Understanding Henry Jamesâ€™ 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 suppressionâ€”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 importantâ€”and yet most challengingâ€”of American writers? Over the past hundred years, critics and scholars have offered readings of James that have been as multifaceted and convoluted as Jamesâ€™ prose itself. But the Morgan Libraryâ€™s excellent exhibit â€œHenry James and American Paintingâ€ 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 visuallyâ€”not just through the prism of print but through the prism of paint. Understanding Jamesâ€™ relationship to paintingâ€”both his relationship to painters as well as his own conception of himself as an artistâ€”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 processâ€¦ 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 TÃ³ibÃnâ€”author of The Master, a novel about the life of James, as well as a collection of essays on Jamesâ€”and the Morganâ€™s Declan Kiely have taken James at his word, co-curating an exhibit that is the first to survey Jamesâ€™ profound and lifelong fascination with painting and its influence on his writing. Through its exploration of the significance of Jamesâ€™ 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 manâ€”John La Fargeâ€™s 1862 portrait of James as a nineteen-year-oldâ€”as well as John Singer Sargentâ€™s 1913 portrait of James as a seventy-year-old man, which, according to Mr. TÃ³ibÃn, represents the â€œculmination of Jamesâ€™ close relationship to painting and painters.â€ The many letters James penned about the painting attests to how meaningful the paintingâ€”and the experience of being painted by the leading portraitist of his timeâ€”was for James. James, whose fiction frequently features doublesâ€”most prominently in his story â€œThe Jolly Cornerâ€â€”and whose characters are often divided, â€œshadow selves,â€ with different inner and outer selves, seemed to see Singer Sargent as his own double. As Mr. TÃ³ibÃn explains, â€œthey 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.â€
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 Jamesâ€™ 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 onâ€”and obsessed withâ€”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. Butâ€”mirroring many contemporary New Yorkersâ€™ love-hate relationship with the cityâ€”when he published a collected edition of his works, he chose to call it â€œThe New York Edition,â€ thinking that having the name of the city in the title would lend the volume â€œdignity and distinctness,â€ and because such a title would grant him the opportunity of â€œrendering that sort of homageâ€ he thought he owed to his â€œnative city.â€
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