Colm Tóibín: Henry James in Florence
HENRY JAMES IN FLORENCE
Elizabeth Barrett Browning invoked Bellosguardo, outside Florence, in her poem ‘Aurora Leigh’:
‘I found a house, at Florence, on the hill
Of Bellosguardo. ‘Tis a tower that keeps
A post of double-observation o’er
The valley of Arno (holding as a hand
The outspread city) straight towards Fiesole
And Mount Morello and the setting sun, -
The Vallombrosan mountains to the right,
No sun could die, nor yet be born, unseen
By dwellers at my villa: morn and eve
Were magnified before us in the pure
Illimitable space and pause of sky.’
Villas studded into the hill at Bellosguardo have, as Barrett Browning says, a majestic view over the city and the Arno valley below. Further up the hill, there is a small square with a large villa, previously called Villa Castellani, which, viewed from the square, looks like a barracks. The apartment which Henry James’s friends Francis Boott and his daughter Lizzie rented in this house has not changed; the gardens also are still much as James described them in his novel ‘The Portrait of a Lady’.
In a letter to Lizzie Boott in 1874, after a visit to the apartment in Villa Castellani, James wrote how pleasant it might be ‘to live in that grave, picturesque old house.’ He added: ‘I have a vague foreboding that I shall, some day.’
Gilbert Osmond and his daughter Pansy who reside in that house in the novel ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ would not, Leon Edel wrote, actual ly ‘resemble Frank and Lizzie Boott; but the image of the villa, and the couple in it was to serve [James’s] need in the novel that was slowly taking shape in his consciousness.’ Edel went on: ‘Perhaps we may discern also...the germ of a much later subject...for in the observed relationship of a father and daughter leading a self-sufficient life, he had the theme of an ultimate novel as well.’ This novel would be James’s late masterpiece, ‘The Golden Bowl’.
It would be too crude then to suggest that James based any of his characters on his friends Francis and Lizzie Boott, whom he had known first in Boston. Rather, he allowed their relationship to enter into the spirit of some of his fiction, become the ‘germ’ for it, as Edel puts it. He allowed himself to re-imagine the relationship between them and offer it to characters who served his purpose better. Nonetheless, he moved very close to the shape of how the Bootts lived. In ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ he used not only their apartment and gardens, describing them down to the letter, but also aspects of the hot-house relationship between them; in ‘Washington Square’ and ‘The Golden Bowl’ he found a different setting, but in both novels he also dramatized an intense relationship between a widowed father and his only child, a daughter. And in all three novels, James introduced an outsider, a man less grand or less rich than the father, who wanted to marry the daughter.
Thus in all three of these novels James used the actual shape of the relationship between Francis Boott, his daughter Lizzie and the American painter Frank Duveneck, who eventually married Lizzie, to create drama.
Frank Duveneck, born in Kentucky in 1848, was the artist whom James filled out most in his fiction, the artist whom he most re-imagined, whom he made most use of. Thus Duveneck and his relations with Francis Boott and his daughter Lizzie require some consideration when we think of ‘Washington Square’, ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ and ‘The Golden Bowl.’
James changed Frank Duveneck, whom he saw as a penniless expatriate provincial, somewhat uncouth, into a handsome, penniless fortune hunter (‘Washington Square’), a timid expatriate collector of artefacts (‘The Portrait of a Lady’) and a penniless and untrustworthy Roman prince (‘The Golden Bowl’). In each of the novels the man seeks to marry above his station, or to a young woman richer than he is, as Duveneck did, and thus causes chaos, as Duveneck did too; and in each novel also the young woman is an only child who has been brought up by her formidable, protective, patrician and widowed father. And in each case, too, the young woman has deep, stubborn feelings which are carefully masked.
