By Beverley Park Rilett and Anne Nagel 

This gallery presents portraits of the Victorian novelist, Mary Ann Evans, known to the world as George Eliot. Curated in collaboration with the George Eliot Archive, where it originated in 2018, the gallery is unique in the number and scope of portraits that it makes accessible for multidisciplinary inquiry and scholarship. Although other, more recent images of the author exist, this is the first comprehensive collection of the known portraits that were made of George Eliot during her lifetime. However, it isn’t quite complete: we know for certain there is at least one more sketch completed by Sir Frederic Burton in 1864 that apparently has never been published. The owner(s) have assured us that we will be permitted to add it to the archive after it has been professionally assessed. Clearly, an advantage of creating a digital collection is the ability to update it as new portraits are discovered.

For a woman who was celebrated even in her own time as one of England’s greatest writers,[i]  there are fewer portraits than one might expect. One reason for this paucity of portraits is that George Eliot was notoriously shy of sharing her image with her adoring public. “Was she beautiful or not beautiful?” is the question posed by Eliot’s narrator in Daniel Deronda about the heroine of that novel—a question that many have posed of the novelist herself.[ii] Although George Eliot disparaged her appearance, and many who met her agreed that she was unattractive, this opinion was by no means universal.[iii]

George Eliot was captured in art by an array of portraitists, including two of her Coventry friends who knew her as a young woman, a picture restorer who professed his love to her, a princess who sketched her profile on a concert program, and many professional artists, such as François d’Albert Durade, who offered to paint the thirty-year-old Eliot while she boarded with him and his wife in Geneva.[iv] The genres include spontaneous sketches, charcoal drawings, paintings in watercolor and oil, etchings, engravings, albumen-print photography, and a silhouette cutout by an unknown artist when she was a girl.[v]

In 2017, Kathryn Hughes, author of a respected biography of George Eliot, broke the story of a newly discovered portrait. The chalk pastel portrait, she observes, presents “an individual, not a type. Her long face, big nose and flinty grey eyes are the opposite of the generic dolliness that passed for beauty in the early Victorian period.”[vi] It was discovered by a London picture dealer, Andrew Sim, who thought it might be a young George Eliot but was unable to trace the provenance of the picture until 2014. While the familiar angle of her head, prominent nose, soft mouth, and book in the corner all suggested the portrait’s authenticity, a biographical connection to this 1840’s image helps confirm the case. Biographers knew that Eliot had fallen in love with and briefly become engaged to a “picture restorer” in the spring of 1845 but they had been unable to identify this “young artist”.[vii] The man’s name was finally recovered in 2009, when Jacob Simon, then chief curator at the National Portrait Gallery, published his findings in the Times Literary Supplement. Simon discovered that George Barker Jr. (1818-1883), Eliot’s exact contemporary, had been employed that March at Baginton Hall, an estate just outside Coventry, where Eliot was living.[viii] From this article and Hughes’s biography, Sim was able to verify the sitter, the artist, the motive, and the mise en scene, all at once. In an email correspondence, Sim wrote that further analysis has borne out the subject’s identification: “Facial recognition analysis on the portrait conducted by Professor Conrad Rudolph at the University of California … scored it at 83.2% on their computer system FACES (soon to be adopted by the Frick Collection). 50% would be considered a likeness; 65% as a strong likeness—83% is effectively a dead ringer, allowing for age, etc.”[ix] It was the first time the young Mary Ann Evans—years before she became George Eliot—sat for a professional artist.

Before Barker, Eliot had been portrayed in the amateur art of her close friends, Sara Hennell (1812-1899) and Sara’s sister, Caroline “Cara” Hennell Bray (1814-1905). In 1842, Cara created two portraits, the first a pencil sketch and the second a watercolor. These images clearly pleased Eliot, who wrote that Cara’s “benevolence” to her “extends to the hiding of faults in my visage as well as my character.”[x] She recognized that a portrait represented the artist’s way of seeing her subject. 

Sara Hennell captured Eliot’s profile and studied the shape of her head, reflecting the group’s interest in the quasi-science of phrenology. The phrenological portrait by Hennell is striking as an attempt to convey the inner self through exterior characteristics. According to Hugh Witemeyer, Eliot’s portrayals of fictional characters through references to their phrenological attributes became increasingly rare over the years, as she favored more sophisticated, nuanced descriptions.[xi] This leads us to wonder how later portraits might have been influenced by the portraitist’s desire to do justice to a novelist who was conversant in the philosophy of aesthetics and famous for her characters’ realism.

