James and Tintoretto
Tuesday, December 30, 2014 at 10:34AM
Mark Scarbrough in Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady

Henry James in his early twenties, painted by John la FargeBorn in 1843, Henry James didn't have a formal education. His father, a New England idealist/reformer, thought the then-standard curriculum of classics and philosophy would harm his children. Instead, the old man tossed his kids in and out of various boarding schools across Europe and America as he willy-nilly moved around, Paris to Geneva, Newport to New York. During many years, the children attended no schools.

When James was old enough to go to college, his father again said "no." However, he did allow his son to attend Harvard Law School (not a post-baccalaureate institution in those days) on the theory that the legal profession was "scientific." Henry didn't go to many law classes over that year. Instead, he attended James Russell Lowell's inaugural lectures on literature, some of the first lectures ever given on this "new" discipline.

James's true education happened in his mid- to late twenties, in the years just after the Civil War. He went abroad and immersed himself in art, stopping for a while in London but really heading toward Italy, the newly unified country that would become his chosen home.

James wasn't yet writing novels. He was writing stories, travel pieces, and many literary reviews in which he was working out a theory of the novel that would sustain him for the rest of his creative life.

Titian's Assumption of the VirginIn Venice, James was confronted by Titian's Assumption of the Virgin, the alterpiece in Titian's "home" church, i Frari. Nineteenth-century critics and scholars considered it the single greatest masterpiece of Italian art. Everything swirls up to the Virgin, a vanishing point of perspective in God the Father above her, shielding her (and us) from the more dazzling light of heaven. The foreshortened apostles below, the uplifted arms, the light that is both cool and warm, the sense of both movement and stasis: these made Titian's work a triumph.

For everyone except James. He found it a "second class" work, a matter of technique, not art. It was form without heart. (It would be many more years before James would come to understand Titian and model his later novels on the artist's techniques.)

Instead, James was struck by the Tintoretto canvases in Venice. He found the drama, the abundant life, the full scene surrounding two or three dominant characters the very essence of art's move toward the human scene. He was particularly enamored with Tintoretto's Crucifixion scene in the small church at San Cassiano. The Roman executioners form a background of spears behind the cross; the clouds are almost abstractions of color, more feeling than form. Your eye seems to wander aimlessly over the canvas until you realize its center, the "true" subject matter. In fact, the "true" subject of the painting is off-center, a curious placement.

Here's how James put it in a published piece on art in Venice:

When once Tintoretto had conceived the germ of a scene, it defined itself to his imagination with an intensity, an amplitude, an individuality of expression, which make one's observation of his pictures seem less an operation of the mind than a kind of supplementary experience of life.

I ask you to think about this very description in terms of THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY: intensity, amplitude, individuality of expression, all leading to something that moves away from mental exercise and into something more living, more expressive. You seem to breathe in the piece. Observing it, feeling it, and analyzing it become something that feels like life itself.

James also was taken with the Tintoretto painting of the Last Supper, a marvel of perspective and mood, of technique and emotion.

The table lies at a diagonal (think of the difference from Leonardo da Vinci's fresco). The apostles are in conversation; Jesus, the center of the theme, is almost unnoticed, a piece of the vanishing point, rather than the foreground focus. You have to find the focus, rather than have it given to you. The light around Jesus is the humid, liquid light of Venice. As James put it:

It was the whole scene that Tintoretto seemed to have beheld in a flash of inspiration intense enough to stamp it ineffaceably on his perception; and it was the whole scene, complete, peculiar, individual, unprecedented, that he committed to canvas with all the vehemence of his talent . . . its long, diagonally-placed table, its dusky spaciousness, its scattered lamp-light and halo-light, its startled, gesticulating figures. . . .

Again: "whole scene." Think of that first chapter of PORTRAIT, the tea on the lawn. Think of the individuals emerging from the scene. Think how complete it all feels. Think of Isabel arriving on the scene, off center, to the side and the back. And imagine "the vehemence of talent."

In Tintoretto, James found an answer to how art is created. Think about these two canvases and PORTRAIT. There are no direct correlations. Rather, there are conjunctions: moods, perspective, technique, form, balance, perspective--and of course, the "vehemence of talent."

Article originally appeared on The Norfolk Library Book Group (http://norfolklibrarybookgroup.squarespace.com/).
See website for complete article licensing information.