Francis Boott was born in Boston in 1813. His family owned textile mills; he attended Harvard. In 1844 he married Elizabeth Lynam who also came from a wealthy Boston family. His daughter Lizzie was born in 1846; a year later Boott’s wife Elizabeth died. When Lizzie was a year and five months old, Francis Boott travelled to Europe with her. They lived in Italy where Francis began to compose music. In 1858, he rented the apartment on Bellosguardo. His daughter Lizzie wrote poems and a novel and began to study art with Giorgio Mignaty. They returned to Boston in 1865 when Henry James first met them. In 1869, Lizzie studied with William Morris Hunt, with whom William James, Henry’s brother, had studied, when he opened the first painting classes for women in the United States. That year, William James wrote to a friend: ‘Miss Boott though not overpoweringly beautiful, is one of the best members of her sex I ever met...She has a great talent for drawing and was very busy painting here.’
In ‘Notes of a Son and Brother’, Henry James remembered the Bootts when he first met them: ‘It mattered enormously for such a pair as the Bootts, intimately associated father and daughter, that what had lain nearest their hand...had been the things of old Italy, of the inconceivable Tuscany.’
Even Henry James’s mother noticed Lizzie’s charms. In the summer of 1869 she wrote to Henry about her: ‘What a striking instance she is of what a careful and thorough education can accomplish...Of course she could never be formed as she is in America.’ Lizzie Boott became one of James’s regular correspondents. In 1876, the Bootts, father and daughter, settled finally in Europe, living first in France, where Lizzie became a student of Thomas Couture. Henry James thought Couture ‘a vulgar little fat and dirty old man’, but Lizzie liked him as a teacher.
The artist Frank Duveneck, whom Lizzie would eventually marry, was brought up in a poor family in Cincinatti, Ohio. At the age of twenty-one he went to the Munich Academy to study art. In 1878 Duveneck began an art school in Bavaria. His American students became known as the Duveneck Boys.
When Duveneck exhibited five paintings at the Boston Art Club in 1875, Henry James wrote in The Galaxy: ‘The good people of Boston have recently been flattering themselves that they have discovered an American Velasquez. In the rooms of the Boston Art club hang some five remarkable portraits by Mr. Frank Duveneck of Cincinatti.’ James went on to comment on the ‘extreme naturalness,’ of the works, ‘their unmixed, unredeemed reality.’ They contained, he wrote, ‘the material of an excellent foundation’ and he looked forward to Duveneck doing something ‘first rate.’
In Boston that season, Lizzie Boott purchased a portrait of William Adams from Duveneck. Three years later, when she visited Duveneck’s studio in Venice, she wrote to a Boston acquaintance: ‘He is a remarkable looking young man. He has a fine head and a keen eye and the perceptions strongly developed.’
At some stage towards the end of the 1870s Lizzie Boott fell in love with Frank Duveneck. It is easy to imagine how shocked her father must have been. Not only was Duveneck penniless and unrefined, he was Catholic, and not only that but he had developed a reputation for carousing in beer halls with his friends. He was hardly the sort of person with whom the Bootts had left Boston to consort.
In the summer of 1879 in Munich Duveneck became Lizzie’s art teacher. It was agreed that she would take a studio in the city and he would visit her at the weekend from the town of Polling where he was teaching his male students. Her father accompanied Lizzie to Munich but soon returned to Italy alone. At the end of September, Lizzie, it seems, convinced Duveneck to move to Florence and he, in turn, invited all his students to follow him there.
Since neither Duveneck nor any of his students spoke Italian, Lizzie arranged living and studio spaces for them in Florence. They were ambitious and serious, but also opinionated and somewhat raw. The effect they had on Florence was described by William Dean Howells in his novel ‘Indian Summer’ where they were called the Inglehart boys, as one of the characters explains to Colville, the main protagonist of the novel, an American visiting Florence: ‘”They were here all last winter and they’ve just got back. It’s rather exciting for Florence.” She gave him a rapid sketch of that interesting exodus of a score of young painters from the art school in Munich, under the head of the singular and fascinating genius by whose name they became known. “They had their own school for a while in Munich, and then they all came down into Italy in a body. They had their studio things with them, and they travelled third class, and they made the greatest excitement everywhere, and had the greatest fun. They were a great sensation in Florence.’”
