Henry James and the Pre-Raphaelites

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I was at the Morgan Library in New York recently for an exhibition on the life and work of the author Henry James. This is the sort of show that the Morgan does best: manuscripts, early editions, letters, portraits, along with paintings by contemporary artists. One item in particular will be of note to anyone interested in the Pre-Raphaelites. It was a letter that James wrote to his friend, the artist John La Farge. In it he describes a visit to the home of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

A Bostonian by birth, Henry James came to England in early 1869. He would remain there for the rest of his life, being naturalized as a British subject in 1915. He was introduced to Rossetti a few months after his arrival in London by their mutual friend Charles Norton. James admired the Pre-Raphaelites and had already visited the studios of several related artists. He assessed Rossetti’s work in perceptive but also candid and amusing terms in the letter to La Farge, dated June of 1869. It reads:

“I did see Rossetti, Chas. Norton having conducted me to his studio—in the most delicious melancholy old house at Chelsea on the river. When I think what Englishmen ought to be, with such homes & haunts! Rossetti however, does not shame his advantages. Personally, he struck me as unattractive—poor man, I suppose he was horribly bored!—but his pictures, as I saw them in his room, I think decidedly strong. They were all large fanciful portraits of women, of the type que vous savez, narrow, special, monotonous, but with lots of beauty & power. His chief inspiration & constant model is Mrs. Wm. Morris, whom I had seen, a woman of extraordinary beauty of a certain sort—a face, in fact quite made to his hand. He has painted a dozen portraits of her—one, in particular, in a blue gown, with her hair down, pressing a lot of lilies against her breast—an almost great work.”

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Rossetti’s “most delicious melancholy old house” was located at 16 Cheyne Walk where it still stands today. An 1882 watercolor by Henry Treffry Dunn gives us a glimpse of the interior at the time: sea-green walls and upholstery; piles of lush Persian rugs; Delft tiles around the fireplace; paintings, mirrors, and religious icons in gilt frames.

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti reading proofs of Sonnets and Ballads to Theodore Watts-Dunton in the drawing room at 16 Cheyne Walk, London, by Henry Treffry Dunn, 1882

Not surprisingly the strongest impression on James seems to have been made by Jane Morris. He had met her several months earlier in the company of her husband the artist William Morris. James described her in positively glowing terms in a letter to his sister Alice dated March of 1869:

Je n’en reviens pas—she haunts me still. A figure cut out of a missal—out of one of Rossetti’s or Hunt’s pictures—to say this gives but a faint idea of her, because when such an image puts on flesh and blood, it is an apparition of fearful and wonderful intensity.  It’s hard to say [whether] she’s a grand synthesis of all the pre-Raphaelite pictures ever made—or they a ‘keen analysis’ of her—whether she’s an original or a copy.  In either case she is a wonder.  Imagine a tall lean woman in a long dress of some dead purple stuff, guiltless of hoops (or of anything else, I should say) with a mass of crisp black hair heaped into  great wavy projections on each of her temples, a thin pale face, a pair of strange, sad, deep, dark Swinburnish eyes, with great thick black oblique brows, joined in the middle and tucking themselves under her hair, a mouth like ‘Oriana’ in our illustrated Tennyson, a long neck, without any collar, and in lieu thereof some dozen strings of outlandish beads—in fine Complete.  On the wall was a large nearly full-length portrait of her by Rossetti, so strange and unreal that if you hadn’t seen her, you’d pronounce it a distempered vision, but in fact an extremely good likeness.”

The exhibition Henry James and American Painting is currently on tour at The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston through January 21, 2018.


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