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Portraits at Hogwarts

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The Harry Potter Canon
Portraits at Hogwarts

Hogwarts is a place of many surprises. Not only are the doors and staircases unusual, but also the paintings on the walls act in ways a visitor might not expect. The paintings are practically full-fledged Beings. They speak and interact, not just with the humans in the castle but even with each other.

These portraits were not created by the subjects themselves, but by an artist who created the painting during their life. In the case of Hogwarts Headmasters, the portraits were made before their deaths and kept “under lock and key,” occasionally visited by the subject to impart memories and other personality traits to the portrait (Pm). Most of the portraits remain rather dull and two-dimensional, while others have more depth and insight. The artist cannot take credit for a portraits that interact and display complex personality traits — it depends on the magical power of the witch or wizard in the painting (Pm).

Portraits of Previous Headmasters
These portraits apparently spend their days snoozing in the Headmaster’s office (CS12). In fact, often they are faking sleep and listening to everything that goes on; they are duty-bound to help the current Headmaster in any way they can, which usually means traveling to their other portraits on other places and reporting what they see or delivering messages.

  • Albus Dumbledore – hangs directly behind the headmaster’s chair, concealing a hiding place (DH33)
  • Phineas Nigellus Black – visits his portrait in number twelve Grimmauld Place (OP22, OP23, OP37, HBP23, DH10, DH12, DH33, DH36)
  • Armando Dippet (OP22, OP37)
  • Dilys Derwent – visits St. Mungo’s, where she had been a Healer (OP22, DH36)
  • Everard – visits the Ministry of Magic (OP22, HBP29)
  • Dexter Fortescue (DH36)
  • Severus Snape (BLC)

Other Portraits at Hogwarts:

  • Sir Cadogan
  • mermaid painting in the Prefect's Bathroom
  • group of women in crinolines - hangs on the narrow spiral staircase leading up to Professor Trelawney's classroom in North Tower (PA6)
  • The Fat Lady
  • a group of monks - hangs on the narrow spiral staircase leading up to Professor Trelawney's classroom in North Tower (PA6). At first Harry thought they looked "sinister."
  • soppy-looking witch standing in a meadow - her painting was severely damaged when Umbridge attempted to Stun one of the Weasleys' fireworks. It exploded, blasting a hole through the painting and forcing the witch to flee to the neighboring painting (OP28"soppy" in this case means "overly emotional, maudlin, weepy "
  • Violet
  • wizard with a walrus mustache - hangs next to the painting of Violet in the antechamber off the Great Hall (GF17).
  • wizards playing cards - their painting was invaded by the soppy-looking witch whose painting was damaged by Umbridge's Stun spell gone wrong (OP28).

Commentary

Notes

J.K. Rowling on portraits at Hogwarts:

All the paintings we have seen at Hogwarts are of dead people. They seem to be living through their portraits. How is this so? If there was a painting of Harry’s parents, would he be able to obtain advice from them?

That is a very good question. They are all of dead people; they are not as fully realised as ghosts, as you have probably noticed. The place where you see them really talk is in Dumbledore’s office, primarily; the idea is that the previous 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, but it is not like being a ghost. They repeat catchphrases, almost. The portrait of Sirius’ mother is not a very 3D personality; she is not very fully realised. She repeats catchphrases that she had when she was alive. If Harry had a portrait of his parents it would not help him a great deal. If he could meet them as ghosts, that would be a much more meaningful interaction, but as Nick explained at the end of Phoenix—I am straying into dangerous territory, but I think you probably know what he explained—there are some people who would not come back as ghosts because they are unafraid, or less afraid, of death (EBF)

When Harry killed Voldemort and ended his reign of terror, he went to visit Dumbledore's portrait in the Headmaster's Office and all the other portraits were clapping and cheering him on. But there was a missing portrait - that of Severus Snape, the recently dead Headmaster. If readers were expecting his portrait to magically appear just as Dumbledore's had, they were in for a disappointment because according to the author in her Bloomsbury Live Chat 2007 the other portraits perhaps felt he did not deserve that honor:

Question: Was the absence of Snape's portrait in the headmasters office in the last scene innocent or deliberate?
J.K. Rowling: It was deliberate. Snape had effectively abandoned his post before dying, so he had not merited inclusion in these august circles. However, I like to think that Harry would be instrumental in ensuring that Snape's portrait would appear there in due course. (BLC)

She was asked about this again during her Carnegie Hall appearance, and reiterated the point that Snape was viewed with distrust, and ironically for the Half-Blood Prince, he wasn't "royal" enough:

Q: Is Severus Snape’s portrait in the headmaster’s office?

JKR: Some have been asking why hasn’t the portrait appeared immediately. It doesn’t. The reason is that the perception in the castle itself and everyone who was in the castle, because Snape kept his secret so well was that he abandoned his post. So all the portraits you see in the headmaster’s study are all headmasters and mistresses who died, it’s like British royals. You only get good press if you die in office. Abdication is not acceptable, particularly if you marry an American. I’m kidding! [laughter] I digress. I know, because I thought this one through, because it was very important to me, I know Harry would have insisted that Snape’s portrait was on that wall, right beside Dumbledore’s. [Applause.]

She also stated that Harry himself made sure that the portrait of Snape made it into the Headmasters Office, but doubts that he ever went to speak to it.

 

Inconsistency: The worthiness of Snape as a Headmaster

JKR's answers still beg the question of why Dumbledore was more worthy than Snape, when Snape was following his orders by "abandoning" his post. Dumbledore let down the school more than once: he left both Harry and the Philosopher's Stone unprotected in Book One, was completely clueless about the Chamber of Secrets even though he understood Parseltongue, hired a dangerous Werewolf in Book Three, completely missed that Moody was Barty Crouch in Goblet of Fire, fled from the Aurors and Umbridge in Book Five, doomed himself to death with the Horcrux ring, and went gadding about searching for Horcruxes without telling anyone his plans in Book Six, before letting Snape kill him. All that happened under Dumbledore's tenure yet his portrait appeared automatically after his death.

Was Snape really worse than Armando Dippet, who gave Tom Riddle a special award for getting Hagrid expelled after Myrtle died, or Phineas Nigellus, the most disliked Headmaster in Hogwarts history? Doubtful.

Inconsistency: Moving between portraits

Rowling spoke about creating a rule for how portraits move in her stories. However, several portraits have broken this rule in the course of the books, notably Phineas Nigellus. Here's what she said:

I created a lot of rules for this world and then later had to navigate my away around them. But this rule was always good, and the rule was that portraits could only move between portraits in the same building. so if I’m in a picture and you’re in a picture and we’re both in Carnegie Hall, then we can move into each other’s pictures. Otherwise we can only move only to other places where we have a portrait. You can’t just move willy nilly through all the – the Louvre, the Met – you can’t do a world tour, as a picture person. You are limited by geography. So there was that reason. And then lastly of course, the third reason, is it really would be too easy and I wouldn’t have had a plot (OBT/NYC).

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