Identifying the Portrait in Lolita and Examining its Relationship to Nabokov's The Vane Sisters and Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray
Go to TOC for this film ( (which has also a statement on purpose and manner of analysis and a disclaimer as to caveat emptor and my knowing anything authoritatively, which I do not, but I do try to not know earnestly, with some discretion, and considerable thought).
It took me years to finally identify the famous portrait in Lolita, so often given as being a Gainsborough yet had it been one we would have known long ago the mysterious subject. Eventually I looked for the portrait among Gainsborough's contemporaries and found the artist was George Romney, and the subject was a Frances Puleston, her married name being Mrs. Bryan Cooke. Ten sittings were held for the portrait between 1787 and 1789 when Frances was about 22 to 24 years of age.
Frances was Col. Bryan Cooke's first wife. His 2nd marriage would be to Charlotte Bulstrode Cooke, not a relation, which may be of interest considering Humbert's 2nd marriage is to Charlotte Haze. Humbert's first marriage is briefly referred to in the film but his first "love" was Annabel Leigh, whom he felt he had found again in Lolita. In the screenplay, Nabokov even has Humbert show Lolita a photo of Annabel and it was to have been of the same actress playing Lolita, Sue Lyon. I think we are all glad Kubrick did not pick up this idea of Nabokov's and run with it. Nabokov could get heavy-handed at times and wrote a lousy screenplay of his book.
Another first/second wife comparison to make is that of Adam with Lilith then Eve, for Lolita's plight is a desperate one on the human level, but in mythological layerings she's connected with Lilith, Nabokov even mentioning this once.
Nabokov's Annabel Leigh was to serve as a pointer to Edgar Allen Poe's "Annabel Lee", a poem Poe wrote perhaps for his wife Virginia, they having married when she was just 13.
George Romney, the artist, was also enamoured with a particularly young woman, who is not the subject of this painting. Her history was one of misuse by men in power. Made a mistress of Sir Henry Harry Featherstonhaugh when she was 15, they had a child together when she was 16, but he threw her over when she was about 17 and she subsequently became the mistress of Charles Francis Greville. Greville, too, would throw her over, by sending her to live with his uncle, Sir William Hamilton. Unbeknownst to this young woman, Greville had promised her as a mistress to his uncle, which she only learned about upon her arrival at his house. Despite this she and Hamilton would marry,and during their marriage she would become famous not only for Romney's numerous portraits of her styled as different mythological women, but a love affair with Horatio Nelson.
This woman met George Romney when she was 17. He fell in love with her but the attraction wasn't mutual so she remained only his muse. Her birth name? Amy Lyon.
Was Kubrick attracted to the portrait partly due its history? That it was done by an artist who provided some name connections with Charlotte, and Sue Lyon who played Lolita?
Not to mention that George Romney's name alludes back to George in The Killing, the clown/fool who murdered his faithless wife even as he was dying, the gunshot wounds to the portrait in Lolita recalling the bullet holes in George's face.
Now is when things get really complex.
This portrait of Mrs. Bryan Cooke, by George Romney, has had few public showings, and if you do a search for it on the internet you will not find it referenced often. Its exhibition history, up to 1960, was Jan 6--March 14 in 1896 at the London Royal Academy of Arts, then June 16 to Sept 30 in 1943 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY.
Not long ago I was watching the 1960 movie, The Trials of Oscar Wilde, in which James Mason plays the lawyer who defends Lord Queensbury against charges of slander made by Wilde (he had called Wilde a sodomite), the proceedings ultimately leading to Wilde's ruin. Previous to the slander, there's a scene in which Lord Queensbury and his family are brought together for the funeral of his eldest son, and what did I spy in the background on the wall but the very same portrait of Mrs. Bryan Cooke by George Romney.
James Mason, of course, was also Humbert in Lolita.
Kubrick would have to have been aware that this portrait, which Humbert blasts away at as Sellers/Quilty crawls behind it, was also in The Trials of Oscar Wilde.
What the portrait was doing as backdrop fodder in the Wilde movie I don't know and is unimportant. Instead, what we need to focus upon is Oscar Wilde and his book, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
The Picture of Dorian Gray concerns a libertine who remains youthful while his aging and all his cruelties are manifested in his portrait. Dorian only is able to die when he assaults and stabs the painting.
Dorian becomes aware of his complicated relationship with the portrait after he causes the suicide of a young actress named Sybil Vane. He had fallen in love with her acting and promoted her to his friends as brilliant and the most beautiful creature in the world. After he proposes to Sybil, he takes his friends to see her perform and is horrified by how her performance is now artless. Afterward, Sybil relates to Dorian how marvelous it is that she can no longer act, her love for him being the cause, as it has made life finally more real and important to her than the stage.
