The Magician by W. Somerset Maugham and References to Paintings

In another post, I talked about the use of art reference as a narrative technique in W. Somerset Maugham's novel The Merry-Go-Round (1904), he did the same in The Magician (1908), which undoubtedly leads Aleister Crowley to include art alongside magic as the subject of the novel (albeit in a sarcastic manner) [1]. I find it extremely interesting to put the paintings beside the passages, and in this post you will see the description or invocation of art in Maugham's novel The Magician.

I am using the first edition copy of The Magician, but you can find the link to a free ebook copy easily on this blog since it is out of copyright.

Art Reference in The Magician by W. Somerset Maugham

the magician maugham, art reference
an Aubrey Beardsley
"Arthur sat down, and was hurriedly introduced to a lanky youth, who sat on the other side of Margaret. He was very tall, very thin, very fair. He wore a high collar and very long hair, and held himself like an exhausted lily.
"'He always reminds me of an Aubrey Beardsley that's been dreadfully smudged,' said Susie in an undertone. 'He's a nice, kind creature, but his name is Jagson. He has virtue and industry. I haven't seen any of his work, but he has absolutely no talent'" (31).


the magician maugham, art reference
Del Boro/
Oliver Haddo
"For an instant Oliver Haddo resumed his effective pose; and Susie, smiling, looked at him. He was a man of great size, two or three inches more than six feet high; but the most noticeable thing about him was a vast obesity. His paunch was of imposing dimensions. His face was large and fleshy. He had thrown himself into the arrogant attitude of Velasquez's portrait of Del Boro in the Museum of Berlin; and his countenance bore of set purpose the same contemptuous smile" (37).
the magician maugham, art reference
Aleister Crowley in 1934

Let's compare this portrait with Crowley who, as Maugham confesses in the preface for the collected edition of the novel, serves as the model for Haddo:

"Though Aleister Crowley served, as I have said, as the model for Oliver Haddo, it is by no means a portrait of him. I made my character more striking in appearance, more sinister and more ruthless than Crowley ever was. I gave him magical powers that Crowley, though he claimed them, certainly never possessed."

In this photo taken twenty-six years later, certainly Crowley was getting to be "more striking in appearance, more sinister and more ruthless," and shall we add, more substantial in weight, than he was before.

the magician maugham, art reference
La Diane de Gabies/
Margaret Dauncey


"Yet there was one piece, the charming statue known as La Diane de Gabies, which moved him differently, and to this presently he insisted on going. With a laugh Margaret remonstrated, but secretly she was not displeased. She was aware that his passion for this figure was due, not to its intrinsic beauty, but to a likeness he has discovered in it to herself" (64).


the magician maugham, art reference
La Gioconda
"His [Oliver Haddo's] eyes rested on a print of La Gioconda which hung on the wall. Suddenly he began to speak. He recited the honeyed words with which Walter Pater expressed his admiration for that consummate picture.

"'Hers is the head upon which all the ends of the world are come, and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions. Set it for a moment beside one of those white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how would they be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed. All the thoughts and experience of the world have etched and moulded there, in that which they have of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the mysticism of the Middle Ages, with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias.'

"'She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange evils with Eastern merchants; and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands'" (120-21).


the magician maugham, art reference
Saint Anne
the magician maugham, art reference
Bacchus/St. John the Baptist
"He [Oliver Haddo] found exotic fancies in the likeness between Saint John the Baptist, with his soft flesh and waving hair, and Bacchus, with his ambiguous smile. Seen through his eyes, the seashore in the Saint Anne had the airless lethargy of some damasked chapel in a Spanish nunnery, and over the landscapes brooded a wan spirit of evil that was very troubling" (122).


