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Portraiture in Emma: Realist or “Imaginist”?

Jane Austen uses portraits to advance the plot in several of her books, but only in Emma do we get to see characters reacting to the creation of a painting. In her novel Emma, Austen uses characters’ reactions to art to reveal their values, mirror their roles in the plot, and discuss the nature of art as a whole. This is especially evident in Volume I, Chapter VI, when Mr. Knightley, Mrs. Weston, Mr. Elton, and Mr. Woodhouse all react to Emma Woodhouse’s portrait of Harriet Smith. Nearly all of the characters in this portrait scene realize that Emma’s watercolor painting is an inaccurate portrayal, but not all choose to comment on it. Their opinions often differ, and they disagree about whether good art ought to have more truth or imagination. When revisited in this way, the scene can also give us a glimpse of Austen’s own artistic vision for her novels.

Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston are perhaps the clearest-seeing characters in the portrait scene. Mr. Knightley is described as “a sensible man,” and Mrs. Weston’s judgement is “highly esteem[ed]” by Emma (26, 23). They are both honest with Emma, and acknowledge that they see how she has willfully misinterpreted Harriet’s appearance. Despite this, they disagree as to how much Emma’s changes discredit the work of art as a whole. Mrs. Weston remarks that “Miss Woodhouse has given her friend the only beauty she wanted,” and seems to feel that Emma’s flattery of Harriet is a vital part of the portrait (55). She recognizes that art is not only about realism, but is also a social activity; Emma must flatter her subject in order to please her audience. Mrs. Weston does not see a problem with imagination and artwork being mixed. In fact, Austen’s contemporary, Samuel Johnson, gives the definition of imagination as “the power of forming ideal pictures” in his Dictionary of the English Language—exactly what Emma is doing (Johnson’s Dictionary, “imagination”). Like Emma, Mrs. Weston is an “imaginist” (268). Mr. Knightley is more concerned about the accuracy of Harriet’s appearance. He says just one sentence in the entire scene: “You have made her too tall, Emma” (56). He is honest and authoritative, and dislikes that the truth is being altered for ulterior motives. Mr. Knightley seems to feel that there is no room for imagining things in artwork. Each of the two perspectives is valuable, and is presented by a reasonable character. Moreover, both Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston are focusing on Harriet’s portrait and its merit; they care about the art itself. This is not true for all the characters in the scene.

Although they may seem like an odd pairing, both Emma and Mr. Elton are less concerned about Harriet’s portrait as a work of art, and are more interested in using it as a means for matchmaking. They both take Mrs. Weston’s imaginist perspective, but begin to imagine too much. When painting Harriet’s portrait, Emma decides willfully to misinterpret how Harriet looks to suit her own idea of perfection. Austen writes that Emma “meant to throw in a little improvement to the figure, to give a little more height” (55). Emma sets out to draw Harriet with an ulterior motive: she wants Mr. Elton to be able to admire Harriet. Mr. Elton also cares more about the matchmaking goal than the artistry. He cares very little about Emma’s portrait as a work of art, and he is willing to imagine that it is better than it is. His goal is to make Emma fall in love with him, and so he will praise her art regardless of how good it is. The narrator states that “his admiration made him discern a likeness almost before it was possible” (55). Mr. Elton chooses to “defend [Harriet’s portrait] through every criticism” even though Emma herself is “not much deceived as to her own skill,” and knows that there are plenty of flaws in her work (55, 53). To Mr. Elton, Emma’s skill and the portrait’s qualities are irrelevant—he will praise it because Emma drew it and he wants her to like him. Both Mr. Elton and Emma are using art for matchmaking, and both end up imagining too much by ignoring the faults in Emma’s painting. By doing this, they delude themselves and lose sight of the artwork itself.

Characters who get caught up in imagination or ulterior motives in art can become blind to the larger social situation, as Emma and Mr. Elton both discover; however, it can be just as blinding to lack imagination. A character lacking either Emma’s imaginist or Mr. Knightley’s realist perspective is left out of touch—having one trait or the other is not enough. Mr. Woodhouse, for example, lacks imagination. He is stuck in his own perception of reality and cannot grasp the concept of art or the imaginary. As the narrator puts it, he is always “understanding but in part” (30). In the portrait scene, he makes a surface level comment that the painting is “so prettily done,” but is worried that “[Harriet] must catch cold” dressed as she is in the painting (56). Mr. Woodhouse doesn’t really understand the purpose of the painting, nor can he comprehend the difference between Harriet’s being cold in reality versus on a canvas. Everything is real to him, and so he is (paradoxically) blind to any deeper implications.

