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In a richly decorated studio an artist, Basil Hallward talks with a guest, Lord Henry Wotton about a new portrait he has standing out. Lord Henry exclaims that it is the best of Hallward’s work and that he should show it at Grosvenor. Hallward remarks that he doesn’t plan to show it at all. Lord Henry can’t imagine why an artist wouldn’t want to show his work. Hallward explains that he has put too much of himself in it to show it to the public. Lord Henry can’t understand this since Hallward isn’t a beautiful man while the subject of the portrait is extraordinarily beautiful. As he is explaining himself, he mentions the subject’s name--Dorian Gray. He regrets having slipped, saying that when he likes people, he never tells their names because it feels to him as if he’s giving them away to strangers.
Lord Henry compares this idea to his marriage, saying that "the one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties." He adds that he and his wife never know where the other is and that she’s always a better liar than he is, but that she just laughs at him when he slips. Basil Hallward is impatient with Lord Henry for this revelation, accusing Lord Henry of posing. He adds that Lord Henry never says anything moral and never does anything immoral. Lord Henry tells him that being natural is the worst of the poses.
Hallward returns to the idea of the portrait. He explains that "every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not the sitter." The sitter only occasions the production of the art. The painter is revealed, not the sitter. He won’t, therefore, show the secret of his soul to the public.
He tells the story of how he met Dorian Gray. He went to a "crush" put on by Lady Brandon. While he was walking around the room, he saw Dorian Gray, "someone whose mere personality was so fascinating that, if I allowed it to do so, it would absorb by whole nature, my whole soul, my very art itself." He was afraid of such an influence, so he avoided meeting the man he saw. He tried to leave and Lady Brandon caught him and took him around the room introducing him to her guests. He had recently shown a piece that created a sensation, so his cultural capital was quite high at the time. After numerous introductions, he came upon Dorian Gray. Lady Brandon says she didn’t know what Mr. Gray did, perhaps nothing, perhaps he played the piano or the violin. The two men laughed at her and became friends with each other at once.
He tells Lord Henry that soon he painted Dorian Gray’s portrait. Now, Dorian Gray is all of Hallward’s art. He explains that in art, there are two epochal events possible: one is the introduction of a new medium for art, like the oil painting, the second is the appearance of a new personality for art. Dorian Gray is the latter. Even when he’s not painting Dorian Gray, he is influenced by him to paint extraordinarily different creations. It is like a new school of art emerging. Dorian Gray is his motive in art.
As he is explaining the art, he mentions that he has never told Dorian Gray how important he is. He won’t show his Dorian Gray- inspired art because he fears that the public would recognize his bared soul. Lord Henry notes that bared souls are quite popular these days in fiction. Hallward hates this trend, saying that the artist should create beautiful things, and should put nothing of his own life into them. Dorian Gray is often quite charming to Basil, but sometimes he seems to take delight in hurting Basil. Basil feels at such moments that he has given his soul to someone shallow and cruel enough to treat it as a flower to ornament his lapel. Lord Henry predicts that Basil will tire of Dorian sooner than Dorian will tire of him. Basil refuses to believe this. He says as long as he lives, Dorian Gray will dominate his life.
Lord Henry suddenly remembers that he has heard Dorian Gray’s name. His aunt, Lady Agatha, has mentioned him in relation to some philanthropic work she does, saying he was going to help her in the East End. Suddenly, Dorian Gray is announced. Basil Hallward asks his servant to have Mr. Gray wait a moment. He tells Lord Henry not to exert any influence on Dorian Gray because he depends completely on Dorian remaining uncorrupted. Lord Henry scoffs at the idea as nonsense.
Chapter 1 sets the tone of the novel. It is witty, urbane, and ironic with only brief moments of deep feeling expressed and then wittily submerged. The artist of the novel is Basil Hallward. He seems to be in love with his most recent model, Dorian Gray, whom he considers more than a beautiful man, but an inspiration to a new form in his art. The intensity of his feelings for Dorian Gray and the art that Dorian Gray inspires has to do with his sense of identity. He doesn’t want his portrait of Dorian to be shown in public because he feels as if he’s put something essential of himself in it. That is the seed of the novel. The artist paints himself when he seems to be painting another.
Lord Henry is here for ironic relief and the production of aphorisms (short statements of truth) that irony spawns. He voices Oscar Wilde’s signature expressions. He says, for instance, "It is only the intellectually lost who ever argue." One of the most often quoted of his aphorisms: "there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about." He thinks of the luncheon he missed in lingering with Hallward. It had a philanthropic motive, upper class people gathering to discuss ways to share a bit with poor people, the idle people discussing the dignity of labor, the rich people discussing the value of saving money. Basil Hallward also has his own aphoristic rules of life. He never tells people where he’s going when he travels as a way to keep mystery in his life. He never introduces people he likes to other people because he feels it would be like giving them away.