Classic short stories: Henry James

January 10, 2009 at 9:44 pm (Art, books, Italy, Short stories)

Every once in a while I like to return to the classics as a way of retraining my brain for a more rigorous mode of apprehension.

Well. Having uttered that lofty sentiment, I should say that I recently selected a Henry James story to read  because Robert Clark discusses it in Dark Water, his book about Florence, Italy. James knew the city well and admired it. “The Madonna of the Future” was first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1873. (To my astonishment, I found that a copy of this number is currently being offered for sale on E-Bay!) atlantic

The story contained in “The Madonna of the Future” is told at several removes, by which I mean that at the outset, the first narrator introduces the reader to another gentleman,an acquaintance identified only as H—-. It is H— to whom the events of the story actually happened, so it is he who tells the tale.

The situation is this: while partaking of their after-dinner cigars,a group of men are engaged in a discussion of art . Specifically, they are interested in individuals who, in the course of their creative lives,  are able to produce only one great work. Into this lively conversation, H— interjects the following:

“‘I have known a poor fellow who painted his one masterpiece, and…he didn’t even paint that. He made his bid for fame and missed it.'”

In this way, his interlocutors and the reader are, at the same moment, drawn into this strange and poignant story.

It transpires that H— had been sojourning in Florence when he meets a fellow American, an expatriate who is devoted to the city’s great art and is himself an aspiring painter. The story is about this chance meeting, which develops into brief but intense a friendship.

Nothing much happens in the way of action in “The Madonna of the Future.” The story mostly consists of talk and description. But such talk, and such description! Here, the expatriate painter summons up the glory days of Florence:

“‘That was the prime of art, sir. The sun stood high in heaven, and his broad and equal blaze made the darkest places bright and the dullest eyes clear.  We live in the evening of time! We grope in the gray dusk, carrying each our poor little taper of selfish and painful wisdom, holding it up to the great models and to the dim idea, and seeing nothing but overwhelming greatness and dimness. The days of illumination are gone!'”

The story contains rapturous description of the treasures to be seen in “the city of masterpieces.”  Here the narrator speaks of Raphael’s Madonna of the Chair:

“Graceful, human, near to our sympathies as it is, it has nothing of manner, of method, nothing, almost, of style; it blooms there in rounded softness, as instinct with harmony as if it were an immediate exhalation of genius.The figure melts away the spectator’s mind into a sort of passionate tenderness which he knows not whether he has given to heavenly purity or to earthly charm. He is intoxicated with the fragrance of the tenderest blossom of maternity that ever bloomed on earth.

Madonna della Seggiola (Madonna of the Chair) - Raphael

Madonna della Seggiola (Madonna of the Chair) - Raphael

And there is this:

“We stood more than once in the little convent chambers where Fra Angelico wrought as if an angel indeed had held his hand, and gathered that sense of scattered dews and early bird-notes which makes an hour among his relics seem like a morning stroll in some monkish garden.

Nativity - Fra Angelico

Nativity - Fra Angelico

Annunciation - Fra Angelico

Annunciation - Fra Angelico


Noli Me Tangere - Fra Angelico


james-stories Finding ” The Madonna of the Future” was not easy. The full text is available online, but I wanted to read it in book form. Utlimately, I located it in the first of The Library of America’s five volume set of The Complete Stories of Henry James.

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