If Ida is a heavily symbolic work, the painting Albright completed for The Picture of Dorian Gray is fiercely, wrenchingly literal, the culmination of everything he’d learned about portraying the body. It’s a little surprising that Albright’s Picture of Dorian Gray (1943–44) has come to be considered one of the artist’s defining achievements, given the constraints he worked under: Because of the film’s production schedule, he had to complete the work in a year (i.e., half a second in Albright time).
Albright’s evocation of decay is also somewhat cheapened by the presence of the ancient Egyptian cat statue on the table beside Dorian, which, the film suggests, is responsible for the character’s agelessness. It’s a gimmicky and completely unnecessary plot device, and, since it’s the only object that doesn’t age visibly, it sticks out of the painting like a sore thumb.
But even so, Albright’s work is undeniably powerful, particularly as Lewin presents it on film. While The Picture of Dorian Gray was shot almost entirely in black and white, the picture itself appears in ravishing Technicolor that emphasizes Dorian’s ghoulish stare and the painting’s eye-popping, almost psychedelic pigments. Though the film went on to win an Academy Award for black-and-white cinematography, there can be no doubt that its most inspired image is the luridly colorful one Albright dreamed up.
Albright went on to complete many celebrated paintings before his death in 1983, but he’s never quite become a household name. Even at the Art Institute of Chicago, where his Dorian Gray
permanently hangs, he’s long been overshadowed by his contemporaries
, whose American Gothic
(1930) and Nighthawks
(1942), respectively, enjoy the kind of recognizability that’s so far eluded Albright’s paintings. His vision of the world may have been a touch too macabre to be truly, resoundingly popular, and perhaps that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Oscar Wilde, that unabashed elitist, put it best: “The artist should never try to be popular. Rather the public should be more artistic.”