“Henry James and American Painting” at the Morgan Library and Museum explored the relationship between one of the 19th century's foremost authors and several visual artists.
Henry James was born in 1843 into a wealthy family from Albany, New York. However, he spent much of his early life traveling around Europe. When the family returned to the United States, it settled in Newport, Rhode Island but subsequently moved to Boston, Massachusetts. During this time, James developed friendships with many of the great minds of New England such as the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. He also embarked on a career as a writer.
In 1869, James returned to Europe where he would stay for most of the rest of his life. He became a central figure in the American ex-patriot community. And, as documented in this exhibit, many of his friends were artists.
James saw the creative process of the novelist as being analogous to the creative process of the visual artist. In addition, he often used references to visual art in his writings His more experimental later works have been compared to Impressionist painting.
Perhaps the best known American artist living in Europe during this period was John Singer Sargent. James knew Sargent, wrote about him and sat for portraits by him. In addition to a formal portrait commissioned by James' friends to mark his seventieth birthday, the exhibit had a number of more informal works by Sargent. These included portraits of friends as well as a series of watercolors and oils done by Sargent while in Venice. As the signage in the exhibit indicated, several were works that James had known and/or commented upon.
In addition to their connection to James, these informal works were of interest because they showed Sargent's style free of the economic pressures and constraints of his commissioned portraits. In fact, the watercolors were never intended for sale or exhibition. The style in such informal works is looser and more free. The portrait of writer Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife borders on the abstract. It is much more 20th century than 19th century.
James was also friends with another famous American ex-patriot, James McNeill Whistler. In fact, James modeled one of the characters in his book The Ambassadors after Whistler.
The exhibit had fewer works by Whistler than by Sargent. “Arrangement in Black and Brown – The Fur Jacket” is a large vertical portrait of a woman. Like Sargent, Whistler had the ability to create intriguing portraits of women, using vagueness to create a sense of mystery. James also created portraits of women in his novels.
Not all of James' artist friends are as well known today as Sargent and Whistler. Lilla Cabot Perry was an American who joined with the community of artists that sprung up around Claude Monet when he was living in Giverny, France . Her portrait of her daughter reflects the strong Impressionist influence.
According to the signs at the exhibit, the relationship between American painters Frank Duveneck and Elizabeth Boott Duveneck and Elizabeth's father, inspired parts of three of James' novels. Elizabeth's father viewed Frank Duveneck as his social inferior and so was against his daughter marrying him. The exhibit had Duveneck's formal portrait of his father-in-law, presenting a very proud and imperial figure. Elizabeth died early on and the exhibit also had the tomb sculpture that Frank carved for her.
In addition to the paintings and other art work, the exhibit had manuscripts and letters that James wrote to various artists.
The exhibit presented a unique bridge between the world of literature and the visual arts. Considering that the Morgan is a museum founded upon a library, the exhibit was highly appropriate.
Rich Wagner is a writer, photographer and artist.