Portraiture and the Aesthetics of Absence in Early Modern Literature

Mabee, Bethany Lynn, Department of English, University of Virginia
Fowler, Elizabeth, Department of English, University of Virginia
Braden, Gordon, Center for Liberal Arts, University of Virginia
Maus, Katharine, Department of English, University of Virginia
Blatt, Ari, Department of French Language and Literatures, University of Virginia

In "Portraiture and the Aesthetics of Absence in Early Modern British Literature," I contend that literary scholars have attended too closely to ekphrases when examining the role visual art plays in literature, neglecting literary episodes that feature portraits whose appearance is not described. I seek to resituate these "absent" portraits alongside their ekphrastic counterparts, turning away from a framework that privileges formal composition over other signifiers to theorize a more inclusive model for articulating how literary portraits establish meaning in the texts they ornament. Drawing on art historians' understanding of Elizabethan and Jacobean portraits as objects valued more for the social cues they convey than for their aesthetic merits, I show how literary portraits derive meaning from the same broader matrimonial, memorial and genealogical cultural practices that endow their historical counterparts with significance. Methodologically, this work builds on interdisciplinary object studies and a rising interest in material culture, pairing archival research with theoretical perspectives from anthropology, history and art history to cultivate an understanding of how and in what contexts portraits were displayed and used. This framework reveals how writers like Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare illuminate the significance of the portraits embedded in their works through the responses these images evoke from viewers, the architectural spaces they adorn, the events in which they participate, and, at times, the performative and discursive mimetic practices in which they are implicated. Recognizing that early modern literary and historical portraits share certain characteristics without viewing them as a set of visual analogs, my project reveals how, iv in historical practice as in literary representation, portraiture proves a fluid, social medium whose significance transcends its material boundaries.

Note: Abstract extracted from PDF text

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: