I fancied he was rather too fond of superfine discriminations and of discovering subtle intentions in the shallow felicities of chance.
Strangely that is not a description of Henry James but rather a description in “The Madonna of the Future” (1873) of an American painter in Florence, an anti-Jamesian character, a figure James (but not his narrator) finds horrifying.
The painter has for years been working on a single masterpiece, a Madonna that will rival Raphael’s Madonna in the chair. Most Florentines who know the painter express doubts that there is any painting at all, but he insists that he is working:
“If you but knew the rapture of observation! I gather with every glance some hint for light, for color or relief! When I get home, I pour out my treasures into the lap of my Madonna. O, I’m not idle!”
A friend of the painter brings up Balzac’s great novella The Unknown Masterpiece (1832), in which a painter devotes his life to perfecting a single painting only to discover that a pure devotion to form inevitably leads to abstraction – well, that is how I interpret the story, although that is not what Balzac, one of literature’s greatest hacks, and I mean greatest in every good sense, was thinking.
“There are many people who doubt whether there is any picture to be seen. I fancy, myself, that if one were to get into his studio, one would find something very like the picture in that tale of Balzac’s,- a mere mass of incoherent scratches and daubs, a jumble of dead paint!”
We can guess where this ends:
“I never began! I waited and waited to be worthier to begin, and wasted my life in preparation.”
At this point James had been a professional writer for a decade – at this point he was a successful professional, one of the finer hacks of American magazine writing. It is as if James is warning himself about what would happen if he stopped writing so much – perhaps he would be likely to stop writing at all, paralyzed by perfection. Or, perhaps, there is no risk at all that James would stop, and he is just mocking the ultra-Romantic inspirationists he has met. He is telling them to do what he does, to write, and if it’s not good write some more. Just keep writing. James himself rewrites this story a number of times.
There really is some good stuff in this story mocking the painters Romanticism. I do not know what James knew, so perhaps it is an unintended irony that the painter is completely wrong about how Raphael worked, that rather than being the Keats of the 16th century he ran a large and efficient workshop.
“Think of his [Raphael] seeing that spotless image, not for a moment for a day, in a happy dream, as a restless fever-fit, not as a poet in a five minutes’ frenzy, time to snatch his phrase and scribble his immortal stanza, but for days together, while the slow labor of the brush went on, while the foul vapors of life interposed, and the fancy ached with tension, fixed, radiant, distinct, as we see it now!”
Completely wrong. And I see that James makes sure the painter does not understand Keats either.
I would like to call “The Madonna of the Future,” James’s twentieth story, his first masterpiece, except that I have not read eleven of the earlier stories, nor an 1871 novel, so how would I know? But that’s what I would bet, that this is the first really good one.