The Portrait of a Lady and The Author of Beltraffio: An Exploration of the Aesthetic in Literature
Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady presents the reader with a novel that uses literary form in an attempt to frame the life of its female protagonist; the very title – ‘Portrait’ – expresses a double meaning, referring both to the representation of someone’s interior character and also a painting, drawing or engraving of the external body. Art pervades both the structure and narrative of the piece, and how it is presented is integral to our understanding of the novel. Through his writing, James considers contrasting views on aesthetics. On the one hand, he appears to reject the notion that art must serve a didactic purpose, but on the other he refuses to align with the notion of ‘art pour l’art’ in his characterisation of the soulless aesthete Osmond. Moreover, writing when traditional art itself was being challenged by the birth of photography, these artistic anxieties are reflected in James’ experimentation with realism – and its limits – as he tries to capture and distill a character whose self-identity revolves around the resistance against being pinned down. Taken alongside The Author of Beltraffio, a short story which embodies this conflict between didacticism and aestheticism, James presents the view that art should represent life as accurately as possible. Yet in doing so he reveals the limitations of art, affecting the genre, perspective and structure of both The Author of Beltraffio and The Portrait of a Lady. Through his writing, James presents the value of art as lying within the accurate portrayal of reality. In the Portrait of a Lady characters are repeatedly described in relation to works of art, for example, protagonist Isabel is referred to early on in the novel by Ralph as “finer than the finest work of art – than a Greek bas-relief, than a great Titian. Than a Gothic cathedral”. Her beauty emphasized by the use of comparative and superlative “finer” and “finest” in relation to both neo-classical and gothic traditions. Moreover, there is already the suggestion that art is unable to completely capture reality: Isabel cannot be pinned down by any aesthetic piece. Likewise, in The Author of Beltraffio Mark Ambient’s sister is casually described by the anonymous narrator as “made up very well as a Rossetti”, metaphorically suggesting that she embodies the Pre-Raphaelite ideal. Yet while his characters may constantly approach life through constant comparison to art, James is careful to critique the projection of artistic values onto reality. It is suggested in his critical piece The Art of Fiction that “the good health of an art which undertakes so immediately to reproduce life must demand that it is perfectly free”[i], the implication being that bad art is that which projects superficial artistic values and structure onto life as opposed to stemming from life itself. Isabel’s artistic romanticizing of the European landscape and Oswald leaves her blind to his machinations, and it is the narrator’s ignorance towards separating Ambient’s literary art from his domestic life that arguably results in the tragic death of his son. Indeed, both protagonists can be accused of artistic solipsism, a fact which is made explicit in the texts themselves; in the early stages of the novel Isabel is accused of living “too much in a world of your own dreams” and Ambient’s home is described as “a palace of art”. Thus both characters are portrayed as portrayed as projecting mind-dependent aesthetic viewpoints onto mind-independent reality. Ultimately James’ artistic philosophy acts as a critique of elements of 19th century Aestheticism, shown in his works through his characterisation of individuals representative of the movement. In The Portrait of a Lady this is seen most clearly in the presentation of antagonists Osmond and Madame Merle. In an early scene with Isabel, Merle claims that selfhood is outwardly rather than inwardly known, stating the self is “one’s expression of one’s self; and one’s house, one’s furniture, one’s garments, the books one reads, the company one keeps – these things are all expressive”. If one were to take Merle’s philosophy as gospel, then Mark Ambient’s sister in The Author of Beltraffio would truly be the Pre-Raphaelite muse she attempts to emulate. Instead the narrator sees through her external façade revealing her to be a faux-artist, claiming through cutting repetition “she wished to be looked at, she wished to be married, she wished to be thought original.” Moreover, the artistic failure of Osmond can be put down to his inability to see beauty beyond material goods, or what critic Maurizo Ascari argues is his “sphere of immobility”[ii]. Osmond is unable to appreciate anything outside of “static” objects, and while the interior of his house is “telling of arrangements subtly studied and refinements frankly proclaimed” his interior artistic life is equally empty and inanimate. While James may display a critical approach to ‘art for art’s sake’, his portrayal of moral didacticism is equally, if not more, damning: it is Beatrice’s severe Calvinism in The Author of Beltraffio that prevents her from saving her son. As clarified in The Art of Fiction, James rejects the notion that “English Fiction should have a “conscious moral purpose” in favor of an accurate presentation of reality. Yet while James seems to value art which gives priority to an accurate representation of reality, it could be argued that he falls victim to the same romanticization for which he criticizes his characters. Indeed, he frequently uses houses and settings as externalizations of personalities within the novel; for example, Osmond’s house is described as “the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation”. As a reflection of Osmond’s own controlling persona, Ascari argues that this portrayal “connects the refined Osmond with Gothic villains, turning him into a jailer”[iii]. Moreover, when assessing the realism in the text many critics overlook the supernatural element presented by the ghost of Gardencourt, appearing as “a vague, hovering figure in the vagueness of the room” in the penultimate chapter. Nevertheless, while it may seem as if James undermines his own artistic ethos in his melodrama and presentation of the unreal, the novel’s use of perspective can explain the existence of these artistic elements. Osmond’s home appears a “house of suffocation” precisely because Isabel is projecting her interior life onto the environment, likewise Ambient’s home is described as “a palace of art” because of the narrator’s obsession with the author; the descriptions becoming an exercise in psychology. Rather than losing its realism, through taking the subjective perspectives of his characters and articulating the way they perceive the