by Michal Peled Ginsburg. Fordham University Press, dist. by Oxford University Press, December 2014. 213 p. ISBN 9780823262601 (cl.), $45.00
Reviewed May 2015
Vada Komistra, Library Technician– Acquisitions/Cataloging, National Gallery of Art Library, firstname.lastname@example.org
In Portrait Stories, Michal Peled Ginsburg challenges the reader to consider the representation of the portrait in nineteenth-century literature, and the uses of fictional characters portraying viewers, sitters, and painters (painter characters), as literary devices. The book examines the significance of plots focused on fictitious portraits and characters as a means to highlight social and political commentary as intended by each author. Throughout most of the text, Ginsburg introduces and debates each literary author's objective regarding the portrait's role in the story from the perspectives of the sitter, viewer, and painter characters. Ginsburg provides the reader with in-depth character analysis and theorizes about psychological, social, and political motivations for each story's characters relative to trends and stigmas of nineteenth-century society.
Each chapter begins with an outline of the authors, stories, and characters, and subsequently is organized by the roles of the viewer, sitter, or painter characters as protagonists or antagonists in the featured stories. The book starts with focusing on the imagined portrait and characters in short story "Oval Portrait" by Edgar Allan Poe. Ginsburg introduces the sitter and viewer characters from the point of view of powerlessness.
The following chapter investigates two short stories by Henry James which depict painter characters in positions of power. The painters in both stories are the sole characters granted the capability to create a balance between a representation of reality and reality itself. The painter characters are permitted to see the subject of the portrait in each story as he or she exists in reality, while also having the authority to alter the portrait or representation of reality.
Later chapters tackle issues of sexuality, gender, and family as variants on Ginsburg's theme of the representation of viewer, sitter, and painter characters as a means of expressing the literary author's social commentary. Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Nikolai Gogol's "The Portrait" are among the stories discussed.
Portrait Stories explores specific realms of literary scholarship, and thus appears to be intended for a limited audience. Ginsburg writes in a technical style, breaking down chapters into sections and guiding the reader through individual components of each argument. Specialists in the field of Victorian Literature would benefit most from this volume. The book is of sufficient quality, designed in an austere style typical of scholarly publications. The text includes an introduction and afterword, as well as extensive notes, a bibliography, and index. The book is comprised entirely of text containing no plates or illustrations.