As titles go, “Henry James and American Painting” is as functional as a carpet: no subtitle, no elaboration, just two unadorned subjects blandly balanced on a conjunction. Ah, but there are figures in that carpet. Abounding in pattern and adornment, the interaction of those subjects is as rich and complex as James’s prose.
The show, which runs through Jan. 21 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, originated at New York’s Morgan Library & Museum. Being at the Gardner verges on homecoming. The novelist was friend and correspondent, as well as occasional guest and host, of the woman he sometimes called Donna Isabel. Their relationship is another source of richness and complexity, as are a shared love of Venice and the presence of a cast of characters that includes John La Farge, James McNeill Whistler, and John Singer Sargent.
All of those artists have works in the show. It’s one thing to have known everybody, as James pretty much did. It’s quite another to have known everybody who was worth knowing. James did that, too.
The show is small, with barely more than four dozen items. That smallness gives a sense of intimacy. Contributing to the intimate feel is a happy decor decision. Much of the gallery space has been arranged in the manner of a Gilded Age salon: a large curtain drawn back by an elaborate gold tie, two armchairs and a divan, a pair of low octagonal tables, a Turkish carpet (that word again). The effect is evocative without being over the top.
Intimate does not mean limited. The contents are so varied the show feels larger than it actually is. On display are letters, books, manuscripts, photographs, oil paintings, pastels, watercolors. The most amusing item — certainly the least expected — is a manuscript evaluation from the editor of Harper’s Magazine of James’s novel “The Ambassadors” (1903): “I do not advise acceptance. We ought to do better.”
The exhibition is arranged in six “chapters,” an acknowledgment of its namesake’s vocation. But one of the more compelling aspects of that vocation — and much of what makes the show so rewarding — is the tight weave between text and image so often found in James’s fiction.
The novelist Colm Tóibín (“Brooklyn”) curated the show with the Morgan’s Declan Kiely. As Tóibín notes in the handsome catalogue, “James’s imagination seemed most at ease with the image, the idea of light and shade, the sense that he was, as he created his fictional characters, making portraits much in the way that a visual artist might. He was greatly nourished by his friendship with visual artists, and his work took much of its energy from the idea of the visible, of what is suggested by a scene, by how much a single framed moment lets the reader know about motive and psychology and the interior texture of his creations.”
The first thing one sees in the museum’s Hostetter Gallery is Sargent’s magnificent 1913 portrait of James. Truly, this is a master with lessons to offer. The painting was commissioned in honor of the novelist’s 70th birthday. Looking a bit weary and more than a bit wary, James has a thumb hooked in his waistcoat. That slightly informal touch is welcome, since James’s great bald dome dominates the canvas — a dominance underscored by the way Sargent has illuminated it — and the effect is rather daunting.
It’s startling to contrast the august figure Sargent captures with the rather callow young man La Farge shows in profile in an 1862 portrait. That painting hangs near another La Farge portrait, of Henry’s older brother, William, holding a palette. One forgets that the man who’d become America’s most distinguished philosopher once aspired to be a painter.
In a charming inspiration — curator Christina Nielsen oversaw the Gardner hanging, with consulting curator Casey Riley, of the Boston Athenaeum — the 1913 James portrait faces another Sargent: his 1888 portrait of Gardner. She’s vertical, seen full form, framed by a gorgeous gold-and-black background: a Byzantine icon with the Fenway in its future. He’s nearly square, seen from the waist up, set off by a slightly reddish darkness. Caravaggio lurks in the painterly distance.
Sargent is the visual star. He has nine works in the show. The vigorous brushwork of the oil “An Interior in Venice” (1898) makes one marvel all the more at its illusion of depth and Singer’s assurance of execution. No less of a virtuoso exercise is his 1887 portrait “Mrs. Edward Darley Boit (Mary Louisa Cushing).” If the sitter’s name is familiar, that’s because she’s the mother of the subjects in the Museum of Fine Arts’s much-loved “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,” also by Sargent.
In addition to “Henry James and American Painting,” the museum has two other Jamesian offerings. “Henry & Isabella: The Art of Friendship” in the Vatichino gallery, comprises photographs, correspondence, and mementoes of their acquaintance. And on the museum’s facade there’s Elaine Reichek’s “Ever Yours, Henry James,” bearing oversize snippets of his distinctive handwriting, as taken from letters to Gardner.
One of the photographs in “Henry James and American Painting,” taken by Alice Boughton, shows a top-hatted James in profile, admiring a canvas by Arthur B. Davies: Henry James and an American painting. He’s inside, of course. It’s nice to think of him in the same pose, standing outside the Gardner, admiring Reichek’s work.
HENRY JAMES AND AMERICAN PAINTING
At Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 25 Evans Way, through Jan. 21. 617-566-1401, www.gardnermuseum.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.