Marlene Dumas

Oscar Wilde


On loan

Palazzo Grassi (Venice, Italy): Marlene Dumas

Marlene Dumas born 1953
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1000 × 808 mm
Purchased with funds provided by The Joe and Marie Donnelly Acquisition Fund 2018


Oscar Wilde is one of a pair of paintings by Marlene Dumas, both dated 2016, that separately depict the writer, dramatist, poet and cultural figure Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) and his lover Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie) (Tate T14922). Oscar Wilde is the larger of the two paintings and depicts the writer with his hands clasped and his gaze looking out of the canvas to his left. He wears a dark jacket and green cravat. Based on a full length black-and-white photograph taken by Napoleon Sarony in 1882, Dumas has enlarged the figure, so that Wilde appears larger than life-size, and cropped the composition just below his waist. The picture features a limited palette, with bursts of yellow colour on Wilde’s gloves and green on his cravat. As with many of her paintings, Dumas removes any reference to the setting so that the focus is solely on the figure and her paint technique.

The accompanying painting depicts the writer and commentator Lord Alfred Douglas (1870–1945), also known as ‘Bosie’. Although the canvases differ dramatically in size, the heads of each subject are scaled similarly, with Bosie’s face occupying almost the entire frame of the smaller painting. Like the painting of Wilde, Dumas based the portrait on a nineteenth-century photograph of Douglas. When hung to the left of Oscar Wilde, Bosie appears to be glancing at his lover. By treating each figure in a similar fashion, Dumas sets up an informal relationship between the subjects that suggests an intimacy at odds with the original photographic source material.

Unlike many of Dumas’s paintings, the titles of these two works directly refer to a specific sitter, drawing attention to the biography of the two figures. From around 1891 to 1895 Wilde and Bosie were in a relationship at a time when male homosexuality was illegal. In 1895 Bosie’s father, the Marquis of Queensberry, left a card at Wilde’s club that accused him of being a sodomite. With encouragement from Bosie, Wilde sued for libel. After evidence was uncovered of Wilde’s relationships with sex workers, he was arrested, convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years of hard labour in Reading Gaol. While incarcerated Wilde wrote De Profundis (1897, published 1905), his love letter to Bosie and, upon his release in 1897, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898). Dumas is interested in the way painting can replicate the intimacy and emotion of human relationships. As well as being a record of the doomed relationship between the two men, and of the oppression of homosexuality within Britain, the two paintings are a personal response by Dumas to Wilde, a figure she has long admired:

I have been a fan of Oscar Wilde ever since I can remember. As a writer of great wit, his combination of intelligence and humour is unique. He was imprisoned at Reading for two years for loving the beautiful, untrustworthy ‘golden boy’ Bosie. I have painted Wilde before the entry into the prison that destroyed his life and tried to show him less as a proud author and more as a vulnerable man in relation to the young lover who led him to his tragic end.
(Marlene Dumas, quoted in National Portrait Gallery press release, 2017, accessed August 2017.)

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie) were originally made for the Artangel exhibition Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison which took place in 2016 at the prison, where they were displayed side-by-side within a cell such as Wilde might have been incarcerated in. Dumas also depicted Wilde in the ongoing drawing series Great Men 2014–present, which she started for the tenth Manifesta Biennial in Saint Petersburg in 2014, in response to Russia’s anti-gay legislation. At the time, Dumas wrote the poem ‘Non-traditional Relationships’ that explained her views on love:

Modern art is by its very nature a non-traditional activity.
Or rather it aims to expand our notions of the traditional and the normal.
Art is there to help us to see more and not less.
Laws are there to help us to love more and not less.
Laws should protect us from hatred and not from love.
(Marlene Dumas, quoted in Manifesta 10 2014, accessed August 2017.)

Both paintings were exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, London in 2017 in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in the United Kingdom in 1967.

Further reading
Marlene Dumas, ‘Non-traditional Relationships’, in Manifesta 10: The European Biennial of Contemporary Art, exhibition catalogue, Saint Petersburg 2014; reprinted in Marlene Dumas, Sweet Nothings: Notes and Texts, second edition, London 2014, and at, accessed August 2017.
Marlene Dumas, ‘Women and Painting’, Parkett, vol.37, 1993, p.140; reprinted in Marlene Dumas, Sweet Nothings: Notes and Texts, second edition, London 2014, and at, accessed August 2017.
‘News Release: Portraits of Oscar Wilde and “Bosie” by Marlene Dumas go on display at National Portrait Gallery to mark homosexuality decriminalisation anniversary’, National Portrait Gallery, London, 3 April 2017,, accessed August 2017.

Fiontán Moran
September 2017

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