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Henry James and Henry David Thoreau Are Both Featured in Special Exhibits at the Morgan Library

By A. E. Colas, Contributing Writer, June 14, 2017

This summer The Morgan Library and Museum is presenting two shows displaying the art and craft of observation as practiced by Henry James and Henry David Thoreau entitled Henry James and American Painting and This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal. These two authors developed their skills by different approaches and environments and yet the end results are quite similar.

Henry James was a devotee of the bohemian life, as well as enjoying the pleasures of the upper classes. His writings reflect a deep understanding of the rules and boundaries of each group with the conflicts of his characters allowing him to explore nuances within the human psyche. Besides his understanding of psychological motivation, he was also knowledgeable about the visual arts and the power they have to describe moments of fact and fiction. It is often said by scholars that James’ writing has a painterly quality; by giving a description of rooms, appearances, or even the thoughts of a character, the reader can create a vision that goes beyond words. The exhibit Henry James and American Painting illustrates this through books, letters, pictures, and sculptures, all leading to the point that observation can be transformed into art regardless of the medium chosen.

‘Venetian Women in the Palazzo Rezzonico’ (ca. 1880) by John Singer Sargent; courtesy of Morgan Library and Museum.

In general, this theme is consistently discussed in the show, with some small digressions that are not completely explored. Among these are questions regarding James’ sexuality and his use of friends as models for characters in his novels and stories. As intriguing as these subjects are, they are not relevant to the topic and perhaps could have been left out without any loss to this show.

However, the selection of paintings, photographs, etchings and sculptures by American artists illuminate James’ views regarding aesthetic standards as well as being beautiful examples of their time and place. Some notable pieces include the well known image of Henry James painted by John Singer Sargent, owned by the National Portrait Gallery, London; two portraits by Francis Boott from the Cincinnati Art Museum; and a beautiful atmospheric painting by James McNeill Whistler from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. In them the visitor can begin to comprehend what Henry James meant when he wrote, “Observe perpetually!”

Daguerreotype portrait of Henry D. Thoreau by Benjamin D. Maxham; Berg Collection, New York Public Library / courtesy of Morgan Library and Museum.

Henry David Thoreau certainly took that idea as one of his mottos in life. A man who held an astonishing variety of jobs: handyman, lecturer, manure hauler, pencil maker, sandpaper maker, schoolmaster, surveyor, teacher, tutor, and writer, he was about as far away from Henry James’ way of life as a man could be and yet their methods are eerily similar. Thoreau spent the bulk of his adult life dissecting the minute differences between looking and seeing, knowing that each supports the other but are also separate acts with different meanings. The Morgan’s exhibit This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal examines this and other facets of Thoreau’s life and writings in conjunction with the Concord Museum of Massachusetts.

Inside page of ‘Walden; or, Life in the Woods’ by Henry D. Thoreau; courtesy of Morgan Library and Museum.

The show gives a concise overview of this American author and his importance in both science and the humanities. There are examples of his data on plants, wildlife and atmospheric conditions in the Massachusetts region, notes taken in the field, reworked journal entries to be readied for publication, letters to and from friends, books from his library and a special loan of the desk where he worked during his most prolific period.

Manuscript draft of the opening page of ‘Walden’ by Henry D. Thoreau; courtesy of Morgan Library and Museum.

The journal selections on display are especially effective in showing the relevance of Thoreau’s growing interest and concern with moral and political issues. Every generation seems to believe that his writings speak exclusively to them, that his words are both a call and a template to follow for acts of civil disobedience and/or a life in harmony with nature. He was aware that his ideals were difficult to follow but hoped that by presenting them to the public, he might awaken some to a new pattern of living with more satisfying results than material gain. Unfortunately, many people, then and now, view his statements as mere epigram, without considering the work behind the words. This exhibit should change some of that thinking and perhaps have a greater impact because of it.


Henry James and American Painting and This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal are on view at The Morgan Library and Museum (255 Madison Avenue) now through September 10, 2017. For more information click here.


Cover: Portrait of Henry James (1913) by John Singer Sargent; courtesy of the Morgan Library and Museum.


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