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21. ‘In the Quiet Hours and the Deep Dusk, These Things too Recovered Their Advantage’: Henry James on Light in European Museums

Joshua Parker

© 2019 Joshua Parker, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0151.21

Now over a century removed, popular thought often imagines impressionist and expressionist painting as counter-reactions to nineteenth-century photographic techniques, a sudden urgent stretching of art’s limits in the face of new chemical and mechanical technologies of reproduction, much as if to say, ‘You may have beaten us when it comes to base verisimilitude — yet look here! — we still trump you.’ Neglected in such notions is that impressionists and plein air painters also began painting, as Angela Miller writes of nineteenth-century American atmospheric luminists and pre-impressionists, the ‘empty’ spaces of ‘light, space and air,’ rather than hard, stable surfaces themselves, just as electric lighting became more common in Europe and America.1 They began leaving their studios to work outside just as interiors — at least urban interiors — were being more often and better illuminated with light that was, if not always brighter than candle- or oil-lamp light, at least cleaner and more even.

Henry James, aside from some work outlining his early criticism of impressionist painting in the 1870s,2 and later seeming praise of works like those of Édouard Manet, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Edgar Degas and Claude Monet in the 1890s,3 is an author not often directly associated with impressionism in the visual arts. He was, instead, sometimes highly critical of the movement. Of Whistler’s work, in The Nation in 1878, he snidely suggested while it ‘may be good to be an impressionist,’ on the evidence of Whistler’s own efforts, ‘it were vastly better to be an expressionist,’ suggesting impressionism might be better off expressing anything at all than the nothing it did.4 This, from an American writer who would be lauded by modernists for his use of ‘the unsaid’ and his techniques of depicting ‘reality as perceived in an instant.’5 Meanwhile, in the popular imagination, James is likely as not to be imagined much as his contemporary E. M. Forster’s protagonist Lucy Honeychurch imagines her spurned lover in A Room With a View (1908), ‘When I think of you it’s always as in a room.’ Or, as Ralph Ellison wrote, as an author who had lived in ‘some sort of decadent hothouse,’ an interior space removed from the palpable work-a-day world of real things ‘as they existed.’6

But, much like impressionist and expressionist painters, James’s later work often seems to inscribe circles around his central subjects, focusing on atmosphere to take up sparkling reflections instead of subjects themselves with any hard line of outline. He became, likewise, in almost all he published after leaving America, something of an arbiter of — at least readerly — cultural relations, and refractions, between England, the Continent and the United States. While living and working in Europe from about 1868 to 1916, James published often about his personal experiences in European galleries and museums, while setting extensive sections of his fiction in them, and if his descriptions of electric lighting are not as copious as those of the natural lighting of museums and other spaces in which mid- to late-nineteenth-century visitors experienced art, they are almost as well-commented on by scholars following his work over the last century.

Though not himself a visitor to the 1893 World Exposition in Chicago, famously the first in which such a vast amount of electric lighting was first visible (two hundred thousand bulbs), James received news of it by letter from his brother in America. According to Kendall Johnson, the 1893 Exposition illustrated, with its shocking abundance of electric light, ‘the coherence of America’s economic expansion,’ a system ‘industrial in its character and private in its ownership.’7 James’s most famous descriptions of the effects of electric lighting, with its ‘blinding whiteness,’ for Johnson, come in his What Maisie Knew (1897), which Kenneth Warren describes as containing ‘exquisitely ambiguous critiques of capitalism and racism.’8 What Deitmar Schloss calls James’s suggestions of the ‘obliterative effect of modern American capitalism’ homogenized culture much as electric light, in the full effect of its illumination, rendered every surface it touched with a glaring evenness, yet still only surface.9 James’s early impressions of electric illumination’s use as an Americanizing influence in Europe were tied to his general mistrust of what he held to be Americanization’s less positive qualities — industrialization, cultural homogenization and rampant, uncontrolled capitalism as an end in itself.

Ambiguous, or ambivalent, as his fictional references to electricity were, James himself was evidently one of the last tenants in his London apartment building to have his apartment wired for electricity in 1895, and probably had his Lamb House in Sussex wired for electricity during renovations undertaken in 1897. He was, according to his correspondence, quite pleased, finding electric lighting in his own home to be ‘one of the consolations & cleanliness of existence.’10 James’s experiences of and writings on lighting in museums during his travels were no less ambivalent. This essay outlines two recurrent themes in his descriptions, those of dark and light in his movements though European spaces exhibiting painted works of art. Underlining a development and constancy over the course of his career in his published work, it examines some of James’s earliest writings describing museums and ecumenical or private collections of paintings, from the 1870s to the end of the nineteenth century, particularly those in which lighting — or the lack of it — is noted or described. His work, published in American weekly or monthly magazines, likely inspired or discouraged hundreds, if not thousands, of American and British travelers to the Continent’s museums, galleries, palaces and churches in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and presumably guided many thousands more who would never visit in their understanding of fine art, the illumination of space, and of what purposes visits to museums or other spaces of display could be assumed to serve, what sensations they might be expected to elicit, and to what standards such institutions could be held.

