English, Department of


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The George Eliot Review 35 (2004) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2019 (35)


Portraits abound in Daniel Deronda - not only on the drawing-room walls of the Grandcourts and Mallingers, and in the 'grave Holbein faces' of the Meyrick family lithographs, but also in the actions and physiognomies of the novel's characters themselves. Daniel, in whom 'the family faces of various types, seen on the walls of the gallery, found no reflex' (166), nonetheless 'had that sort of resemblance to the preconceived type which a finely individual bust or portrait has to the more generalized copy left our minds after a long interval' (479).1 Gwendolen, 'that Vandyke duchess of a beauty' (558), sees her mirror image as a painting, 'leaning her elbow on the back of the chair in an attitude that might have been chosen for her portrait' (18), and declaring that 'someone shall paint me as Saint Cecilia' (26). The ordinary aristocrat, Baron Langen, makes 'a very good furniture picture' (13), while Grandcourt, for his part, has all the coldness of a painted face: 'omitting the cigar, you might have imagined him a portrait by Moroni, who would have rendered wonderfully the impenetrable gaze and air of distinction; and a portrait by that great master would have been quite as lively a companion as Grandcourt was disposed to be' (317). Even Mordecai, the iconophobic visionary, 'had sometimes lingered in the National Gallery in search of paintings which might feed his hopefulness with grave and noble types of the human form, such as might well belong to men of his own race' (472).

These multitudes of portraits pose an interesting problem, because their sheer numbers are inversely proportional to Eliot's estimation of the genre itself. Works of portraiture appear in Daniel Deronda with such regularity, and in so many overlapping guises - as paintings, living faces, gifts, characters in plays, objects of quest and wonder - that the novel as a whole could be seen as a kind of picture gallery, containing visual fragments of every one of its major themes; yet Eliot herself repeatedly denigrates the painted form. Even as practised by a master, Joshua Reynolds, portraiture could never truly describe Gwendolen: 'Sir Joshua would have been glad to take her portrait; and he would have had an easier task than the historian at least in this, that he would not have had to represent the truth of change - only to give stability to one beautiful moment' (117). Instead of telling 'the truth of change', the portrait painter freezes the human image into the static beauty of youth. By the same token, Daniel's itinerant mother gives him a parting gift of 'a miniature with jewels round it... her own in all the fire of youth' (664) - a striking image of a false, romantic past, and a terrible contrast to the truth of her present appearance. These misleading effects, in Eliot's view, are the very aim of portraiture; as Sir Hugo says to Hans the aspiring painter:

... 'Good fellow, your attempts at the historic and poetic are simply pitiable. Your brush is just that of a successful portrait-painter - it has a little truth and a great facility in falsehood - your idealism will never do for gods and goddesses and heroic story, but it may fetch a high price as flattery' (645).