Henry James and American Painting, opening at the Morgan Library & Museum on June 9, is the first exhibition to explore the author’s deep and lasting interest in the visual arts and their profound impact on the literature he produced. Offering a fresh perspective on the master novelist, the show reveals the importance of James’s friendships with American artists such as John La Farge, John Singer Sargent, and James McNeill Whistler. While the author decided early on that the pictorial arts were not to be the arena in which he would work, the painterly quality of his writing has enthralled readers for over a century.
Co-curated by author Colm Tóibín, whose latest novel House of Names is published this month, and Declan Kiely, head of the museum’s Department of Literary and Historical Manuscripts, the exhibition includes a rich and eclectic selection of more than fifty paintings, drawings, watercolors, sculptures, photographs, manuscripts, letters, and printed books from two dozen museums and private collections in the United States, Great Britain, and Ireland. Together they weave an evocative story of fascinating artistic intersections.
“With its acclaimed collections of art and literature, the Morgan is the perfect place for this exhibition,” said Colin B. Bailey, director of the museum. “The visual arts were part of the bedrock on which Henry James built his house of fiction. He composed the most dramatic moments in his work as though they were framed, as though his characters were placed in light and shade as a painter might pose figures on a canvas.”
Portraits of Henry James
Henry James was fiercely protective of his privacy and, despite achieving preeminence as a novelist by the end of the nineteenth century, gave only four interviews over the course of his career. He expressed a “dread of the assault of the interviewer.” Nevertheless, he sat for numerous portraits, and was photographed by some of the leading photographers of his day. In less than a decade James used the word “portrait” in three book titles—The Portrait of a Lady (1881), his first literary masterpiece; Portraits of Places (1883), a collection of travel essays; and Partial Portraits (1888), a collection of essays on writers that argued for the inclusion of narrative fiction among the fine arts.
John La Farge (1835–1910), Portrait of Henry James , 1862, oil on canvas. The Century Association, New York City. J.P. Morgan et Amicorum (Guest book logging visitors to the Morgan, including Henry James), 1908-1996. The Morgan Library & Museum.
In 1862, at age nineteen, James sat for John La Farge, a painter eight years his senior, in Newport, Rhode Island. At the time, Henry James was attending Harvard Law School, after which he redirected his focus to essays and fiction. His relationship with La Farge set the tone for his early novel, Roderick Hudson (1875), a coming-of-age story of a young law student from Northampton, Massachusetts, who aspires to be a great sculptor in the classical tradition.
It was La Farge who helped James to gain “the dawning perception that the arts were after all essentially one and that even with canvas and brush whisked out of my grasp I still needn’t feel disinherited. That was the luxury of the friend and senior with a literary side.” The exhibition includes the original typescript of Notes of a Son and Brother, in which James wrote extensively about La Farge’s important early aesthetic influence.
The 1913 portrait of James by John Singer Sargent—a treasure on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, London— is perhaps the most famous painted image of the author. Sargent was the natural choice when a group of James’s friends commissioned an oil portrait to mark the writer’s seventieth birthday. James described the finished work, which captured his reserve and sensuous intelligence, as “Sargent at his very best and poor old H. J. not at his worst; in short a living breathing likeness and a masterpiece of painting.”
Other portraits of James in the exhibition include Abbott Handerson Thayer’s 1881 crayon on paper drawing from the Collection of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City; Ellen Gertrude Emmet Rand’s 1900 portraits from the National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.; Alice Boughton’s 1905 and 1906 photographs; William James’s 1910 portrait from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston; and E. O. Hoppé’s 1911 photograph from the National Portrait Gallery, London.
Frank Duveneck and Elizabeth Boott Duveneck
The relationship between the American painters Frank Duveneck (1848–1919) and his wife Elizabeth Boott Duveneck (1846–1888), and Elizabeth’s father, the composer Francis Boott (1813–1904), offered James inspiration for three of his most important novels— Washington Square (1880), The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and The Golden Bowl (1904). There are clear parallels between Elizabeth Boott and James’s characters: Catherine Sloper in Washington Square, Pansy Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady, and Maggie Verver in The Golden Bowl.
Francis and his only child Elizabeth were wealthy New Englanders who moved between Boston, where James first met them in 1865, and Europe. James, a regular visitor to their apartment in Villa Castellani at Bellosguardo, overlooking Florence, transformed it into the residence of his characters Gilbert Osmond and his daughter Pansy in The Portrait of a Lady. Frank Duveneck came to the attention of James and the Bootts when he showed his paintings at the Boston Art Club in 1875.
