Henry James grew up with Thomas Cole’s View of Florence from San Miniato in the family parlor. Aspiring to become a painter, James took lessons from John La Farge; he had to settle for prose. The rest of his life he sought the company of expatriate painters like Frank Duveneck, James Whistler, Edwin Abbey, and John Singer Sargent; reviewed London exhibitions for the American press; and set his stories in the world of art, from “A Landscape Painter” (1866) to The Outcry (1911). He died in Rye, Sussex, the subject and owner of one of Sargent’s late masterpieces.
“Henry James and American Painting,” now at the Morgan Library in New York City, is a Jamesian puzzle. Curated jointly by novelist Colm Tóibín and the Morgan’s Declan Kiely, the exhibition compresses the search for the private Henry James into a single grand room. The result is a revealing yet incomplete depiction of the writer who called himself a “painter of life” and adopted the artist’s method as a metaphor: The Portrait of a Lady, Portraits of Places, Partial Portraits.
“I like ambiguities and detest great glares,” James wrote. The glare of the portrait was the price of friendship. He was a guarded sitter, and observant, too. In 1862, La Farge painted the 19-year-old James, a stutterer, in profile. His lips are full as though brimming with speech, but pursed. The words will come later, in the ventriloquism of fiction. James’s relationship to La Farge, the brilliant conversationalist and successful artist, will inform Roderick Hudson, in which the eponymous sculptor mentors the failing pupil Rowland Mallett.
Flaubert called the explanation of one art form by another a “monstrosity.” James, by contrast, credited La Farge for “the dawning perception that the arts were after all essentially one and that even with canvas and brush whisked out of my grasp I still needn’t feel disinherited.” Taking art as the sibling of fiction, James fictionalized his artistic siblings.
James found material for a recurring fictional configuration, the father and the daughter, in the relationship between Francis Boott, a wealthy expatriate widower, and his daughter Elizabeth. A second Jamesian configuration, the mentor and the pupil, developed through Elizabeth’s marriage to her painting teacher, Frank Duveneck, whose paintings James admired, but whose character he considered deficient: “illiterate, ignorant, and not a gentleman.” In The Portrait of a Lady, James placed Gilbert Osmond and his daughter Pansy in the Bootts’ ground-floor apartment at Villa Castellani, near Florence.
In Elizabeth Boott’s watercolor, Villa Castellani looks cool and substantial. In Frank Duveneck’s, the house shimmers in the heat. In Duveneck’s full-length oil portraits, Francis looks terrified and Elizabeth looks strained. When Elizabeth died in 1888, Duveneck created a tomb effigy, modeled after Jacopo della Quercia’s effigy of Ilaria del Carretto in the cathedral at Lucca. At the Morgan, Elizabeth reclines in a bronze copy ordered by the grieving Francis Boott. She lies next to a cabinet of James’s manuscripts.
If the arts were one, it was because James compounded them for his singular art. He liked narrative painting and biographical detail. He preferred Claude Lorrain’s classical clarity to Turner’s Romantic disorder. He suspected that the Impressionists were placing form ahead of content and falling into “simplification.” In 1873, a decade after Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia, James described Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps, an academic Orientalist whose reputation subsequently declined with France’s empire in North Africa, as “the most salient representative of the modern school” of French painting.
For similar reasons, James dismissed Whistler’s superb Nocturnes in London’s Grosvenor Gallery in 1877 and 1878 as “pleasant things to have about, so long as one regards them as simple objects—as incidents of furniture or decoration.” Yet at an 1897 exhibition at the Grafton Galleries, encountering again one of the same Whistler paintings—Arrangement in Black, No. 3: Sir Henry Irving as Philip II of Spain (1876)—James was “held to the spot.” The portrait’s tonal sophistication, James wrote, wove “the charm of a certain degree of melancholy meditation.” That might equally describe James’s engrossing prose style.
John Singer Sargent was James’s closest painterly friend. Like James, Sargent was an American of a peculiarly European kind. His eye is intimate but his technical flair is cool. The two combine, to use a term that James used before Freud, as “uncanny,” at once present and absent. The gleaming interior and ghostly figures of Sargent’s rarely seen Venetian Women in the Palazzo Rezzonico (ca. 1880) may be the highlight of the Morgan’s show.
James encouraged Sargent to settle in London, praised him as the American who could finally match their European peers, and sat for him several times. W. Graham Robertson, a painter who knew them both, described them as “real friends, they understood each other perfectly . . . plus Anglais que les Anglais with an added fastidiousness, a mental remoteness that was not English.”
James’s sittings for Sargent resemble a series of chess games. In 1885, Sargent attempted a drawing of a bearded James but destroyed it, complaining that it is “impossible to do justice to a face that was all covered with beard like a bear.” In 1886, when James visited the artist community at Broadway in Oxfordshire, Sargent pulled off a small drawing in three-quarters of a hour. This time, he captured the tension in James’s mouth, despite the beard. Both men liked the drawing, and in 1894 they permitted its reproduction in the Yellow Book, a literary quarterly. By then, James had achieved two small portraits of his own: In the short novel The Reverberator (1888), the expatriate portrait painter Charles Waterlow evokes Sargent, and the short story “The Pupil” (1891) blends elements of James’s childhood with Sargent’s.
In 1911, Edith Wharton asked Sargent to portray their mutual friend. Although Sargent had forsworn portraits since 1908, he accepted the commission. James fended him off in the first sitting and extracted the reflective observation that Sargent “finds me difficult, perverse, obscure.” Sargent feinted in the second session, but lost his way. The third attempt, James believed, produced “a complete success . . . a regular first class living, resembling, enduring thing.” But Sargent told Edith Wharton that the drawing was “a failure” and abandoned the commission.
In 1906, after evading Alice Boughton’s camera, James allowed her to photograph him on his way out of the studio. James, who had been introduced to French literature by John La Farge, identified the “great symptom” of Sargent’s American origins as the paradox that “in the line of his art he might easily be mistaken for a Frenchman.” Top hat on, James peers at a picture on Boughton’s wall, playing the part of a Daumier bourgeois.
But in 1913, James’s friends commissioned a portrait as a 70th birthday present. This time, Sargent got his man. James sits like a sea lion on a rock, yet his face is pained. He knows he has been spotted. “But what is most interesting,” James wrote to his brother William, “is the mouth—than which even he has never painted a more living and, as I am told, ‘expressive’!” A portrait, Sargent is supposed to have said, is “a painting with something wrong with the mouth.” He makes James’s mouth the key to the fleshy, candid core of his character.
In James’s 1888 novella The Aspern Papers, a literary journalist covets a dead poet’s love letters. To befriend their recipient, he rents a room in her Venetian palazzo. As the hapless narrator learns, the puzzle fascinates because some of the pieces are missing.
The Morgan might have exhibited Joseph Pennell’s illustrations for James’s travelogues or the Venetian scenes of Sargent’s cousin Ralph Curtis. Instead, we see Hendrik Christian Andersen, who was neither American nor a painter, but a Norwegian-American sculptor, and not a good one. James’s infatuated letters to Andersen hint at homosexuality, but we cannot know what Henry did with Hendrik, or even what else Henry wrote. Like the spinster who burns Jeffrey Aspern’s love letters to preserve his artistic posterity, James burned his private papers in a final evasion. The “house of fiction,” he wrote, has “not one window, but a million.” Our age peers through the bedroom window only.
Dominic Green, a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.
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