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Entries in Henry James (5)


Portraits in the Portrait

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.


James and Tintoretto

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."


James and Hawthorne

The writer at eleven: a daguerrotype of Henry James Sr. and Jr. in 1854. Henry James had what could generously be called an “unusual upbringing.” His family, descended from a wealthy Albany clan, found themselves continually at the mercy of his father’s wanderlust. They traveled here and there, often in Europe, then settling in Newport one day, New York City another ("uptown," at 14th and 6th), and Cambridge, Massachusetts, yet another.

James and his brothers were tossed from one school to another, one tutor to another, with little regularity or discipline. Sometimes, Henry James—“Harry” to his family—was left on his own to wander New York City or Geneva, Switzerland, at the age of eight or ten; sometimes, he was locked up in brutal, repressive classrooms chanting Latin verbs. It never was the same day to day.

Yes, the James children each grew up to be formidable in his or her own right: his brother William, one of the most famous psychologists of his day; his brothers Wilky and Bob, military leaders of some renown; his sister Alice, one of the great diariests of her age, despite a debilitating opium addiction after a hysteria diagnosis; and Harry himself, one of the finest writers of the English language. But all that was in the offing. The downward slope of the family’s finances, combined with their father’s persistent boredom, crazed utopian efforts, and desire for lecturing fame on a level with Emerson or Alcott, would surely have obliterated the egos of all but the most resilient.

By 1862, Henry James was nineteen and directionless. His father didn't want him to go to college; the old man thought the institutions not up to snuff with his radical ideals. Yes, older brother William was going to Harvard—but only because the school had instituted courses in the modern sciences, housed in an outlying building, lest they contaminate the famed seminary.

A portrait of Henry James by John La Farge from about 1862.On the sly, Henry James enrolled in Harvard Law School. It wasn't college, per se. It wasn't even a graduate program in those days. His father still didn't approve--but didn't seem to care enough to do more than rant at the dinner table about Harry's choices. Even so, law school seemed like a direction, a profession, something.

Months before, Harry had seriously hurt his back pumping water for a house fire in Newport. He spent most of the summer of 1862 flat on his back, reading. Allegedly, he was boning up for law school. In fact, he was reading every word Hawthorne ever wrote. He had always thought that no American could produce good literature. Then he found the modern-day Massachusetts Puritan.

The great thing was that Hawthorne existed. Harry had gotten an itch to be a man of letters. He hadn’t told anyone--especially not his father who dreamed of being a man of letters. But Harry knew of no American writers who were of the stature of the Europeans. At last, here was Hawthorne: a strange case, yes, more a student of pyschology than history, more concerned with the world of spiritualism and magnetic forces beneath the obvious externals of American life, more concerned with sin than redemption—but a rich source, nonetheless.

Harry did indeed go off to law school that year. He attended lectures given by the faculty, all successful but unimaginative lawyers who had played small parts in the American legal system. But Harvard itself was the great prize. Harry could break the claustrophobia of his family. He had friends outside his siblings—for the first time in his life. He had access to one of the great libraries in North America. And he could sneak off to hear James Russell Lowell hold forth on literature. There was no English department back then. Instead, the professors of modern languages would occasionally discuss books, Lowell more so than the others.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., about 1870It was here, too, in Cambridge, that Henry James fell in love for the first time: with Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the son of the writer, poet, lecturer and first-tier Boston Brahmin. Wendell, as he was known in his family, was a beautiful young man, given a bit to drink and the high life. Yes, he eventually became one of the greatest legal minds in the United States, sitting on the Supreme Court for decades, his mark still felt on American jurisprudence. But in the 1860s, he and the future writer consummated a fevered relationship in Harry's rooms: his private space, ever his refuge from an unpredictable and dismissive world. Harry would eventually become the great writer of the inner space, the private life. He had good cause.

In later years, Holmes dismissed the incident, writing that it all came down to a “difference in the sphere of our dominant interest.” But James was left both shattered and new--or as he would write of others up against a love that should not be: "panting." Holmes eventually spurned Harry and settled into a conventional life. And by the writer's own admission in both his journals and in the descriptions he penned, the character of Basil Ransom in THE BOSTONIANS is based directly on his first love. But the mark was left, more profound perhaps, and stiller. Years later, on tour, he wrote about that night in his journal, using all the characteristic indirection he could muster:

How can I speak of Cambridge at all. . . . The point for me (for fatal, for impossible expansion) is that I knew there, had there, in the ghostly old C[ambridge] . . . l’intitation première (the divine, the unique).

In some ways, it all started with Hawthorne.



Early on, I said we'd often pay special attention to the beginnings and endings of novels. This one by James is no exception.

Consider this: the novel opens with a scene of involuntary loss. It opens with death--which is an odd place for a novel to open. Specifically, with the death of two members of Dr. Sloper's family--two events over which he has no control but which both deal him great loss.

The novel then concludes with a scene of voluntary loss: Catherine's dismissing Morris and settling into her quiet life of "mild, firm sadness."

No matter what else you think about her fate, it is something she can control. James did not end with Mrs. Penniman's or Mrs. Almond's deaths--two events that could have been quite "natural" for the plot's conclusion. Instead, he has opted for a loss of a different kind: the loss that Catherine herself chooses.

In this, she has moved well beyond her father.



James wrote this smallish novel at what is now considered the height of his first phase of literary output, a period that culiminated with the subsequent novel, one of his unabashed masterpieces, The Portrait of a Lady.

That said, Washington Square is sublime: polished, poised, and succinct. The idea for the novel was suggested to James by his friend, the British actress Fanny Kemble.

Kemble herself was once entangled in a tragic marriage in the United States. She had married Pierce Butler, the heir to an enormous fortune. Butler also inherited his father's many slaves. After seeing their appalling conditions on his plantations in Georgia, Kemble tried to better their lives, much to Butler's dismay. The couple soon separted and eventually were divorced.

To her horror, Butler was given sole custody of their two daughters. Kemble returned to the stage to make a living and was later reunited with her daughters after each turned twenty-one. She was best known in the United States for her solo readings of Shakespeare's plays. From a chair center-stage, she would read an entire play, all the characters, employing various voices and dramatic gestures, to grand applause and in sold-out houses. In the days before youtube, this passed for a hit.

Back in England, Kemble was the toast of London society. There, she met James frequently at swanky dinner parties and the two soon become good friends.

One evening, she recounted to James the story of her younger brother, Henry. According to Kemble, he was beautiful but "selfish and indolent." He courted Mary Anne Thackeray, a plain girl, the only child of George Thackeray, the master of King's College, Cambridge. George Thackeray had inherited a fortune that yielded him in today's money about half a million a year. On learning that his daughter was honoring the suit of a known lay-about, he said that if she dared to marry the young man, he would cut her off.

Mary Anne went to Fanny for advice during the worst of it. The girl then soldiered on against her father. The whole affair soon went up in smoke when Henry himself broke off the engagement, fearing the old man would never relent.

Twenty years later, the don long dead, Henry Kemble returned and proposed again to Mary Anne. This time, she refused him outright, although now a fading spinster. "And yet," Fanny Kemble told James, "she cared for Henry--and she would have married no other man."

As a thank-you for the germ of the story, James put Fanny Kemble into the book--in the "person" of Mrs. Montgomery, the sister of Morris Townsend. However, the advice that James recorded in his dairies as having come from Fanny Kemble to Mary Anne Thackeray was elsewhere reproduced almost verbatim in the text of the book--in the mouth of Mrs. Almond.