1 of 16 portraits of Oscar Wilde
by Napoleon Sarony
albumen panel card, 1882
12 in. x 7 1/4 in. (305 mm x 184 mm)
This portraitback to top
This photograph of Oscar Wilde lounging against an appropriately artistic backdrop was taken by the New York studio photographer Napoleon Sarony. Wilde had arrived in New York in January 1882 on the steamship Arizona, with 'nothing to declare but his genius'. He needed a publicity photograph for his lecture tour, so he went to Sarony's studio and Sarony provided just what he wanted: an image of limpid dandyism in quilted smoking-jacket, silk knee-breeches and patent leather slippers. Apparently, ' Wilde arrived holding a white cane across his fur-lined overcoat. Sarony took him first in his seal-skin cap, then bare-headed in his long trousers, then bare-headed in his knee-breeches.' As Sarony declared, Wilde was 'a picturesque subject indeed'.
Linked publicationsback to top
- 100 Portraits, p. 86
- Victorian Portraits Resource Pack, p. 31
- Art Gallery of New South Wales (Sydney, N.S.W., Australia), 2010 Archibald Prize, 2010 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 2010)
- Callow, Simon, Oscar Wilde and his Circle, 2013, p. 11
- Callow, Simon, Character Sketches: Oscar Wilde and His Circle, 2000, p. 11
- Cooper, John, Visitor's Guide, 2000, p. 118
- Funnell, Peter, Victorian Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection, 1996, p. 31
- Funnell, Peter (introduction); Marsh, Jan, A Guide to Victorian and Edwardian Portraits, 2011, p. 29 Read entry
Irish-born playwright, wit and apostle of the Aesthetic movement, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) achieved fame while still an undergraduate at Oxford. His period of greatest creativity – which saw the publication of the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) and a succession of brilliant stage comedies culminating in The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) – was cut short following his imprisonment arising from a conviction of gross indecency. Sarony’s photograph shows him in New York in January 1882, wearing full aesthetic garb and preparing to proclaim his creed of art and beauty to audiences across North America. Sarony declared that Wilde was ‘a picturesque subject indeed’.
- John Cooper, National Portrait Gallery Visitor's Guide, 2006, p. 118 Read entry
Napoleon Sarony’s studio was at Union Square, New York City. Wilde, in America for a series of lectures on ‘Art for Art’s Sake’, commissioned publicity photographs. Sarony called Wilde ‘A picturesque subject indeed!’ This is borne out by his dandified dress, and enhanced by Sarony’s appropriately theatrical backdrop.
- Ribeiro, Aileen; Blackman, Cally, A Portrait of Fashion: Six Centuries of Dress at the National Portrait Gallery, 2015, p. 192
- Rogers, Malcolm, Camera Portraits, 1989 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 20 October 1989 - 21 January 1990), p. 103 Read entry
Oscar Wilde, playwright, wit and representative of the London aesthetic movement, arrived in New York on the steamship Arizona in January 1882 with 'nothing to declare but his genius'. Early on he called on the photographer Sarony at his studio on Union Square to commission publicity photographs for his series of lectures on 'Art for Art's Sake'. Sarony, who was himself one of the best known of New York's eccentrics, found in Wilde 'A picturesque subject indeed!'. He was the greatest curiosity of the New York season, and wrote home: 'Great success here; nothing like it since Dickens, they tell me'.
Like the great French photographer Nadar, Sarony began his career as a caricaturist, but turned to photography under the influence of his brother Oliver, who was one of England's most successful provincial photographers. He specialized in theatrical sitters, and his work, with its use of painted backdrops and carefully chosen accessories gave him a contemporary reputation as 'the father of artistic photography in America'.
- Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery: An Illustrated Guide, 2000, p. 152
- Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery, 1997, p. 152 Read entry
This photograph of Oscar Wilde lounging against an appropriately artistic backdrop was taken by the New York studio photographer Napoleon Sarony. Wilde had arrived in New York in January 1882 on the steamship Arizona, with 'nothing to declare but his genius'. He needed a publicity photograph for his lecture tour, so he went to Sarony's studio and Sarony provided just what he wanted: an image of limpid dandyism in quilted smoking-jacket, silk knee-breeches and patent leather slippers. Apparently, 'Wilde arrived holding a white cane across his fur-lined overcoat. Sarony took him first in his seal-skin cap, then bare-headed in his long trousers, then bare-headed in his knee-breeches.' As Sarony decaled, Wilde was 'A picturesque subject indeed!'
- Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 661
- Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 168 Read entry
Poet, playwright, legendary wit and gay icon, Oscar Wilde is one of the best-known figures of the late nineteenth century. A brilliant conversationalist, he quickly became established in fashionable London society and was an important spokesman for the Aesthetic movement, which proclaimed ‘Art for Art’s sake’. Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), was greatly influenced by Aesthetic thought. His play, The Importance of being Earnest (1895), has been hailed as one of the greatest of British comedies but Wilde’s success was cut short by his trial and imprisonment for gross indecency. His reputation was destroyed and he died in poverty in France.
This photograph, taken in New York, captures Wilde before his literary triumphs. While on a lecture tour to promote Aestheticism in America, he went to the studio of Napoleon Sarony (1821–96) for a publicity photograph. Sarony took a number of images depicting Wilde in different poses and in various outfits. In this image Wilde wears the quilted smoking-jacket, silk knee-breeches and patent leather slippers in which he delivered his lectures: clothes which mark him out as the quintessential dandy. As Sarony reputedly declared, Wilde was ‘A picturesque subject indeed!’.
Events of 1882back to top
Current affairsThe Ashes Test cricket series is born. The series gets its name from a satirical obituary published in the English newspaper The Sporting Times, stating that English cricket had died and its cremated body was being taken back to Australia, after England, with batsmen W. G. Grace and Charles Studd, lost the first home match to Australia at the Oval.
The Married Women's Property Act is passed, securing equal property rights between married couples.
Art and scienceEadweard Muybridge, British photographer, exhibits his images of animal and human motion, captured with his 'zoopraxiscope', a motion-picture machine recreating movement by displaying individual photographs in rapid succession, at the Royal Academy and Royal Institution. His studies and inventions contributed to the development of motion pictures, with E.J. Marey and the Lumiere brothers acknowledging his impact.
InternationalThe Zioinist movement begins, with the first wave of Jewish immigrants to Palestine, at this time part of the Ottoman empire. The Jewish people were in Diaspora, spread across the world, and Palestine, the place of Jewish origin but now also occupied by Muslims and Christians, seemed a logical place for a settlement.
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