Later, Colville sees this version of the Duveneck Boys in a Florentine restaurant. ‘They all talked at once, each man of his own interests, except when they joined in a shout of mockery and welcome for some newcomer. Colville...could hear what they thought of Botticelli and Michelangelo...of whether Inglehart had probably got to Venice yet...all the voices joined in jolly uproar.’
In ‘Indian Summer, Inglehart is presented as very popular among the young ladies of Florence who made him so much tea that they almost killed him, causing him to move to Venice.
But there may have been another reason why Duveneck and his boys went to Venice. It is suggested first in a letter Henry James wrote to his brother William in November 1879: ‘The natural and logical thing now seems...for Lizzie to marry Duveneck.’ In January 1880 in a single sentence at the end of a postscript in a letter to his mother, also written from London, James wrote: ‘I wish Lizzie would wed Duveneck!’
This was the period in which James was writing ‘Washington Square’. While there were other sources for the book, it is fascinating that it was written during a period when Lizzie Boott was fraternizing in Florence with Frank Duveneck whom she had lured from Munich, while her father remained in Bellosguardo overlooking the city, and when James in two letters makes clear that there is a possibility of marriage between the heiress and the penniless artist.
As Duveneck and his followers contemplated leaving Florence for Venice, Henry James was leaving London. He appeared in Florence on 28 March 1880. As Leon Edel writes: ‘He lost no time in calling on the “gentle and pure minded” Bootts.’ He wrote to his father on March 30: ‘The Bootts are the same old Bootts as ever – gentle and affectionate and appreciative...Frank is less irrepressible (which is an improvement) and Lizzie is if possible even more mouselike...[She] has thrown herself completely into the ministrations of Duveneck. She seems to spend her life in learning, or rather in studying without learning, and in commencing afresh, to paint in someone else’s manner. I have not seen any of her new things yet, but, I believe, am to go to the studio today, and make the acquaintance of Duveneck.’ The following day James wrote to Charles Eliot Norton in Boston, making clear that he had seen Duveneck: ‘I was interested very much in going to see a compatriotic artist, Frank Duveneck...His work is remarkably strong and brilliant...I don’t understand why he has not made more reputation – unless it be that he has apparently an almost slovenly modesty and want of pretention.’
James left Florence to go south, returning to the city at the end of April. On 3 May he wrote to his Aunt Kate about how Lizzie Boott seemed to stand to Duveneck ‘in a sort of double relation of pupil and adoptive mother.’
In his March 30 letter to his father, James had referred to his plan to return to Florence and work on what he called his ‘big novel’, which would be ‘The Portrait of a Lady’. He had begun the book in Florence in late March. By early May, he worked on the novel in earnest, living in the Hotel de l’Arno. It is clear from a letter which James wrote to his mother from Genoa in March the following year that there was still discussion about the Boott-Duveneck romance: ‘Perhaps you...know that (as I am told) Lizzie is much “talked of”, in Florence in the matter of Duveneck. I have no “inside view” of the case. Her marrying him would be, given the man, strange (I mean given his roughness, want of education, of a language, etc.)’
In order to end what may have been an informal engagement between Lizzie and Duveneck, Francis Boott took his daughter back to Boston where she concentrated on her painting. Although she and Duveneck may have met a number of time between 1881 and 1885, it was presumed that the romance between them was over.
Chapter Twenty-Two of ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ opens with a long, detailed and vivid description of the house where Francis Boott and his daughter lived on Bellosguardo. For anyone who visits the villa now, more than a hundred and thirty years after the novel was written, the description is unmistakeably accurate. ‘The villa was a long, rather blank-looking structure’ with ‘a front upon a little grassy, empty, rural piazza which occupied a part of the hill-top.’ The front of the house was its mask, James writes, ‘not its face. 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...It had a narrow garden, in the manner of a terrace...’
