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Xavier Giudicelli, Portraits de Dorian Gray. Le texte, le livre, l’image. Préface de Pascal Aquien

Paris: Presses Universitaires de Paris-Sorbonne, Collection « Histoire de l’imprimé », 2016, 404 p. ISBN: 979-10-231-0537-7
Anne-Florence Gillard-Estrada
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Xavier Giudicelli, Portraits de Dorian Gray. Le texte, le livre, l’image. Préface de Pascal Aquien, Paris: Presses Universitaires de Paris-Sorbonne, Collection ‘Histoire de l’imprimé’, 2016, 404 p. ISBN: 979-10-231-0537-7

Texte intégral

1Xavier Giudicelli’s work is the first exhaustive discussion of illustrated editions of Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. It is also a very beautiful book, with high-quality sheet paper and a substantial number of black and white illustrations and colour plates.

2This monograph, which stands at the crossroads of literary studies, the history of the book and art history, provides a thorough theoretical underpinning on the intersemiotic relations between word and image. A comprehensive bibliography reflects the author’s wide-ranging use of diverse methodological tools. It contains invaluable references on various fields—from literary studies of Wilde’s texts to works on the artistic context or on book history, as well as essays on gender, gay and queer studies, or psychoanalysis. This cross-disciplinary approach is also reflected in the numerous notes, which offer precise references and provide quotes from the English text as well as their French translations.

3The author has selected a corpus of eighteen illustrated editions published between 1908 and 2009 in the United Kingdom, the United States and France. This selection is justified by the diachronic, analytical and comparative approach of the author. Giudicelli explores the technical and stylistic evolution of etching, engraving or woodcut techniques while meticulously inscribing the illustrated editions within their aesthetic and cultural contexts, thus providing insightful echoes with the visual arts.

4In his introduction, the author presents the novel’s editorial and aesthetic context, focussing on fin-de-siècle illustrated books and material culture. Wilde’s relation to that particular editorial and aesthetic context is indeed necessary to study the illustrated editions of his novel, even though the first one was only published after his death. Not only is the beautiful book an important poetical and thematic element of The Picture of Dorian Gray, but Wilde also paid special attention to the material presentation of his books as well as to the illustrations that sometimes accompanied them. According to Giudicelli, not only does the relation between word and image acquire a specific dimension in the novel but this dialectical relationship is also particularly highlighted by its illustrated editions. Moreover, what he addresses is a central paradox of the novel, which is that both Dorian and his portrait escape representation: Dorian is described through allusions or through clichés, while the painting is like a void or an absence. Wilde is careful not to give a precise verbal description of the portrait, thus leaving it for the reader’s imagination to make up for this absence. But the illustrators too are faced with this empty sign, which is so essential to the aesthetics and poetics of the novel. Besides, the picture functions as a central trope that underlines what is at stake in the circulation from the visual to the linguistic and vice versa. It opens up interrogations on the indescribable as well as on the highly subjective work of reading/seeing and interpreting. Illustrating the novel thus raises challenging questions that Giudicelli sets out to explore thanks to very personal and insightful analyses of the images themselves, which are backed up by a rich and informed knowledge both of the poetics of Wilde’s text and of the visual productions of the period.

5The book is made up of two parts that contain four chapters each. Part I examines the movement from text to image while part II explores the way illustrations reverberate back onto the text. In his introduction, the author posits that in what is a complex dialectical relation, the transposition from word to image is not necessarily a clear-cut duplication but may in fact be a distorting mirror. Giudicelli envisages a dialogue between two equally valued semiotic systems and his study of the way they mutually enrich each other offers stimulating theoretical avenues.

6Chapter I of part I is devoted to the modalities of the transposition from text to image. The author first examines the illustrators’ choices in the number and placing of their images, then focuses on the scenes they revealingly selected; he then deals with the various kinds of liminal images and frontispieces, which hold a particular status as they guide one’s reading; finally, he examines end-of-text illustrations.

7The second chapter of the volume singles out four themes that illustrate the paradigmatic subject of interart dialogue. Firstly, he demonstrates that a number of illustrators have chosen to depict, often through caricatures, the novel’s social, gender or racial stereotypes—most prominently the working-class man, the Jew, or the homosexual dandy. Then, Giudicelli aptly extends the analysis of the imagery associated with London to contemporary illustrated novels such as R. L. Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or to visual representations of London, for example Gustave Doré’s Londres. He also studies the themes of the actress and of costumes and disguises, which leads him to show how the model of the theatre, which plays such a prominent role in the novel, has inspired many illustrators with profuse theatrical compositions.

8Chapter III of Part II focuses on the issue of the description and representation of beauty through words and images. Particularly fascinating are the discussions on the representational codes associated to Dorian’s beauty, which Giudicelli relates to a long visual tradition of ‘Greek beauty’ that starts with Plato and ends with Helmut Berger. He then tackles the topic of the limits of representation, especially in the depiction of ugliness, which finds a visual counterpart in caricature and the grotesque.

9Chapter IV first examines the way some illustrators have tried to inscribe temporality in the visual. Grounding his discussions on a theoretical tradition that dates back to Lessing’s theories, Giudicelli shows how some images try to suggest the idea of time and change as well as of movement and depth. He aptly addresses the inherent paradox both of the text and of its visual transpositions, which mostly revolves on the issue of time and rhythm.

10Four independent sections, entitled ‘focus’, provide useful material on etching techniques, on the fabrication and production of illustrated books, on late-nineteenth-century editorial and bibliophilic practices, as well as on the Yellow Book and the Bodley Head or other such presses linked to the Arts and Crafts or Aesthetic movements. They also focus on specific illustrators, on Aubrey Beardsley (the illustrator of Wilde’s Salomé) and on recent avatars of the novel in cartoons.

11Giudicelli’s elegant monograph mixes erudition and theorization, synthesis and analysis. It combines a comprehensive study of Wilde’s novel with a thorough analysis of its illustrated editions. It also offers a perceptive portrait of an author who was especially attentive to the relationship between sign and meaning and to the issue of creative interpretation. As fits a book that deals with the relation between text and illustration, special attention has been brought to its material presentation, as shown by the beautiful cover and lavish images. Beyond Wilde specialists, the lovers of art will therefore be delighted to discover such a gorgeous body of illustrations which are so many examples of the never-ending creative visual possibilities offered by the mythical figure of Dorian Gray.

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Anne-Florence Gillard-Estrada, « Xavier Giudicelli, Portraits de Dorian Gray. Le texte, le livre, l’image. Préface de Pascal Aquien »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 85 Printemps | 2017, mis en ligne le 21 mars 2017, consulté le 16 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Anne-Florence Gillard-Estrada

University of Rouen (ERIAC)

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