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The Eye of the Master

Adeline R. Tintner has provided every admirer of Henry James with a feast; the question will arise what she has provided, if anything, for others. We have long been conscious of James’s passion for painting and sculpture, for fine houses and fine interiors, for jewelry and objets de vertu, but no one has yet, with anything like such scholarship and thoroughness, seen fit to document his fiction and memoirs with so copious a description of artifacts described in his work or artifacts that suggested fictional counterparts.

The general scheme of Adeline Tintner’s study is to trace the evolution of James’s tales from the use of actual works of art to his use of imaginary ones, created either by actual or imagined artists.

It is entertaining to identify the topaz intaglio in “Adina” with the “Grand Camée de France” in the medallion collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale; the young Roman count in “The Last of the Valerii” with the bust of Caracalla in the Vatican; and to trace the golden bowl and ivory tower of their eponymous novels to a German crystal tazza, or cup, in the British Museum and to a design concocted by James himself, inspired by Indian ivories. I was particularly fascinated to see the influence of Symbolism in “The Altar of the Dead,” even in the costumes and chapel furnishings. And I found the use of art to bring out an essential point of a novel cogently invoked in The American, where Christopher Newman is led astray by the masterpieces in the Louvre showing royal and divine marriages to believe that he can marry into the old French nobility, and in The Portrait of a Lady, where the coldhearted dilettante, Gilbert Osmond, is attracted to the idea of adding to his art collection a young lady who has qualified herself for it by rejecting the splendid proposal of a British aristocrat.

When we come to John Singer Sargent, we have reached the closest union between James and pictorial art, and Tintner offers us no fewer than five full-page illustrations. I believe that James felt that his friend represented the best analogy that painting offered to fiction, and I should enjoy seeing an edition of James’s work illustrated with Sargent’s portraits: his portrait of Dr. Pozzi for Prince Amerigo, or the Pailleron children for the boy and girl in The Turn of the Screw, Mrs. Katherine Moore for Mrs. Headway in The Siege of London, John D. Rockefeller for Adam Verver, Lord Riddlesdale for the father of Lady Barberina, Nancy Astor for Isabel Archer—one could go on and on.

Sometimes Tintner goes so far as to seem to be implying that James could not describe anything he had not seen. She is too much concerned with the origin of Milly Theale’s pearls in The Wings of the Dave:

Sargent painted a number of great portraits of women wearing pearls. Isabella Gardner’s pearls have always been thought of as the source for Milly’s pearls, but Sargent’s 1888 portrait of the American collector depicts a much shorter string of pearls tied around her waist. Mrs. Moore’s pearls and Miss Wyndham’s pearls, showing a rather fanciful arrangement of the jewels, are not long enough to fit the description of Milly’s. In other portraits of Mrs. Gardner, by Passini and by Zorn, the pearls on white dresses show up, perhaps as Milly’s did, but the pearls are not long enough; they do not suit the sitters “down to the ground.” Sargent’s last portrait of Mrs. Gardner at eighty-two includes no pearls. Thus Mrs. Carl Meyer’s portrait is the one portrait available to James that shows the jewels as Milly’s are worn.

At other times Tintner makes too much of casual references that James makes to well-known characters. The mention of Salomé in Roderick Hudson, for example, gives rise to an essay (entertaining, I admit) on the role of the daughter of Herodias in decadent art and a comparison of the dancer holding the head of the prophet with the man-hating Olive Chancellor in The Bostonians! And there are too many places where Tintner is frankly speculating. To establish that the suicide of Roderick Hudson had its preparation in Delacroix’s cupola devoted to the fall of Icarus, in the vestibule leading to the Galerie d’Apollon in the Louvre, Tintner quotes copiously from both Leon Edel’s biography and James’s autobiographies to show how deeply impressed James had been by the Galerie. Yet there is not a trace of evidence to show that James looked up as he passed through the vestibule. And does it matter if he did or didn’t? The fall of Icarus could have been suggested in a hundred other ways.

Postulating the artifact as a principal literary device in each tale or novel leads Tintner to some strange results. If you take James’s references to Verrocchio’s equestrian statue of Colleoni in Venice as an important clue to The Aspern Papers, I suppose it is possible to come to the bizarre conclusion that the vapid, vacuous Tita Bordereau is in reality a disguised condottierre who has schemed from the start to con the narrator out of his money. And if you insist that Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X in Rome’s Palazzo Doria is essential to the tragedy of Daisy Miller, then it may be logical to hang around poor James’s neck the guilt of deriving a ponderous irony from the contrast of young Daisy’s “innocence” with the chosen name of the wily and unscrupulous old pontiff. But there are things in Tintner’s book that I doubt would receive an approving nod even from the English department at Yale, as when she identifies Breckenridge Bender in The Outcry with J.P. Morgan:

Breckenridge is a combination of break and ridge, meaning a broken ridge or wall, reflecting Pierpont which is a corruption of parpen, meaning parts of a wall. Bender means a spree, something Morgan was always on in his spending. The two Bs suggest “B.B.,” Bernard Berenson.

