Brush as Wand: Portraiture in Harry Potter (A Pratibha Rai Guest Post)

Pratibha Rai is an Oxford University graduate and she has been a Harry Potter partisan and pundit since 2001. Her research today mostly concerns the sociology of collecting in early modern Europe. She enjoys finding parallels between Harry Potter and history of art. In late 2019 she shared with us what she discovered about that life-saving short-cut antidote, the Bezoar; the next year it was On the Naming Fear & Jinxing in Harry Potter. Those familiar with her work will be as excited as I am about her latest research below. Enjoy!

Brush as Wand: Portraiture in Harry Potter

At Hogwarts, it is an age-old tradition for eminent witches and wizards to sit for portraits in order to preserve their legacy after death. Their framed likenesses cover the walls of Hogwarts like ivy, chronicling the rich heritage of wizarding history such as the plethora of portraits we see surrounding the moving staircase (250 portraits altogether in the Philosophers’ Stone movie). The artist and architect Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) wrote in his treatise De pictura (1435) that a painting ought to be an open window through which the subject might be viewed. Muggle artists have perennially sought to achieve this by imbuing their scenes with optical effects and using oil paints to give portraits a sheen of real life but in Hogwarts, the subject can literally be viewed and even heard from their canvas as they act as agents in their own right to advance the narrative. In this article, I hope to unpack Rowling’s often overlooked fascination with portraiture in the Harry Potter series and how the books use the artistic conflict between truth and illusionism to dramatic effect.

In Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Dumbledore’s portrait emphasises, “I am paint and memory, Harry, paint and memory.” This is true of the portraits in the Harry Potter books; each portrait glistens with the sitter’s unique personality and memories. Therefore, while Sir Cadogan hops between frames raucously challenging anyone to a duel just as he did when he was a knight, Ariana Dumbledore is introspective and hauntingly silent like the unspeakable family secret she is, walking “not as people in portraits usually did, out of the sides of their frames, but along what seemed to be a long tunnel painted behind her.” (Deathly Hallows). This virtuosic verisimilitude to the sitter is a result of the witch or wizard artist applying enchantments to the portrait that give it the ability to move in its own distinctive way and imitate the subject’s demeanour as it appeared to the artist. The magic of startlingly life-like portraits is even partly shared in the muggle world; 19th century painters of the trompe l’oeil genre (French for “deceive the eye”) sought to create ultra-realistic paintings that pop out of their frame. There are even stories of muggle portraits appearing alive; one of my favourites is of a passing aide who mistook Diego Velásquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X for the pontiff himself and warned those in the area to keep the noise down and when Innocent himself first viewed the finished portrait, he bellowed, Troppo vero!” (Too True!) – not only in regards to the resemblance but also the artist’s delivery of the ferocity and power of his character.

Harry navigating the moving staircase surrounded by portraits

Portraits in Hogwarts however are not a limited snapshot of the sitter like the Chocolate Frog cards but are remarkably sentient. Thus, the Fat Lady shudders with terror after being attacked by Sirius Black in Prisoner of Azkaban and moves frames to be kept safe when her own canvas was torn. The other portraits are seized with a palpable and relatable fear after this incident, with Sir Cadogan being the only portrait brave enough to guard the Gryffindor Common Room at this time, thereby showing how portraits can exhibit real courage and virtue in the face of turmoil. Given Rowling’s French roots and the fact that she studied French, it might not be far-fetched to note parallels with the author Théophile Gautier (1811-1872). In his short story, la Cafetière (1831), a young man stays at a country house where objects in his room come alive including the portraits that gain sentience and start to dance – art and storyteller weave magically together. Indeed, Hogwarts portraits appear to be so alive that they can even be overwhelmed with grief. In Half Blood Prince (ch.29), the Fat Lady mourns Dumbledore’s death and is so unsettled that she “let out a wail and, without waiting for the password, swung forwards to admit him.” Portraits are painfully aware of the events of the school and therefore well equipped to empathise with professors and students.

Another rule about portraits that Rowling establishes is that the more time the subject spends with their portrait, the greater the resemblance. Equally, the more powerful the subject is, the more ‘real’ the portrait will appear and who could be more powerful in Hogwarts than Dumbledore? In fact, his office itself is practically a portrait gallery repurposed as a workspace. Harry enters Dumbledore’s office for the first time in Chamber of Secrets where the walls are encircled with portraits of his Headmaster predecessors such as Dilys Derwent, Dexter Fortescue, Phineas Nigellus, and Armando Dippet (the headmaster of Riddle’s school years). During the Edinburgh Book Festival (August 15, 2004), Rowling spoke about the Headmasters portraits, “The place where you see them really talk is in Dumbledore’s office…headmasters and headmistresses leave behind a faint imprint of themselves. They leave their aura, almost, in the office and they can give some counsel to the present occupant”. This ‘counsel’ is not imparted by the artist’s brush however but another act, this time, conducted by the sitter. Traditionally, the headmaster or headmistress has their portrait painted before their death. Once complete, instead of mounting it on a wall, a very curious ritual takes place. The sitter keeps it away from public view in a cupboard under lock and key but regularly visits it to instruct it to behave like themselves, confiding memories and knowledge that might prove useful to their successors (Rowling, Pottermore Aug 10th 2015). This reminded me of my time researching cabinets of curiosities during my Masters and there are glimmers of this Renaissance practice here. Cabinets not only housed scientific or natural rarities but also held portraits shut away from the world yet ambiguously peer at us through glass panes as though uncertain about what level of interaction they want to have with us, just as this curiosity cabinet or cupboard shows:

