In Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer is an independent young American woman who travels to Europe to experience cultures steeped in history and tradition. James richly imbues Isabel’s story with details of the art that she views while sightseeing and visiting private homesteads. Of particular note are the art collections belonging to Ralph Touchett (Isabel’s cousin) and Gilbert Osmond (Isabel’s future husband). In Europe, aesthetic taste demonstrates sophistication. As Isabel becomes more knowledgeable in European sensibilities, she comes to appreciate art in a more nuanced manner; however, she makes the mistake of equating aesthetic taste with ethical values, marrying the aesthetically refined yet morally corrupt Osmond. It is therefore Isabel’s artistic as well as idealistic sensibilities that partially lead to her downfall.
The character Ralph Touchett demonstrates how artistic taste is a measure of individual sophistication in Europe, while Gilbert Osmond darkly illustrates how it can be feigned to gain social power. Ralph, arguably The Portrait’s most morally upright character, has a small but tasteful art collection at his family home, Gardencourt. As Isabel grows in knowledge and experience, she comes to recognize how beautiful and valuable his collection really is and simultaneously adores her cousin even more for his exquisite artistic taste. This is one of the examples by which James suggests that art is a measure of refined taste and culture, which was true of late nineteenth-century Europe when The Portrait was written. Isabel is also enchanted by Osmond’s aesthetic taste and art collection. She is so enamored by his artistic ideals that it is a key persuasion for her marrying him, allowing Isabel to help fund his apparently noble aesthetic taste. However, upon their marriage, she learns that there is no real system of value underpinning Osmond’s artistic taste; it is a façade of fine taste that aligns with the nineteenth-century Aesthetic Movement of “art for art’s sake.” Osmond has feigned artistic taste and ethical behavior to gain wealth and social status from his union with Isabel.
Some characters’ attitudes toward their art collections extend negatively to their human relationships, revealing that artistic sensitivity and taste is by no means a marker of morality. For example, Gilbert Osmond objectifies other people, perceiving them as art over which he can exercise ownership. He views his daughter, Pansy, and his new wife as property that he owns and can control, thereby molding them into objects of taste in his aesthetic collection and limiting their personal freedom. Even the virtuous Ralph Touchett is guilty of sometimes treating people as art. He is inspired by Isabel’s individualism and beauty in much the same way that his art collection inspires him; he convinces his father to gift Isabel a small fortune so that Ralph can watch Isabel’s progress experiencing the world on her terms as a flourishing work of art. Though Ralph’s intentions are noble, he still objectifies Isabel in the process.
Art is a strong undercurrent in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, as artistic and aesthetic taste largely influence Isabel’s character development and the way other people view her. While Osmond forcefully exercises ownership over Isabel as an artwork, and Ralph views Isabel as an individual who requires “artistic completion” by experiencing all Europe has to offer, Henry James himself also conceives of Isabel through art. Through the novel itself, James owns and controls Isabel’s character as a work of art. This is reflected in the novel’s title, The Portrait of a Lady, with James painting many portraits of Isabel ranging from a naïve yet independent young woman to a sophisticated yet socially confined wife.
Art and Morality ThemeTracker
Art and Morality Quotes in The Portrait of a Lady
“Even the hardest iron pots have a little bruise, a little hole somewhere. I flatter myself that I’m rather stout, but I must if I must tell you the truth I’ve been shockingly chipped and cracked. I do very well for service yet, because I’ve been cleverly mended.”
“You should live in your own land; whatever it may be you have your natural place there. If we’re not good Americans we’re certainly poor Europeans; we’ve no natural place here. We’re mere parasites, crawling over the surface; we haven’t our feet in the soil. At least one can know it and not have illusions. A woman perhaps can get on; a woman, it seems to me, has no natural place anywhere; wherever she finds herself she has to remain on the surface and, more or less, to crawl.”
The villa was a long, rather blank-looking structure […] [It’s] antique, solid, weather-worn, yet imposing front had a somewhat incommunicative character. It was the mask, not the face of the house. It had heavy lids, but no eyes; the house in reality looked another way—looked off behind, into splendid openness and the range of the afternoon light. […] The windows of the ground-floor, as you saw them from the piazza, were, in their noble proportions, extremely architectural; but their function seemed less to offer communication with the world than to defy the world to look in.
We know that he was fond of originals, of rarities, of the superior and the exquisite; and now that he had seen Lord Warburton, whom he thought a very fine example of his race and order, he perceived a new attraction of taking to himself a young lady who had qualified herself to figure in his collection of choice objects by declining so noble a hand. […] It would be proper that the woman he might marry should have done something of that sort.
