The Henry James Review 23.2 (2002) 136-156
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Picture and Text:
Venetian Interiors by Henry James and John Singer Sargent
Barry Maine, Wake Forest University
In 1893 Henry James reprinted in Picture and Text his essay on John Singer Sargent which had first appeared in Harper's Magazine in October of 1887. This essay had the effect of introducing Sargent's work to the American public and preparing the ground for future commissions as Sargent made his first working trip to America. Sargent claimed America as his home, despite having been born in Florence, Italy, to expatriate parents, and despite having trained and lived almost exclusively abroad. This was not the first time that James had played a role in directing Sargent's career; just a few years previous he had introduced Sargent to London society, seeking to convince him to move his studio there from Paris in the aftermath of the succès de scandal of his portrait of Parisian beauty Virginie Gautreau (Portrait of Madame X). In awe of Sargent's prodigious talent and achievement at so young an age (the painter was winning prizes at the Grand Salon in Paris by the age of 24), James paid tribute in this essay to his friend's technical facility and powers of perception. James raised as his only concern a question which, in retrospect, could be seen as prophetic: namely, where would such dazzling talent at so young an age take Sargent in the future? From where we stand, we can see more clearly than James could that the future reputation of an academically trained artist with unparalleled facility in his day for producing realistic portraits of socially prominent people could only be problematic against the late nineteenth-century background of revolutionary changes in aesthetic and social values.
James's tribute to Sargent reveals that what he admired in Sargent's work were interests, values, and talents that mirrored his own. The ideal artist, he claims, "sees deep into his subject, undergoes it, absorbs it, discovers in it new things that were not on the surface, becomes patient with it, and almost reverent, and, in short, elevates and humanizes the technical problem" of representing life [End Page 136] in art (PT 115). Sargent came closer than any living artist to achieving that ideal for James, lacking only a certain "brooding reflection" to lend weight and depth to his gifts of quick perception and dazzling technical virtuosity. Echoing his recent observations upon the "art of fiction" as he understood and practiced it, James singles out for special praise Sargent's "faculty of taking a fresh, direct, independent, unborrowed impression" (114) from life and translating it to the canvas. Although James was slow to respond directly to Impressionist painting, he was fond of the term "impression," and used it frequently in his fiction and criticism to refer to any penetrating perception on the part of a character or a writer or, in this case, a painter. One of his earliest mediations on the term can be found in a series of letters written in 1869 from Venice to John LaFarge, his brother William, and his sister Alice, all quoted by Tony Tanner in Venice Desired as evidence of James's recognition that his own impressions of Venice were invariably those of an outsider. To LaFarge he writes that he had "received far more impressions" than he knows what to do with, and to his sister he writes that "wherever we go we carry with us this heavy burden of personal consciousness" which comes between us and the world we want to know (HJL 1: 134, 145). By the time he writes his essay on Sargent, however, this consciousness of his own person is no longer an obstacle but rather a catalyst to understanding—a rich fund of memories, experiences, and associations to draw upon in making sense of whatever he confronted. For James, "impression" now refers to a mental picture that brings together perceiver and perceived by converting the flux of experience into an image...