Henry James and American Painting by Colm Tóibín, Marc Simpson, and Declan Kiely
I will preface my review of the exhibition catalog with an account of the exhibition, June 9 through September 10, 2017, that gave rise to it. It might be said that the constraints of mounting an exhibition in one large room presaged limitations in the catalog. Following the Morgan Library and Museum's well-received exhibitions dedicated to homebody literary geniuses, Charlotte Brontë and Emily Dickinson, curators and staff attempted to encompass the cosmopolitan visual culture of Henry James. The curators required an organizing theme that would limit the scope of the exhibition to a manageable size. Even so, "Henry James and American Painting" seems a bit of a misnomer. The artists featured in the exhibit were expatriated Americans rather than members of the indigenous Hudson River or Ashcan Schools. John Singer Sargent was reared and trained in Europe; J. A. M. Whistler studied in Paris and lived abroad; American painter William Morris Hunt studied with Frenchmen Thomas Couture and Jean Francois Millet; John La Farge, the son of French émigrés, drew inspiration from Japanese art; Frank Duveneck, the son of German immigrants, received training in Munich; his student and later wife, Elizabeth (Lizzie) Boott, spent much of her time in Europe before settling in Italy. The curators employ the term "expatriate" as a label but ignore the exiles' quests for a richer cultural and historical background than America could supply in the 1870s. Two autograph letters from Henry James to La Farge deplore the painter's poverty of inspiration in "toney" Newport (HJL 1: 119–22, 133–35), but this commentary is omitted from the information tag. A handful of reviews of American artists (Winslow Homer, Duveneck) exhibiting on American shores obscure the fact that James's principal engagement with pictures occurred in England and on the continent. If American painting is a red herring, the [End Page 200] exhibition and catalog aim to shed light on James's personal relations with American artists and how these friendships informed his writings on art and, more important, his formulation of characters and plots.
The exhibit's didactic panels and object captions, charmingly anecdotal and suggestive, have a unifying theme: James's friendships with artists, acquaintance with locales, and other biographical data. There is little formal analysis on offer, either of individual paintings or of the correspondences between the pictorial and literary aesthetic. Impressionism is mentioned briefly in the context of Lila Cabot Perry's acquaintance with Monet's circle rather than Sargent's brushwork. The quality of the works showcased at the Morgan is high. The museumgoer is greeted by Sargent's famous portrait of Henry James (1913), which belongs to the National Portrait Gallery, London. With its appraising gaze, bald dome of genius, and sensual lips, the portrait shows James at the height of his powers, though advanced in years. The curators playfully identify the quality of masculine arrogance that incited a suffragette to plunge a dagger into the freshly painted portrait. A wall displaying photographs of James (plus sketches and amateur portraits in oils) supports the thesis that James's reticence about his private life and destruction of personal papers did not interfere with his sitting for his portrait. James was clearly a figure, or rather a visage, of fascination for his artistic circle. An array of gorgeous Sargent pictures of Italian scenes and interiors reinforces the notion that James and Sargent, a bachelor expatriate of uncertain sexuality who took an interest in fashionable women, were "mirror images." Among these pictures, An Interior in Venice (The Curtis Family) of 1898 attests to James's critical acumen in signaling Sargent's disregard for faces. James's friend Mrs. Ariana Curtis took exception to her portrait (and something louche in her son's bearing) and rejected the artist's proffered gift, whereas the sterling tea service is an example of bravura painting. The curators summarize James's championship of Sargent and career-boosting recommendation that he relocate to London but do not flesh out James's reservations about Sargent's precocity and cleverness, which rendered him a virtuoso with a formula. Sargent is touted, instead, for his documentation of settings for James's novels, such as the grand drawing room of the Pallazzo Barbaro recalled in The Wings of the Dove.
