Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece (2012) was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography. His earlier books include After Empire: Scott, Naipaul, and Rushdie (1997) and The Bells in Their Silence: Travels Through Germany (2004). He has taught at Smith College since 1985, where he is now the Mary Augusta Jordan Professor of English. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, with his wife and daughter.

The Portrait of Miss Bart

Joshua Reynolds: Mrs. Lloyd, 1775-1776

In the tableaux vivants scene of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, Lily Bart’s posture announces that she is herself as a work of art. She stands on display, showing what she has, and the moment at which she is most herself is also the one in which she most becomes a thing, an object consumed by those eyes, and consumed perhaps in other ways as well. For art is often sold. Lily has here turned herself into a commodity, and poses as if she’s up for auction. The scene works to literalize the idea of the marriage market.

The Girl at the Florist’s

Donald Antrim, New York City, September 2014; photograph by Larry Fink
“Stay put and don’t piss off the duck.” That’s the last note Reg Barry gives his Puck before lowering him into a hole—in fact inhabited by a duck—for the start of his open-air production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; but of course the director has other things to worry about …

Deep into Green

Jan Van Eyck: The Arnolfini Wedding, circa 1435
We live in colors. They fill our waking moments, they form a part of our every apprehension of the visible world, and they govern many of the choices we make about the ways we define or express ourselves. It’s rare, though, to see ourselves as constituted by the reds and greens in our lives, and we often pretend that such things involve nothing more than the paint on our walls or the inconsequential choice of a tie.

The Brilliant Explorations of Elizabeth Spencer

Elizabeth Spencer, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, late 1990s
Even before its adaptation into a Tony-winning musical, The Light in the Piazza bore the same relation to the rest of Elizabeth Spencer’s work as “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” does to that of Robert Frost: a title known by those who know nothing else about her. Spencer’s …

All Blue

China, 2012

Blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers as sung by longshoremen, that lead-like look the skin has when affected by cold, contusion, sickness, fear; the rotten rum or gin they call blue ruin and the blue devils of its delirium; Russian cats and oysters; Nova Scotians, hair rinse, bluing, bleach…

Daring

Jhumpa Lahiri, Rome, February 2013
Subhash Mitra comes home one day from his Rhode Island lab to an unexpectedly empty apartment and finds the bedroom table covered with the dark hanks of his wife Gauri’s hair. She’s chopped it all off with a pair of kitchen shears, and then taken the blades to her clothes …

An Inventory of Inhumanity

William H. Gass, New York City, 1986
In the attic of his college-owned Victorian house, Professor Joseph Skizzen sits surrounded by horror. The walls are all covered with “atrocity pictures, some of them classics,” like the naked girl running along the Vietnamese highway. But there’s also a set of Goya etchings, “in poor reproductions to be sure,” …