Cupboard by an unknown artist, 1678–80. © Victoria and Albert Museum.

Aside from his portrait, we know that Dumbledore kept one of the most powerful rarities of the wizarding world, the Penseive, in a black cabinet in his office and when he felt attacked by thoughts and memories, he would siphon the surplus into the basin with his wand. The silver liquid in the basin would then illuminate “patterns and links” of the contents (Goblet of Fire, ch.30) in a similar way that organising disparate objects from the collector’s memories in a curiosity cabinet would help the collector perceive mental links and networks. The Penseive in the black cabinet contains centuries of memories deposited by professors as a reference source for the future. It is little surprise then that it, like a portrait, is kept locked away.

However, as we learn from another enchanted portrait that is locked away in Oscar Wilde’s fin de siècle novel Picture of Dorian Gray, the spellbinding power of a portrait can have a darker side bubbling beneath the surface. Though the portraits in the Headmaster’s office appear to be gently snoozing when students enter, they are merely faking sleep and listening to every word that is said. This is because they are duty-bound to assist the Headmaster by taking on the role of ciphers. A notable example of the active espionage of portraits is the portrait of Phineas Nigellus who, though he did not relish helping Dumbledore because of his pro-Muggle-born beliefs, was nonetheless duty-bound to provide intelligence for him. There are interestingly two portraits of Phineas; one in Dumbledore’s office and the second in the ancestral Black residence of 12 Grimmauld Place. Phineas is able to travel between his portraits and his sarcastic voice can even nightmarishly be heard emanating from its frame, which Harry discovered when he stayed in the room where it hung in 1995. It is suggested that the double portraits were useful for Dumbledore as he tells Phineas’s portrait in Order of the Phoenix ch.22, “Sirius knows not to destroy your portrait,” as it allows Phineas to deliver messages straight to the headmaster’s office. Realising that they were being spied on, Hermione removed the portrait and hid it in her magic beaded bag to prevent him from reporting their location to Snape (then headmaster). In an unusual move, the trio then took the portrait with them in their mission to destroy Voldemort’s Horcruxes. Although perplexing at first, we later understand why Rowling needed the portrait in the Horcrux plot. Travelling with the portrait allowed Phineas to provide snippets of Hogwarts news to them and more crucially, aid them in an indispensable way by discovering their location in the Forest of Dean. It was because his portrait informed Snape of their location that Snape could send them Godric Gryffindor’s Sword, which at that time was concealed behind Dumbledore’s portrait. Therefore, one could say that the trio’s mission was effectively saved by the agency of portraits.

The significance of portraits in the life of Hogwarts’ students is palpable when Bill Weasley visits Hogwarts after five years and asks whether the “picture of the mad knight” (Sir Cadogan) was still around (Goblet of Fire, ch.31). Portraits linger in the memories of Hogwarts alumni – they are not just part of the aesthetic of the place but are like the important people in our lives who we enquire after and go searching for. Portraits not only represent nostalgia however but also play a key part in ensuring the future survival of their common home. The portrait of Ariana Dumbledore is silent both in the sense that her portrait seems to be selectively mute (as we know that portraits are able to speak under enchantment) and she is also bound to silence as she conceals a secret passageway from Aberforth’s house in Hogsmeade to the Room of Requirement. This secret passage was instrumental in providing Harry with his most pivotal return to Hogwarts and enabled members of the Order of the Phoenix and Dumbledore’s Army to enter the castle ready for combat in the Battle of Hogwarts. During the Final Battle, portraits also participated in the action in a valuable capacity by providing moral support; Sir Cadogan for example runs from painting to painting during the fight, crying out encouragement to the combatants (Deathly Hallows, ch.31). For me, this shows that Rowling appreciates how paintings are steeped in the action of our world and can strengthen us with their symbolic power; key features that are at work in Rowling’s favourite painting. In her influential book Literary Allusions in Harry Potter (p.62), Beatrice Groves notes that Rowling named Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus as her favourite painting. Similar to the Hogwarts portraits, this canvas is full of movement; gesturing, leaping, and arms thrown in astonishment as the disciples recognise Christ who has entered incognito in their daily routine. The objects on the table are also busy narrating a symbolic history; the rotting apple for the Fall of Man, the beam of light catching on the glass as Christ’s entering the world and the bread and grapes his Incarnation and Sacrifice. In the Gospel of Mark 16:12, Jesus is said to have appeared “in another form”. Viewing the canvas, this other “form” could be interpreted as the beardless youth, bread, grapes, or perhaps even the form of the painting itself.

