current projects

 

Double Vision (monograph in preparation)

Henry James sat in the back of a Newport, Rhode Island atelier, watching as his seventeen-year-old brother William and a slightly older boy, John La Farge, painted portraits of a young woman in a black dress. Henry, the future novelist, observed attentively; he was toying with the idea of pursuing art as a career himself, and was eager to see the process of portraiture. Decades later, the memory of the portrait session was still fresh, and it still stung: the sight of William and La Farge painting was “an admonition sharply conveyed.” The admonition was the older boys’ talent: here was real mastery, Henry saw; and whenever in the future he would be around La Farge (who became one of the most celebrated artists of his time) “it was altogether in the form of mere helpless admirer and inhaler,” although this feeling was ameliorated by the “dawning perception that the arts were after all essentially one and that even with canvas and brush whisked out of my grasp I still needn’t feel disinherited.” Indeed it was La Farge who first suggested to Henry that he become a writer, and Henry's novels heavily featured art and artists. In one of these novels, The Tragic Muse, Henry's protagonist observes that “unlike most other forms, [portraiture] was a revelation of two realities, the man whom it was the artist’s conscious effort to reveal and the man (the interpreter) expressed in the very quality and temper of that effort. It offered a double vision, the strongest dose of life that art could give, the strongest dose of art that life could give.”


This “double vision,” the problem of the perceiver and the perceived, the subject and the object, defined the careers of Henry James, William James, and John La Farge. The James brothers gave up their ambitions to make visual art their professions, but they never gave up thinking about the lessons they learned during the years they spent in Newport, Rhode Island alongside John La Farge. In fact, in 1903, William told La Farge that he was still thinking about La Farge's method of painting fifty years after they had taken lessons together between 1859 and 1861. William's debt to his experience painting with La Farge registered in some of his most significant scientific and philosophical contributions. James relied on elements of La Farge's artistic method to escort psychology and philosophy through the tangle of late nineteenth-century anxieties about subjectivity and objectivity: How, asked both the arts and sciences, were observers to uncover truth in the objects of their inquiry? Was there any “reality” to be found independent of the self? If so, could one circumvent the self and alight once again on securely objective foundations?


These questions were addressed by each of the three men who were present for Kitty Temple's portrait sitting, and each man came up with answers that radically opposed the ideas that dominated his profession at the time. Henry James's novels received searing reviews when they were published. William James defied the experimental movement in psychology and the faith in objective knowledge expressed by philosophy. John La Farge's art was alternately too realistic and not realistic enough to jibe with the ideals of his early critics.


My monograph, currently in preparation, traces the chronology of these three figures as their lives and ideas intersected. It shows how each of them developed influential ideas that sprang from their collective experience of art. I argue that subjective experience, often sifted out of modern historical narratives like chaff, is in fact constitutive of historical events and necessary to the explanation of them.