the magician maugham, art reference
"There was the portrait of a statuary by Bronziho in the Long Gallery of the Louvre. The features were rather large, the face rather broad. The expression was sombre, almost surly in the repose of the painted canvas, and the eyes were brown, almond-shaped like those of an Oriental; the red lips were exquisitely modelled, and the sensuality was curiously disturbing; the dark, chestnut hair, cut short, curled over the head with an infinite grace. The skin was like ivory softened with a delicate carmine. There was in that beautiful countenance more than beauty, for what most fascinated the observer was a supreme and disdainful indifference to the passion of others. It was a vicious face, except that beauty could never be quite vicious; it was a cruel face, except that indolence could never be quite cruel. It was a face that haunted you, and yet your admiration was alloyed with an unreasoning terror. The hands were nervous and adroit, with long, fashioning fingers; and you felt that at their touch the clay almost moulded itself into gracious forms" (122-23).


the magician maugham, art reference
Ribera's dwarf
"He [Oliver Haddo] summoned before Margaret the whole array of Ribera's ghoulish dwarfs, with their cunning smile, the insane light of their eyes, and their malice: he dwelt with a horrible fascination upon their malformations, the humped backs, the club feet, the hydrocephalic heads" (123).


the magician maugham, art reference
Valdés Leal
"He [Oliver Haddo] described the picture by Valdes Leal in a certain place at Seville, which represents a priest at he altar; and the altar is sumptuous with gilt and florid carving. He wears a magnificent cope and a surplice of exquisite lace, but he wears them as though their weight was more than he could bear; and in the meagre trembling hands, and in the white, ashen face, in the dark hollowness of the eyes, there was a bodily corruption that is terrifying. He seems to hold together with difficulty the bonds of the flesh, but with no eager yearning of the soul to burst its prison, only with despair; it is as if the Lord Almighty had forsaken him and the high heavens were empty of their solace. All the beauty of life appears forgotten, and there is nothing in the world but decay. A ghastly putrefaction has attacked already the living man; the worms of the grave, the piteous horror of mortality, and the darkness before him, offer naught but fear. Beyond, dark night is sen and a turbulent sea, the dark night of the soul of which the mystics write, and the troublous sea of life whereon there is no refuge for the weary and the sick at heart" (123-24).

The description does not seem to be referring to this painting, but I have not been able to locate the one Maugham is writing about here.


the magician maugham, art reference
Gustave Moreau
"Then, as if in pursuance of a definite plan, he analysed with a searching, vehement intensity the curious talent of the modern Frenchman, Gustave Moreau. Margaret had lately visited the Luxembourg, and his pictures were fresh in her memory. She had found in them little save a decorative arrangement marred by faulty drawing; but Oliver Haddo gave them at once a new, esoteric import. Those effects as of a Florentine jewel, the clustered colours like emeralds and rubies, like sapphires deeper than the sea, the atmosphere of scented chambers, the mystic persons who seem ever about secret, religious rites, combined in his cunning phrases to create, as it were, a pattern on her soul of morbid and mysterious intricacy. Those pictures were filled with a strange sense of sin, and the mind that contemplated them was burdened with the decadence of Rome, and with the passionate vice of the Renaissance; and it was tortured, too, by all the introspections of this later day" (124)


the magician maugham, art reference
Le Nain
the magician maugham, art reference
Albrecht Dürer
When Margaret is under the influence of drugs administered by Oliver Haddo, she begins to see different visions.

"They passed in their tattered motley, some in the fantastic rags of the beggars of Albrecht Dürer and some in the grey cerecloths of Le Nain" (133)


the magician maugham, art reference
Adam of Michael Angelo
"But even while she looked, as the mist of early day, rising, discloses a fair country, the animal part of that ghoulish creature seemed to fall away, and she saw a lovely youth, titanic but sublime, leaning against a massive rock. He was more beautiful than the Adam of Michael Angelo who wakes to life at the call of the Almighty; and, like him freshly created, he had the adorable languor of one who feels still in his limbs the soft rain on the loose brown earth. Naked and full of majesty he lay, the outcast son of the morning; and she dared not look upon his face, for she knew it was impossible to bear the undying pain that darkened it with ruthless shadows" (134).


[1] Curtis, Anthony, and John Whitehead, ed. W. Somerset Maugham. The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 1987. 45.