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A Portrait is Worth a Thousand Words: The “Henry James and American Painting” Exhibition

John Singer Sargent (American, 1856-1925), Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1888. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

On view from October 19, 2017 through January 21, 2018, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum will host the Henry James and American Painting exhibition to explore how the artist’s literary works connected to visual arts.

Best known for novels Portrait of a Lady, Washington Square, The Wings of the Dove, and The Ambassadors, James was a key figure in the late 1800’s movement of writers and artists moving between salons and studios in Boston, London, Florence, Rome, and Venice. This group of creative minds included Isabella Stewart Gardner herself. (The Wings of the Dove came to fruition after James’ time with Gardner and her husband in their rented Palazzo Barbaro on the Grand Canal.)

James McNeill Whistler (American, 1834-1903), Lapis Lazuli, 1885-1886. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

The exhibition includes more than 50 oil paintings, drawings, watercolors photographs, manuscripts, letters, and printed books from 24 museums and private collections in the United States, Great Britain, and Ireland. Portraiture is a central theme of the exhibition – appearing in three titles of James’ novels, the artist and novelist sat for many portraits, including John Singer Sargent, whose 1913 portrait of James is on loan for the exhibition from the National Portrait Gallery.

Through archival objects and correspondence from the museum collection, Henry James and American Painting will expand on how James’ work was greatly inspired by his friendships with Gardner and Sargent, as well as American artists John La Farge and James McNeill Whistler.

This exhibition opened June 9 at the Morgan Library and Museum in Manhattan before its move to Boston. It is co-curated by renowned Irish novelist (and Jamesian specialist) Colm Tóibín and Robert H. Taylor Curator and Head of the Department of Literary and Historical Manuscripts at the Morgan, Declan Kiely.

John Singer Sargent (American, 1856-1925), San Giuseppe di Castello, Venice, circa 1903. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

For more information on Henry James and American Painting and to purchase tickets, visit gardermuseum.org.