The Venetian Hours of Henry James, Whistler and Sargent
James Abbott McNeill Whistler: A Life
There is a moment in Leon Edel’s life of Henry James when in the summer of 1885 the novelist received a letter from John Singer Sargent introducing three French friends who wished to be shown the sights of London. One of the three was the aesthete, dandy, and poet Count Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac, who was to be the model for Proust’s Baron Charlus, and who chose to symbolize his artistic persona with the signature of the chauvesouris, the bat. Landed with so exotic a creature, James knew just what to do. He arranged a dinner at the Reform Club in Pall Mall with the one person in London Montesquiou longed to meet, the creator of the Peacock Room, the painter of the symphonies, harmonies, and nocturnes, who was to be the model for another character in Remembrance of Things Past, the painter Elstir. The man whom Montesquiou had heard so much about was “le fameux Jimmie,” the Butterfly, James McNeill Whistler.
The incident links the two great francophile American painters, Sargent and Whistler, with the most French of American novelists, and it serves to suggest the way in which the three weave in and out of each other’s lives. At the same time, the presence of the exquisite Montesquiou reminds us how different the three Americans really were from their European counterparts, how much more closely they resembled one another than they ever did the French Impressionists and Symbolists who were their contemporaries.
Earlier in the decade, James and Sargent each spent several months in Venice, Whistler more than a year. How each of them responded to the most beautiful city in the world is the subject of Hugh Honour and John Fleming’s The Venetian Hours of Henry James, Whistler and Sargent. It is an inspired idea for a book (a lavishly illustrated essay, really) to which the authors have appended four of James’s long travel pieces on Venice originally collected in 1909 in Italian Hours.
The first to arrive was Whistler, in September 1879. Commissioned by the London art dealers, the Fine Art Society, to make a dozen etchings of the city before he returned at Christmas, he in fact stayed fourteen months, bringing home a body of work which contained some of the most radically innovative things he had ever done, including about fifty etchings, one hundred pastels, and seven or eight paintings.
The work is the more exceptional when we consider the circumstances in which it was made. The year before, in November 1878, Whistler had been awarded a farthing’s damages in his notorious libel case against John Ruskin, who wrote that Whistler asked “two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” He had to pay the costs of his suit against Ruskin, but all might have been well had he not gone out of his way to make one particularly powerful enemy, Frederick Leyland, the man who had commissioned him to design the Peacock …