Henry James – The Madonna of the Future, 1875

raphael

“I am not an artist, I am sorry to say, as you must understand the term.  But pray make no apologies.  I am also under the charm; your eloquent remarks have only deepened it.”

“If you are not an artist you are worthy to be one!” he rejoined, with an expressive smile.  “A young man who arrives at Florence late in the evening, and, instead of going prosaically to bed, or hanging over the traveller’s book at his hotel, walks forth without loss of time to pay his devoirs to the beautiful, is a young man after my own heart!”

The mystery was suddenly solved; my friend was an American!  He must have been, to take the picturesque so prodigiously to heart.  “None the less so, I trust,” I answered, “if the young man is a sordid New Yorker.”

“New Yorkers have been munificent patrons of art!” he answered, urbanely.

For a moment I was alarmed.  Was this midnight reverie mere Yankee enterprise, and was he simply a desperate brother of the brush who had posted himself here to extort an “order” from a sauntering tourist?  But I was not called to defend myself.  A great brazen note broke suddenly from the far-off summit of the bell-tower above us, and sounded the first stroke of midnight.  My companion started, apologised for detaining me, and prepared to retire.  But he seemed to offer so lively a promise of further entertainment that I was indisposed to part with him, and suggested that we should stroll homeward together.  He cordially assented; so we turned out of the Piazza, passed down before the statued arcade of the Uffizi, and came out upon the Arno.  What course we took I hardly remember, but we roamed slowly about for an hour, my companion delivering by snatches a sort of moon-touched æsthetic lecture.  I listened in puzzled fascination, and wondered who the deuce he was.  He confessed with a melancholy but all-respectful head-shake to his American origin.

“We are the disinherited of Art!” he cried.  “We are condemned to be superficial!  We are excluded from the magic circle.  The soil of American perception is a poor little barren artificial deposit.  Yes! we are wedded to imperfection.  An American, to excel, has just ten times as much to learn as a European.  We lack the deeper sense.  We have neither taste, nor tact, nor power.  How should we have them?  Our crude and garish climate, our silent past, our deafening present, the constant pressure about us of unlovely circumstance, are as void of all that nourishes and prompts and inspires the artist, as my sad heart is void of bitterness in saying so!  We poor aspirants must live in perpetual exile.”

“You seem fairly at home in exile,” I answered, “and Florence seems to me a very pretty Siberia.  But do you know my own thought?  Nothing is so idle as to talk about our want of a nutritive soil, of opportunity, of inspiration, and all the rest of it.  The worthy part is to do something fine!  There is no law in our glorious Constitution against that.  Invent, create, achieve!  No matter if you have to study fifty times as much as one of these!  What else are you an artist for?  Be you our Moses,” I added, laughing, and laying my hand on his shoulder, “and lead us out of the house of bondage!”

“Golden words—golden words, young man!” he cried, with a tender smile.  “‘Invent, create, achieve!’  Yes, that’s our business; I know it well.  Don’t take me, in Heaven’s name, for one of your barren complainers—impotent cynics who have neither talent nor faith!  I am at work!”—and he glanced about him and lowered his voice as if this were a quite peculiar secret—“I’m at work night and day.  I have undertaken a creation!  I am no Moses; I am only a poor patient artist; but it would be a fine thing if I were to cause some slender stream of beauty to flow in our thirsty land!  Don’t think me a monster of conceit,” he went on, as he saw me smile at the avidity with which he adopted my illustration; “I confess that I am in one of those moods when great things seem possible!  This is one of my nervous nights—I dream waking!  When the south wind blows over Florence at midnight it seems to coax the soul from all the fair things locked away in her churches and galleries; it comes into my own little studio with the moonlight, and sets my heart beating too deeply for rest.  You see I am always adding a thought to my conception!  This evening I felt that I couldn’t sleep unless I had communed with the genius of Buonarotti!”

He seemed deeply versed in local history and tradition, and he expatiated con amore on the charms of Florence.  I gathered that he was an old resident, and that he had taken the lovely city into his heart.  “I owe her everything,” he declared.  “It’s only since I came here that I have really lived, intellectually.  One by one, all profane desires, all mere worldly aims, have dropped away from me, and left me nothing but my pencil, my little note-book” (and he tapped his breast-pocket), “and the worship of the pure masters—those who were pure because they were innocent, and those who were pure because they were strong!”

