: I have not discussed the "Byrne Portrait" in this post as I have yet to hear anyone but Paula Byrne insist on it's authenticity. Still, it offer another interesting possibility. I suggest this article for the full details: http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number34/kaplan-d.pdf)


  1. Thank you for sharing this post. Glad you had a nice trip. Sometimes it is better to go alone,then you can do and go where you prefer. Cassandra Austen's portrait does seem to be the best capture of Jane Austen