James was insistent on light, or the lack of it, in writings drawn from his early travels through Italy. In descriptions of an 1869 tour of Italy, published as ‘Venice: An Early Impression’ (Italian Hours) (1872), he wrote that ‘[n]othing indeed can well be sadder’ than the series of Tintorettos of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. This was not criticism of the paintings themselves, but of their lack of visibility. ‘Incurable blackness is settling fast upon all of them,’ James complained, leaving Tintoretto’s work in the Scuola to

frown at you across the sombre splendour of their great chambers like gaunt twilight phantoms of pictures. To our children’s children Tintoret, as things are going,’ he projected, ‘can be hardly more than a name; and such of them as shall miss the tragic beauty, already so dimmed and stained, of the great ‘Bearing of the Cross’ in that temple of his spirit will live and die without knowing the largest eloquence of art.11

Crying out in defense, and presenting himself as defender for future generations of images he himself was barely able to see in San Rocco’s rooms, James complains not only of San Rocco’s lack of lighting, but of the smoky state of its paintings. Lack of light is noted as near-constant irritant during James’s first Italian tour — most particularly in churches, in both Venice and Florence.

In Florence’s Convent of San Marco (probably some time in 1873), James passed ‘the bright, still cloister,’ paying his respects ‘to Fra Angelico’s Crucifixion, in that dusky chamber in the basement.’ He ‘looked long; one can hardly do otherwise.’12 James looks long at the painting because of its genius — but perhaps also, as he seems to suggest, because of basement chapel’s dim light. Moving his readers up the stairs into the Convent’s upper rooms, his descriptions of its paintings become comparatively much more detailed and elaborate.

In Venice a decade later, in 1882, his complaints of lack of light become more pointed and strident. Here, while Venice’s churches ‘are rich in pictures,’ many of their best works lurk ‘in the unaccommodating gloom of side-chapels and sacristies,’ or hang

behind the dusty candles and muslin roses of a scantily-visited altar; some of them indeed, hidden behind the altar, suffer in a darkness that can never be explored. The facilities offered you for approaching the picture in such cases are a mockery of your irritated wish. You stand at tip-toe on a three-legged stool, you climb a rickety ladder, you almost mount upon the shoulders of the custode. You do everything but see the pictures. You see just enough to be sure it’s beautiful. You catch a glimpse of a divine head, of a fig-tree against a mellow sky, but the rest is impenetrable mystery.

Readers of James’s fiction in the following years might reasonably have directed similar complaints toward his own plots and figures — or ascribed to his avoidance of complete revelation an artistic complexity more positive than negative.

James himself, meanwhile, goes on complaining in Venice in 1882. Before Cima da Conegliano’s Baptism of Christ in San Giovanni in Bragora, he asserts,

You make the thing out in spots, you see it has a fulness [sic] of perfection. But you turn away from it with a stiff neck and promise yourself consolation in the Academy and at the Madonna dell’Orto, where two noble works by the same hand — pictures as clear as a summer twilight — present themselves in better circumstances.

For anyone using James’s articles as an actual guide to Venice, the paintings recommended as being most satisfying are frankly those best-visible in terms of material circumstances. Meanwhile, James returns to his previously-voiced complaints of poor lighting in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, with its nearly invisible Tintorettos, evidently unimproved in the intervening years since his last visit: ‘It may be said as a general thing that you never see the Tintoret,’ James writes.

You admire him, you adore him, you think him the greatest of painters, but in the great majority of cases your eyes fail to deal with him.’ In this vast, dim space, one seems almost to swim in an aura of majesty without any direct visual contact, as here, among the ‘acres of him [Tintoretto], there is scarcely anything at all adequately visible save the immense ‘Crucifixion’ in the upper story.13

‘Fortunately,’ James writes, in the Doge’s Palace ‘everything is so brilliant and splendid that the poor dusky Tintoret is lifted in spite of himself into the concert.’ At one o’clock in the afternoon, he writes, there is ‘no brighter place in Venice―by which I mean that on the whole there is none half so bright. The reflected sunshine plays up through the great windows from the glittering lagoon and shimmers and twinkles over gilded walls and ceilings.’ Here, ‘[a]ll the history of Venice […] glows around you in a strong sea-light.’ Veronese ‘swims before you in a silver cloud; he thrones in an eternal morning.’14 For James, the light of the room in the palace and the light depicted in the painting seem almost to magically overlap, the atmosphere in the room and that of the canvas merging, its own light flowing out into the room as that of the room plays on its surface.