“And have you been very productive all this time?” I asked sympathetically.

He was silent a while before replying.  “Not in the vulgar sense!” he said at last.  “I have chosen never to manifest myself by imperfection.  The good in every performance I have re-absorbed into the generative force of new creations; the bad—there is always plenty of that—I have religiously destroyed.  I may say, with some satisfaction, that I have not added a mite to the rubbish of the world.  As a proof of my conscientiousness”—and he stopped short, and eyed me with extraordinary candour, as if the proof were to be overwhelming—“I have never sold a picture!  ‘At least no merchant traffics in my heart!’  Do you remember that divine line in Browning?  My little studio has never been profaned by superficial, feverish, mercenary work.  It’s a temple of labour, but of leisure!  Art is long.  If we work for ourselves, of course we must hurry.  If we work for her, we must often pause.  She can wait!”

This had brought us to my hotel door, somewhat to my relief, I confess, for I had begun to feel unequal to the society of a genius of this heroic strain.  I left him, however, not without expressing a friendly hope that we should meet again.  The next morning my curiosity had not abated; I was anxious to see him by common daylight.  I counted upon meeting him in one of the many pictorial haunts of Florence, and I was gratified without delay.  I found him in the course of the morning in the Tribune of the Uffizi—that little treasure-chamber of world-famous things.  He had turned his back on the Venus de’ Medici, and with his arms resting on the rail-mug which protects the pictures, and his head buried in his hands, he was lost in the contemplation of that superb triptych of Andrea Mantegna—a work which has neither the material splendour nor the commanding force of some of its neighbours, but which, glowing there with the loveliness of patient labour, suits possibly a more constant need of the soul.  I looked at the picture for some time over his shoulder; at last, with a heavy sigh, he turned away and our eyes met.  As he recognised me a deep blush rose to his face; he fancied, perhaps, that he had made a fool of himself overnight.  But I offered him my hand with a friendliness which assured him I was not a scoffer.  I knew him by his ardentchevelure; otherwise he was much altered.  His midnight mood was over, and he looked as haggard as an actor by daylight.  He was far older than I had supposed, and he had less bravery of costume and gesture.  He seemed the quiet, poor, patient artist he had proclaimed himself, and the fact that he had never sold a picture was more obvious than glorious.  His velvet coat was threadbare, and his short slouched hat, of an antique pattern, revealed a rustiness which marked it an “original,” and not one of the picturesque reproductions which brethren of his craft affect.  His eye was mild and heavy, and his expression singularly gentle and acquiescent; the more so for a certain pallid leanness of visage, which I hardly knew whether to refer to the consuming fire of genius or to a meagre diet.  A very little talk, however, cleared his brow and brought back his eloquence.

“And this is your first visit to these enchanted halls?” he cried.  “Happy, thrice happy youth!”  And taking me by the arm, he prepared to lead me to each of the pre-eminent works in turn and show me the cream of the gallery.  But before we left the Mantegna he pressed my arm and gave it a loving look.  “He was not in a hurry,” he murmured.  “He knew nothing of ‘raw Haste, half-sister to Delay!’”  How sound a critic my friend was I am unable to say, but he was an extremely amusing one; overflowing with opinions, theories, and sympathies, with disquisition and gossip and anecdote.  He was a shade too sentimental for my own sympathies, and I fancied he was rather too fond of superfine discriminations and of discovering subtle intentions in shallow places.  At moments, too, he plunged into the sea of metaphysics, and floundered a while in waters too deep for intellectual security.  But his abounding knowledge and happy judgment told a touching story of long attentive hours in this worshipful company; there was a reproach to my wasteful saunterings in so devoted a culture of opportunity.  “There are two moods,” I remember his saying, “in which we may walk through galleries—the critical and the ideal.  They seize us at their pleasure, and we can never tell which is to take its turn.  The critical mood, oddly, is the genial one, the friendly, the condescending.  It relishes the pretty trivialities of art, its vulgar cleverness, its conscious graces.  It has a kindly greeting for anything which looks as if, according to his light, the painter had enjoyed doing it—for the little Dutch cabbages and kettles, for the taper fingers and breezy mantles of late-coming Madonnas, for the little blue-hilled, pastoral, sceptical Italian landscapes.  Then there are the days of fierce, fastidious longing—solemn church feasts of the intellect—when all vulgar effort and all petty success is a weariness, and everything but the best—the best of the best—disgusts.  In these hours we are relentless aristocrats of taste.  We will not take Michael Angelo for granted, we will not swallow Raphael whole!”

