The portrait of American author Henry James is amongst the paintings by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) currently at Palazzo Strozzi in the exhibition Americans in Florence: Sargent and the American Impressionists (see TF 159). James was a close friend of Sargent and instrumental in promoting the artist's career in America when Sargent was still virtually unknown there. The two men were also neighbours for a time at Broadway in the Cotswolds after Sargent left Paris following the ?Madame X' scandal. A lifelong admirer of Sargent, James described him as possessing ?the slightly "uncanny" spectacle of a talent which on the very threshold of its career has nothing more to learn.' Whilst the writer's portrait, painted to celebrate his 70th birthday in 1913, was on display at the Royal Academy in 1914, it was attacked by an elderly militant suffragette, Mary Wood, who with three massive blows from the meat chopper she was wielding, severely damaged it. Sargent later repaired it.
Born into a wealthy family on April 15, 1843, at 21 Washington Place, in New York City, Henry James was the second of five siblings. His father, Henry James Sr., was a noted religious philosopher. Before Henry Jr.'s first birthday, the family moved to England to live for a year. Other long trips to Europe would continue throughout his childhood, often interrupting his education. In 1864, James went to Harvard Law School, but attended for only a year as his interests lay in literature and writing. With the support of William Dean Howells, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, he began, in the decade following the end of the Civil War, to publish short stories and book reviews.
James first returned to Europe as an adult in 1869, returning to the Continent again between 1872 and 1874 before moving to Paris in 1875. After moving to London the following year, he again went abroad. He financed his voyages with the travel articles about the places he visited. These were serialised in important periodicals back in America and later collected in book form. These include Transatlantic Sketches (1875), A Little Tour in France (1884) and Italian Hours (1909), which are still fascinating reading.
Like Sargent, the urbane James was an itinerant expat all his life, equally at ease living in France, Italy, England or the United States. But his relationship with Italy can only be described as enigmatic. He visited the country 14 times, living for periods in Venice, Florence and Rome, cities in which he did some of his best writing. Although it is set in Rome, James began writing his first important novel, Roderick Hudson (1875), in Florence. When exploring what he called ?the international theme,' or the conflict between the exuberance and innocence of the new world and the corruption and experience of the old, Italy also provides the backdrop for other novels, including Daisy Miller (1879), his masterpiece, The Portrait of a Lady (1881), and The Wings of the Dove (1902).
On his frequent trips to Italy, James usually visited Florence. On one occasion, ill, he stayed eight months, sharing Villa Brichieri-Colombi in Bellosguardo with Constance Fenimore Woolson, the grand-niece of James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans. In love with the city from his first visit, he called it ?the most feminine of cities. It speaks to you with that same soft low voice which is such an excellent thing in women. Other cities beside it are great swearing and shuffling rowdies. Florence has an immortal soul.' In the 1870s, as Florence underwent widespread urban renewal, James, echoing the sentiments of British writer Vernon Lee (pseudonym of Violet Paget) and others, criticised the destruction of its unique medieval quintessence.
Like Sargent, James kept people at a distance and, with the exception of his family, was unwilling to become too closely involved in the lives of others. Also like Sargent, James never married (those fond of speculating on such matters suggest, variously, that he was gay or else impotent following an accident in his youth). However, whereas Sargent was said to have been shy and intensely private, James was a gregarious social animal and a great observer of the society around him.
The outbreak of World War I greatly distressed James. He contributed to the war effort and, in 1915, in protest over America's reluctance to intervene, he took British citizenship. He died of a stroke and pneumonia in London on February 28, 1916, thus ending his 51-year writing career during which his output, like his friend Sargent's, was prodigious. In total, James published 20 novels, 112 short stories, 12 plays and numerous articles on travel and literary criticism. After his death, in accordance with his wishes, he was cremated and his ashes were returned to America to be buried in the James family plot in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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