New York Review of Books
July 22, 2017
For Henry James’s seventieth birthday in 1913 a group of his admirers commissioned John Singer Sargent to paint him; and Sargent’s own birthday gift was to waive his fee. The novelist sat some ten times in the artist’s London studio, and the painter always asked him to bring some friends along—“animated, sympathetic, beautiful, talkative friends,” as James put it, whose conversation would break the “gloom in my countenance by their prattle.” That was Sargent’s usual practice, and the evidence of its success sits this summer at the entrance to “Henry James and American Painting,” a compact but wonderfully heterogeneous show at the Morgan Library.
The portrait presents James full-faced and with his baldness fringed by gray. His head tilts just a bit to the right, his eyes are slightly hooded, and his expression looks shrewdly confident and skeptical; judging us far more than we would dare judge him. He’s wearing his usual winged collar and a bowtie, and seeing it here—its regular home is London’s National Portrait Gallery—I was struck by the fullness of his lips and the warm tones with which Sargent has painted his face. In 1914 the painting went on display at the Royal Academy and was slashed with a hatchet by a suffragette, not because she had anything against either James or Sargent per se, but simply because it looked like a picture of masculine prominence. It was expertly patched and to my untrained eye the damage isn’t visible; but a picture taken at the time shows a gash at the temple and another across the mouth.
The Morgan’s exhibit includes a comprehensive selection of Jamesian portraits along with other paintings of and by his friends. His brother William had planned to become a painter before deciding in 1861 to take up science instead, and worked for almost two years in the Newport studio of William Morris Hunt. But in the end it was Henry who spent the most time in artists’ rooms, and got the most from it. He too had gone to Hunt, and put in his hours with charcoal and ink, though where William and his fellow pupil John La Farge drew from life, Henry merely copied plaster casts. Still, it was enough to give him a taste for the painter’s world, the portrait painter’s in particular. It was a sociable existence, its easy chat mixed with the purposeful work of the hands, and the solitary writer was drawn to it as he would later be to the drawing room or the dinner party. One consequence was the frequency with which he used the studio as a setting for his fiction, whether in the early Roderick Hudson (1875) or a tale from his maturity like “The Real Thing.” And another was that he himself was often painted or drawn or photographed.