Aesthetic Experience and Visual Art in Henry James’s Novels
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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