Saturday, January 9, 2016

Part II: Four Novels by Henry James that Feature Artists (no. 13)

 by Larry Witham

HE Often paints these novels with thwarted characters

HENRY JAMES’S SECOND published story was about a Yankee painter who retired to an obscure coastal town in New England. There, the artist's diary reveals his musings on rendering landscapes. This short story, which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1866, was aptly titled, “The Landscape Painter.”
            After this, James wrote two more short stories with artist characters (“Story of a Masterpiece,” 1868, and “Madonna of the Future,” 1873) before he ventured to build an entire novel around an artisan. Four novels went in this direction. James began with a sculptor, and then moved on to draftsmen, painters, and paintings. These four novels are herewith summarized.
            ■ Roderick Hudson (1875) tells the story of a New England sculptor invited by a wealthy American abroad to practice in Rome. His talent is dazzling, but his judgment poor, leading to some untoward gambling and his insulting of an aristocrat. Hudson is also entranced by a young beauty, Christina. But when she is required by her mother to marry a prince in Naples, Hudson entirely loses his will to work. A trip to Florence helps him forget, but then he sees Princess Christina in Switzerland. Demoralized, he rambles into an Alpine storm. The next morning his body is found below a precipice.
            As is so often the case in a novel by James, the reader is left wondering about a clear resolution: did he jump or did he fall?
            ■ In the “short” novel Confidence (1879), James studies the relationship between two male friends, Bernard Longueville the artist, and Gordon Wright, who has a scientific bent. The two are courting two different women, with a third male rival entering later. While sketching in Siena, Italy, Longueville meets Angela. Wright is also attracted to Angela, but marries another woman. That marriage is plunged into crisis when his wife flirts with the rival character. Angela persuades Wright to keep his marriage. She, in turn, while at first resenting artist Longueville’s maneuvers, marries him. All of this raises the typical kinds of tensions—and uneasy resolutions—that James likes to experiment with. Because novels are often autobiographical, Confidence’s buildup of tension between artist Longueville and scientist Wright may reflect the same experience between the James brothers; Henry the literary artist and William the scientist.
            ■ Next comes Henry James’s The Tragic Muse (1890), set in England. The novel follows the life of the well-born Nick Dormer. He wants to be a painter, but his mother pressures him to run for political office. With it he will gain status and perks for the family. (Actually, James’s desire to write about “the conflict between art and ‘the world’” in this novel is dramatized by another character, the actress Miriam and her fortunes between the London and Paris theater scenes). In any case, Nick’s Oxford friend, the philosophical aesthete Gabriel Nash, urges Nick to reject politics for the sake of art. Nick wins the election, but as time passes he goes back to painting. He does not have success with this, and his family’s fortunes dwindle. This upsets his mother, and it has further alienated his one-time fiancĂ©e, Julia. In the end, Julia sits for Nick as he does her portrait. Family affairs seem to be resolving, but again, James leaves us hanging: Will Nick and Julia marry?
            ■ The very last novel of James’s writing career was also about the art world. Titled The Outcry (1911, though first drafted as a play), it was inspired by real events: a British controversy over Hans Holbein the Younger’s portrait, The Duchess of Milan, being bought by a foreign collector, thus leaving England. In the novel, the “outcry” arises when rich American Breckenridge Bender comes to bid on a Joshua Reynolds portrait, Duchess of Waterbridge (fictional), in the collection of Lord Theign. Other saleable paintings become an issue, especially as young art critic Hugh Crimble claims to discover mislabeled treasures in the Theign collection. Grace urges her father to not sell the paintings out of loyalty to England. Newspapers also join the patriotic outcry. Experts vie over Crimble’s claims, and finally Lord Theign bites the bullet: he donates his most valuable painting to the National Gallery. He then challenges another owner of British art, Lady Sandgate, to tear up Bender’s check and donate her artwork to the National Gallery as well.
            At the time, James was playing both sides. He wrote this as his New England friend, the heiress Isabella Stewart Gardner, was rapaciously buying up European art for her Boston villa.
            In the next installment (James, Part III), we’ll look at his four main short stories that included artists as characters.

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