Understanding Henry James’ relationship to painting may very well unlock one of the keys to understanding the notoriously concealed prose style of the greatest of all English-language prose artists.
There is no single way to read a writer as complex as Henry James. His novels are renowned as much for their psychological openness as for their at-times frustrating manner of concealment. Even his sentences operate with this kind of suppression—there always seems to be something more going on underneath the surface, carefully concealed behind a prose style that his brother William complained had, over the years, grown too fanciful, too abstract. How best, then, to approach this most important—and yet most challenging—of American writers? Over the past hundred years, critics and scholars have offered readings of James that have been as multifaceted and convoluted as James’ prose itself. But the Morgan Library’s excellent exhibit “Henry James and American Painting” illustrates that of all the manifold ways that critics have read James over the past century, perhaps the most rewarding reading has been the one that has been least explored: reading James visually—not just through the prism of print but through the prism of paint. Understanding James’ relationship to painting—both his relationship to painters as well as his own conception of himself as an artist—may very well unlock one of the keys to understanding the notoriously concealed prose style of the greatest of all English-language prose artists.
In The Art of Fiction, James himself hinted that he should be read not so much as a constructor of paragraphs but as a painter of sentences; words were his palette, the pen his brush, and the page his canvas:
The analogy between the art of the painter and the art of the novelist is, so far as I am able to see, complete. The inspiration is the same, their process… 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.
The novelist Colm Tóibín—author of The Master, a novel about the life of James, as well as a collection of essays on James—and the Morgan’s Declan Kiely have taken James at his word, co-curating an exhibit that is the first to survey James’ profound and lifelong fascination with painting and its influence on his writing. Through its exploration of the significance of James’ relationships with expatriate American artists such as John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler, and its bountiful and diverse collection of paintings, manuscripts, drawings, and sculptures, the exhibition reveals James to be a writer for whom painting was part and parcel of his picture of himself as a painter in prose.
The exhibit includes, quite literally, a portrait of the artist as a young man—John La Farge’s 1862 portrait of James as a nineteen-year-old—as well as John Singer Sargent’s 1913 portrait of James as a seventy-year-old man, which, according to Mr. Tóibín, represents the “culmination of James’ close relationship to painting and painters.” The many letters James penned about the painting attests to how meaningful the painting—and the experience of being painted by the leading portraitist of his time—was for James. James, whose fiction frequently features doubles—most prominently in his story “The Jolly Corner”—and whose characters are often divided, “shadow selves,” with different inner and outer selves, seemed to see Singer Sargent as his own double. As Mr. Tóibín explains, “they had both wandered in Europe as children, they both moved easily between France and England, they were both very interested in fashion, and they both were workers: they both were two men, two bachelors, who really devoted their lives to their art.”
The show also effectively brings the expatriate James back across the Atlantic, considering him not just as an American but as a New Yorker as it explores James’ conflicted relationship with New York City. He was born and raised in the downtown, Washington Square section of the city and had fond memories of the more quaint city of his youth (he left New York in 1855), but he hated the way the city had, in his eyes, transmogrified into a brutish, grid-drawn metropolis of skyscrapers, numbered streets, and straight, dull avenues. He often wrote about the vulgarity of the city; he detested the way the city was built on—and obsessed with—money and materialism, and he had some rather nasty things to say about the new wave of immigrants who began to arrive in New York in the 1880s. But—mirroring many contemporary New Yorkers’ love-hate relationship with the city—when he published a collected edition of his works, he chose to call it “The New York Edition,” thinking that having the name of the city in the title would lend the volume “dignity and distinctness,” and because such a title would grant him the opportunity of “rendering that sort of homage” he thought he owed to his “native city.”
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The featured image is a portrait of Henry James (1913) by John Singer Sargent, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.