In “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Basil, the painter of the titular portrait, argues with Lord Henry Wotton over his refusal to exhibit the piece in public. When Lord Henry questions Basil over the fact, his response is simple: “I have put too much of myself into it.” Though Lord Henry understands this as being an aesthetic likeness and laughs, Basil means something quite different. By his own admission, he means that Dorian Gray has influenced his art in a profound way. What manner of influence is this, and what is its make and measure? In Dorian Gray, Basil has encountered the sublime, and it is this beauty that he wishes to keep for himself.
As I understand it, the sublime is anything of such profound beauty or greatness that it is nearly terrifying. In its purest form, the sublime is something that challenges our existential notions – the sublime rejects mortality. What proof, then, is there that Dorian embodies anything like this to Basil? As Basil recounts his first meeting with the young man, we learn that the first emotion Dorian evoked was fear.
“When our eyes met, I felt that I was growing pale. A curious sensation of terror came over me. I knew that I had come face to face with some one whose mere personality was so fascinating that, if I allowed it to do so, it would absorb my whole nature, my whole soul, my very art itself. I did not want any external influence in my life… I don’t know how to explain it to you. Something seemed to tell me that I was on the verge of a terrible crisis in my life. I had a strange feeling that fate had in store for me exquisite joys and exquisite sorrows.”
Dorian’s presence, apart from inspiring fear, seems to have the gravitas of looming, life-changing, impact. It is this that terrifies Basil, but also this that compels him to get to know Dorian better. Indeed, Dorian and Basil become fast friends and Mr. Gray rapidly becomes the epicenter of Basil’s artistic vision. Dorian serves not only as a model for paintings, but as their heart even when it is not him that Basil paints. This is a byproduct of Dorian’s sublime nature – his influence reaches beyond his own body. Dorian is so fantastically beautiful in reality, that he subverts Basil’s understanding of beauty as being something that is keenest in the imagination. Thus, Basil’s form of painting has changed to something more realistic, almost life-like, because he can now conceive romantic beauty even in reality’s more sensible form.
Dorian, then, is the gateway to a new mode of style that Basil has discovered by accident – so why is he unwilling to share his art with others? Basil believes it to be far too intimate of an insight into his person. “The world might guess it, and I will not bare my soul to their shallow prying eyes.” This, however, is not the only reason. Further prompting from Lord Henry moves Basil to reveal his standing on the state of art in his time: it is too biographical, and lacking in the abstract sense of beauty. His fear is that in showing off his new mode of art, one of romantic beauty in sensible realism, that he might compromise his standing against the new wave of realism, as they would not understand that its true beauty comes from its sublime inspiration.