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January 14, 2018

'...am ever...your devotissimo'



Finally.  I was over the moon last fall when I heard that 'Henry James and American Painting,' an exhibit at the Morgan Library in New York, was about to open at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum here.  Even though I've read several biographies of HJ and one of ISG, I don't remember reading that they were friends (it has been a while...); I didn't realize it until I found this book.  (I've also learned, now, that ISG and Edith Wharton were frenemies.)  I was lucky enough to get the usually unavailable library pass back in November, but I was sick when the day came. Undaunted, I snagged the pass on the only day it was available in all of December, only to drive over on a frigid day and see a line of 50 or 60 people - outside. I just couldn't do it, and I excuse myself for whining about this only because I think Henry would have, too. :)

But today, on almost the last chance, I got there,and got in, and it was so lovely. The museum's special exhibits are usually small, but they're so well done. The gist of this one was that HJ was part of a community of artists of all kinds, and saw all arts as one.  He met ISG in London, and insisted on introducing her to his friend John Singer Sargent, who would eventually paint portraits of both of them. (The docent who gave an excellent gallery talk explained that when Mrs. Gardner saw Sargent's scandalous painting of Madame Gautreau, she commissioned a similar portrait of herself.


The label notes that 'James drew on Gardner's limitless energies and penchant for feminine luxuries, such as her famous strands of pearls, for fictional characters.' (Mr. Gardner, on the other hand,  disliked the portrait so much that he refused to allow it to be exhibited in public during his lifetime.)  Since the objects in the museum don't have conventional museum labels, I didn't realize that this small painting by James McNeil Whistler that I've always liked is also a portrait commissioned by Mrs. Gardner...


There were about a dozen paintings in the exhibit, and lots of other wonderful things -- pages from Mrs. Gardner's photo albums, an early assessment from a publisher's reader panning the The Ambassadors, a page from the manuscript of What Maisie Knew, corrected by HJ...


and some letters, which were of course delightful; in one, HJ invites ISG to visit him at Lamb House, saying that he 'can put you up very decently & can even manage a maid if she isn't very haughty.'  And I learned (from the docent) that Henry studied (briefly, thank goodness) at Harvard Law School, where I work.

There was time, after, to visit some of my favorite rooms in the museum, to remember that Henry will always be there, in the Blue Room ...


and to be touched, as always, by what the museum has lost ...


and to be happy that it's orchid season in the courtyard.



2 comments:

JoAnn said...

I'm so glad you finally got to see this exhibit! Still lamenting the fact that we visited The Morgan a week after it closed. It may have been worth waiting in line outside, but doubt I could have faced that either... and Henry would have totally whined about it, too ;-)

JaneGS said...

The Morgan is one of my favorite museums--I've been to a few exhibitions there and you are right, they are always so well done. Fascinating to learn the connection between Henry James and Isabella Stewart Gardner. Excellent review of what sounds like a truly lovely exhibit.

Thank you for visiting!

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