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Henry James and the Lust of the Eyes: Thirteen Artists in His Work.

In that select company of writers for whom the visible world thrillingly exists--Goethe, Ruskin, Pater, Peter Ackroyd, Bruce Chatwin--Henry James has an eminent place. Goethe's admission in Dichtung und Warheit might have been made by his American counterpart: "The eye was, above all others, the organ by which I seized the world. I had, from childhood, lived among painters, and had accustomed myself to look at objects, as they did, with reference to art... Wherever I looked, I saw a picture." All of James's writings--his fiction, his essays, his travel sketches--reveal the passion for things visible, reveal a "lust of the eyes," to use his own expression, which Adeline R. Tintner borrows for the title of her new book. Everywhere he went, James found pictures to admire, whether in the form of nature or human society or of works of art. In A Little Tour of France (1884), for example, he displays an astonishing catholicity of taste: for the "curious" Gothic sculptures on Bourges Cathedral; for Ingres' "fine portrait" of Madame de Senonnes in the Nantes Museum; for the "unspeakably imposing" Roman tiers of the Pont du Gard; for Jan van Eyck's "magnificent" painting of the Virgin with Chancellor Rolin in the Louvre; for the most "splendid" of Arlesiennes (James's delight predates Van Gogh's by a half-decade).

To understand James's novels, his texts and subtexts, one must share something of his aesthetic passion and his formidable range of artistic reference. Yet few modern readers, very few academic readers certainly, have the capacity or background for the task. The twin bogeys of Puritanism and Marxism which hover over so many English departments, have disavowed the reading of texts, the examination of art objects, with anything other than narrowly utilitarian aims. Art, infected as it is with "ideology," dare not delight; at best it can only expose, among other things, its own deficiencies. For whom, then, is Tintner's work addressed? "The reader of James," she maintains, "must be an experienced reader, not only of words but of art, as James himself was." In a series of landmark studies, beginning with The Museum World of Henry James (1986), Tintner has devoted herself to the task of elucidating the aesthetic figures in the Jamesian carpet. She has not only read everything by James, but virtually everything that James himself read; she has looked at virtually everything James looked at. Tintner's previous books (The Museum World; The Book World of Henry James, 1987; The Pop World of Henry James, 1989; The Cosmopolitan World of Henry James, 1991) have surveyed an immense aesthetic territory, examining the artifacts of the high and popular cultures in which James was immersed and with which he saturated his novels and tales. Her aim has always been to show how James's artistic allusions reinforce his literary themes--the most obvious examples being the use of the Lambinet landscape in The Ambassadors and the Bronzino portrait in The Wings of the Dove. Some of Tintner's discoveries may seem forced, but others (her focusing, for example, on James's use of Velazquez's portrait of the wily Pope Innocent X in the company of the truly "innocent" Daisy Miller) have proved invaluable.

In Henry James and the Lust of the Eyes, Tintner brings together a dozen essays published since the Museum World volume. This is the thinnest (in size) but also the most focused of her books. "I am concerned," she states at the outset, "with the unifying vision of an individual artist [alluded to in a particular James fiction! as it controls the morphology of a story." Allowing herself more space than usual, she comes up with a number of valuable analogies and insights: how, for example, James's reference to sculptors Jean Goujon and Germain Pilon reveals his American heroine in The Reverberator to be more genuine aristocrat than the snobbish Gallicized family she marries into; how Lord Mellifont, the (usually maligned) character in "The Private Life" modelled on Lord Leighton, is the "real hero of the story" and, further, how Leighton's paintings are subtly reflected in the tale's descriptions; or how Holbein's painting The Ambassadors may have supplied James with the title, and helped reinforce the theme (momento mori and carpe diem), of one of his greatest works. Even in cases where the allusions are not so convincing (and the author realizes that her reader may find an occasional reference "strained," although she cites James's boast about his ingenuity in her defense), Tintner writes with an enthusiasm and love for her subject that disarms criticism. (It isn't really necessary to keep insisting on James's "avant-garde taste"--his appreciation of Vermeer, for example--when on close examination this only means that James's taste was in advance of most academics but far behind that of the rich collectors he knew.)

The three best, and longest, essays in this volume are all labors of love. In "'The Siege of London's and Couture's Romans of the Decadence," she traces James's enthusiasm for this preposterous painting (now a centerpiece of the Orsay Museum) and argues that the aggressive American "barbarian" of the tale, Mrs. Headway, is repeating the role of the painter's central figure. Similarly, in "'A London Life' and Hogarth's Marriage a la Mode," she demonstrates how James's narrative scheme draws upon the painter's "Progress series." And in the best piece in the collection, "A Pinturicchio Figure in the Revised Roderick Hudson," Tintner deftly links Roderick with the hero (Pope Pius II) of a series of paintings in the Cathedral of Siena. The depiction of the Pope's successful life has analogies--but only to a certain point--with Roderick's, but it also serves "as a cautionary tale for [James] himself." "There are many things," she notes, "in this brilliant, candid 'fresco-world' that stir the imagination of the spectator, and James's imagination made his 'immersion' in the frescoes one of his deepest-felt Sienese adventures of both mind and eye. Such adventures seemed to have appealed to the only 'lust' James apparently allowed himself, that of the eyes.
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Author:Stone, Donald
Publication:Studies in the Novel
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1994
Words:995
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