by Jerry Weiss | June 16, 2017
In his youth, the great novelist Henry James briefly studied painting. Realizing his talents lay elsewhere, he nonetheless retained a lifelong enthusiasm for the visual arts and did what many aficionados do: he befriended painters. These friendships form the rationale for Henry James and American Painting, now on display at the Morgan Library. Included in the exhibition are paintings, drawings, manuscripts, and letters that shed light on his associations with artists, many of whom were American expatriates living in Europe. What James wrote about their art still makes for good reading, as he had a facility for wrapping snark and appreciation in the same package. Here, in part, is an assessment of Winslow Homer:
“He is almost barbarously simple, and, to our eye, he is horribly ugly…but there is something one likes about him.”
Apparently James’s knife had a retractable blade. In fairness, contemporary reviewers were generally, and mistakenly, critical of the lack of polish in Homer’s work. James was a more profound snob than most: as an American who settled in Europe and broke bread with the upper class, Homer’s homegrown subjects weren’t his cup of continental tea. Work in the current show is in keeping with James’s more cosmopolitan milieu. For starters there are two fine Whistlers, a standing female portrait and a Thames nocturne, the one swathed in drawing room mystique, the other in London fog. These could, but for Whistler’s pointed antipathy for narrative, be a protagonist and a setting for a novel.
In fact, some of the artists in James’s circle provided the necessary literary material. He was well acquainted with Francis Boott, a wealthy composer from Boston, and his only daughter, Elizabeth. Elizabeth took to studying art with Frank Duveneck, who was at the time a brilliant but financially challenged painter. When the two fell in love, Elizabeth’s father disapproved. Their marriage was preceded by a lengthy courtship, and the dynamic between artist, wife and father-in-law inspired characters in no fewer than three novels by James. Featured here are large portraits Duveneck painted of father and daughter, both of which show him turning away from his flashing youthful style in favor of a more conservative finish. His work became more accomplished but lost its bite. Francis Boott looks like a Doge out of Titian, Elizabeth an exquisite schoolmistress. After they married, James visited the Duvenecks at their Florentine villa, no doubt taking notes. Elizabeth died young, and Frank was bereft. A version of his sculpted memorial to her is the centerpiece of the show’s “Duveneck” room.
The artist most closely associated with James, and the star of the show, is John Singer Sargent. Lifelong bachelors, American expats, and each preeminent in their field, the two had much in common. The writer recognized a kindred spirit when he pronounced Sargent “civilized to his fingertips.” Though James chastised his friend for prettifying his sitters, he championed him in a feature published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in October 1887. Artists are familiar with the article by virtue of a few choice quotes, but it’s a lengthy appreciation and it cemented their friendship; a few years ago Harvey Dinnerstein expressed interest in reading the article in its entirety, and I was able to hunt down a copy of the magazine online.
James sat for many artists, but Sargent’s portrait of 1913 is definitive. As both personality study and painting it’s one of Sargent’s best portraits. His brow slightly furrowed and a hand hitched up at his side, James appears to be appraising the artist, and is for all time taking our measure as well. The attitude could be that of Churchill or a plutocrat, but the characterization runs deeper. All the same, its implied hauteur and the scent of a male-dominated culture was not lost on a suffragette named Mary Wood, who had at the canvas with a meat cleaver when it was first exhibited in 1914. James wrote of the attack, “she got at me thrice over before the tomahawk was stayed. I naturally feel very scalped and disfigured.” Over the years the painting has grown on me, to the point that I can imagine it alongside Eakins’s portrait of Dr. Samuel Gross as a celebration of intellectualism, albeit of two very different types. The head is beautifully and simply modeled, the drawing superb. Sargent’s handling of shadow masses is a how-to for aspiring painters. The picture has enough gravitas to hold its panache in place. There are other noteworthy Sargents here, too, including several Venetian interiors and the portrait of Mrs. Boit, whose facial expression eludes explanation. James, immensely proud of his own portrait, rightly took Sargent to task for the Boit painting, writing that it “seems to me a supreme example of his great vice—a want of respect for the face.”
James’s pithy descriptions of his friends have long since entered the critical lexicon. His references to Duveneck as an “unsuspected genius” and Sargent’s talent as “uncanny spectacle” have been appropriated as titles for monographs and an exhibition. My favorite Jamesian critique is contained in a personal letter to Hendrik Christian Andersen, a young sculptor of whom he was fond. In it he offers advice on getting on in the world.
Stop your multiplication of unsaleable nakednesses for a while & hurl yourself, by every cunning art you can command, into the production of the interesting, the charming, the vendible, the placeable small thing. With your talent, you easily can—& if I were but near you now I should take you by the throat & squeeze it till you howled & make you do my Bust! You ought absolutely to get at Busts, at any cost of ingenuity—for it is fatal for you to go on indefinitely neglecting the Face, never doing one, only adding Belly to Belly—however beautiful—& Bottom.
Of all the ways artists have been counseled that nudes don’t sell, none has been more delightfully phrased than the exhortation to cease the “multiplication of unsaleable nakedness.” It is a triumph of prudish practicality. Henry James, refined aesthete and chronicler of the upper class, was also a clear-eyed pragmatist.
Henry James and American Painting is on view at The Morgan Library & Museum until September 10.