James had also used this house first in ‘Roderick Hudson’, published in 1875, calling it the Villa Pandofili which ‘stood directly upon a small grass-grown piazza on the top of a hill which sloped straight from one of the gates of Florence. It offered to the outer world a long rather low façade, coloured a dull, dark yellow and pierced with windows of various sizes.’
As is the case to this day, and was also true when the Bootts lived there, the villa was ‘divided into several distinct apartments.’ The rooms on the ground floor were inhabited by the Bootts as, in the novel, they were lived in by Gilbert Osmond and his daughter Pansy. Osmond, like Francis Boott, was a dilettante. He worked on his watercolours in the same way as Boott did on his musical compositions. However, both men looked after their daughter, an only child, with the same immense zeal.
There were also, of course, differences between Francis Boott and Gilbert Osmond. One was money. Francis Boott was rich; Gilbert Osmond was more or less penniless. Another was manners. Francis Boott was known for his natural sweetness; Gilbert Osmond for his rudeness and his manufactured charm.
Although James used the Bootts’ living quarters in Florence with absolute transparency, neither the Bootts themselves, nor Duveneck indeed, interested him as precise figures on whom he could model characters. James was interested in scenes rather than souls. In his novels, he dramatized the intensity in the relations between people, playing freedom against pattern, restriction against openness and dark chaos against harmony.
Early in 1886, Lizzie Boott finally agreed to marry Frank Duveneck. She wrote to a friend: ‘It has been a long affair for years. The thing was given up entirely at one time but on meeting again we find that the old feeling is not dead and we are going to take up life together as we did not like it very well apart...I could not have been separated from my father after all these long years together. As it fortunately happens, this will not be. We shall all live together, most happily, I hope.’ When they married in March 1886, with Lizzie a month away from her fortieth birthday, her father made Duveneck sign a contract which specified that Lizzie’s fortune was to remain hers ‘for her sole and separate use forever.’ Francis Boott also created a trust in Lizzie’s name which would remain in his keeping. Henry James was in London when he heard the news of the engagement. He wrote to Lizzie to congratulate her, saying that ‘if your Father doesn’t like it, he must come over and live with me – I have a room for him.’ A few weeks later, James wrote to a friend about the marriage: ‘Duveneck won’t beat her, nor la rudoyer [treat her badly], nor perhaps even neglect her, but will be completely under her influence and control; but he is illiterate, ignorant and not a gentleman (though an excellent fellow, kindly, simple etc) and she gives away to him her independence and freedom. His talent is great, though without delicacy, but I fear his indolence is greater still...For him it all gain – for her it is very brave.’ James’s next letter to Francis Boott, written on 25 May 1886, is, for readers of his fiction, one of his most intriguing. The letters reads: ‘I wonder, my good Francis, whether you will do me rather a favour. My excellent and amiable friend Constance Fenimore Woolson is in Florence, and I want to pay her your compliment and administer her some social comfort.’ James proposed that his friend go and visit Fenimore Woolson and then went on ‘by which I don’t mean that I want you to “propose” to her, either for me or for yourself.’ James in London could contemplate a new configuration in Florence – his friend Francis Boott severed from his only daughter, to whom he was devoted, by her marriage to Duveneck, and the arrival of the outsider - also a close friend of James – and the father getting to know this woman, offering her ‘social comfort.’ Duveneck and Lizzie were living with Francis Boott on Bellosguardo.
They both had studios in Villa Castellani. Under the influence of Italian light and Italian painting Duveneck’s dark palette was lightening. In the catalogue for a show of Frank Duveneck and Lizzie Boott’s paintings in 1996, Carol M. Osborne wrote: ‘Golden light saturates the atmosphere of Duveneck’s genre paintings dating from the two halcyon seasons he spent at Bellosguardo with his wife...[Lizzie] Boott had always disliked the dark realism of his Munich portraits and now, undoubtedly encouraged by her taste for Salon painting, Duveneck too spun out sunny peasant women in the picturesque costume of the region. Occasionally, husband and wife painted from the same model.’
