Gertrude Stein once said,
“I have always noticed that in portraits of really great writers the mouth is always firmly closed.”
Certainly that is the case with today’s subject, Charlotte Brontë. There’s a good reason for this. We know from personal letters that she had very bad teeth. In fact one of the first things English novelist, Elizabeth Gaskell noticed about poor Charlotte was her teeth. In her posthumous biography, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), Gaskell writes a less than flattering description of Charlotte saying she had “a reddish face, large mouth and many teeth gone; altogether plain, the forehead square, broad and rather overhanging.”
Ouch! Was that really necessary, Mrs Gaskell?
If only we had photos. It cannot be said with any certainty that any photos of Charlotte, and her famous literary sisters Emily and Anne Brontë exist.
A sad fact because they lived at a time when photography, though in its infancy could have made it possible. Although evidence exists that Charlotte, the eldest of the trio refused an invitation to sit for a daguerreotype portrait, there is much speculation about the existence of several photos purporting to be of the Brontë sisters. It seems any photo with a group of three women appropriately attired taken around the middle 1800’s is a likely contender for a portrait of the famous siblings. Certainly much has been written about them in this regard, which with a little scholarly Google research you can go and appease your curiosity.
As much as would like to know what they looked like, we have only sketches to go by. So as an exercise to appease my own curiosity, I thought it would be interesting to see how one of these esteemed sisters might look if I applied a little digital life into a sketch of Charlotte.
Drawn by the renowned English portraitist, George Richmond* in 1850, it was commissioned by Charlotte’s publisher, George Smith as a gift for her father, who upon receiving it recognised ‘strong indications of the genius of the author.’ There is some conjecture around whether Richmond may have idealised her portrait, so we will never really know exactly how she looked but I do like this drawing of her and tend to agree with her father. Charlotte was 34 when she sat for this portrait and was at the peak of her success with Jane Eyre, her best known novel and a classic of English literature.
According to George Smith, when the portrait was completed Charlotte burst into tears because it bared a strong resemblance to her late sister Anne, who died of tuberculosis several months earlier aged only 29. (The same fate had befallen their sister Emily the year before in 1848.)
Five years later, Charlotte died just three weeks before her 39th birthday. Her death certificate gives the cause of death as tuberculosis.
I think, Charlotte would have approved of the colourisation…not so sure about George Richmond 🙂
*George Richmond produced more than 3,000 portraits during his lifetime, including those of Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Fry, Edward VII, William Blake, and John Ruskin.
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”
― Charlotte Brontë,