Painted Portraits Play a Large Role in Tales of Fickle Relationships
WHETHER HENRY JAMES was an Impressionist or Mannerist in his literary approach to the modern novel, he was prodigious in including artistic subject matter. Besides his four novels in that mode (see James Part II), four of his short stories explore the painter’s work.
■ In “A Landscape Painter” (1866), which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, we meet an experienced American landscape painter. He has found refuge in a New England coastal town after a falling out with a young woman who wanted to marry him for his wealth. His names is Locksley, and the narrator—and Locksley himself—are frequently telling his story based on entries in a diary the painter has kept.
Having fled a “gold-digger,” so to speak, the middle-aged Locksley conceals his wealth by emulating a kind of simplicity and even poverty as he boards at the house of Richard Quarterman, a retired sea captain. The captain’s daughter, Miriam , is a music teacher. She and Locksley develop a mutual attraction. During a time when Locksley is feverishly ill, she reads his diary and plumbs his secrets—and resolves to marry him. Through excerpts of the diary, moreover, the artistic mind of Locksley is revealed at length. He muses on landscape painting, the tools of the trade, and great painters such as J.M.W. Turner.
Miriam becomes the painter’s fiancée. On their honeymoon, he confides that he is actually wealthy. He lets Miriam read the diary, tacitly giving her credit for not loving him for his riches. Then she, too, confides: she had read his diary, and indeed, his wealth had only increased her affection for him. James leaves us wondering: Will it last? Either way, the mind of an American painter is revealed in a way not yet known in America literature.
■ Two year later, James wrote “The Story of a Masterpiece” (1868), which appeared in a publication called Galaxy. After the wealthy widower John Lennox meets and proposes marriage to Marian Everett, an artist acquaintance begins a portrait of Marian. Lennox looks on, seeing things in the portrait that skewed his affections toward his wife negatively. In paint she looks steely, frivolous, and cynical. The painter’s name is Stephen Baxter. Earlier in life he, in fact, had also fallen for Marian, but they had quarreled and he was rejected. Now, Baxter’s painting of her has become an interpretation, apparently in the style of the Postimpressionists (a Van Gogh comes to mind). The image becomes disconcerting to Lennox. He can only bear to look at the painting of his fiancée twice; the second time under dim light to dull the impact.
The wedding awaits. Lennox is troubled by Baxter’s “marvelous insight” through the portrait. It has cast the bride-to-be as having a “horrible blankness and deadness that quenched the light in her eyes and stole away the smile from her lips.” The sentiments of love are drained from Lennox: “his love was dead, his youth was dead.” Still, he tries to rationalize this loss, the narrator tells us: “His love's vitality has been but small, and since it was to be short lived it was better that it should expire before marriage than after.” Lennox decides, therefore, that marriage is built on more than love. So he goes ahead with the commitment. Soon after, he turns to the portrait, and striking it “with a half-a-dozen strokes, he wantonly hacked it across. The act afforded him an immense relief.”
As always, James is inconclusive at the end. The narrator says: “How has he fared—how is he destined to fare—in matrimony, it is rather too early to determine. He has been married scarcely three months.”
■ Now we come to James’s 1873 short story, “The Madonna of the Future.” Appearing also in Atlantic Monthly, its theme reflects a short work already done by the French author Honoré de Balzac, which offers the story of a fickle, struggling painter.
The James short story takes place in Florence, Italy. A young American narrator named “H” arrives and meets Theobald, an old Yankee painter who is not producing any work. Theobald laments that American artists “lack the deeper sense” of the Europeans. The narrator H protests; he is an American boosters. He says that the solution is to “Invent, create, achieve!” At some point, Theobald mentions that “horrible little tale by Balzac” (which in reality had been titled, “The Unknown Masterpiece,” and which had probably influenced James, as noted).
Theobald says he is working on a Madonna painting, and introduces his model. She is a very old woman named Serafina. Our man “H” reacts by commenting on her deleterious age. This upsets Theobald terribly and makes him so ill that he dies. When H visits his studio to see the Madonna painting, he finds that the canvas is both decrepit and blank. In short, Theobald spent his whole life failing to get a start on the painting. As in Balzac’s story, James is poking fun at all artists, and perhaps even himself, since remaining artistically productive was a never-ending challenge for a writer, let alone a painter.
At the end of the short story, to add some artistic accomplishment to the dismal tale, James has another character arrive. He is a commercially successful artist who make statuettes of obscenely posed monkeys and cats. A dozen years later, Emile Zola will echo the same theme of an artist obsessed by an unfinished painting. He may have found it in the short stories of both Balzac and James. Be that as it may, Zola’s full novel—The Masterpiece (1885)—reflected his own life among Postimpressionists such as Paul Cézanne.
■ Henry James’s last short story to feature a painter is “The Liar,” which appeared in Century Magazine in 1888. Again, the story orbits around a portrait. The painter Oliver Lyon is doing one of Sir David at Ashmore estate. The painter meets there a Colonel Clement Capadose, the reputed “liar” in the story for his innocent tall tales. To Lyon, the colonel has a certain look: “He might have been a dethroned prince or the war-correspondent of a newspaper; he represented both enterprise and tradition, good manners and bad taste.” The colonel, in fact, has married a woman that Lyon had once loved.
The egotistical Lyon is himself a bit cagey, using his portraits to manipulate his subjects. James may have been playing on the term “liar” by naming the painter “lyin.” In any case, Lyon next paints the daughter of the colonel, and then the father. The portrait so reveals Colonel Capadose’s dishonest character that, in private, he slashes it to pieces. When Lyon sees the destroyed work, the colonel accuses a young painter’s model of doing the deed. To Lyon’s amazement, the colonel’s wife supports him in the fib, saying that she and her husband admired the portrait; he would never have wrecked it.
The theme of a portrait spookily revealing secrets of its subject had been used by Nathaniel Hawthorne in his short story, “The Prophetic Pictures” (1837). James had surely read it before he conceived his own tale. Soon after, Oscar Wilde used the haunting portrait theme in the novel The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1890). It tells the story of a portrait that aged as its decadent subject remained young, a kind of Faustian bargain that backfires in the end.
Once a good idea gets into print, authors clearly play on it in new ways—and so it is with evocative portrait painting that seems to control the lives of their subjects.