Between June and December 1886, Henry James stayed in London knowing that his four friends – or rather his three friends and Frank Duveneck - were seeing one another regularly and living in close proximity to each other in Florence.
In her biography of Constance Fenimore Woolson, Anne Boyd Rioux writes about what happened in Florence once James wrote his letter in May 1886: ‘The fatherly Francis Boott appears to have called at the Casa Molini [where Fenimore Woolson was staying] as soon as he received James’s letter, and shortly afterwards she made the trip up to the Villa Castellani where she also met Lizzie and her new husband Frank Duveneck, both of whom were artists. The three were so taken with Woolson that they encouraged her to take an apartment in the villa.’
A few months later, Fenimore Woolson took a lease on the nearby Villa Brichieri-Columbi. When Henry James came to Florence in December 1886, she suggested that he move into that house for a month while she remained in Villa Castellani. James asked the Bootts and Fenimore Woolson not to tell anyone in Florence of his advent as he did not want, he insisted, to enter the social whirl of the expatriate community in Florence. He would thus be able to concentrate on his work. He would be able also to take a very close look at his friends.
From stray sentences in letters it is clear that the idea of Francis Boott and Constance Fenimore Woolson together had begun to intrigue James. In a letter to Boott when Constance had gone to Geneva, he imagined her, he wrote, ‘in a balcony of the Hotel National, hanging over the lake and thinking of – you!’
‘It is easy to see,’ Anne Boyd Rioux writes of the correspondence between Francis Boott and Constance in subsequent years, ‘that during the three years Woolson lived at Bellosguardo she grew very attached to him...now that his daughter had married, Boott needed a companion, and Woolson liked feeling needed.’
When Henry James arrived in Bellosguardo on 8 December 1886, the Bootts had already decamped to the city below to await the birth of the baby which Lizzie was expecting. Once Lizzie had a baby – also called Frank – on 18 December, Francis Boott revoked the pre-nuptial agreements he had Frank Duveneck sign at the time of the wedding. Peace, it seemed, had broken out.
During this period Francis Boott and the rest of the family were the only ones who actually knew where James was living in these six weeks, as in his letters to others he attempted to suggest that he was elsewhere. Thus he had briefly joined as a secret member the strange quasi-family he himself had helped to create.
In March 1888 the jury of the Salon in Paris accepted both Frank Duveneck’s ambitious portrait of Lizzie Boott and Lizzie’s watercolour study of the Villa Castellani. They were to be exhibited the following May when Duveneck’s portrait won honourable mention. On the same day as the jury met Lizzie fell ill in Paris. She died of pneumonia there on 23 March 1888.
Her father and her husband brought her body back to Florence, where she was buried at the Allori Cemetery outside the Roman Gate. They also brought the fifteen-month old baby back to Bellosguardo where Woolson was waiting for them.
Boott and Duveneck took the baby back to America where it would be raised by relatives of Boott, with Boott going to live in Boston and Duveneck, whom John Singer Sergent called ‘the greatest talent of the brush of this generation’, going to Covington, Kentucky. Two monuments were made for Lizzie Boott. The first is on her grave outside Florence which depicts her, life-size, as a figure almost out of some medieval heroic story. It was made by Duveneck in Covington with the aid of a young sculptor Clement Barnhorn. (They would later collaborate on a statue of Emerson for Harvard in 1905.) Duveneck chose as a model for his monument the tomb of Ilaria del Carretto done in the early fifteenth century by Jacobo della Quercia, the original of which is in the cathedral in Lucca. Casts of it could be seen in Florence.
In a catalogue essay for ‘Americans in Florence: Sargent and the American Impressionists,’ Grazia Gobi Sicca describes the monument: ‘The painter is sculpted in bronze on the marble bier; her figure seems bodiless, as the drapery that covers her reveals little of the human body within. Only the hands, crossed on her breast and clasping a palm frond, and the face, closed in the mystery of death, lend physical substance to the figure. In this statue – of which her father Francis Boott had several copies made – one in marble, donated to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; one in gilded bronze, at the Metropolitan Museum in New York – as if to ensure a more lasting memory for his daughter, is contained the story of his daughter.’
