Book People | July 2022 | Nate Pedersen

What did Jane Austen look like?

This is Jane Austen:

Or maybe this is:

But this definitely is:


One of the most beloved authors of all time has long suffered from an identity crisis: we don't really know what she looked like.

The final image, a watercolor and pencil sketch of Austen believed to have been painted by her sister, Cassandra, in 1810 remains the least controversial. But even it has its detractors, including Austen's own niece who wrote in a letter, "there is a look I recognise as hers, but the general resemblance is not strong..."

Then there's the supposed portrait of Jane discovered last year (the second image above) a graphite on vellum sketch of the author as she may have appeared around 1815. The drawing surfaced at a British auction where it was described as an "imaginary portrait" of Austen. Scholars have debated it ever since. Some believe the sketch to be an authentic period portrayal of Austen; others believe the sketch is indeed "imaginary" - Jane as interpreted by a distant fan of her work.

And then there's the (apparent) painting of a young Jane Austen at age 13. While the authenticity of this painting has been debated for years, new evidence surfaced last week that the portrait may indeed be genuine.  Digital photographic analysis revealed the name "Jane Austen" painted in the upper right corner, along with the name of the artist, "Ozias Humphry," a known portrait painter active in the period.  Both names were lost in restorations of the painting conducted in the early 20th century, but digital examination of a photograph of the painting from before the restoration revealed the names.  (The painting has long been held by the Rice family, descendants of Jane's brother Edward, who have created an entire website about the portrait).

If confirmed, the painting would be the only professional portrait of Jane Austen in existence.

But the debates continues.  The style of the girl's clothing in the painting appears to some experts to be early 19th century, rather than late 18th century. (If Austen was 13 in this portrait, it would date to 1789).  It also remains unclear if Humphry signed his name himself or if the attribution was added, perhaps erroneously, by a later owner.

Ah well.  At least in the meantime, we definitively know this isn't Jane Austen: