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…

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