He was the first american to put painterly themes in fiction
IN 1875, THE AMERICAN novelist Henry James arrived in Paris. At that moment, his first novel was also being published in Boston. Titled Roderick Hudson, it was about a lovelorn sculptor and his tragic end in an Alpine snowstorm.
The Paris arrival and the first novel set the stage for James—an expatriate New Englander who would live most of his life in London—to be the first American novelist to seriously include artists in major works of fiction.
Up to this point, Nathaniel Hawthorne was still the “great American novelist,” a mantel that both Herman Melville and James aspired to inherit.
Hints of the visual arts began to appear in Hawthorne. Well before Oscar Wilde’s novel The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1890), for example, Hawthorne wrote his short story “The Prophetic Pictures” (1837), in which portrait paintings reveal the fates of their subjects. Melville was a friend of Hawthorne, and much more than his older compatriot, Melville used artistic references, especially in two of his major-period novels, Redburn and Moby-Dick. And naturally so: Melville was a print collector, lecturer on ancient art, and was everywhere exposed to the painters and art books of his day in New York City.
Nevertheless, James finally outdoes Melville by making artists and art lovers the actual characters in the stories.
Having seen art in Europe during his upbringing, James further honed his tastes at the family home in Newport, Rhode Island. There, his brother James—later, a famous psychologist—studied under Boston’s leading painter, William Morris Hunt. In those circles, Henry also met John La Farge, the American Impressionist. La Farge helped Henry see that, as a writer, he could be a painter of sorts “even with canvas and brush whisked out of my grasp.”
James’s first story about an artist was set in New England, orbiting around a seasoned painter’s life. This was “A Landscape Painter” (which appeared in 1866 in the Atlantic Monthly), his second published story. In his 1884 essay, “The Art of Fiction,” James boldly equated the painter and the novelist. “The novel is of all pictures the most comprehensive and the most elastic,” he writes.
James’s European return began with the 1875 arrival in Paris. He was thirty-two and a correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune. In no time he was in the company of three venerable writers: Turgenev, Zola, and Flaubert.
He was also in the company of the great revolution in painting, early Impressionism. James had arrived a year after the first Impressionist exhibition. It was organized by a so-called Société, a dissenting group led by Monet, Renior, Degas, and Pissarro. Eight more exhibits followed over the next twelve years.
In all, some Jamesian scholars sees these painters and their paintings as a primary influence on James’s future style. The evidence is threefold: Under the influence of French painters, James developed an “impressionist” literary style. Second, his largest category of metaphors and similes draws upon art. “Painting,” for example, accounts for four hundred of his sixteen thousand figures of speech—the largest single grouping. “Portrait” is also a favorite, of course.
And third (as we’ll see in James, Part II and Part III), he ended up writing four short stories about painters (see the James III post), one novel about a sculptor, and three novels related to painters and paintings.
Each of James’s novels speaks for itself, but literary critics keep us in suspense: Using painting categories as a measure, was Henry James an Impressionist or a “mannerist” in his writing style? Are his novels like a Monet, Pissaro, and Sissley? Or are they more like a Parmigianino, Tintoretto, Bronzino, and late Michelangelo?
At the start, James was not impressed by the Impressionists. He called them “partisans of unadorned reality,” and “absolute foes to arrangement, embellishment [and] selection.” In dismissing James McNeill Whistler, he said, “His manner is very much that of the French Impressionists.”
And yet to many commentators, painterly Impressionism began to influence James’s “major period,” making his prose Impressionist: looking at the ordinary, dwelling on the moment, eliciting subjective experience, and leaving matters open ended (such as having an ambiguous conclusion to a novel). In painting, Impressionism was the recording of fleeting impressions. It sought open-air observation and detachment. It contrasted pure colors and liked a visually nebulous atmosphere (rather than visual clarity).
The same could be said of the new modern novel, of which James was the leading American pioneer. In character, James himself was cosmopolitan, individualistic, apolitical, and inclined to a life dedicated only art. All of this was very much like the leading French Impressionists.
To the contrary, however, others have said James used traditional literary forms, but then added on a quality of exaggeration. He exaggerated characters, viewpoints, and dialogue. Far from being Impressionist, this would make James an echo of the so-called mannerist paintings between the High Renaissance and the baroque period. Mannerist paintings (a term art historians now dislike) offered odd angles of vision and perspective. They stretched bodies and used abnormal lighting. It has been noted that James’s favorite painter was the Italian Tintoretto, the emblematic mannerist.
As one scholar said, mannerism in painting emphasizes “intricate asymmetrical patterns leading to no final solution.” And so it is with James novels. On this aspect of James, the two sides have tacitly agreed. He was forebear of the modern novel, which by definition, tends to avoid a clear resolution to the plots.
(Next: The James novel plots.)