The Picture of Dorian Gray opens in the London studio of Basil Hallward, an artist. With him, reclining and smoking a cigarette, is Lord Henry "Harry" Wotton. Basil is finishing painting a portrait of "a young man of extraordinary personal beauty." Lord Henry praises the portrait as the best work that Basil has done and insists that it must be shown at a suitable gallery. To Lord Henry's surprise, Basil states that he will not show it anywhere: "I have put too much of myself in it."
Basil tries to keep the painting's subject's identity a secret from Lord Henry, then accidentally discloses that the beautiful young man's name is Dorian Gray. Basil admits that he prefers to keep favorite people to himself, not even telling others their names because he feels he might lose a part of them. In fact, he has "grown to love secrecy." Even when he takes a trip, he keeps the destination private, a revelation that becomes important later in the story. Lord Henry answers that he understands, but he is more interested in Basil's reason for not exhibiting the portrait.
Basil responds that any painting done with true feeling reveals more of the artist than it does the subject. He fears that the painting will reveal the secret of his soul.
Basil explains how he met Dorian at Lady Brandon's home. He felt terror upon first seeing Dorian because he sensed that the young man's personality was so powerful that it could absorb him. More important, Dorian inspires a fresh approach to art in Basil, allowing him to produce the best work of his professional life. Because Basil worries that the public will detect his personal and artistic idolatry of Gray, he will not exhibit the portrait. Echoing a basic tenet of Aestheticism, he suggests that an artist should create beautiful work for its own sake; art shouldn't mean anything. He dismisses artists and critics who see art as a means for biographical expression, and he refuses to have his work thought of in that way.
When Lord Henry expresses his desire to meet Gray, Basil explains that he wants to keep Dorian and the painting hidden away so that neither Dorian nor the world will ever know about his "curious artistic idolatry." Lord Henry suggests that Basil's feeling may pass and that he will eventually become indifferent to Dorian, but Basil disagrees.
At that moment, the butler enters, announcing the arrival of Dorian, and Lord Henry laughs that they must meet now. Before entering the studio where Dorian is waiting, Basil asks Lord Henry not to influence or take away the person who inspires him as an artist.
Chapter 1 introduces two of the major characters of the book, and the reader learns a good deal about them. Basil is an artist of apparently independent means. He is secretive, and Wilde even mentions that Basil has disappeared without notice in the past. In addition, the distinctive toss of his head, the one that "used to make his friends laugh at him at Oxford," characterizes Basil as someone who is thought of as an odd, yet endearing, fellow.
Although Basil claims to be independent, he is instantly overpowered by Dorian upon meeting him, becoming dependent on Dorian immediately as his muse, spirit, art, and life. Basil's attraction to Dorian seems to be both professional and personal. Dorian inspires Basil to a new vision of art, combining Greek perfection with Romantic passion. However, there is every implication of something more personal in the attraction. Basil is also a jealous person, wanting to keep Dorian from Lord Henry so that he can have Dorian all to himself.
The other main character introduced in Chapter 1 is Lord Henry Wotton, a very intelligent, confident, manipulative man. He decadently smokes opium-tainted cigarettes and has a commanding presence no matter where he is or whom he socializes with. He is very judgmental and enjoys sounding profound. Like Wilde himself, Lord Henry often speaks in aphorisms. As he speaks with Basil, Lord Henry picks a daisy from the grass to examine it, later pulling the daisy apart, an act that symbolizes his role throughout the novel as a manipulator and destroyer of beauty for his own amusement.
Although it may seem strange to categorize a painting as a character, Basil's portrait of Dorian plays such an important role in the book that the reader is actually introduced to the painting as if it were a character before meeting Dorian himself. Perhaps Wilde is indicating that Dorian's reputation for physical beauty precedes him and is more important to his character than any other attribute. In any case, the presence of the portrait in Chapter 1 allows the reader to hear something about Dorian before his character appears in the novel. Basil speaks at length about Dorian, stating that he is charming, but also that "Now and then, however, he is horribly thoughtless, and seems to take a real delight in giving me pain." This characterization links Dorian with Lord Henry as a manipulator and foreshadows their close relationship later in the story.
Chapter 1 also introduces some of the major themes of the novel: the importance and power of beauty in relation to the intellect and the soul, and the fleeting nature of beauty. While discussing the merits of beauty as opposed to intellect, Basil states that there is "a fatality about all physical and intellectual distinction, the sort of fatality that seems to dog through history the faltering steps of kings." Basil's statement indicates that physical and intellectual excellence are often the downfall of those who possess them. The reader should note how Basil's statement rings true throughout the novel.
Wilde claimed that Lord Henry represented his public image but that the author actually was more like Basil and yearned to be more like Dorian. While the reader must always take care in accepting Wilde's comments at face value, he was like Basil in that he was a creative artist and privately perhaps less secure than his public image. He certainly did admire youth and beauty, which Dorian possesses. Still, Lord Henry is the Wildean character in this novel: bright, witty, and controlling.
Persian saddle-bags enormous leather bags laid across the backs of camels, behind the saddle; here, a number of them are stuffed and arranged together so that a person can lounge or recline on them.
blossoms of a laburnum a small, spreading tree with golden flowers and highly poisonous seeds.
the long tussore-silk curtains brown silk from India, usually stronger but more coarsely woven than Chinese silk.
straggling woodbine In the United States, woodbine is called wild honeysuckle and is sometimes referred to as Virginia creeper.
the bourdon note of a distant organ a bourdon note is an extremely low, droning note.
the Grosvenor For thirteen years, from 1877 to 1890, the Grosvenor Gallery was one of London's most prestigious galleries. During its heyday it often featured works from the Aesthetic movement, mentioned in Wilde's novel.
stars and garters a reference to various public decorations such as the Order of the Garter, England's highest order of knighthood.
précis French, meaning "brief summary."
salon French, meaning "living room" or "parlor"; here, it means a weekly or monthly gathering of artists and intellectuals.
tremulous vibrating or quivering.
ensconced settled securely or comfortably.
pallid abnormally pale.
truculent savage, belligerent.
skeins lengths of thread or yarn wound into long, loose coils.
languid lacking energy or spirit.
proletariat the poorest class of working people.
dowagers rich widows.
the Academy The Royal Academy of Arts in London, founded in 1768. Its annual exhibition, which has been held every summer without a break since 1769, features the best 1,500 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and engravings from those submitted for judging.
Oxford one of the two most revered British universities; the other is Cambridge.
He is a Narcissus a self-centered person who is exceedingly fond of his appearance.
I went to a crush a cocktail party.
She brought me up to royalties Here, the reference is to frequent dinners and parties with the titled upper class.
the East End the industrial or working class area of London, east of the banking and commercial section of London, referred to as "the City."