John Singer Sargent Captures Henry James in Oils

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London — Something I’d never encountered before happened to me while I was walking through Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, the National Portrait Gallery’s John Singer Sargent show, which opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on June 30.

Henry James
Henry James by John Singer Sargent

Circulating slowly, I’d been marveling at Sargent’s humorous, compassionate, psychologically insightful portraits of artists, patrons, close friends—his mentor Carolus-Duran, Auguste Rodin, Claude Monet, Edmund Gosse, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, Robert Louis Stevenson (twice), Gabriel Fauré, Eleanora Duse(!)—when from a distance I spotted his rendering of Henry James. The expatriate novelist James was seated and looking out of the canvas with the bemused expression of someone who’d long since gotten wise to the world and had forgiven it for its innocent transgressions.

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That, I repeat, was the look when I was 10, 15 feet away. Then I got closer—five feet, three feet—where the James I thought I’d sized up now appeared sad, disillusioned, defeated, heart-broken. He’d changed expression. In those few feet he’d ceased being someone completely self-possessed and had become someone quite the opposite.

I’d never seen that occur in a portrait. I’d seen Rembrandt lose youthful vigor, but that took a series of self-portraits over six decades. I’d never seen an artist accomplish the same effect in one canvas.

Since I literally couldn’t believe my eyes, I doubted them. What did I do? I backed up 10 paces to see what I would see—and there was the self-possessed novelist who’d repeatedly put his well-observed experiences of life on dense printed pages. Then I walked forward and again I saw a novelist whose knowledge of life had severely saddened him.

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Remaining unconvinced that seeing was believing, I shuttled back and forth several times, and each time had the same response to Sargent’s work. Eventually, I continued through the remainder of the paintings but was compelled to reexamine the James portrait before I left.

I bought the catalog for all the works, of course, but especially to check out the James phenomenon. I opened to the page and held it arm’s length, then from only a few inches away. The effect recurred.

How is this possible? I wanted to know and began to look into the history of the singular piece. And what a history it has! Part of it possibly explains the mystery, but probably not.

Sargent painted it in a series of sittings at a time when he had stopped taking commissions for portraits. He only acceded in 1913 because friends asked him to honor James’s 70th birthday. As he considered James a good companion and had tried to capture him before with no success, he couldn’t refuse. They’d met in 1884 and James had encouraged him to leave Paris for London in 1887 whereupon they bonded further.

When Sargent finished the welcome assignment, it turned out that he wasn’t finished with it. On the opening day of the 1914 Royal Academy show in which the James portrait was displayed, a suffragist named Mary Wood went at the canvas with a meat chopper. She dealt it three damaging blows before she was subdued. Why she’d gone after James, whose depictions of women in his books was certainly sympathetic, is recorded as her political statement regarding the uncertain safety of national treasures until women receive equal rights. It seemed to have nothing to do with Sargent’s Madame X (Virginie Amélie Gautreau), which had caused the 1887 scandal that led to James’s Paris-to-London advice.

Wood shattered the glass protective cover and sliced the author’s likeness on the left side of the head, on the right side of the mouth and on the right shoulder—whereupon Sargent was called in for repairs. Pondering the development, I thought that maybe it was Sargent’s restoration of the mouth that accounts for the visual conundrum.

I don’t, however, hold on to that speculation. Two other causes make more sense to me. The first is mundane. After obsessively examining large and small reproductions, I noticed that quite prominently Sargent has placed small bags under both James 70-year-old eyes. That’s to say, they’re prominent when his portrait is regarded from nearby. From farther away, the tiny pouches are less visible, even completely unnoticeable.

But though I think that assessment could add up—I can imagine Sargent painting at a close distance and then moving back to see what was forming—it might nonetheless be a result Sargent never had in mind.

What I suspect is that the explanation for Sargent’s miracle is in the friendship struck up between the two, a friendship so deep that the painter knew and recognized his novelist friend’s many moods and, whether deliberately or not, was able to capture at least two of them at one go.

The friendship began when James, a 41-year-old American expatriate living in and near London, championed to English patrons the 28-year-old expatriate American painter living in Paris. Writing in Harper’s Magazine, he avers, “I was on the point of beginning this sketch of the work of an artist to whom distinction has come very early in life by saying, in regard to the degree to which the subject of it enjoys the attention of the public, that no American painter has hitherto won himself such recognition…” On another occasion, he declared that Sargent presents “the slightly ‘uncanny’ [sic] spectacle of a talent which on the very threshold of its career has nothing more to learn.”

Sargent's Vernon Lee
Sargent’s Vernon Lee

In his Guardian review of the current show, art critic Jonathan Jonas noted that “the only person Sargent was scared of was Henry James.” Jonas approaches my very personal take on the James portrait when he labels it “enigmatic.”

On the other hand, the tie between the two may not have had as an element Sargent’s regard for the James canon. He once wrote to his friend Violet Paget (pseudonym: Vernon Lee) about James’s Portraits of Places, “He is certainly very intelligent, nothing escapes him, but tell me if you don’t find it disagreeable reading it.”

As for James, he liked his portrait, calling it “Sargent at his very best and poor old HJ not at his worst; in short, a living breathing likeness and a masterpiece of painting.”

Amen to that.