The gallery of the Uffizi is not only rich in its possessions, but peculiarly fortunate in that fine architectural accident, as one may call it, which unites it—with the breadth of river and city between them—to those princely chambers of the Pitti Palace.  The Louvre and the Vatican hardly give you such a sense of sustained inclosure as those long passages projected over street and stream to establish a sort of inviolate transition between the two palaces of art.  We passed along the gallery in which those precious drawings by eminent hands hang chaste and gray above the swirl and murmur of the yellow Arno, and reached the ducal saloons of the Pitti.  Ducal as they are, it must be confessed that they are imperfect as show-rooms, and that, with their deep-set windows and their massive mouldings, it is rather a broken light that reaches the pictured walls.  But here the masterpieces hang thick, and you seem to see them in a luminous atmosphere of their own.  And the great saloons, with their superb dim ceilings, their outer wall in splendid shadow, and the sombre opposite glow of mellow canvas and dusky gilding, make, themselves, almost as fine a picture as the Titians and Raphaels they imperfectly reveal.  We lingered briefly before many a Raphael and Titian; but I saw my friend was impatient, and I suffered him at last to lead me directly to the goal of our journey—the most tenderly fair of Raphael’s virgins, the Madonna in the Chair.  Of all the fine pictures of the world, it seemed to me this is the one with which criticism has least to do.  None betrays less effort, less of the mechanism of success and of the irrepressible discord between conception and result, which shows dimly in so many consummate works.  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.

“That’s what I call a fine picture,” said my companion, after we had gazed a while in silence.  “I have a right to say so, for I have copied it so often and so carefully that I could repeat it now with my eyes shut.  Other works are of Raphael: this is Raphael himself.  Others you can praise, you can qualify, you can measure, explain, account for: this you can only love and admire.  I don’t know in what seeming he walked among men while this divine mood was upon him; but after it, surely, he could do nothing but die; this world had nothing more to teach him.  Think of it a while, my friend, and you will admit that I am not raving.  Think of his seeing that spotless image, not for a moment, for a day, in a happy dream, or a restless fever-fit; not as a poet in a five minutes’ frenzy—time to snatch his phrase and scribble his immortal stanza; but for days together, while the slow labour of the brush went on, while the foul vapours of life interposed, and the fancy ached with tension, fixed, radiant, distinct, as we see it now!  What a master, certainly!  But ah! what a seer!”

“Don’t you imagine,” I answered, “that he had a model, and that some pretty young woman—”

“As pretty a young woman as you please!  It doesn’t diminish the miracle!  He took his hint, of course, and the young woman, possibly, sat smiling before his canvas.  But, meanwhile, the painter’s idea had taken wings.  No lovely human outline could charm it to vulgar fact.  He saw the fair form made perfect; he rose to the vision without tremor, without effort of wing; he communed with it face to face, and resolved into finer and lovelier truth the purity which completes it as the fragrance completes the rose.  That’s what they call idealism; the word’s vastly abused, but the thing is good.  It’s my own creed, at any rate.  Lovely Madonna, model at once and muse, I call you to witness that I too am an idealist!”

“An idealist, then,” I said, half jocosely, wishing to provoke him to further utterance, “is a gentleman who says to Nature in the person of a beautiful girl, ‘Go to, you are all wrong!  Your fine is coarse, your bright is dim, your grace is gaucherie.  This is the way you should have done it!’  Is not the chance against him?”

