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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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,
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