In “The Art of Fiction” (1884) Henry James suggested that the analogy between painting and fiction was, so far as he could see, ‘complete’. Taking him at his word, critics have tended to focus on what the novelist learned from painting, or have fixed on instances in which he ‘chose to elevate the art of the painter,’ as one commentator has recently put it. Contrary to this critical trend, I argue that throughout his corpus James stages a contest between painting and fiction, consistently emphasising the ways in which the latter might be considered the superior art.
Focusing on The Portrait of a Lady, I argue that at key moments in the novel James dramatizes the distinction between the art of painted portraiture and fictional representation. Portrait repeatedly stages a disjuncture or, in certain cases, an ironic gap between the experience of the characters and the paintings which surround them. In particular, the novel ironises the viewing habits encouraged by painted portraiture (what I term gendered ekphrasis), which often serve to freeze Isabel Archer into a recognisable and aesthetically-pleasing mould. Portrait, I suggest, counters the ekphrastic traps laid for Isabel by distinctly literary means—that is, through the novel’s capacity to unfold in time.
This technique relates to James’s broader objective. The repeated staging of gendered ekphrasis indicts a coercive way of seeing the world deployed by men to control women; at the same time, it is one of the means through which Portrait, in articulating a contest between painting and the novel, argues for the final superiority of the art of fiction.