Finally, in Florence’s Uffizi, James finds a light redeeming the museum despite itself. Beguiled by the Uffizi’s ‘long outer galleries,’ he focuses on their ‘continuity of old-fashioned windows, draped with white curtains of rather primitive fashion, which hang there till they acquire a perceptible tone.’ Never mind that the curtains are dusty and likely could use a good wash or replacement. The sunlight, ‘passing through them, is softly filtered and diffused,’ resting ‘mildly upon the old marbles’ and ‘projected upon the numerous pictures that cover the opposite wall,’ imparting ‘a faded brightness to the old ornamental arabesques upon the painted wooden ceiling,’ and making ‘a great soft shining upon the marble floor.’ On his visits, he wrote, he could rarely resist a stroll through the windowed galleries, despite their ‘(for the most part) third-rate canvases and panels and the faded cotton curtains.’ It is the lighting itself which seems to attract him, rather than what it illuminates.

‘Why is it,’ he asks, ‘that in Italy we see a charm in things in regard to which in other countries we always take vulgarity for granted? If in the city of New York a great museum of the arts were to be provided, by way of decoration, with a species of verandah enclosed on one side by a series of small-paned windows draped in dirty linen […] surmounted by a thinly-painted roof, strongly suggestive of summer heat, of winter cold, of frequent leakage, those amateurs who had had the advantage of foreign travel would be at small pains to conceal their contempt.’15

The Uffizi, if shabby, is enchanting because of its lighting, James suggests. Yet if ‘the great pleasure’ afforded in Florence is a visit to the works blooming ‘so unfadingly on the big plain walls of the Academy,’ sometimes even darkness does not preclude enjoyment.16

Moving across the Arno to the Pitti Palace, James finds Andrea del Sarto’s work ‘in force, in those dusky drawing-rooms’ accessed by ‘the tortuous tunnel’ of the Vasari Corridor. ‘In the rich insufficient light of these beautiful rooms, where, to look at the pictures, you sit in damask chairs and rest your elbows on tables of malachite, the elegant Andrea becomes deeply effective,’ he writes.17 Here, James’s complaints of dim lighting at last subside, whether because of the comforts of the palace’s furniture, or because dimness itself seems to aid in del Sarto’s appreciation. So, in his journalism and essays, James responds to the joys of finding good natural lighting in galleries or other spaces where paintings are displayed — particularly when the canvas surfaces and the natural light seem to correspond, align, or even merge — and complains bitterly of darkness and obscurity, yet sometimes finds a bit of ‘duskiness’ seems to aid or encourage one’s appreciation.

Indeed, as Kendall Johnson notes, outside museums themselves, the older, narrow streets and alleys of Florence’s medieval center offered James ‘dusky perspectives’ which refined, ‘in certain places, by an art of their own, on the romantic appeal.’18 For all James’s complaints of dimly-lit galleries and chapels, Johnson suggests he ‘fixates on these dusky spaces as portals to the classical past,’ as their shadows ‘enhance his historical sensitivity and hone his receptivity to the passing of Florence’s and Italy’s triumphal epoch in the westward course of empire.’19 Certainly in some of the passages cited above, as, for example, in the Doge’s Palace or the Pitti Palace, lighting in particular seems to allow one to inhabit the historical spaces represented by the paintings hanging on the walls as if they had filtered into the rooms themselves. Almost as if the frames around the canvases, like the diegetic framing of their images, had become vaguely opaque.

In James’s fiction of the same period, we find similar descriptions of museum interiors, slightly more romantic. In his short story ‘Travelling Companions,’ written in 1870, set in Milan, Florence, Venice and Padua, the narrator’s ‘memory reverts with an especial tenderness to certain hours in the dusky, faded saloons of those vacant ruinous palaces which boast of ‘collections’.’20 The story revolves around conversations between a young, single male and a young female tourist, who meet in cultural spaces while following similar tours of Italy, commenting on the art. At one point, the male protagonist becomes infatuated with a small portrait of a woman he hopes to buy, which he sees in a private home ‘on a table near the window, propped upright in such a way as to catch the light, was a small picture in a heavy frame.’21 But his real interest, deferred, is the acquisition of his traveling companion herself as a wife. What begins as a tale of cultural acquisition and appreciation limited to museal space becomes one of human acquisition and extends to the ‘real world’ of human relations and domestic matters. As the two companions become more companionable, light becomes more palpable, first, again, in the Doge’s Palace, ‘that transcendent shrine of light and grace’ with its ‘masterpiece of Paul Veronese,’22 while in Padua’s Scrovegni Chapel, ‘ample light flooded the inner precinct, and lay hot upon the course, pale surface of the painted wall,’23 bringing its figures into the present’s light much as the female love-object becomes more available to her narrating companion. In James’s ‘The Sweetheart of M. Briseux’ (1873), again, light depicted in paintings’ canvases and that filtering into the gallery seem to merge, this time not in a positive manner. Here, in a fictionalized French town’s municipal museum (probably Montauban): ‘the very light seems pale and neutral, as if the dismal lack-lustre atmosphere of the pictures were contagious.’24

