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Reviewed by:
  • Henry James: Écrits sur la peinture ed. by Thomas Constantinesco
  • Marie-Odile Salati
Thomas Constantinesco, ed. Henry James: Écrits sur la peinture. Lyon: Fage Éditions, 2014. 144pp. 22€ (Hardback).

As increasing interest in translations of James’s writings has been shown on the French book market in recent years with the publication of the complete edition of his short stories in the prestigious Bibliothèque de la Pléiade under the supervision of Annick Duperray and Evelyne Labbé (2003, 2011) and of Jean Pavans’s translation of The American Scene in 2008, it is worth mentioning as well the 2014 release of a collective academic project at Université Paris Diderot, supervised and edited by Thomas Constantinesco, Associate Professor in American Literature. The book, entitled Henry James: Écrits sur la peinture, offers a selection of fourteen James essays on painting hitherto unpublished in French and mostly known to anglophone readers from John Sweeney’s The Painter’s Eye. It is a most pleasurable object to handle, a hardcover printed on glossy paper, with a full-face charcoal portrait of James by John Singer Sargent on the front cover and a large number of paintings interspersed throughout the text inside. This is an unprecedented venture and invaluable help to Jamesian scholars and art historians as James’s essays have never been published along with reproductions of the artworks commented on. The choice of essays is quite judicious since it highlights the versatility of a writer mostly known in France for his novels and short stories. The collection covers a variety of different artists and painting schools on both sides of the Atlantic at different periods of art history, ranging from Rubens through French caricaturist Honoré Daumier to Whistler, but it also presents a documentary interest regarding art exhibitions held in James’s day in the U.S., Great Britain, and France and the art policies and public attendance of museums in the three countries, as well as major critical responses to the artists discussed.

Not least among the merits and original features of this remarkable achievement is the fact that the translation has been established by a class of postgraduate students specializing in British and American visual arts and is the fruit of the collective work conducted during Thomas Constantinesco’s translation seminar related to aesthetics [End Page E-16] and art history. It should be noted that Constantinesco used the text of the original James essays, the sources of which are specified for every single piece in an initial footnote.1 The meticulous translation does perfect justice to the slightest semantic nuances and gropings of the syntax and metaphors, even the most startling ones, while the charm of the elevated, old-fashioned language is masterfully preserved, as is the delightful irony of the “restless analyst” (CT 361). The edition of the essays includes well-documented footnotes, which supply information about the historical or artistic figures, the works, exhibitions, and places mentioned by the author. The notes are generally quite to the point, dense and efficient, and restricted in number and space so as not to impede the reading. Special mention should be made of the amount of research that went into the identification of all the artworks, considering that a fair number of them are listed under a different title today or have even been attributed to other artists since James’s time. A complete index of the names and works cited is provided at the end of the book. The signal feature of the publication is the ongoing dialogue between the Jamesian critical text and the many paintings reproduced in direct relation to the author’s comments. It proves particularly helpful to be able to follow his detailed descriptions of some of the works step by step, referring to the inserted picture in order to grasp what exactly caught his discerning eye and most pleased his aesthetic sense, especially when it comes to minor realist canvases that have not outlived the fame of the day like the war scene in Le matin avant l’attaque (1861) by Paul Alexandre Protais or oxen in the morning light in Constant Troyon’s Les bœufs allant au labour, effet du...


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