Mr. Elton, on the other hand, lacks truth. He lies to the others and perhaps to himself by claiming that there are no faults in Emma’s painting. It is unclear whether or not he can actually see the faults, but by ignoring them he becomes irrational. Mr. Elton struggles to come up with a coherent defense of Emma’s work, saying, “consider, she is sitting down—which naturally presents a different—which in short gives the idea…” (56). In contrast, Mr. Knightley, who is full of truth, says just one clear, decisive sentence. Mr. Elton, lacking truth, is ridiculous and ends up deluding himself. He believes that Emma is falling in love with him, when really she is just reacting to comments she thinks are meant for Harriet. Lacking truth or imagination, neither Mr. Elton nor Mr. Woodhouse clearly observes the faults in Emma’s picture. As a result, they cannot see what is going on in the bigger picture—the social context of the portraiture.

The entire painting scene is a microcosm of Emma as a whole. Each character’s opinion of Emma’s art reflects their values and role in the story. As Emma paints Harriet to reflect her idea of what Harriet should be, she is also seeking to mentor and shape Harriet in real life. Austen shows this parallel in a number of ways. In the portrait scene, Mrs. Weston remarks that “Miss Woodhouse has given her friend the only beauty she wanted,” referring to the painting (55). Strikingly, just a page earlier, Mr. Elton uses a very similar phrase to compliment Emma on “hav[ing] given Miss Smith all that she required” in reality (51). Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston’s argument about Emma’s portrayal of Harriet is really an argument about Emma’s relationship with Harriet; they disagree about whether Harriet can (or should) be manipulated by Emma.

Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston’s commentary on the portrait is notably similar to their conversation about Emma in the previous chapter. Mr. Knightley does not want Emma to manipulate Harriet, and fears that if she does, “she will grow just refined enough to be uncomfortable with those among whom birth and circumstances have placed her home” (49). He worries that with Emma’s manipulation, Harriet will become too big for her boots—or, perhaps, “too tall” (56). With this consideration Mr. Knightley’s commentary on Harriet’s portrait becomes deeper. When he warns Emma not to make Harriet too tall in the portrait, he is warning her not to manipulate Harriet in real life. He is uncomfortable with Harriet’s being portrayed as anything that she is not, even if Emma thinks it will be “a fault on the right side” (54). Nearly all of Emma and Mr. Knightley’s arguments arise when he thinks she is departing from the truth. In the same scene (where Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley are discussing Emma), we learn that Mr. Knightley does not like to imagine things. When talking to Mrs. Weston about whether Emma’s appearance could be improved, Mr. Knightley states, “I do not know what I could imagine” (49). This attachment to “sober facts” is a large part of Mr. Knightley’s character, and is reflected in his emphasis on truth in Emma’s art (72). Mrs. Weston, on the other hand, sees the value of the imaginist perspective. In her conversation with Mr. Knightley, she suggests that Emma “wants to see [Harriet] better informed” and will be a good influence on her (47). When she comments on Emma’s portrait in the next scene, she is affirming that Emma will be able to change Harriet for the better. Mrs. Weston is comfortable with breaking from reality both in real life and in art.