The painted scenes were my world. I knew nothing but shadows, and I thought them real. You came–oh, my beautiful love!–and you freed my soul from prison. You taught me what reality really is. Tonight, for the first time in my life, I saw through the hollowness, the sham, the silliness of the empty pageant in which I had always played. Tonight, for the first time, I became conscious that the Romeo was hideous, and old, and painted, that the moonlight in the orchard was false, that the scenery was vulgar, and that the words I had to speak were unreal, were not my words, were not what I wanted to say. You had brought me something higher, something of which all art is but a reflection. You had made me understand what love really is. My love! My love! Prince Charming! Prince of life! I have grown sick of shadows…
Dorian fires back that now she only disgusts him, that she is nothing without her art, and walks out on Sybil.
Okay. What has The Picture of Dorian Gray to do with Nabokov?
Back in 1951, Nabokov wrote a short story called The Vane Sisters which wouldn't be published until 1958. It concerns a narrator reflecting on his relationship with a Cynthia Vane, who he has just discovered to have died. A primary character in their relationship was Cynthia's younger sister, Sybil Vane, who had been a student of his. Sybil, in love with another professor and having been abandoned by him, had turned in to the narrator an exam paper foretelling her suicide. The narrator, upon noticing the suicidal footnote, contacted Cynthia, but too late, and then proceeded to grade Sybil's French grammar. For whatever reason, this pair embark on a relationship, the narrator attracted to Cynthia's art (she's a painter) but finding her otherwise repellent. His description of Sybil's physical appearance reminds a little of the Picture of Dorian Gray in that her beauty was hidden by a skin disease that marred her features and which she tried to camouflage with make-up and a veil. Cynthia, too, is described with the same attention to her features and complexion depicting her as coarse, unappealingly masculine, covered with dirty make-up/paint. He initially finds curious Cynthia's preoccupation with signs, synchronicities and seances, the dead communicating even by acrostics, but is eventually repulsed by this fascination as well.
Cynthia...was sure that her existence was influenced by all sorts of dead friends each of whom took turns in directing her fate much as if she where a stray kitten which a schoolgirl in passing gathers up, and presses to her cheek, and carefully puts down again, near some suburban hedge–to be stroked presently by another transient hand or carried off to a world of doors by some hospitable lady.
For a few hours, or for several days in a row, and sometimes recurrently, in an irregular series, for months or years, anything that happened to Cynthia, after a given person had died, would be, she said, in the manner and mood of that person. The event might be extraordinary, changing the course of one's life; or it might be a string of minute incidents just sufficiently clear to stand out in relief against one's usual day and then shading off into still vaguer trivia as the aura gradually faded...
During one of those seances, Oscar Wilde would visit and accuse Cynthia's parents of "plagiatisme" [sic].
Which explicitly ties Sybil Vane with Wilde's Dorian Gray and his Sybil Vane who died for love of reality over art taught her by the lying devotion of a narcissist who could only appreciate the mimicry of the shadow.
The story of the Vane sisters begins like this:
I might never have heard of Cynthia's death, had I not run, that night, into D.,....and I might never have run into D. had I not got involved in a series of trivial investigations.
The day, a compunctious Sunday after a week of blizzards, had been part jewel, part mud. In the midst of my usual afternoon stroll through the small hilly town attached to the girls' college where I taught French literature, I had stopped to watch a family of brilliant icicles drip-dripping from the eaves of a frame house. So clear-cut were their pointed shadows on the white boards behind them that I was sure the shadows of the falling drops should be visible too. But they were not. The roof jutted too far out, perhaps, or the angle of vision was faulty, or again, I did not chance to be watching the right icicle when the right drop fell. There was a rhythm, an alteration in the dripping that I found as teasing as a coin trick. It led me to inspect the corners of several house blocks, and this brought me to Kelly Road, and right to the house where D. used to live when he was instructor here. And as I looked up at the eaves of the adjacent garage with its full display of transparent stalactites backed by their blue silhouettes, I was rewarded at last, upon choosing one, by the sight of what might be described as the dot of an exclamation mark leaving its ordinary position to glide down very fast–a jot faster than the thaw-drop it raced. This twinned twinkle was delightful but not completely satisfying; or rather it only sharpened my appetite for other tidbits of light and shade, and I walked on in a state of raw awareness that seemed to transform the whole of my being into one big eyeball rolling in the world's socket.
D. was the professor with whom Sybil had had the affair. He happened to be passing through town and he and the narrator ran into each other later that evening.
After learning of Cynthia's death, the narrator becomes anxious that she might attempt to communicate with him. He both fights against this while also looking for signs sent him by the dead Cynthia. That night he dreams of her, and upon waking he tries to divine any message in the dream.
I lay in bed, thinking my dream over and listening to the sparrows outside: Who knows, if recorded and then run backward, those bird sounds might not become human speech, voiced words, just as the latter become a twitter when reversed? I set myself to reread my dream–backward, diagonally, up, down–trying hard to unravel something Cynthia-like in it, something strange and suggestive that must be there.
I could isolate, consciously, little. Everything seemed blurred, yellow-clouded, yielding nothing tangible. Her inept acrostics, maudlin evasions, theophanies–every recollection formed ripples of mysterious meaning. Everything seemed yellowly blurred, illusive, lost.
The trick is that the last paragraph is an acrostic that reads:
Icicles by Cynthia. Meter from me, Sybil.
