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17. Daylight and Gold: In the Galleries With Henry James

Paula Deitz

© 2019 Paula Deitz, CC BY 4.0

As an avid reader while traveling, by chance I once selected Henry James’s The American (1877) to accompany me on a trip to Paris and thereby had an unusual convergence of circumstances. Knowing little in advance of the story, except that it took place in Paris, I felt like I was following the novel around, or vice versa. While the hôtel particulier, in the French sense, of the aristocratic woman the American sought to marry was on Rue de l’Université, so was our hotel, and for many chapters we were walking the same streets. No sooner had I visited the Louvre than I discovered in chapter one the opening scene in the Louvre’s high square gallery called the Salon Carré:

On a brilliant day in May, in the year 1868, a gentleman was reclining at his ease on the great circular divan which at that period occupied the centre of the Salon Carré, in the Museum of the Louvre. This commodious ottoman has since been removed, to the extreme regret of all weak-kneed lovers of the fine arts; but the gentleman in question had taken serene possession of its softest spot, and, with his head thrown back and his legs outstretched, was staring at Murillo’s beautiful moon-borne Madonna in profound enjoyment of his posture.

He had looked, moreover, not only at all the pictures, but at all the copies that were going forward around them, in the hands of those innumerable young women in irreproachable toilets who devote themselves, in France, to the propagation of masterpieces; and if the truth must be told, he had often admired the copy much more than the original.

But listless as he lounges there, rather baffled on the aesthetic question, and guilty of the damning fault […] of confounding the merit of the artist with that of his work (for he admires the squinting Madonna of the young lady with the boyish coiffure, because he thinks the young lady herself uncommonly taking), he is a sufficiently promising acquaintance.

At last he rose abruptly, put on his hat, and approached the young lady. He placed himself before her picture and looked at it for some moments, during which she pretended to be quite unconscious of his inspection. Then, addressing her with the single word which constituted the strength of his French vocabulary, and holding up one finger in a manner which appeared to him to illuminate his meaning, ‘Combien?’ he abruptly demanded.1

Shortly after my return to New York, I happened by chance to come across a watercolour in the Lucien Goldschmidt Gallery on Madison Avenue painted the very same year, 1868, by Emanuel Stöckler, a court painter of Vienna, depicting the identical scene, with a gentleman observing a copyist of the Murillo painting in the Salon Carré.

Fig. 17.1 Emanuel Stöckler, The Salon Carré of the Louvre in Paris, 1868. Watercolour on paper, 54.6 x 53.3 cm. Private collection: photograph by Beth Phillips. Reprinted by permission of the owner.

The first question that obviously came to mind was whether James himself had ever seen this painting, perhaps on view in Paris before it entered the collection of Queen Olga of Württemberg. But I was struck by the fact that, in the painting, the gallery was illuminated by an immense skylight that bounced light off the gilded cornices, which do not necessarily reflect this light but animate the entire space with a glow as do gilded frames for pictures. In general, James called it an ‘endless golden riot’.2

In James’s autobiographical memoir, A Small Boy and Others (1913), he writes about his boyhood visits to the Louvre with his brother and his earliest memory of the Galérie d’Apollon and its subsequent appearance in a frightening nightmare. But he also comments on the general influence of the museum foretelling the future bliss of his inner life. In his description of what he calls ‘the house of life’ and ‘the palace of art’, he expounds on ‘the pictures, the frames themselves, the figures within them, the particular parts and features of each, [and] the look of the rich light’.3 He also singles out in his memoir what he calls the ‘treasures of the Salon Carré’.4 First, the painting observed by the American of the novel, which James calls the moon-borne Madonna, was Murillo’s Immaculate Conception of Los Venerables (Museo del Prado, ca.1678),5 hauled back to France from Spain and eventually brought to the Louvre by one of Napoleon’s marshals. It was returned to the Prado in 1941. He refers to the Mona Lisa (Musée du Louvre, 1503–06), then displayed there, as ‘Leonardo’s almost unholy dame with the folded hands’.6 Finally, the vast Veronese, The Meal in the House of Simon the Pharisee,7 originally painted for the Servite Convent in Venice in 1570 and given to Louis XIV as a present from the Doge, hung at the Louvre during the period James visited across from Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana (Musée du Louvre, 1563)8 and is now back at Versailles. Both of these can be seen on view in an 1861 painting by Giuseppe Castiglione, View of the Grand Salon Carré in the Louvre (Musée du Louvre)9 when the central divan was still in place. The Mona Lisa appears in an earlier painting of the Salon by the American artist Samuel F. B. Morse: Gallery of the Louvre (1831–33, Terra Foundation for American Art).10

Although the Salon Carré has retained its ornate figures within the coved ceiling and the cornice medallions celebrating the arts, the gallery today, with a protruding partition and a hanging frame of fluorescent light, no longer has the presence suggested by James, despite the large-scale masterpieces that presently hang there.