James wrote: “In the rooms of the Boston Art Club hang some five remarkable portraits by Mr. Frank Duveneck of Cincinnati . . . The good people of Boston have recently been flattering themselves that they have discovered an American Velázquez.” James added that “the analogy of Mr. Duveneck’s talent with that of the great Spaniard is a natural, instinctive one.” Elizabeth Boott purchased a painting from the exhibition, and, in March 1888, a portrait of her by Duveneck was accepted by the jury of the Salon in Paris.
The tensions that arose when Elizabeth fell in love with Duveneck, who, as her art teacher, was considered by her father to be an unsuitable match, intrigued James. After Elizabeth finally married Duveneck, James came to vist them at Bellosguardo, writing letters to his family and friends about the family dynamics of their household. Elements of his time with the Bootts made their way into his late masterpiece The Golden Bowl (1904), a novel that explores the drama of father-daughter bonds complicating husband-wife romance. This exhibition contextualizes James’s friendship with the Bootts and Duveneck, and shows the artists’ work together in illuminating conjunction.
Frank Duveneck (1848–1919), Elizabeth Boott Duveneck , 1888, oil on canvas. Cincinnati Art Museum; Gift of the artist, 1915.
Frank Duveneck (1848–1919), Portrait of Francis Boott , 1881, oil on canvas. Cincinnati Art Museum; The Edwin and Virginia Irwin Memorial
Highlights include Duveneck’s portraits of Elizabeth and Francis Boott,
and the tomb effigy that he designed to mark his wife’s burial place.
John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler
The connections between Henry James and John Singer Sargent make the latter essential to any consideration of James and painting, as they are also fascinating in any consideration of James’s own life in all its rich complexity and ambiguity. James and Sargent were both Americans in Europe who had spent much of their childhood abroad. They were bachelor expatriates, reserved, industrious, careful about their private lives. Both liked society and took an interest in fashionable women. Both, in their work, were interested in surface and psychology. In 1886, one critic noted the connections between them: “He [Sargent] is the Henry James of portraiture, and I can’t help wishing he were not—as I can’t help wishing Henry James were not the Sargent of the novel.” The British painter W. Graham Robertson, who knew both, described them as “real friends, they understood each other perfectly and their points of view were in many ways identical.”
More than a year before James and Sargent were introduced, the writer noted a Venetian genre scene by the artist that was part of an 1882 exhibition at London’s Grosvenor Gallery. Both James and Sargent were enthralled by Venice. “The Aspern Papers” (1888) is set in Venice, and the city also features in The Wings of the Dove (1902), a novel that features a palace that is clearly reminiscent of the Palazzo Barbaro, home of the Curtis family, where both Sargent and James spent considerable time.
John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), An Interior In Venice (The Curtis Family) , 1898, oil on canvas. Royal Academy of Arts, London; Diploma Work given by John Singer Sargent, R. A., accepted 1900.
On special loan from the Royal Academy of Arts, London, Sargent’s 1889 painting, An Interior In Venice (The Curtis Family), which was intended as a gift to the family, is displayed. The painting features the couple, Daniel and Ariana Curtis, as well as their son Ralph and his wife Lisa in their opulent Palazzo. Though rejected by the Curtises, (Ariana found her portrayal unflattering), Sargent’s distinguished work is celebrated for its aesthetic depiction of the grand Venetian salon.
In 1884, James declared Sargent to be the “only Franco-American product of importance,” who had, moreover, “high talent, a charming nature, artistic and personal, and is civilized to his fingertips. . . . I like him extremely; and the best of his work seems to me to have in it something exquisite.” Conversely, James sometimes critiqued Sargent’s tendency to paint pretty portraits, rather than to remain true to his subject’s natural likeness. As James opined, “His Mrs. Boit is admirable for life & impudence & talent, but seems to me a supreme example of his great vice—a want of respect for the face.” In the context of fiction writing, James had more creative license to create a less-than-flattering portrait with his pen than did Sargent.
Whistler, like Sargent, became known for creating vivid, iconic, and mysterious images of women—as evidenced in his
Arrangement in Black and Brown: The Fur Jacket (1876)—much as James became known for the subtlety and sympathy with which he treated his female characters. James and Whistler became friends in the 1880s. James sent him an inscribed copy of The Spoils of Poynton (1897) and, upon hearing of Whistler’s appreciation, wrote that he was delighted “to have pleased you, to have touched you … for the arts are one, and with the artist the artist communicates.” James was a regular visitor to Whistler’s home at 110 Rue du Bac in the 1890s, and The Ambassadors (1903) drew upon his impressions to describe the house and garden of the sculptor Gloriani, who is based on Whistler.
