The American-born novelist Henry James settled in England, at Lamb House, Rye, in 1898. By the time this portrait was painted he was at the end of a career which had seen the success of early novels such as Portrait of a Lady (1881), followed by the late masterpieces The Wings of the Dove (1902) and The Golden Bowl (1904). This portrait was commissioned to celebrate James's 70th birthday by a group of 269 subscribers organised by the American novelist Edith Wharton, although ultimately Sargent, a fellow American and friend, waived his fee. When it was completed James pronounced the portrait to be 'a living breathing likeness and a masterpiece of painting'.
Henry James, expatriate American writer who settled in England and eventually became a British citizen. Considered by most to be one of the great English literary writers. James ...was a big supporter of JSS, coming to England after the Madame X scandal. It was James, who was one of the first to recognize Sargent, and praised him to American audiences. Sargent did this portrait of James for his 70th birthday (Sargent was 57). (http://www.jssgallery.org/paintings/Henry_James.htm)
In that same year in Paris, Sargent met Henry James, who became one of his greatest supporters. James suggested that he move to England and began to pave the way for him there. James wrote to a friend: “I want him to come here to live and work – there being such a field in London for a real painter of women, and such magnificent subjects, of both sexes.”
Sargent and James had much in common. They were both Americans in Europe who had spent much of their childhood abroad. They were both bachelor expatriates, reserved, industrious, careful about their private lives. They both liked society (although James was a great talker and Sargent often remained silent and seemed awkward); they both took an interest in fashionable women. In the way they navigated their own rootlessness and their own uneasy sexuality, moving between England and France and America, in the way they seemed, as artists, modern and also old-fashioned, concerned with both surface and psychology, they could have been mirror images of each other.
James’s short story “The Pupil”, first published in 1891, has elements of his own childhood and that of Sargent. The Moreens, in the story, “had a sort of professional acquaintance with Continental cities”. The mother spent her time “painting, painting, painting away, always an open paintbox in front of her”. (A childhood friend of Sargent’s remembered his mother painting.) The son, the pupil, wonders about his family: “Are they rich, are they poor?… Why are they always… living one year like ambassadors and the next like paupers? Who are they, anyway, and what are they?”
Besides mining Sargent’s childhood for his fiction, James wrote about the adult Sargent’s art. In 1887, in a long essay in Harper’s Magazine, he raised the question (that has still not gone away) about how to categorize Sargent’s genius. “From the time of his first success in the Salon,” James wrote, “he was hailed, I believe, as a recruit of high value to the camp of the Impressionists, and today he is for many people most conveniently pigeonholed under that head.”
male portraitwriteroil on canvas