objective world James is able to use the techniques of gothic and romantic literature without being guilty of artistic solipsism. Good art, to James, is that which presents the “beauty and truth” of the reality of the artist, and likewise “no good novel will ever proceed from a superficial mind.” Following this argument even the use of the ghost is justified within a realist narrative, indeed it is this oscillation between the psychological and the fantastical in The Turn of The Screw that saw to its popularity with psychoanalytical readings in the 20th century. Not only does perspective allow for an exploration of the psychology of the characters, it is also used as a way almost of mimicking art itself, while challenging the extent of mimesis. While The Author of Beltraffio restricts the reader to a first-person perspective, in The Portrait of a Lady James dips in and out of the viewpoint of a range of characters through the use of a third person omniscient narrator. Indeed, the introduction of Osmond can be compared to an initial viewing of a painting: “a gentleman was seated in company with a young girl and two good sisters from a religious house”. The use of the common nouns “girl”, “sisters” and “gentleman” places two of the major characters in seemingly static roles, with the narrator himself claiming that the “small group might have been described by a painter as composing well”. There are times in the novel where it also appears that the titular character is literally posing for a portrait, for example “Isabel walked to the other side of the gallery and stood there showing him her charming back, her light slim figure, the length of her white neck as she bent her head, and the density of her dark braids.” Yet Isabel is shown to consistently evade a completion of her portraiture; crucially the onlooker Warburton cannot see that her eyes are “suffused with tears”. James denies perception of Isabel’s emotions to Warburton, foreshadowing the withdrawal of Isabel’s psychology from the reader during the second half of the novel. As the story progresses perspective plays a more structural role, with the succession of elliptical time jumps the reader is left to piece together key events, such as the marriage of Osmond to Isabel. This manipulation of viewpoints has led some critics, such as Alan Nadel, to consider James’s literature to be proto-cinematic, claiming that “cinema is Jamesian – James is cinematic”[iv]. Certainly, he was writing during the emergence of photography as an artistic medium, challenging the purpose of traditional art which was striving to represent reality; even the artist Delaroche is purposed to have declared that “painting is dead”[v]. For an author concerned with art and literature as the presentation of reality – in The Author of Beltraffio Mark Ambient declares “I want to be truer than I’ve ever been … I want to give the impression of life itself” – James was wary of photography. He accused it of being “temporary”, criticizing early photographer Mathew Brady, stating that the medium “tells you everything except the very thing you want to know.”[vi] Critic Edward L. Schwarzschild points out that James saw photography, despite its mimesis, as “shallow, superficial, merely “lifelike,” while the creations of such Europeans as Goethe and Velazquez are ‘life itself’,”[vii] placing both literature and art above that of photography. While James may have espoused a prejudice towards an art form that was still in its infancy, the nature of photography as temporary has been reiterated even by later photographers, with Susan Sontag declaring “life is a movie. Death is a photograph”[viii]. This anxiety towards photography as a representation of a singular, finite moment – a symbolic death – is akin to the anxiety Isabel has, at least in the first half of the novel, towards being intellectually confined and made into a static object. Thus, we can see the withdrawal of Isabel’s perspective in the middle as providing the reader with a symbolic death. We are only provided snapshots as Osmond exerts more control over her personality: “this lady’s intelligence was to be a silver plate, not an earthen one—a plate that he might heap up with ripe fruits, to which it would give a decorative value”. Thus, her portrait becomes more like that of a photograph, an instant, static “lifelike” moment in time. It is only when Isabel begins to question the intentions of her husband that the reader is invited back into her interior life. It could be argued that from this perspective, the open ending is Isabel’s last act of evasion; she refuses to be distilled into any form of portraiture, neither that of a painting or photograph, and this is reflected in the breaking of literary conventions.
Henry James presents a conflicted view of art, critiquing both moral didacticism and the Aesthetic Movement in his short story The Author of Beltraffio in favor of a realistic portrayal of reality to reveal truths of beauty and knowledge. This attempt at portraying life as accurately as possible is reflected in the psychological realism of his novel The Portrait of a Lady. Through accurately representing reality as it appears to the perceiver, James pushes the limits of realism, and at times appears to cross into romantic and gothic territory. Moreover, the birth of photography and its apparent ability to capture and confine the external world in mimetic form reflects and arguably feeds into the narrative of the novel which concerns the attempted portrait of a protagonist who wishes to evade this very confinement. As a result of this paradox, James subverts a typical literary structure in providing the reader with an open ending, an act that he knew would be the “obvious criticism”[ix] of the piece. Thus, through applying a conception of art and aesthetic values to his work, Henry James questions how accurately reality can be represented through literature, a question that would continue to be explored in modernism and 20th century.
Endnotes and References[i] James, Henry. 2015. Partial Portraits. [S.l.]: [Andesite Press]. P75-120 [ii] Ascari, Maurizio (2006). “Three Aesthetes In Profile”. In Henry James Against The Aesthetics Movement, pp38-47. London: McFarland & Company. [iii] Ibid [iv] Nadel, Alan (1998) “Ambassadors from an Imaginary ‘Elsewhere’” Henry James Review 19. pp279-84 [v] Bann, Stephen (1997) Paul Delaroche: History Painted [vi] Schwarzschild, Edward (1996) “Revising Vulnerability: Henry James’s Confrontation with Photography” Texas Studies in Literature and Language Vol: 38. pp51-78 [vii] Ibid [viii] Sontag, Susan (1977) On Photography, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, [ix] James, H. (1961). The Notebooks of Henry James, Ed. by FO Matthiessen and Kenneth B. Murdock. Oxford University Press.
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