Hendrik Christian Andersen and Lilla Cabot Perry
Sculptor Hendrik Andersen appears almost as a character out of James’s fiction. James met him in the spring of 1899 in Rome. James was fifty-six, Andersen almost thirty years his junior. Andersen was born in Norway but raised in Newport, Rhode Island, where the James family had also lived between sojourns in Europe. He studied in Paris and then Naples, and moved to Rome in 1897. Between 1899 and 1915, the year before his death, James wrote seventy-eight letters to the handsome young Norwegian-American. Anderson’s 1899 painted terra-cotta bust of Count Alberto Bevilacqua, on loan from the National Trust--was placed by the mantelpiece in a corner in the small dining room at Lamb House, Rye, where James moved in 1897. In his letters, James advised the young sculptor to produce work on a more domestic scale in order to make it more saleable. The bust bore a resemblance to Andersen, and James wrote, “I shall have him constantly before me as a loved companion and friend. He is so living, so human, so sympathetic and sociable and curious, that I foresee it will be a lifelong attachment.” James later told a friend that the sculpture was “the first object that greets my eyes in the morning, and the last at night.”
Henry James was also close to a number of female artists, in addition to Elizabeth Boott Duveneck. These include Ellen Gertrude Emmet Rand, his cousin who painted portraits of him; Alice Boughton, who took several photographs of James, creating images of character that have shaped the mental pictures of generations of readers and enthusiasts; and Lilla Cabot Perry, who was pivotal in connecting James with the French Impressionists, a movement that he broadly rejected. The daughter of wealthy Bostonians, Lilla Cabot married Thomas Sergeant Perry, literary critic and close friend of Henry James, in 1874. She became the sister-in-law of John La Farge. Perry had no formal artistic training until the age of thirty-six when she studied at the Académie Julian and at the Académie Colarossi. In 1889, the Perrys traveled to Giverny, France, joining the community of artists gathered around Claude Monet. Upon her return to the United States, Perry became an influential proponent of Monet’s work, publishing Reminiscences of Claude Monet from 1889 to 1909, a biographical account of her twenty summers at Giverny.
James visited the second Impressionist exhibition of 1876, held at the Galerie Durand-Ruel, and he dismissed “the young contributors of whom I speak” as “absolute foes to arrangement, embellishment, selection. . . . None of its members show signs of possessing first-rate talent.” He failed to recognize the significance of Impressionism, and he did not know the main French artists of the age, even though he knew most of the French novelists. The work that interested him most was Anglo-American, or pre-Impressionist. What mattered to him was the atmosphere that visual artists created and the world they inhabited more than any new systems or innovations.
Published to coincide with the exhibition at the Morgan, in Henry James and American Painting novelist and critic Colm Tóibín, author of the 2004 Man Booker short-listed novel The Master, joins art historian Marc Simpson and Declan Kiely of the Morgan Library & Museum to reveal how essential the language and imagery of the arts—and friendships with artists—were to James’s writing.
Depicting characters like the eponymous young sculptor in Roderick Hudson and spaces like the crowded galleries in The Wings of the Dove, Henry James’s iconic novels reflect the significance of the visual culture of his society. In this book, novelist and critic Colm Tóibín joins art historian Marc Simpson and Declan Kiely of The Morgan Library & Museum to reveal how essential the language and imagery of the arts—and friendships with artists—were to James’s writing.
The authors consider the paintings, photographs, drawings, and sculpture produced by artists in James’s circle, assess how his pictorial aesthetic developed, and discuss why he destroyed so many personal documents and what became of those that survived. In examining works by figures such as John La Farge, Hendrik Andersen, and John Singer Sargent alongside selections from James’s novels, personal letters, and travel writings, Tóibín, Simpson, and Kiely explore the novelist’s artistic and social milieu. They show him to be a writer with a painterly eye for colors and textures, shapes and tastes, and for the blending of physical and psychological impressions. In many cases, the characters populating James’s fiction are ciphers for his artist friends, whose demeanors and experiences inspired James to immortalize them on the page. He also wrote critically about art, most notably about the work of his friend Sargent.
A refreshing new perspective on a master novelist who was greatly nourished by his friendships with artists, this edifying volume reveals a James whose literary imagination, in Tóibín’s words, “seemed most at ease with the image” and the work of creating fully realized portraits of his characters.
Authors: Colm Tóibín, Marc Simpson, Declan Kiely Publishers: Penn State University Press, The Morgan Library & Museum 192 pages, 70 color illustrations.
Selection of Highlights on View
John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Venetian Women in the Palazzo Rezzonico, ca. 1880. Private collection, courtesy of David Nisinson
William Morris Hunt (1824–1879), Girl at the Fountain , 1852–54, oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Bequest of Jane Hunt, 1907.
John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife , 1885, oil on canvas. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.