To me the Notebooks provide the richest quarry for understanding James’s creative mind. When they were first published there was some dismay at how small were the acorns out of which the great oaks grew. A bit of gossip heard at dinner, an awkward social situation, a faux pas, were all he needed for a start. How did he know it was the right acorn? That was precisely the nature of his genius. To the reader of the Notebooks it begins to seem that any acorn will do, and to some extent this is true. Works of art, however, play very little role in these notes. The novel most concerned with artifacts, The Spoils of Poynton, is the novel occupying the greatest number of entries, but there is no reference to any individual item of Mrs. Gereth’s collections except one—the Maltese cross.

I myself believe James would have been just as great a novelist had he, like Hawthorne, never crossed the Atlantic until he was fifty. In any case, to claim that the great artifacts of Europe were essential to his fiction is to misconceive what he did with them. He used them to embellish his tales, of course, but he would have done just as well with mediocre as with great art. It was the novelist who brought beauty to the paintings and statues of his stories, not the objects themselves.

He was not even, in my opinion, in any way a distinguished art critic. His taste was highly conventional. He liked the representational, academic, storytelling canvases of Watts, Leighton, Bastien-Lepage, Burne-Jones, and Alma Tadema. He believed that Regnault, had he lived, would have been “the first of all modern painters.” Tintner tries to put James in the avant-garde by arguing that he was an early enthusiast of Vermeer, but the realistic Vermeer was an easy artist for the conventional to swallow. Critics have tried to find evidence of James’s enthusiasm for the Impressionist school in a single reference to “wondrous examples” of Manet, Degas, and Monet in an American collection, but he wrote this in 1905, when the Impressionist victory had long been established. In the early years he had never gone a step farther in that school than his adored Sargent. He had little use for the Middle Ages, despite his friendship for Charles Eliot Norton, and he liked big, vulgar country houses like Waddesdon Manor, the “gorgeous palace” of his friend Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild.

But it doesn’t make any difference to his fiction whether his taste was good or bad. Possibly, when a writer’s taste in interior decoration is as egregiously bad as was Zola’s, it may mar an occasional paragraph, but that is an extreme case. James’s art could turn his actual vision into something incomparably beautiful. Take The Spoils of Poynton again. James sent Alvin Coburn to photograph a particular mantelpiece in the Wallace collection for the frontispiece of the New York Edition. He had chosen it as representing the very essence of Mrs. Gereth’s great collection. And what do we see? Some eighteenth-century French things arranged in a clutter against a brocaded wall by the heavy hand of a Victorian curator with the taste of a Rothschild. But when we read the novel itself we are seized with an impression of loveliness that is one of the most wonderful of James’s literary accomplishments. He has followed the example enunciated by Hawthorne’s Hilda in The Marble Faun:

Nobody, I think, ought to read poetry, or look at pictures or statues, who cannot find a good deal more in them than the poet or artist has actually expressed. Their highest merit is suggestiveness.

It didn’t matter that Hawthorne probably preferred Giudo Reni to Piero della Francesca. As a novelist he could make do with either of them.

When she comes to what so many critics have called James’s great impressionist novel, The Ambassadors, Tintner, curiously enough, draws back. James, she argues, could not properly be called an Impressionist, because he was not satisfied with only a retinal vision. And are we sure, she asks, that the scene of Chad and Marie in the boat is an imitation of an Impressionist picture? But of course it isn’t, and of course James is not an Impressionist painter—he is an impressionist writer, and his whole novel shimmers with the glorious light of Paris, described as it illumines the soul of Strether. And here is the moment when he spots the beautiful, young, adulterous couple:

Strether sat there and, though hungry, felt at peace; the confidence that had so gathered for him deepened with the lap of the water, the ripple of the surface, the rustle of the reeds on the opposite bank, the faint diffused coolness and the slight rock of a couple of small boats attached to a rough landing-place hard by. The valley on the farther side was all copper-green level and glazed pearly sky, a sky hatched across with screens of trimmed trees, which looked flat, like espaliers; and though the rest of the village straggled away in the near quarter the view had an emptiness that made one of the boats suggestive.

The man who wrote that was not copying Monet. He was Monet—in words if not in oils.

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