Monthly Archives: May 2022

Nineteenth-Century Novelist Henry James Predicted Twentieth-Century Feminism

In 1914, a newly painted portrait of American novelist Henry James was attacked by a suffragette wielding a meat cleaver. It’s not clear whether the target was the painting or the novelist himself. It’s possible that the suffragette had been enraged by James’s 1886 masterpiece, The Bostonians, a work that rivals the writings of Ernest Belfort Bax as the Anglosphere’s most prescient nineteenth-century analysis of the doctrine of female supremacism.

Henry James (1843-1916) was, in the early 20th century, easily the foremost living English-language novelist; he was considered the writer who had brought the realistic novel to its highest peak of achievement. Born in the United States, James had spent much of his adult life in Europe, often depicting in his fictions the contrast between American and European character types. His novel The Bostonians explored how the zeal of Massachusetts Puritanism found expression in the movement for women’s emancipation.

In 1913, friends of James had commissioned John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), a respected American portrait and landscape artist, also a chronicler of the transatlantic social scene (and friend of James) to paint James’s portrait in celebration of his 70th birthday. After approximately 10 sittings, the oil portrait was completed to James’s satisfaction (he declared it “a living breathing likeness”), and was exhibited for the first time in early May, 1914 at the Royal Academy in London, a prestigious and storied privately funded centre for the promotion of art.
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