“Is it a marriage your friends won’t like?” he demanded.
“I really haven’t an idea. As I say, I don’t marry for my friends.”
He went on, making no exclamation, no comment, only asking questions, doing it quite without delicacy. “Who and what then is Mr Gilbert Osmond?”
“Who and what? Nobody and nothing but a very good and very honourable man. He’s not in business,” said Isabel. “He’s not rich; he’s not known for anything in particular.”
Ralph was shocked and humiliated; his calculations had been false and the person in the world in whom he was most interested was lost. He drifted about the house like a rudderless vessel in a rocky stream, or sat in the garden of the palace on a great cane chair, his long legs extended, his head thrown back and his hat pulled over his eyes. He felt cold about the heart; he had never liked anything less. What could he do, what could he say? If the girl was irreclaimable could he pretend to like it? To attempt to reclaim her was permissible only if the attempt should succeed. To try to persuade her of anything sordid or sinister in the man to whose deep art she had succumbed would be decently discreet only in the event of her being persuaded.
“Pray, would you wish me to make a mercenary marriage—what they call a marriage of ambition? I’ve only one ambition—to be free to follow out a good feeling. I had others once, but they’ve passed away. Do you complain of Mr Osmond because he’s not rich? That’s just what I like him for. I’ve fortunately money enough; I’ve never felt so thankful for it as to-day. There have been moments when I should like to go and kneel down by your father’s grave: he did perhaps a better thing than he knew when he put it into my power to marry a poor man—a man who has born his poverty with such dignity, with such indifference. […] Mr. Osmond makes no mistakes! He knows everything, he understands everything, he has the kindest, gentlest, highest spirit.”
The elation of success, which surely now flamed high in Osmond, emitted meanwhile very little smoke for so brilliant a blaze. […] He was immensely pleased with his young lady; Madame Merle had made him a present of incalculable value. […] What could be a happier gift in a companion than a quick, fanciful mind which saved one repetitions and reflected one’s thought on a polished, elegant surface? […] this lady’s intelligence was to be a silver plate, not an earthen one—a plate that he might heap up with ripe fruits, to which it would give a decorative value, so that talk might become for him a sort of served dessert.
He took his course to the adjoining room and met Mrs. Osmond coming out of the deep doorway. She was dressed in black velvet; she looked high and splendid, as he had said, and yet oh so radiantly gentle! […] She had lost something of that quick eagerness to which her husband had privately taken exception—she had more the air of being able to wait. Now, at all events, framed in the gilded doorway, she struck our young man as the picture of a gracious lady.
“If she should marry Lord Warburton I should be very glad,” Isabel went on frankly. “He’s an excellent man. You say, however, that she only to sit perfectly still. Perhaps she won’t sit perfectly still. If she loses Mr. Rosier she may jump up!”
Osmond appeared to give no heed to this; he sat gazing at the fire. “Pansy would like to be a great lady,” he remarked in a moment with a certain tenderness of tone. “She wishes above all to please,” he added.
“One’s daughter should be fresh and fair; she should be innocent and gentle. With the manners of the present time she is liable to become so dusty and crumpled. Pansy’s a little dusty, a little dishevelled; she has knocked about too much. This bustling, pushing rabble that calls itself society—one should take her out of it occasionally. Convents are very quiet, very convenient, very salutary. I like to think of her there, in the old garden, under the arcade, among those tranquil virtuous women. Many of them are gentlewomen born; several of them are noble. She will have her books and her drawing, she will have her piano. I’ve made the most liberal arrangements.”
Isabel saw it all as distinctly as if it had been reflected in a large clear glass. It might have been a great moment for her, for it might have been a moment of triumph. That Madame Merle has lost her pluck and saw before her the phantom of exposure—this in itself was a revenge, this in itself was almost the promise of a brighter day.
“Why shouldn’t we be happy—when it’s here before us, when it’s so easy? I’m yours for ever—for ever and ever. Here I stand; I’m as firm as a rock. What have you to care about? You’ve no children; that perhaps would be an obstacle. As it is you’ve nothing to consider. You must save what you can of your life; you mustn’t lose it all simply because you’ve lost a part. It would be an insult to you to assume that you care for the look of the thing, for what people will say, for the bottomless idiocy of the world. We’ve nothing to do with all that; we’re quite out of it; we look at things as they are. You took the great step in coming away; the next is nothing; it’s the natural one.”