The chief glory of the exhibit is its aggregation of works belonging to the same period or milieu, such as La Farge's portraits of Henry and William James, which cannot otherwise be contemplated in person. The object label calls attention to La Farge's cultural mentorship of Henry, introducing him to Balzac's oeuvre and dazzling Henry with periphrastic discourse said to shape his later writing style. No mention is made of the fact that William James's aesthetic ambitions drew the brothers to Hunt's atelier in the first place. Similarly, Charles Eliot Norton, Harvard's first professor of Art History and the man who introduced Henry to John Ruskin, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Morris in London, receives scant attention. With the exception of La Farge, James's mentors are in abeyance. The exhibit concentrates on James's advice to artists, not on how James formed his aesthetic sensibilities. The exhibit is arguably a gallery of works testifying to James's personal acquaintance with artists. This schema is the brainchild of author-curator Colm Tóibín, who sets great store by the Duveneck-Boott romance as inspiration for James's Washington Square, Portrait of a Lady, and The Golden Bowl. Writing for the Galaxy in 1875, James coyly praised Frank Duveneck as a Bostonian's idea of "an American Velasquez" (17). Compared [End Page 201] with Duveneck's stately portrait of his wife arrayed in somber tints of dark chocolate, corseted and demure, the model for Whistler's Arrangement in Black and Brown: The Fur Jacket (1877) appears insouciant and modern. With its dark palette (black jacket set against a black background) Whistler's painting recalls Velázquez while shoring up Whistler's impressionist credentials. Duveneck's gilt bronze tomb effigy of Elizabeth Boott, one of four versions of the memorial, forms the centerpiece of the Duveneck-Boott wing of the exhibition. Presenting two paintings in Lizzie Boott's own hand, the curators cite two instances where James family members praise her developing talent. The curators do not mention Henry's grim estimation of her claims to be an artist: "I am sorry Lizzie Boott's pictures are a fiasco, but understand the impression they must make" (HJL 2: 173). With its mix of amateur and professional paintings, the Morgan Library effectually circumnavigates American painting in the period.
The next question is whether the exhibit and catalog add to our store of knowledge about Henry James's engagement with the visual arts. Colm Tóibín's irrefutable yet reductive claim that James's impressions of artistic and social milieus "nourished" his imagination suffuses "Henry James: Shadow and Substance." Distancing himself from "the urge to find an autobiographical base, or a source in real life, for [James's] best fiction," Tóibín employs a bevy of tropes ("shadow," "ghost," "germ," "nourish," "haunt") to repetitively claim autobiographical sources for James's fiction (12). James's friendship with John La Farge informs Rowland Mallet's relations with the eponymous Roderick Hudson, and so forth. Readers familiar with Leon Edel's multivolume biography of Henry James will recognize the methodology and content of this analysis. Like Edel, Tóibín distinguishes the roman á clef (characters, situations, and settings taken from life) from the germination of a fictional idea in James's consciousness—life "filled out" and brought to a "golden completion" (13, 12). Tóibín expounds,
Once more, as with Washington Square, and more emphatically with The Portrait of a Lady, James did not "base" his characters in The Golden Bowl on the Bootts and Duveneck. Instead, he allowed the richly edged shape they made as a group to emerge; he used their configuration.(34)
In theory, this is a reasonable assertion. In practice, this means that a narrow cast of characters from James's past (the Boott-Duvenecks, Constance Fenimore Woolson) take up a huge amount of imaginative real estate. As criticism, Tóibín's theory of the imagination adheres too closely to his own textual practice as novelist. Tóibín's The Master is an engaging "biofiction" similarly concerned with James's sources in the mid-period of a long career (see Layne). This is all very interesting, but it gives no scope to James's complex lifelong engagement with the visual arts.