On my own trip to Paris, what drew me further into the Louvre was the luminous space beyond the Salon Carré, which James calls that ‘interminable and incomparable Seine-side front of the Palace’,11 the 875-foot long Grande Galerie, shown in a print, also from 1868, depicting art students and copyists by the American artist Winslow Homer.

Fig. 17.2 Winslow Homer, Art-Students and Copyists in the Louvre Gallery, Paris, 1868. Wood engraving, 23.3 x 35.2 cm. Brooklyn Museum, gift of Harvey Isbitts, 1998.105.102

Essentially the gallery, which joined the old Louvre with the Tuileries Palace, has a long history that came to fruition when the artist Hubert Robert was placed in charge. He made innumerable paintings, both of its existing state, such as his ca.1805 work, and with his proposed renovations, which he suggested as early as 1796, with pitched skylights at the peak of coffered vaults.

Fig. 17.3 Hubert Robert, The Project for the Grande Galerie of the Louvre, 1796. Oil on canvas, 112 x 145 cm. Inv. RF1975-10. Photo by Jean-Gilles Berizzi. Musée du Louvre. © RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY.

By 1947, Robert’s vision had become a reality. Today, the gallery is hung with elegant spareness under silvery light from arched skylights. But he created another painting, also in 1796, that depicted the gallery as a ruin from antiquity, open to the sky above, and therefore flooded with maximum light.

In James’s novel The Wings of the Dove (1902), we come across more descriptions concerning light that embellish the famous scene in which the coterie of characters we come to know in London accompany Milly Theale, the mysteriously ailing American heiress, on an excursion to Matcham, the country house of Lord Mark, ultimately her suitor. The high point of this visit is the viewing of a painting by Bronzino, untitled in the book but identified as the portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi by Angelo Bronzino (Gallerie degli Uffizi, ca.1545),12 in which Milly sees her resemblance. James writes of the portrait:

[…] all magnificently drawn, down to the hands, and magnificently dressed; a face almost livid in hue, yet handsome in sadness and crowned with a mass of hair rolled back and high, that must, before fading with time, have had a family resemblance to her own. The lady in question, at all events, with her slightly Michaelangelesque squareness, her eyes of other days, her full lips, her long neck, her recorded jewels, her brocaded and wasted reds, was a very great personage — only unaccompanied by a joy. And she was dead, dead, dead. Milly recognised her exactly in words that had nothing to do with her. ‘I shall never be better than this’.13

In his physical description of the scene, for our purposes, James observes that ‘[t]he Bronzino was, it appeared, deep within, and the long afternoon light lingered for them on patches of old colour and waylaid them, as they went, in nooks and opening vistas’.14 And in addition to what he also calls this ‘splendid midsummer glow’,15 the painting itself was ‘aloft there in the great gilded historic chamber’.16 Milly, in the ‘presence of the pale personage on the wall, whose eyes all the while seemed engaged with her own […] found herself suddenly sunk in something quite intimate and humble and to which these grandeurs were strange enough witnesses’.17

The original portrait actually hangs in Florence in the Uffizi’s octagonal Tribune Gallery, which is also animated by the richness of gilded frames and daylight that flows across the walls from clerestory windows above.

In his A Little Tour in France (1884), James confesses, ‘I have a weakness for provincial museums — a sentiment that depends but little on the quality of the collection. The pictures may be bad, but the place is often curious […]’18 And so, on a day of ceaseless rain in Avignon, he took what he called ‘a horizontal dive […] to the little musée of the town’.19 I traced the building to the Musée Calvet, whose former antiquities have been moved to another museum, but whose building remains intact as James knew it then and on previous visits. He writes:

It has the usual musty chill in the air, the usual grass-grown forecourt, in which a few lumpish Roman fragments are disposed, the usual red tiles on the floor, and the usual specimens of the more livid schools on the walls. I rang up the gardien, who arrived with a bunch of keys, wiping his mouth; he unlocked doors for me, opened shutters, and while (to my distress, as if the things had been worth lingering over) he shuffled about after me, he announced the names of the pictures before which I stopped […]20

Once the gardien opens the shutters along the gallery, the interior is flooded with glorious daylight pouring through the tall windows. Later in a poetic description, James notes: ‘Then there were intervals of silence, while I stared absent-mindedly, at haphazard, at some indistinguishable canvas, and the only sound was the downpour of the rain on the skylights’.21 In this way, he directs our eye immediately to the skylights washing the gallery walls with light from above along with the romantic sound of the rain.

Those of us enamoured of James thrive on the long, intuitive descriptive passages as his plots move slowly along, leading perhaps to a single climax that itself goes quickly by and often happens without our actually seeing it. We simply learn of it in the next chapter. His novel The Ambassadors (1903) was once my bedtime reading, so it stretched over a long period of time, and I was only too happy to learn in James’s preface that he urged readers to read it slowly as in real time, making me his ideal lecteur.

