“Henry James and American Painting” at the Morgan Library



James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne, Blue and Silver: Battersea Reach, 1872–78, oil on canvas. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.


The Morgan Library is the perfect place to muse on Henry James: John Pierpont Morgan’s scholarly sanctum, with those lapis columns and rare woods, is as much a tribute to costly good taste as to literature. James himself mused there on January 18, 1911; record of his attendance is on display in a logbook at the door to the summer-long exhibition “Henry James and American Painting,” curated by Colm Tóibín and Declan Kiely and on view for another week and a half. It’s possible that the Morgan’s show on James’s relationship with expatriate painters won’t convert the uninitiated, but it will undoubtedly serve as a pilgrimage stop for the faithful. There are some titillating letters from James to a probable lover, and who doesn’t love a Whistler? I heard my favorite lines from The Ambassadors, about the clink of unseen bracelets, when I paused in front of Frank Duveneck’s portrait of Elizabeth Boott Duveneck: “Her smile was natural and dim; her hat not extravagant; he had only perhaps a sense of the clink, beneath her fine black sleeves, of more gold bracelets and bangles than he had ever seen a lady wear.” It was the wrong novel: Boott Duveneck was apparently the inspiration for the uncanny Pansy Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady, not for the sophisticated Madame de Vionnet of The Ambassadors. But the Jamesian perfume is so pervasive you’re bound to hear all manner of rustles and breaths—that is, until you exit onto Madison Avenue.


Henry James, What Maisie Knew [1897], typescript of two chapters, with autograph corrections.

A portrait of Elizabeth Boott Duveneck by Frank Duveneck.


Alice Boughton, Henry James, 1906, gelatin silver print.


John Singer Sargent, Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife, 1885, oil on canvas.


Henry James, Project of a Novel (outline for The Ambassadors), September 1, 1900.


William James Jr., Portrait of Henry James, 1910, oil on canvas.


Julia Berick is development and events director of The Paris Review.