Art historian Marc Simpson's "'I like ambiguities and detest great glares': Henry James and American Paintings" is a welcome survey of the art James encountered and wrote about for American and British magazines. A particular strength of the chapter is Simpson's clear statement of James's aesthetic criteria. James was drawn to the unity of impressions and subordination of detail (50). Describing Delacroix's achievement in 1880, James proclaimed Delacroix a great composer and colorist who "saw his subject as a whole; not as the portrait of a group of selected and isolated objects, but as an incident in the continuity of things and the passage of human life" (EAD [End Page 202] 312). Occasionally, Simpson's clarity reduces James's aesthetic theory to aphorism: "This principle of tying works of art to experience in the world was to animate his later writing on art" (52). While James values "the artist who tells us most about human life" (EAD 313), he is no champion of mimesis. Instead, James praises the artist's reflective temperament and the role imagination plays in art. Reviewing the Frenchman Decamps, James writes: "He painted, not the thing regarded, but the thing remembered, imagined, desired,—in some degree or other intellectualized" (EAD 31–32). In fact, this formulation presages James's split from the nineteenth-century "Torquemada of aesthetics," John Ruskin (Nordau 77). This question of imaginative freedom versus natural truth speaks directly to the curators' overvaluation of and preoccupation with the original settings and models for James's fiction. Like Tóibín, Simpson forges an analogy between Henry James's thwarted ambitions as a painter and his painterly composition of scenes and character portraits. Simpson explains James's partiality for portraiture when discussing James's enthusiasm for the "simple, unified aim" of John Singleton Copley's Mrs. John Singer (54).1 However, James's acknowledgment of Copley's "masculine directness" and ability to capture "direct, exact reality" is a demur rather than a plaudit: "He was definite, as we say . . . , [but] Copley was by no means a Holbein" (53). In contrast to Simpson, Ruth Bernard Yeazell's elaboration of James's "Portrait-Envy" in an essay in New Literary History recognizes differences as well as similarities among the sister arts (314). James felt that a great portrait provides a sense of immediacy unavailable to the novelist, while the novelist excels at suggesting hidden depths.
Declan Kiely, Robert H. Taylor Curator and Head of the Literary and Historical Manuscripts Department at the Morgan Library, does a fine job turning an enumeration of the library's holdings into a story. Kiely's unifying theme is Henry James's obsession with privacy. Kiely parses James's unease reading Hawthorne's posthumously published journals and Balzac's letters. James fictionalizes this concern in "The Aspern Papers," where an unscrupulous fan of the late Byronic figure tries to gain access to the poet's love-letters. Kiely limns Henry's quarrels with his sister-in-law over liberties taken with William James's letters in Notes of a Son and Brother. Henry made a bonfire of personal papers, including his notebooks, drafts, typescripts, and proofs in 1909 and 1915, respectively. He explicitly instructed his executor (nephew Henry James III) to obstruct familial reminiscences, biographies, and the publication of private correspondence. Kiely discusses the James family's posthumous control of his literary remains and heavy-handed influence on editor Percy Lubbock and biographer-editor Edel, resulting in the suppression of any hint of homosexuality. In exchange for an "unrivaled and largely unchallenged monopoly of access" to James's private papers, Edel protected the "family's preferred image of their famous relative"—the Master (107, 108). Kiely has found a neglected story, "The Abasement of the Northmores" (1899–1900), that encapsulates many of these concerns. Calling the story a "dark comedy," Kiely describes the role of posthumously published correspondence in destroying a prominent figure's reputation. A former mistress, who has been nursing her revenge in the form of a bundle of love-letters, is pre-empted by the family-sanctioned publication of private letters, which results in irreversible damage to Lord Northmore's posthumous reputation. This "abasement" of the Northmores is read as an object lesson in the immanent threat posed by publication and exposure of an inner self to a callous and unsympathetic world (106). [End Page 203]
No catalog of mechanically reproduced images can replicate the thrill of standing before a painting. In addition to the catalog, the Morgan Library offered a well-conceived online exhibition and lecture series.2 I attended the presentation, "The Writer's Art: A Conversation with Jean Strouse3 & Colm Tóibín," which may still be accessed online. Strouse encouraged Tóibín to share a recitation he gave at a recent dinner, where he imagined James perusing the exhibit after hours. Describing James's wonderment and fascination with the wall of photographs and Sargent paintings, Tóibín pauses to embellish James's tender encounter with his private letters to sculptor Hendrik Andersen. Tóibín certainly knows how to tell a story, but to my ears this is a false note in his narrative. If I know anything about Henry James, it is that this outing of his spurned love and private frustration, in the guise of "advice to a young artist," would have "killed him."
1. The Copley portrait is not on display at the Morgan Library. The exhibition catalog includes illustrations that are not part of the Morgan exhibit, such as male nudes by Sargent. Some of the choicest images on display, such as Whistler's Arrangement in Black and Brown, do not appear in the catalog.
2. Highlights from the exhibition, Henry James and American Painting, may be found on the Morgan Library website under "past exhibitions." Highlights from the lecture series may be accessed under the heading "videos."
3. Strouse has written well-received biographies of both J. P. Morgan and Alice James.