John Singer Sargent, “Isabella Stewart Gardner,” 1888, oil on canvas, 74 13/16 x 31 1/2 inches

A rich selection of more than 50 oil paintings, drawings, watercolors, photographs, manuscripts, letters, and printed books from 24 museums and private collections in the U.S., Great Britain, and Ireland, have been brought together to explore the relationship between author Henry James (1843-1916) and the visual arts of the 19th century. Where?

From October 19 through January 21, 2018, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston will host a stunning exhibition that highlights the important intersection between literature and visual art during the 19th century. Specifically, the exhibition explores — as its name suggests — the relationship between author Henry James and the visual arts. According to the museum, the show “offers a fresh perspective on the master novelist and the significance of his friendships with American artists John La Farge, John Singer Sargent, and James McNeill Whistler, and close friend and esteemed arts patron, Isabella Stewart Gardner.”

The museum adds, “James, who had a distinctive, almost painterly style of writing, is best known for his books Portrait of a Lady (1880)Washington Square (1880), The Wings of a Dove (1902), and The Ambassadors (1903). He was part of a creative circle of writers and artists in the late 1800s that were on the move between grand salons and artists’ studios in Boston, Florence, London, and Rome. A woman ahead of her time, Gardner was an influential part of the group, and her Museum vividly evokes one city that captivated all of them: Venice.

Ralph Wormeley Curtis, “Return from the Lido,” 1884, oil on canvas, 29 1/8 x 56 inches

“Gardner and her husband, Jack, spent considerable time in Venice where they rented the lavish Palazzo Barbaro on the Grand Canal from friends and fellow Boston expatriates Daniel and Ariana Curtis. In 1892, James was a guest of the Gardners, and Palazzo Barbaro became the model for the palace in The Wings of the Dove. Sargent’s 1889 painting An Interior in Venice showcases the palazzo’s grand salon and is part of the exhibition, on loan from the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Gardner’s own meticulously crafted photo and travel albums record the profound impact that Venice, Palazzo Barbaro, and her creative friends had on the formation of her museum.”

John Singer Sargent, “San Giuseppe di Castello, Venice,” circa 1903, watercolor on paper, 12 x 18 inches

“With the Gardner Museum’s renowned collection of art, rare books, and archival material that detail how installations were inspired by great artists and writers of her time, we are the perfect partner with the Morgan for this exhibition,” said Christina Nielsen, the Gardner Museum’s Williams and Lia Poorvu Curator of the Collection, who curated the Boston exhibition along with consulting curator Casey Riley of the Boston Athenaeum. “In fact, Isabella’s first serious acquisitions were books, and she was herself an avid reader who understood that words could paint vivid images in one’s mind. A strong and complex woman who sometimes followed — and sometimes flouted — social conventions, she had much in common with the most memorable of James’s heroines.

James McNeill Whistler, “Nocturne, Blue and Silver: Battersea Reach,” circa 1872 78, oil on canvas, 15 1/2 x 24 3/4 inches

“Portraiture is a major theme in the exhibition. In less than one decade, James used the word ‘portrait’ in three book titles, including his first literary masterpiece, The Portrait of a Lady. Fiercely protective of his privacy, James nevertheless sat for numerous portraits and photographs. Sargent’s 1913 portrait of James, a treasure on loan for the exhibition from the National Portrait Gallery, London, is perhaps the most famous painted image of the author on his 70th birthday. James described it — with his characteristic wit: ‘Sargent at his very best and poor old H.J. not at his worst; in short a living breathing likeness and a masterpiece of painting.’ Photographs of James by Alice Boughton and Ellen Gertrude Emmet Rand are on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., for the exhibition. They will be featured alongside Sargent’s beloved ‘Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner,’ from the Gardner Museum — which James famously described as a ‘Byzantine Madonna’ — and the ‘Portrait of Mrs. Edward Darley Boit,’ on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

“Like Sargent, Whistler had long-lasting friendships with James and Gardner, and his ‘Nocturne, Blue and Silver: Battersea Reach’ and his ‘Little Note in Yellow and Gold,’ from the Gardner’s collection, are featured prominently in the exhibition. Notable women in the circle of friends are Lila Cabot Perry, whose 1913 self-portrait, ‘The Green Hat,’ will be positioned near landscapes painted by another friend, Elizabeth Boott Duveneck. Duveneck inspired characters in three of James’s most important works: Washington Square (1880), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), and The Golden Bowl (1904). On loan from the Cincinnati Museum of Art for the exhibition is a portrait of Duveneck with her father by her husband, American painter Frank Duveneck — again illustrating the artistic connections between the influential friends.”

To learn more, visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

This article was featured in Fine Art Today, a weekly e-newsletter from Fine Art Connoisseur magazine. To start receiving Fine Art Today for free, click here.

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Andrew Webster
Andrew Webster is the former Editor of Fine Art Today and worked as an editorial and creative marketing assistant for Streamline Publishing. Andrew graduated from The University of North Carolina at Asheville with a B.A. in Art History and Ceramics. He then moved on to the University of Oregon, where he completed an M.A. in Art History. Studying under scholar Kathleen Nicholson, he completed a thesis project that investigated the peculiar practice of embedded self-portraiture within Christian imagery during the 15th and early 16th centuries in Italy.

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