Both William James and Henry James wrote about the monument. William admired it when he went to see it in Florence. He wrote to Duveneck: ‘All I can say is that it is beautiful, beautiful, beautiful! The face with its solemn half-smile, the position of the head, the hands upon the somewhat flattened form as if sunk into the couch, the simple delicate drapery, the serenity and peace of the whole thing! It is a great work and a great monument..’ In July 1893, when Henry James was sent a photograph of the monument by Duveneck, he wrote to Boott: ‘One sees, in its place, and its ambiente, what a meaning and eloquence the whole thing has – and one is touched to tears by this particular example which comes home to one so – of the jolly great truth that it is art alone that triumphs over fate. Poor long-silent Lizzie speaks and lives there again and will be present to generations and generations and have a continuity and a beauty superior to ours.’
A year later, James wrote to Boott from Florence: ‘In Florence, where I spent a few days on my way to Rome, I made an intensely pious pilgrimage to the spot where Lizzie lies in majestic and perennial bronze. Strange, strange it seemed, still to see her only so – but so she will be seen for ages to come. I climbed to Bellosguardo...but the whole place is now such a perfect cemetery of ghosts that there is little joy in it left for me – or rather there would be little if I had not deep-seated disposition to find myself secretly, even whenever so sadly, fond of the company of the relics of the dead.’
Henry James’s novel ‘The Golden Bowl’, his last great novel, published in 1904, represents the other monument to Lizzie Boott made after her death. Like all of his books, its inspiration came from several sources, including, of course, his imagination.
But it also came from the strange relations that had gown between the Bootts, Duveneck and Fenimore Woolson. In the two years between Lizzie Boott’s marriage and her death, these four characters circled each other almost to the exclusion of the rest of the world, as the characters did later in James’s novel.
As in ‘The Golden Bowl’, the daughter was rich but her new husband’s name meant something. In the novel, he was a Roman Prince; in life he was a well-known artist. As in the novel, the father was rich indeed and American and cared about art. He was at a loss once his only daughter’s marriage was announced, as they had been very close. He thus sought solace from a younger woman, recently arrived on the scene. As in the novel, the daughter had a child. As in the novel, all four characters dined together a great deal; they worked out a set of new patterns and configurations since their circumstances had changed. These four figures whom James studied gave nourishment to ‘The Golden Bowl’. Francis Boott slowly gave shape to Adam Verver, as his daughter Lizzie did to Maggie Verver; Frank Duveneck slowly gave shape to the Prince, as Constance Fenimore Woolson did to Charlotte Stant. Rather than use the term ‘gave shape’, it is perhaps more true to say that the strange and unusually intense relations between all four of James’s friends in the hothouse world they had invented for themselves on Bellosguardo in those years shifted from shadow towards substance in James’s imagination over more than a decade. They moved from being incomplete to completion as he thought about them and imagined them and learned to see them. As is clear from his letters, James himself took on the role of Fanny Assingham, the outsider in ‘The Golden Bowl’ who watches the four. Once more, as with ‘Washington Square’ and more emphatically with ‘The Portrait of a Lady’, James did not ‘base’ his characters in ‘The Golden Bowl’ on the Bootts and Duveneck. Instead, he allowed the powerful shape they made as a group to emerge; he used their configuration; he used something both close and distant that he could mull over, guess at, dream about, imagine, watch. Because this group intrigued him, and because they captured his imagination, then he could work. He could make some of the best fiction of his life from his watching of these people in Florence in the last decades of the nineteenth century.
Colm Tóibín is the author of two collections of short stories and nine novels, including The Blackwater Lightship, The Master, The Testament of Mary and Brooklyn, which was made into an award winning movie directed by John Crowley. Tóibín’s play, The Testament of Mary, was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play in 2013. His most recent novel is The House of Names. His work has been translated into more than thirty languages.