Francois D’Albert Durade (1804-1886), a professional portrait painter, was the next to capture Eliot’s likeness. He too was deeply attached to her. They met in 1850 when Eliot, at the age of 30, took a trip to the continent with her friends, the Brays, to shake the grief of her father’s recent death. She decided to linger in Geneva, Switzerland, on her own and took up residence there, boarding with the artist and his wife Julie. They became close, with Eliot calling Julie “Maman” and using the familiar “tu” form in her address to Durade; they remained lifelong correspondents.[xii] Durade’s is the only known oil painting of Eliot; he created it in 1850, nearly a decade before Eliot became a celebrity author, and shortly after Eliot’s death, he replicated the painting with only very slight variations while others, such as George J. Stodart, copied it as engravings for public dissemination.[xiii]

As you might glean from this comparison of the disparate contexts of and motives for Durade’s first oil painting and its replicas, each portrait can be considered both an artifact, reflective of a specific time and place, and a visual text, with the potential to present a unique perspective on Eliot. Most viewers believe Durade’s painting shortened Eliot’s nose and chin in an effort to depict her as more conventionally attractive. Cara Bray’s watercolor portrait does the same. The question of “truthful” representation of a woman’s appearance was one Eliot recognized herself as problematic. In Middlemarch, for example, as the artist Naumann attempts to draw Dorothea, Will Ladislaw protests, “As if a woman were a mere coloured superficies!”[xiv] In the same vein, despite any limitations that Will might have attributed to the static image, we encourage you to see in these portraits the potential for invaluable insight into Eliot’s life and the world that she inhabited.

Those hoping to learn what Eliot “really” looked like might be more satisfied with the photographs of the author included in this collection. She was photographed in Kunstverlag, Berlin, in 1855 by Sophus Williams (1835-1900) during the first continental journey she took with George Henry Lewes, who became her domestic partner after they returned to England. This attractive photograph appears retouched, especially around the eyes. A few years later, in 1858, Eliot was photographed by John Edwin Mayall (1810-1901) of the London Stereoscopic Company. Her wavy hair is smoothed, and her eyes are soft, as in the Williams photograph, but her hand is stiffly posed across her chin, as if the photographer wanted to hide it. She looks gentle, but a little uncomfortable in the spotlight. The photograph that Mayall took of Eliot in 1858 so appalled her that she determined never to be photographed again.[xv] Lewes’s picture was taken during the same session, but if they were photographed together, that image has not survived.[xvi]

Several paparazzi-like artists sketched Eliot, the celebrity, when she appeared in public. It is unlikely that she ever met most of these portraitists, such as Lowes Cato Dickinson (1819-1908), who, in an ink drawing, captured Eliot’s strong profile at a concert in 1872. Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll (1849-1939), was not immune to the fascination of encountering one of her favorite authors in person, and she also sketched Eliot in profile at a concert in 1877. Laura Alma-Tadema (1852-1909) made two pencil sketches, both around 1877 and Punch artist George du Maurier (1834-1896) sketched Eliot during a visit to her and Lewes at the Priory. All of these sketches are thought to have been made spontaneously and without Eliot’s knowledge.[xvii]

These spontaneous portraits may be viewed as differing approaches to negotiating Eliot’s unconventionality—not only as a woman whose appearance did not conform to the standards of Victorian beauty, but also as one who had challenged social norms by living with a married man. The black silhouette at the beginning of the gallery appears nearly to reshape her to conform to the desired picture of young womanhood--minimizing her forehead, nose, and chin--whereas the later-life profiles seem to exaggerate some of her features. A few examples of this are the portraits by Stephen Alonzo Schoff (1818-1904), John Sloan (1871-1951), and Thomas Johnson (1843-1904), American artists whose pictures appear almost identical. Moreover, George Richmond’s sketch even seems strikingly similar to the portrait of Savonarola in Eliot’s historical novel, Romola; we encourage you to take a look at the image “Girolamo Savonarola” by William Unger (1837-1932), one of the Romola illustrations in our gallery Selected Illustrations of George Eliot’s Works. Or worse, could some of these later-life sketches, vaguely reminiscent of Snow White’s wicked queen or the Grimm brothers’ witch who tempted Hansel and Gretel, be read as representations of a powerful social rebel whose nonconformity was threatening?

