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The Continuum of Consciousness

Aesthetic Experience and Visual Art in Henry James’s Novels


Jennifer Eimers

The Continuum of Consciousness: Aesthetic Experience and Visual Art in Henry James’s Novels examines the transformative experience of art in James’s fiction. In a 1915 letter to H. G. Wells, James declares, «It is art that makes life.» This book traces the rich implications of this claim. For James, viewing art transformed the self. Many of his contemporaries, including his famous older brother, William, were deeply interested in the study of perception and individual consciousness. James’s fictional use of art reflects these philosophical discussions. Although much valuable scholarship has been devoted to visual art in James’s fiction, the guiding role it often plays in his characters’ experiences receives fuller exploration in this book. A prolonged look at visual art and consciousness through the lens of nineteenth-century British aestheticism reveals intriguing connections and character responses. By highlighting and analyzing his representations of aesthetic consciousness in four novels at specific moments (such as Basil Ransom’s and Verena Tarrant’s contrasting responses to Harvard’s Memorial Hall in The Bostonians and Milly Theale’s identification with a Bronzino painting in The Wings of the Dove), this book ultimately explores the idea that for James art represents «every conscious human activity», as Wells replied to James.


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CHAPTER ONE: Aesthetic Experience in The Portrait of a Lady 17


Chapter One Aesthetic Experience in The Portrait of a Lady James delves into casting consciousness as a work of art in The Portrait of a Lady. As its title suggests, this novel contains many frames, such as the physical frames of paintings and the imaginary frames around Isabel Archer.1 These frames imply objectivity; the framed objects are observed and judged by others but are granted no subjectivity of their own. Even Isabel, as the title frames her, does not escape this aestheticization. Her male observers, especially Ralph Touchett, Lord Warburton, and Gilbert Osmond, as many scholars have rec- ognized, view her as a work of art that they either observe from a distance or actively attempt to shape. Beginning with an early scene in the novel, though, James offers resisting readers a more subjective view of her. In contrast to the passive, static perspective, in which Isabel is art but is not affected by aesthetic stimuli, the strategic placement of the opening and closing scenes in the Touchetts’ painting gallery at Gardencourt suggests the central role art plays for Isabel as a source of experience within the novel. The Portrait of a Lady is often discussed as “a historically specific response to aestheticism” (Freedman, Professions 146), in which Isabel is the central art object, framed and confined by the various men in her life. In addition to recognizing Isabel as an object of aesthetic appreciation, however, James also asks readers to consider her as a central subject of aesthetic experience....

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