The Real Thing

Bellocq: Photographs from Storyville, the Red-Light District of New Orleans

reproduced from prints made by Lee Friedlander, Introduction by Susan Sontag, interviews edited by John Szarkowski
Random House, 83 pp., $60.00

The Real Thing,” one of Henry James’s most delicate exercises in irony, is the story of a young artist’s encounter with an odd couple—a well-dressed, middle-aged, rather vacuous pair named the Monarchs, who come to his studio one day and offer themselves as professional models. He is taken aback—he had thought they were society people who had come to have their portraits painted. Well, they are society people, as he is, but society people who have lost their money and desperately need work. They have learned that the artist does illustrations for book and magazine fiction and propose themselves as models for the high-born characters. As the husband puts it, “‘Wouldn’t it be rather a pull sometimes to have—a—to have—?’ He hung fire; he wanted me to help him by phrasing what he meant. But I couldn’t—I didn’t know. So he brought it out, awkwardly: ‘The real thing; a gentleman, you know, or a lady.”’

Reluctantly—for he already has models he is satisfied with—the artist takes the Monarchs on. His misgivings are confirmed. Having the real thing before him proves to be exactly what an artist attempting to represent it does not want. His model of many years, a cockney named Miss Churm, has been a perfect collaborator: “This young lady came back in black velvet—the gown was rather rusty and very low on her lean shoulders—and with a Japanese fan in her red hands…. She fell into position, settled herself into a tall attitude, gave a certain backward inclination to her head and a certain forward droop to her fan, and looked, at least to my prejudiced sense, distinguished and charming, foreign and dangerous.” Mrs. Monarch, in contrast, for all her refinement and white hands, subverts his enterprise: “I could see she had been photographed often, but somehow the very habit that made her good for that purpose unfitted her for mine…. I began to find her too insurmountably stiff; do what I could with it my drawing looked like a photograph or a copy of a photograph.” James elaborates: “She was always a lady certainly, and into the bargain was always the same lady. She was the real thing, but always the same thing.” The painter’s work suffers under the Monarchs’ baneful influence (the husband is as unsuccessful a model as the wife), and he eventually lets them go. They pathetically offer themselves as domestic servants. After an awkward week, he gives them a sum of money to go away.

The Real Thing” has been read as a parable of representation: a lesson in the fakery required to make art, the “lies” that are necessary to render an illusion of truth. The little cockney pretending to be a Russian princess and Oronte (another lowlife model in the artist’s employ, this one a former peddler of Italian ices) posing as an English duke signify art’s radical transformative powers. The Monarchs, pretending nothing …

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Letters

Bellocq’s Women March 6, 1997