This refers back to the beginning of the story, the icicles which had so captivated the narrator and the rhythm of the dripping water that had led him to D's old house and illumined the day for him with a hyper-real awareness.
Christine Raguet-Bouvart writes in Cycnos:
Obviously, at that time Nabokov was preoccupied with the relation between the world of dreams, the unconscious and creation. This is where he comes close to Joyce. Dreams are the manifestation of uncontrolled brain-activity. They escape command and may be felt as links between the realm of the conscious and of the unconscious. They may also encourage some to establish contact between the tangible and the spiritual — an unacceptable inclination in Nabokov's eyes: "I am sorry to say that not content with these ingenious fancies Cynthia showed a ridiculous fondness for spiritualism." Nevertheless Nabokov built this leaning into his story from its very beginning, and illustrated it with a host of allusions to signs, shadows, ghosts and messages, so as to demonstrate how his characters were trying to set up communication with the hereafter. Sybil, whose name recalls the prophetesses of antiquity who could decipher coded messages for human beings, has "a rainbow edge" which reinforces her function as a link, or bridge, between the terrestrial and the celestial worlds, and her bridge is made of words. This obviously recalls Issy's rainbow consort who appears a number of times in Finnegans Wake, but most obviously in Book II, chapter 1: "R is Rubretta and A is Arancia, Y is for Yilla and N for greeneriN. B is Boyblue with odalisque O while W waters the fleurettes of novembrance." Sybil Vane brings men to inaccessible regions, just as the Cumean Sibyl conducted Virgil to the infernal regions (Æneid, vi); therefore she is the guide, the essence of translation. Her presence in these intermediate regions reinforces Benjamin's theory of the presence of auras in works of art as developed by Raymond Court, because divine creation comes to an end when things receive their names from man, thanks to God's gift of language to man. Consequently naming reifies what is named and from then on the name is the symbol of the thing which communicates itself to its environment. In this communication process, man is enlightened and the name, then radiating from the thing, becomes the aura of the thing. This definition can be compared to what Vladimir Alexandrov describes as "Nabokov's epiphanies." Altogether, it would amount to experiencing the essence of absolute communication — within and without, a priviledged moment when self and universal self meet. Besides this may be read as an epitome of the relation between perception, vision and impression found in "The Vane Sisters," which should lead to the knowledge of the universal soul.
If we look at Sybil's name we also find a connection with Dies Irae, a work Kubrick refers to time and again:
Dies irae, dies illa Solvet saeclum in favilla Teste David cum Sibylla The day of wrath, that day Will dissolve the world in ashes As foretold by David and the Sibyl!
The narrator of the Vane sisters story is understood as being a double of D., and Cynthia as being a double of Sybil. D. would seem to have perhaps not only a connection with with Dorian Gray but perhaps David. And what of Cynthia? Rough as this may seem, we need to ignore the true etymology of Cynthia's name and look back to Sybil's description of her love, Dorian Gray, in light of Dies Irae and the world dissolving in ashes. Oscar Wilde's Sybil describes the narcissistic Dorian as her "Prince Charming", language suitable for a fairy tale Cinderella, in which we find our cinders and ash. Cindy is, after all, a nick for both Cynthia and Cinderella.
Why the icicles from Cynthia?
Our narrator is a professor who teaches French and both Sybil and Oscar Wilde had spoken in garbled French.
Icicle (IMHO) is ici - clé or "here key".
What of meter from me. It sounds sufficiently peculiar that another meaning could yet be drawn from it, as with the icicle.
Sybil. The oracle.
The word "acrostic" was first applied to the prophecies of the Erythraean Sibyl, which were written on leaves and arranged so that the initial letters of the leaves always formed a word.
The narrator in the story is guided all along by Sybil and Cynthia without conscious awareness, and so too are the readers.
"The Vane Sisters" was first published without any attention drawn to its puzzle nature. Again, from Christine Raguet-Bouvart:
When "The Vane Sisters" was first published in The Hudson Review it did not differ in form from any other story, but some time later when it appeared in Encounter, it was offered to readers as a present and a puzzle, hence the epigraph, despite the later date (Christmas was already a few months past when the story appeared). In fact, Encounter readers were invited to participate in a contest and decipher the coded message that occurred on the last page of the story, for which the first five code-crackers would win a prize of one guinea.
I think it's very unlikely that Kubrick saw the painting in The Trials of Oscar Wilde and opted to include it in Lolita for no reason at all other than having found it attractive. Just right. No. It is due Oscar Wilde, his Portrait of Dorian Gray and the silent puzzles embedded in Nabokov's "The Vane Sisters".
UPDATE NOVEMBER 2020: John Cork, who knows all things James Bond (an interesting subject), sends along some humorous information on the painting that he picked up along the way. And it seems the painting that Kubrick originally had in mind ended up not being the portrait that was used. I've placed it under the subject heading of the portait in the first page of the analysis.
Approx 3100 words or 7 single-spaced pages. A 24 minute read at 130 wpm.