Near the end, I came to the scene in which Lambert Strether, the middle-aged protagonist from Massachusetts sent to Paris by his fiancée to urge home her son Chad, is taking a short excursion to the countryside by train. His object is to experience, as James writes, ‘French ruralism, with its cool special green, into which he had hitherto looked only through the little oblong window of the picture-frame’.22 Strether is remembering a small painting by Emile-Charles Lambinet, sadly beyond his means, ‘that had charmed him, long years before at a Boston dealer’s […] in the maroon-coloured, sky-lighted inner shrine of Tremont Street’.23 He recalls it as ‘the special-green vision, the ridiculous price, the poplars, the willows, the rushes, the river, the sunny silvery sky, the shady woody horizon’.24

In a period photograph of a Tremont Street gallery, perhaps the very one, paintings line its walls chock-a-block, illuminated by a skylight above in addition to an electric ceiling fixture. One can even see against the far back wall similar kinds of bucolic landscapes. Lambinet, who studied with Charles-François Daubigny and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, was cited by James in his same boyhood memoir as one of the ‘three or four so finely interesting landscapists’ of that mid-nineteenth century period.25

Once disembarked from the train, Lambert recognizes the view as if the painting has come to life:

The oblong gilt frame disposed its enclosing lines; the poplars and willows, the reeds and river — a river of which he didn’t know, and didn’t want to know, the name — fell into a composition, full of felicity, within them; the sky was silver and turquoise and varnish; the village on the left was white and the church on the right was grey; it was all there, in short — it was what he wanted: it was Tremont Street, it was France, it was Lambinet.26

Finally, we come to Venice and the Palazzo Barbaro, where James placed the fictional abode of Milly Theale in the later chapters of The Wings of the Dove: ‘fronting the great canal with its Gothic arches. The casements between the arches were open, the ledge of the balcony broad, the sweep of the canal, so overhung, admirable, and the flutter toward them of the loose white curtain an invitation to she scarce could have said what’.27

Earlier in this scene, Lord Mark on a visit remarks on Milly’s reclusiveness and suggests she go out, alluding to that tremendous old staircase in her court: ‘There ought of course always to be people at top and bottom, in Veronese costumes, to watch you do it’28 — imagining, of course, both The Wedding at Cana (1563) and The Feast of the House of Levi (Gallerie dell’Accademia, 1573)29 that are referenced again in the dazzling soirée that crowns her Venetian sojourn.

For Milly, though, the adventure of life lies in not stirring at all and listening instead to ‘the plash of the water against stone’ from the grand salon.30 James’s description of this room and its surrounding ambience is very like it appears in Ludwig Passini’s 1855 watercolour painting, The Salone of the Palazzo Barbaro (private collection),31 with a woman seated at her desk by the window:

Not yet so much as this morning had she felt herself sink into possession; gratefully glad that the warmth of the Southern summer was still in the high, florid rooms, palatial chambers where hard, cool pavements took reflections in their lifelong polish, and where the sun on the stirred sea-water, flickering up through open windows, played over the painted ‘subjects’ in the splendid ceilings — medallions of purple and brown, of brave old melancholy colour, medals as of old reddened gold, embossed and beribboned, all toned with time and all flourished and scolloped and gilded about, set in their great moulded and figured concavity (a nest of white cherubs, friendly creatures of the air), and appreciated by the aid of that second tier of smaller lights, straight openings to the front, which did everything […]32

Here the light comes not only from above but is also reflected from the shimmering waters below, so that, inside or outside, there is nothing in the world more beautiful than Venetian light.

1 Henry James, The American, with an afterword by Leon Edel (New York: A Signet Classic, published by The New American Library, 1963), pp. 5–8.

2 Henry James, Autobiographies, A Small Boy and Others’, Philip Horne (ed.) (New York: The Library of America, 2016), p. 208.

3 James, Autobiographies, p. 211.

4 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

13 Henry James, The Wings of the Dove (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1976), Book Fifth, p. 144.

14 Ibid., p. 143.

15 Ibid., p. 144.

16 Ibid., p. 147.

17 Ibid.

18 Henry James, A Little Tour in France, foreword by Geoffrey Grigson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 73.

19 Ibid., p. 150.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid., p. 151.

22 Henry James, The Ambassadors, ed. with intro. by Harry Levin (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), Book Eleventh, III, p. 452.

23 Ibid., p. 452 f.

24 Ibid., p. 452.

25 James, Autobiographies, p. 205.

26 James, The Ambassadors, p. 453.

27 James, Wings of the Dove, p. 292f.

28 Ibid., p. 292.

30 Ibid.

32 James, Wings of the Dove, p. 282.