Finally, perhaps James’s strongest insinuation of a bond between viewer and museal objects is strengthened by a space’s lighting is in his short story ‘The Birthplace’ (1903). Here, the newly-appointed curator of Shakespeare’s ‘birthplace’ in Stratford-upon-Avon, now arranged as a museum, is initially put off by ‘[t]he exhibitional side of the establishment.’ The rooms of the house-cum-museum ‘bristled overmuch, in the garish light of day, with busts and relics, not even ostensibly even His [Shakespeare’s], old prints and old editions, old objects fashioned in His likeness, furniture ‘of the time’ and autographs of celebrated worshippers.’ The ‘garish’ daylight here, illuminating the relics on display, seems to preclude any personal bond or connection with the articles or the space itself. Lingering, however, James’s curator finds that

[i]n the quiet hours and the deep dusk, none the less, under the play of the shifted lamp and that of his own emotion, these things too recovered their advantage, ministered to the mystery, or at all events to the impression, seemed consciously to offer themselves as personal to the poet.25

‘What is it then you see in the dark?’ he is asked.26 It is in the darkened rooms — or even in total darkness — that James’s curator feels closest to the soul of the artist represented by the redundant relics on display. Lamplight here casts an illusion — an illusion necessary for immersion in the aura and ambience of the motley items displayed. These gather their full force not in the light of day, but only at dusk, offering the ‘impression’ of a past that, of a living world it is their task to evoke, in effect a ‘sort of ‘oversaying’ saturated with concealed intentions masked by their very simultaneity, much like the vital multiple currents of reality as perceived at the moment.’27 Much as the curator here is originally a librarian, now turned carnivalist in his new role, for James fiction competes with reality, using whatever tricks it can. In James’s ‘shifted lamp’ here, a hand-held torch turned away from its subject in order to better sense of it, there is an almost Romantic mode of thought, reminiscent of popular nineteenth-century moonlight tours of Roman ruins, in which the imagination is kindled as much by the shadows as by what is actually illuminated.

James often derides a lack of light, while sometimes applauding the mystery afforded by a bit of dimness, suggesting that the only way, after all, to attain connection with the figures depicted on the surfaces of canvases — or with the past they depict and themselves still inhabit — is through fleeting impressions, impressions best encouraged by a touch of dusk, an ambiguous light which is, in a sense, one of the repeated themes and even qualities of his own oeuvre.


1 Angela Miller, The Empire of the Eye: Landscape Representations and American Cultural Politics, 1825–1875 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1993), p. 243.

2 Ian F. A. Bell, Henry James: Fiction as History (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1985), pp. 141–42.

3 Daniel Hannah, ‘James, Impressionism, and Publicity’, Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 61.2 (2007), 28–43.

4 Quoted in Bell, Henry James, pp. 141–42.

5 Jean Pavans, Heures jamesiennes (Paris: Éditions de la Différence, 2008), p. 136.

6 Ralph Ellison, ‘The Novel as a Function of American Democracy’, in his Going to the Territory (New York: Random House, 1986), pp. 308–20 (pp. 313–14).

7 Kendall Johnson, Henry James and the Visual (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 138.

8 Kenneth W. Warren, ‘Still Reading James?’, The Henry James Review 16.3 (1995), 282–85 (p. 284).

9 Dietmar Schloss, Culture and Criticism in Henry James (Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1992), pp. 121–22.

10 Quoted in Kaplan, Henry James, p. 410.

11 Henry James, Italian Hours (New York: Grove Press, 1965), pp. 59–60.

12 James, Italian Hours, p. 292.

13 Henry James, ‘Venice’, in Morton Dauwen Zabel (ed.), The Art of Travel (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1958), pp. 404–06.

14 Ibid.

15 James, ‘Florence’, in The Art of Travel, pp. 381–82.

16 Ibid., p. 382.

17 Ibid.

18 James, Italian Hours, p. 535.

19 Johnson, Henry James, p. 46.

20 Henry James, ‘Travelling Companions’, in Complete Stories 1864–1874 (New York: The Library of America, 1999), p. 507.

21 Ibid., p. 509.

22 Ibid., p. 525.

23 Ibid., p. 529.

24 Henry James, ‘The Sweetheart of M. Briseux’, in Complete Stories 1864–1874 (New York: The Library of America, 1999), p. 767.

25 Henry James, ‘The Birthplace’, in Complete Stories 1898–1910 (New York: The Library of America, 1996), p. 455.

26 Ibid., p. 458.

27 Pavans, Heures jamesiennes, p. 136.