Arguably, the most interesting portraits of George Eliot were executed by two professional artists that Lewes commissioned in the early 1860’s following the popular and critical success of Eliot’s first novel, Adam Bede. Portraitist Samuel Laurence (1812-1884) was given the first opportunity to produce a chalk drawing in 1860. At first, Eliot put off sitting for Laurence, but Lewes persisted, assuring Laurence she would be amenable after they returned from their trip abroad. Laurence asked for six sittings and produced at least two preliminary sketches, but on August 28, less than a month after beginning, Eliot had had enough.[xviii] Evidently, both Eliot and Lewes were disappointed with the Laurence’s results, and after initially agreeing that Laurence could display the finished portrait in an exhibition of the Royal Academy, they withdrew their permission for him to display it outside his studio.  

After Laurence’s portrait proved unacceptable (in Lewes’s opinion), another professional portrait painter, Sir Frederic William Burton (1816-1900) was hired. Eliot described Burton as an “agreeable man with a little English glazing shyness” after meeting him for the first time in 1858 in Munich (GEL 8: 480). In the summer of 1864, Burton made several sketches of Eliot in preparation for a finished chalk portrait, completed in 1865 and exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1867. It was one of the few images of Eliot that she and Lewes liked.[xix] 

It is unknown whether the couple admired any of Burton’s preliminary sketches because there is no mention of them in their letters or journals. However, the sketches have caused something of a stir in the world of George Eliot scholarship. Burton’s so-called “Grecian” sketch—the first sketch in the Burton exhibit in the George Eliot Portrait Gallery—looks so unlike his other portraits of her that for years the subject was listed as unknown, long after the artist and date of 1864-1865 had been verified. The provenance of the sketch was finally traced by Paul Goldman, antiquarian and curator of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, in preparation for an exhibition in 1981 commemorating the 150th anniversary of Eliot’s death. By comparing the hair and the angle at which the subject holds her head, the portraits begin to look strikingly similar, although the “Grecian” sketch has rightly been called an idealized and romanticized representation. Most portraits show a soft and gentle expression, while there is a sense of strength and determination in Burton’s “Grecian” sketch that offers a very different view of the author, possibly reflecting a desire to represent Eliot’s internal characteristics to a greater extent than her external features.

Burton sketched at least three preparatory images of Eliot before completing the famous chalk drawing of 1865, although only two of Burton’s sketches have been made public. A third sketch Burton made in 1864 that has apparently never been published will soon be added to our collection. Ultimately, the gentle version of Eliot was selected for the finished portrait; it was purchased by Lewes and Eliot for their home, the Priory, and proudly shown to select guests. In contrast to Laurence’s chalk portrait, for which Eliot rescinded her permission for public exhibition, Burton’s was, in fact, exhibited at the Royal Academy. John Cross also admired the Burton portrait--after Eliot’s sudden death in 1880, it was one of the few portraits of his wife that Cross approved for reproduction. In 1884, he had it reproduced by Paul Adolphe Rajon (1843-1888) as an etching, which he used as the frontispiece of his biography, George Eliot’s Life, as related in her Letters and Journals.[xx]

We encourage you to explore this gallery with an eye to the insight that can be gained by attention not only to the artworks themselves, but also to the contexts in which they were created. To gain a better understanding of this context, we invite you to visit the George Eliot Archive, where you can learn more about the places where Eliot was living and travelling when she sat for these portraits; her works, her life, and her contemporaries’ commentary on both; and her relationships with the people who crafted these artistic representations of her. This gallery has been curated with care, and it is our hope that you will “read” these portraits with curiosity, empathy, nuance, and historical context—in short, how Eliot would have inspired us to “read” one of her characters through her own written portraiture.

Works Cited

Cross, John. George Eliot’s Life, as Related in Her Letters and Journals. Cabinet Edition. Vol. 1. 3 vols. London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1885.

Eliot, George. Daniel Deronda. Cabinet Edition. The Works of George Eliot 1. Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1876.

---. Middlemarch. Cabinet. The Works of George Eliot 1. London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1878.

---. The George Eliot Letters. Edited by Gordon S. Haight. 9 vols. London: Oxford University Press, 1954. (Abbreviated as GEL).

Goldman, Paul. “A New Portrait of George Eliot?” British Library Journal 8 (1982): 174–81.

Harris, Margaret. “Appearance, Personal.” In Oxford Reader’s Companion to George Eliot, edited by John Rignall, 44. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000a.

