Sunday 21 October 2018

What Lies Beneath: Portrait of Henry James

Portrait of Henry James by John La Farge Oil on canvas. Courtesy The Century Association

Portrait of Henry James by John La Farge
Portrait of Henry James by John La Farge

Niall MacMonagle

This teenager sat for his portrait at Newport, Rhode Island, in 1862. He is Henry James, he was 19. Born in New York, on April 15, 1843, of Irish and Scottish stock, at that time he wanted to be an artist. But the pen not the brush won out and Henry James went on to become one of the world's literary greats.

But as he sat there, what was he thinking about? The many fascinating characters he would create in his novels? Or the masterpiece he would write 40 years later, a complicated scenario in which father and daughter, Adam and Maggie Verver, Roman Catholic, American, London-based and fabulously wealthy, meet impoverished, charismatic Italian Prince Amerigo and everything changes?

Amerigo marries Maggie but resumes his secret relationship with equally-poor Charlotte Stant whom Maggie knew years ago in Paris. Henry James's The Golden Bowl is a brilliant description of secrets and lies, of consciousness and how an increasingly-powerful woman knowingly saves her own marriage.

Artist John La Farge, eight years older than James, was 27 when he painted this portrait. James himself spent the summer of 1858 painting and studying painting with La Farge who claimed that the young James had "the painter's eye". James later claimed that one type of artist paints a picture, the other writes a novel and he often wrote in a painterly way. La Farge and his sitter were beginning to find their voices.

Painter, stained glass artist, illustrator, decorator, writer, La Farge was born to wealthy French parents. He travelled widely, married Margaret Mason Perry, had eight children. A Catholic, his stained glass windows can be seen in many Boston and New York churches.

In this side-profile the expression is shy, gentle, quiet. Clean shaven, a full head of hair slightly tilted, the relaxed mouth, the dark jacket, white shirt, a soft-ribboned bow convey an easy formality. No distracting background, the focus is on the sitter, his mood, his mind, his thoughts, his feelings.

James was painted many times and by 1913 in John Singer Sargent's portrait he is magisterial. Now aged 70, and now bald, heavier, dark jacketed, in white shirt and bow tie, the sitter looks directly and confidently at the viewer. That 19-year-old has lived a life.

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