Portraits in the Portrait
Friday, January 16, 2015 at 4:07PM
Mark Scarbrough in Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady

As Isabel Archer moves from England to the Continent, the middle third of this magnificent novel is very much taken up with Italian art. Some scenes become almost Renaissance tableaux; others have direct references to paintings and sculpture. I thought I'd take a minute an elucidate a few of the more important references. The page numbers here are those in the Penguin edition we're using, the reprint of the 1882 one-volume Macmillan edition.

1. Chapter 20, page 219. "You may see her; but you will not be struck with her being happy. She has looked as solemn, these three days, as a Cimabue Madonna!" And Mrs. Touchett rang for the servant.

Cimabue Madonna di CasteldifliorentoHere, Mrs. Touchett and Madame Merle are discussing Isabel's sudden and extravagant fortune at the death of Mr. Touchett. Cimabue was a Florentine painter of the middle and late 1200s, a little bit before Dante. Cimabue strode the line between the Middles Ages and the Renaissance (Vasari claimed he was Giotto's teacher) by adapting Byzantine art to his Italian surroundings. His Madonnas almost always had, as above, a blissed-out Byzantine stare, very other-worldly and calm (as opposed to the more active and "of this world" Christ child in the painting). Mrs. Touchett's reference to Cimabue begins the long stretch in the novel that concerns both Isabel's restlessness and her increasing "serenity." Of course, at this point in the book, Isabel is also a Madonna of sorts: a virtuous (and in nineteenth-century parlance, virginal) woman.

2. Chapter 23, page 258.  "But she [Madame Merle] talked of all things with remarkable vividness of memory--she remembered the right-hand angel in the large Perugino and the position of the hands of the Saint Elizabeth in the picture next to it. . . ."

Perugino, Assumption of the VirginAlbertinelli, The Virgin and Saint Elizabeth

The discussion here is about Madame Merle's rather bored but sophisticated take on Italian art: she doesn't want to go to the Uffizi anymore but she can talk about the art in very good terms. In other words, art has ceased to be an object of gaze and has instead become an object of interpretation. It's hard to know exactly which Perugino James had in mind since they've been endlessly moved around the Uffizi. The canvas above is as good as any to illustrate the busy-ness, the movement, the mood of the Italian master--a work of genius that hardly deserves a flip of the hand, as it apparently does for Madame Merle. However, note in the second canvas, the Albertinelli, one of the more important paintings of Renaissance art, how the two women meet: their close intimacy, their relative positions. They appear equal--but the Virgin (on the left) would be the far "higher" one in the spiritual pyramid. Perhaps this is a direct comment on the novel--but on which pair of women?

3. Chapter 24, page 271. "Indeed, I can show you her [Mrs. Touchett's] portrait in a fresco of Ghirlandaio's. I hope you don't object to my speaking that way of your aunt, eh?"

Ghirlandaio, Birth of Saint Mary in Santa Maria Novella in FlorenceWe'd be hard pressed to figure out which of Ghirlandaio's many frescos Osmond has in mind, but this one in a central Florentine church will do to show his vision. Ghirlandaio was known for letting us peek into private space--and particularly women's private space. Here, we have the miraculous birth of the virgin Mary painted as an event for a community of women. The angelic presence is actually a series of statues in the cornice above (art looking at art?). Yes, it is a Renaissance scene, almost of daily life among the well-off and fortunate. But it is more importantly a typically Ghirlandaio perspective: a private and communal experience of and for women. Perhaps that explains Osmond's sneer.

4. Chapter 28, page 315.  "Isabel saw no more of her attributive victim for the next twenty-four hours, but on the second day after the visit to the opera, she encountered him [Lord Warburton] in the gallery of the Capitol, where he was standing before the lion of the collection, the statue of the Dying Gladiator."

We now know this statue is more properly called a "dying Gaul," not a gladiator--that is, one of the "under classes" that served the Mediterranean empires for centuries. It's a Roman marble copy of a lost, Greek, bronze original. The wounded, slumped-over Gaul is rendered quite lifelike, particularly the wound in the lower part of his chest and the look of pain on his face. He is dying on his shield, a noble move. But it's also a very sensual statue, brazenly naked, hauntingly beautiful, sexual but morose, ecstatic but indolent. He is, well, spent. Is this a comment on Warburton? On Isabel? On her thoughts about him? On his thoughts about himself? Or on the novel as a whole?

5. Chapter 37, page 389.  "Why, she [Pansy] had the style of a little princess; if you couldn't see it you had no eye. It was not modern, it was not conscious, it would produce no impression in Broadway; the small, serious damsel in her stiff little dress only looked like an Infanta of Velasquez."

Here's one of Velasquez' many portraits of the Spanish royal children--particularly of the "infanta" Maria Margarita whom he painted over and over again. These portraits are notoriously sumptuous, almost to an extreme, an over-abundance of fabric and texture, the cherubic skin glowing from within. Lovely. But it's also important to note that Pansy is nineteen at this point in the book. The girl in this portrait? About five.

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