---. “Burton, Frederic.” In Oxford Reader’s Companion to George Eliot, edited by John Rignall, 44. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000b.

Holland, Josiah Gilbert, and Richard Watson Gilder, eds. “The Portrait of George Eliot.” The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, 23:47–48. New York: The Century Co., 1882.

Hughes, Kathryn. “George Eliot: Is This a New Portrait of the Author as a Young Woman?” The Guardian, May 5, 2017.

James, Henry. Henry James Letters, edited by Leon Edel, 1:116–17. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974.

Ormond, Leonee. “Portraits of George Eliot.” In Oxford Reader’s Companion to George Eliot, 309-310. Edited by John Rignall. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Rignall, John. “D’Albert Durade, Francois.” In Oxford Reader’s Companion to George Eliot, edited by John Rignall, 75–77. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Sim, Andrew, Email Exchange, May 19, 2019.

Simon, Jacob. “Desperately Smitten.” The Times Literary Supplement, April 3, 2009.

Stephen, Leslie. “George Eliot.” The Cornhill Magazine, 152–68. London: Smith, Elder and Company, 1881.

Witemeyer, Hugh. George Eliot and the Visual Arts. London: Yale University Press, 1979.

Selected Works Consulted

Clarke, Jonathan. “George Eliot at the London Library’.” London Library Magazine, no. 18 (Winter 2012): 22–23.

Colvin, Sir Sidney. Memories and Notes of Persons and Places, 1852-1912. London: E. Arnold, 1921.

Griffith, George. “The Face as Legible Text: Gazing at the Portraits of George Eliot.” Victorian Review 27, no. 2 (2001): 20–41.

Haight, Gordon S. George Eliot: A Biography. London: Penguin, 1985.

Murray, Edward Croft. “Samuel Laurence’s Portrait of George Eliot.” The British Museum Quarterly 11, no. 1 (1939).


[i] After Eliot’s death, Leslie Stephen wrote, “Had we been asked, a few weeks ago, to name the greatest living writer of English fiction, the answer would have been unanimous. No one—whatever might be his special personal predilections—would have refused that title to George Eliot. To ask the same question now would be to suggest some measure of our loss. In losing George Eliot we have probably lost the greatest woman who ever won literary fame, and one of the very few writers of our day to whom the name ‘great’ could be conceded with any plausibility” (Stephen 1881, 152).

[ii] Eliot 1876, 1: 3.

[iii] Note the comments of Henry James and John Fiske, for example. After meeting the 54-year-old Eliot in 1873, American John Fiske wrote to his wife, “She is much better looking than George Sand … her features are regular, her nose is very good, her eyes are a rich blue and very expressive, her mouth is very large, but it is pleasant in expression. Her hair is light and profuse, and she wears a lovely lace cap over it….” (qtd. in Goldman 1982, 174). In a letter to his father, Henry James described Eliot: “Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end, as I ended, in falling in love with her. Yes, behold me literally in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking” (James 1974, 116-17).

[iv] GEL 1: 257, 330.

[v] See “Silhouette by Unknown Artist (ca. 1840) in the George Eliot Portrait Gallery. According to an 1881 article in The Century, she was 16 years old when the silhouette was created, which would confirm the 1838-1839 date (Holland 1881, 48).

[vi] Hughes 2017.

[vii] GEL 1:183-84.

[viii] Simon 2009.

[ix] Sim 2019.

[x] GEL 1: 147.

[xi] Witemeyer 51.


Rignall 2000, 77.

[xiii] The oil painting that followed is frequently misdated as 1849, but Eliot mentions sitting for it in a letter dated 15 February 1850 (GEL 1954, 1: 257, 330). Following Eliot's death in 1880, Durade made a replica of this painting circa 1881 (Holland 1881, 47).

[xiv] Eliot 1878, 19: 292.

[xv] Witemeyer 61.

[xvi] There is also said to be a photograph taken in profile at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry, England (Harris 2000a, 15).

[xvii] Harris 2000a, 15.

[xviii] Ormond 2000, 310. 

[xix] On December 17, 1865, in a letter to Francois D'Albert Durade, Eliot wrote, ”Perhaps it will interest you to know that what my friends consider a remarkably fine portrait of me (in crayons) has been executed by an artist named Frederic Burton, a friend of ours, and that the portrait is to be published by a process which professes to produce facsimiles of such drawings” (GEL 4: 212).

[xx] Cross 1885, 1: frontispiece.