August 2017


Henry James and American Painting
Morgan Library
June 9 - September 10, 2017

The Art of Henry James

Kinship between Literature and Visual Art

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

Sargent portrait of Henry James

John Singer Sargent, Henry James, National Portrait Gallery,
London (Creative Commons license)

As one of America's finest novelists, Henry James (1843-1916) was keenly attuned to the kinship between visual and literary art. He acknowledged it in no uncertain terms in his essay "The Art of Fiction" (1884 [full text ]):

The analogy between the art of the painter and the art of the novelist is, so far as I am able to see, complete. Their inspiration is the same, their process (allowing for the different quality of the vehicle), is the same, their success is the same. They may learn from each other, they may explain and sustain each other. Their cause is the same, and the honour of one is the honour of another.

James drew lifelong inspiration from his friendships with leading painters of his time—among them, John La Farge (1835-1910), John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) [more], and James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). And works of visual art play an important part in the lives of many of his fictional characters, as they did in his own life. This illuminating exhibition is the first to explore that rich facet of his life and work, through both the written word and works of visual art.

The centerpiece of the show is Sargent's incomparable portrait [more] of James. Remarkably, it was commissioned to celebrate the author's seventieth birthday by a group of 269 friends and admirers organized by his fellow novelist Edith Wharton. Although Sargent had given up portrait painting, he agreed as a longtime friend to accept the commission, and ultimately waived his fee. James—who rightly deemed the portrait "a living breathing likeness and a masterpiece of painting"—agreed to accept it only on the understanding that he would bequeath it on his death to the National Portrait Gallery in his adopted home of England. Why did James, who so trenchantly extolled American virtues in his work, become a British subject just a year before his death? To protest the failure of the United States to enter World War I. Had he known that America's isolationist stance would be reversed only a year after he died, might this excellent work by his talented fellow American have passed instead to our own National Portrait Gallery? Very likely, I suspect.

In any case, I left the Morgan show feeling that I had met the man behind the portrait. Most striking for me was the light it shed on persons and places that were sources of inspiration for one of his greatest novels, The Portrait of a Lady. Several of these derived from James's friendship with the American painter Frank Duveneck (1848-1919) and his talented artist-wife, Elizabeth Boott Duveneck (1846-1888). The Villa Castellani (pictured in a small oil by Frank, below, and a watercolor by Elizabeth)—where Elizabeth (and later Frank) lived with her widowed father, composer Francis Boott—became the residence of Gilbert Osmond and his daughter, Pansy, in the novel. As described by James in the novel, the villa

overhung the slope of its hill and the long valley of the Arno, hazy with Italian colour. It had a narrow garden, in the manner of a terrace, productive chiefly of tangles of wild roses and other old stone benches, mossy and sunwarmed. The parapet of the terrace was just the height to lean upon, and beneath it the ground declined into the vagueness of olive-crops and vineyards.

Frank Duveneck - Villa Castellani

Frank Duveneck (1848-1919), Villa Castellani at Bellosguardo, 1887,
oil on canvas. Brooklyn Museum; Healy Purchase Fund.

Moreover, aspects of the fictional father and daughter (though not Osmond's evil and cruel nature) were drawn upon Boott and Elizabeth. Like Osmond, the wealthy Boott had opposed his daughter's marrying a man he thought not good enough for her. Unlike Osmond, he was eventually reconciled to his daughter's choice, and the three lived together in harmony in the villa, where James was a frequent visitor. Following Elizabeth's premature death in 1888, Frank memorialized her in a beautiful tomb effigy, a gilt copy of which moved me greatly when I first saw it in the Metropolitan Museum's American Wing. In 1894, James visited the Allori Cemetery outside Florence, where the original was installed, and wrote to Elizabeth's father that he had "made an intensely pious pilgrimage to the spot where Lizzie lies in majestic and perennial bronze. Strange, strange it seemed, still to see her only so—but so she will be seen for ages to come." Gazing on the Met's beautiful copy in the context of the Morgan show, it is easy to imagine what an emotional experience that must have been for James.

Tomb Effigy of Elizabeth Duveneck

Frank Duveneck, Tomb Effigy of Elizabeth Boott Duveneck. Bronze and gold leaf. Metropolitan Museum of Art

One inexplicable feature of the novel is that the author's physical description of the poignant figure of the heroine's consumptive cousin, Ralph Touchett, seems in significant respects to have anticipated Sargent's remarkably candid portrait of the emaciated, moustachioed author Robert Louis Stevenson. Of Touchett, James wrote in the first chapter of the novel:

Tall, lean, loosely and feebly put together, he had an ugly, sickly, witty, charming face, furnished, but by no means decorated, with a straggling moustache and whisker. He looked clever and ill—a combination by no means felicitous; and he wore a brown velvet jacket. He carried his hands in his pockets, and there was something in the way he did it that showed the habit was inveterate. His gait had a shambling, wandering quality; he was not very firm on his legs.

Remarkably, The Portrait of a Lady was published in 1880-81, but Sargent's portrait (which is included in the Morgan show) dates from 1885. Even more remarkably, James did not meet Stevenson until that year. But when he did they formed a deep and lasting friendship. Might his verbal portrait of Touchett have been among the many changes he made in later editions of the novel? I leave it to James scholars to answer that.

Andersen - Count Bevilacqua

Hendrik Christian Andersen (1872-1940), Count Alberto Bevilacqua, 1899,
painted terra-cotta. Lamb House (The National Trust).
© National Trust / Charles Thomas.

Another of the Morgan show's surprises is the revelation that James—an author known for fictional characters endowed with considerable psychological complexity—was that two works of art he especially admired embody the utmost innocence and simplicity. One was the wide-eyed portrait bust of the young Count Alberto Bevilacqua, by Hendrik Christian Andersen (1872-1940)—a much younger, Norwegian-American artist with whom James was nothing short of enamored. This painted terra-cotta in the spirit of the Italian Renaissance is said to have resembled Andersen, to whom James wrote:

I shall have him constantly before me as a loved companion and friend. He is so living, so human, so sympathetic and sociable and curious, that I foresee it will be a lifelong attachment.

To another friend, James confided that the sculpture was "the first object that greets my eyes in the morning, and the last at night."

James also greatly admired Girl at the Fountain, by William Morris Hunt (1824-1879). His elder brother William had studied with Hunt before he went on become an eminent philosopher and the "Father of American psychology." To William, Henry wrote of thinking

endless good of [Hunt's] large canvas of the girl with her back presented while she fills her bucket at the spout in the wall, against which she leans with a tension of young muscle, a general expression of back, beneath her dress, and with the pressure of her raised and extended bare arm and flattened hand: this, to my imagination, could only become the prize of some famous collection, the light of some museum.

Like me, other visitors to the Morgan's illuminating show are likely to be inspired to dive into one of James's novels or the rich trove of his countless letters and essays on various subjects—inexhaustible food for thought from a sensitive and penetrating writer brought to vivid life by the Morgan.