Emma and Mr. Elton’s views on art are also intimations of their larger roles in the story. In the portrait scene, both characters imagine too much about the artwork and ignore the faults of the drawing; in parallel, they are both deluded in the larger narrative. Emma draws Harriet as Emma herself would like Harriet to be—a match for Mr. Elton. Mr. Knightley, on the other hand, is not deceived by Emma’s portrayal of reality. Mr. Knightley sees Harriet clearly, and knows that she would be a better match for Mr. Martin. Emma’s greatest problems given at the beginning of the book are “the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself” (24). Both of these qualities have stopped Emma from being diligent with her studies. No one has been able to force her to work hard, and she’s never thought it necessary. Of course, these weaknesses are best showcased in Emma’s art. The narrator remarks that “in nothing [in the arts] had she approached the degree of excellence which she would have been glad to command and ought not to have failed of” (53). Mr. Knightley complains that Emma “will never submit to any thing requiring industry and patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding” (47). Emma values her imagination more than diligence in art, but also in real life. When she is supposed to be helping Harriet study, Emma comments to herself that it is “much pleasanter to let her imagination range and work at Harriet's fortune, than to be labouring to enlarge her comprehension or exercise it on sober facts” (72). When Emma focuses solely on her imagination, she misrepresents Harriet both in art and real life, and is led astray. She imagines too much about the intentions of others and convinces herself that Mr. Elton is in love with Harriet. Emma focuses too much on using art as a matchmaking device without considering the bigger picture. Mr. Elton behaves very similarly, and his folly is mirrored in reality; while imagining away the faults in Emma’s drawing, Mr. Elton convinces himself that Emma is encouraging his advances. In fact, Mr. Elton is blind to Emma’s drawing as a whole—he doesn’t care whether it is good or bad, he merely wants to use it to get to Emma. This insincerity is consistent with Mr. Elton’s character and his role in the story as a whole. He is only pursuing Emma to get her fortune; he knows and cares little about Emma herself.

Even Mr. Woodhouse’s confusion about reality in portraiture reflects his role in the story. Since everything is real to Mr. Woodhouse, from his ailments to Harriet’s health in her portrait, he can’t comprehend the meaning of the art—any more than he can comprehend what is really going on in this scene. He is blind to the argument between Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley, as well as to Mr. Elton’s attentions to his daughter.

In general, each character's relationship with art is analogous to their relationships with one another. With all these different perspectives, what is Austen saying about the qualities good art should possess? Too much imagination leads Emma and Mr. Elton astray, while a lack of imagination blinds Mr. Woodhouse. Ultimately, it seems a balance of realist and imaginist qualities is best; Emma can best use her imagination on a solid groundwork of truth. That kind of a groundwork is exactly what Mr. Knightley offers. In his proposal to Emma, he states, “you hear nothing but truth from me” (340). This is why Emma needs to marry Mr. Knightley. She finally learns that love (like art) can exist without complete flattery. Mr. Woodhouse has always been blind to all her faults, and when considering her feelings about Mr. Frank Churchill, Emma decides that she must not love him because “she could yet imagine him to have faults” (215). Emma relies on Mr. Knightley’s honest and straightforward nature. Mr. Knightley equally needs Emma to teach him how to imagine. Soon after his proposal, Mr. Knightley refers to Emma as “faultless in spite of all her faults” (342). He gives Emma truth and acknowledges her faults but is also able to imagine her as a more perfect version of herself. In the same way, no good art can exist without both truth and imagination.

Austen uses this principle in all of her novels, which are her own artform. Rather than focusing on a portrait of a single person, Austen writes that “three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on” (Letter LX, 1814). Austen makes sure to describe those families using both fancy and realism. In her famous ‘Defense of the Novel,’ in Northanger Abbey, Austen writes that a novel is a work “in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor are conveyed to the world” (Northanger Abbey, 24). In other words, a successful novel must combine “knowledge of human nature,” or Mr. Knightley’s truth, with the “liveliest effusions of wit and humor,” Emma’s imagination (24). Austen uses these ingredients carefully, and then ends the novel with the marriage of Emma and Mr. Knightley—so that like the residents of Highbury, her readers can be “fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union” (381).

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. Alistair M. Duckworth. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002. Print.
  • _____. “The Letters of Jane Austen.” The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Letters of Jane Austen. Ed. Sarah Chauncey Woolsey. Project Gutenberg, 12 Feb. 2013. Web. 02 June 2021. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/42078/42078-h/42078-h.htm.
  • _____. Northanger Abbey. Ed. John Davie, and James Kinsley. Oxford: Oxford U, 2008. Print.
  • Johnson, Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Language. 1755, 1773. Eds. Beth Rapp Young, Jack Lynch, William Dorner, Amy Larner Giroux, Carmen Faye Mathes, and Abigail Moreshead. 2021. https://johnsonsdictionaryonline.com.
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