Caravaggio’s very animated Supper at Emmaus (1602-3)

National Gallery, Public Domain

Just as Carvaggio elevates everyday fruits to allegories of salvation history, Rowling transforms the mundane act of walking to see a painting into a symbolic act in the denouement of the Final Battle of Hogwarts when Harry returns to Dumbledore’s portrait after his victory on the battlefield. Half of the magic of portraits is the effect it has on the viewer, itself a kind of enchantment that inspires us to move both spiritually and physically towards the painting. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet is so bewitched by Mr. Darcy’s portrait in Pemberley with its “striking resemblance” to the subject that she gazes at it for several minutes but what is notable in my view is that she returns to the portrait before leaving. The encounter with the portrait is the moment that Elizabeth later confesses to her sister Jane as the moment when she first began to love Darcy. The fact that Elizabeth returns to the portrait is telling of her burgeoning love. Rowling also employs the mysterious power of returning to a portrait by having Harry, almost in pilgrimage fashion, revisit Dumbledore’s portrait in his office after he had killed Voldemort. This feels like a completion of a cycle as though by visiting the portrait, he is visiting Dumbledore himself.

Dumbledore’s office on set flanked by 48 portraits of Hogwarts headmasters, Warner Bros. Studio

As he enters the Headmaster’s office, all the portraits celebrate by clapping and cheering him on. Phineas’s portrait beamed with delight as he mentioned how Slytherin contributed to the victory, hinting to his own efforts and that of Slughorn and the Malfoys. Amid the crowd of Headmasters portraits however, there is one missing – an absence that is as sorrowful as the burnt out members on the Black family tapestry; the portrait of headmaster Severus Snape. At death, his portrait ought to have magically appeared in the office like that of Dumbledore, which hangs directly behind the Headmaster’s chair. During the Bloomsbury Live Chat in 2007, Rowling was asked whether this absence was innocent or deliberate. Confidently, she answered, “It was deliberate. Snape had effectively abandoned his post before dying, so he had not merited inclusion in these august circles.” The fact that he was not given the honour of representation for posterity reveals a controversial aspect of portraits themselves; that they usually portray people with power, an “august” group deemed worthy to be represented and whose portraits narrate a coherent, curated narrative. Although this is the tradition that Hogwarts might have inherited, Rowling believes this can change. In the Bloomsbury Live Chat, she added, “I like to think that Harry would be instrumental in ensuring that Snape’s portrait would appear there in due course.” Thus, Rowling allows our imagination to spill over with questions about portraiture even beyond the close of the series; why is it important that Snape’s portrait is absent or present? And what injustice would Harry correct by including Snape’s portrait?

As we have seen, Rowling illustrates the tension between truth and illusionism in the portraits of Hogwarts; the artist’s brush is as magical as a wand since it perpetuates the sitter’s survival, summoning them in any century to give advice and help the living, but they also conceal secrets and tell a curated narrative which does not contain the whole truth. At the beginning of the Harry Potter series, Rowling shows us the dazzling spectacle of portraits at Hogwarts, in the end she wants us to notice the blank wall where Snape’s portrait ought to be. Invisible yet powerfully present to those who have followed him throughout the series, Snape seems to ask, not a painter, but Harry and perhaps even inadvertently us to preserve his memory.

Pratibha Rai


  1. Wayne Stauffer says

    Well Done!!

  2. Thank you very much for this Pratibha – illuminating as always! I did not know about the portraits within the cabinets – very evocative. And a nice point about Bill’s fond memories of Cadogan (I’m fond of him too….)

    Have you seen Secrets of Dumbledore? Ariana’s portrait is central to a scene in that – and I couldn’t decide whether they were making it move or if that was just my mind playing tricks?!

  3. So fascinating Article. Enjoyable to read it. Beautiful contents,thorough knowledg, quality writing. It’s pleasure and privilege to read this kind of beautiful Aticle. I am glad to find and read this Article. Thank you Pratibha.

  4. Moira Donald says

    An inspired and inspiring piece, Pratibha. I really enjoyed reading it. Thank you!
    The way the subjects in Hogwarts portraits watch/follow the viewer have always reminded me of the Mona Lisa’s eyes appearing to focus on the observer from whichever direction viewed, as though the sitter is almost alive…

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