Thursday, March 30, 2017
A Painting A Day In Support of the NEA:Cassandra Austen's Portrait of Jane Austen (1810)
My protest of Trump's proposal to cut funding to the NEA and other arts organizations continues. Every day I will post a great work of art as a reminder of what could easily be lost in the shuffle of more "useful" government spending.
Today's work of art isn't exactly a "great" work of art, but an unfinished sketch that hints at greatness--the beginning of a portrait of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra (c.1810). What makes this portrait so priceless is (a) it was never finished, and (b) Jane doesn't look like she's posing at all--she looks pretty annoyed, actually. Both qualities make this a far more documentary portrait than usual, one composed "from the life" and "on the spot," which is probably why it was unfinished--Jane said "enough of this nonsense!" Yet for all of this, it reminds us how art can capture the mood, character, and essence of a person which is so quickly lost behind a veil of myth and rumor. Jane Austen is always gussied up as a delicate, romantic flower, when the opposite is actually true: she liked long walks in the country, biting social satire, and abhorred romantic cliches and conventions. If anything brings us closer to the woman she actually was, this portrait does it. Not surprisingly, the family suppressed this painting for decades, and it's rarely ever been used to adorn the cover of a Jane Austen novel. Far too real, I'm afraid, and not nearly romantic enough! And thank God for it.
More than anything, I see her heroines Anne Eliot, Fanny Price, and maybe even a little Elizabeth Bennett in this portrait. It's a woman of uncompromising views, not afraid to be alone, and willing to sacrifice herself for the right cause. This portrait brings me closer to the voice of her stories, particularly the later ones, when Austen seemed to be reaching at a new style of writing. Pithier, less satirical, but also richer and more nuanced. Austen never completed her own maturation nor even her last novel, Sandition, which makes this portrait seem all the more emblematic: unfinished, hinting at the incredible genius which had too little time to record her ideas. Yet what remains is more than a good effort--it's enough to savor and ponder over for the next thousand years.