He turned upon me almost angrily, but perceiving the genial savour of my sarcasm, he smiled gravely.  “Look at that picture,” he said, “and cease your irreverent mockery!  Idealism is that!  There’s no explaining it; one must feel the flame!  It says nothing to Nature, or to any beautiful girl, that they will not both forgive!  It says to the fair woman, ‘Accept me as your artist friend, lend me your beautiful face, trust me, help me, and your eyes shall be half my masterpiece!’  No one so loves and respects the rich realities of nature as the artist whose imagination caresses and flatters them.  He knows what a fact may hold (whether Raphael knew, you may judge by his portrait, behind us there, of Tommaso Inghirami); bad his fancy hovers above it, as Anal hovered above the sleeping prince.  There is only one Raphael, bad an artist may still be an artist.  As I said last night, the days of illumination are gone; visions are rare; we have to look long to see them.  But in meditation we may still cultivate the ideal; round it, smooth it, perfect it.  The result—the result,” (here his voice faltered suddenly, and he fixed his eyes for a moment on the picture; when they met my own again they were full of tears)—“the result may be less than this; but still it may be good, it may be great!” he cried with vehemence.  “It may hang somewhere, in after years, in goodly company, and keep the artist’s memory warm.  Think of being known to mankind after some such fashion as this! of hanging here through the slow centuries in the gaze of an altered world; living on and on in the cunning of an eye and hand that are part of the dust of ages, a delight and a law to remote generations; making beauty a force and purity an example!”

“Heaven forbid,” I said, smiling, “that I should take the wind out of your sails!  But doesn’t it occur to you that, besides being strong in his genius, Raphael was happy in a certain good faith of which we have lost the trick?  There are people, I know, who deny that his spotless Madonnas are anything more than pretty blondes of that period enhanced by the Raphaelesque touch, which they declare is a profane touch.  Be that as it may, people’s religious and æsthetic needs went arm in arm, and there was, as I may say, a demand for the Blessed Virgin, visible and adorable, which must have given firmness to the artist’s hand.  I am afraid there is no demand now.”

My companion seemed painfully puzzled; he shivered, as it were, in this chilling blast of scepticism.  Then shaking his head with sublime confidence—“There is always a demand!” he cried; “that ineffable type is one of the eternal needs of man’s heart; but pious souls long for it in silence, almost in shame.  Let it appear, and their faith grows brave.  How should it appear in this corrupt generation?  It cannot be made to order.  It could, indeed, when the order came, trumpet-toned, from the lips of the Church herself, and was addressed to genius panting with inspiration.  But it can spring now only from the soil of passionate labour and culture.  Do you really fancy that while, from time to time, a man of complete artistic vision is born into the world, that image can perish?  The man who paints it has painted everything.  The subject admits of every perfection—form, colour, expression, composition.  It can be as simple as you please, and yet as rich; as broad and pure, and yet as full of delicate detail.  Think of the chance for flesh in the little naked, nestling child, irradiating divinity; of the chance for drapery in the chaste and ample garment of the mother! think of the great story you compress into that simple theme!  Think, above all, of the mother’s face and its ineffable suggestiveness, of the mingled burden of joy and trouble, the tenderness turned to worship, and the worship turned to far-seeing pity!  Then look at it all in perfect line and lovely colour, breathing truth and beauty and mastery!”

“Anch’ io son pittore!” I cried.  “Unless I am mistaken, you have a masterpiece on the stocks.  If you put all that in, you will do more than Raphael himself did.  Let me know when your picture is finished, and wherever in the wide world I may be, I will post back to Florence and pay my respects to—the Madonna of the future!”

He blushed vividly and gave a heavy sigh, half of protest, half of resignation.  “I don’t often mention my picture by name.  I detest this modern custom of premature publicity.  A great work needs silence, privacy, mystery even.  And then, do you know, people are so cruel, so frivolous, so unable to imagine a man’s wishing to paint a Madonna at this time of day, that I have been laughed at—laughed at, sir!” and his blush deepened to crimson.  “I don’t know what has prompted me to be so frank and trustful with you.  You look as if you wouldn’t laugh at me.  My dear young man”—and he laid his hand on my arm—“I am worthy of respect.  Whatever my talents may be, I am honest.  There is nothing grotesque in a pure ambition, or in a life devoted to it.”

There was something so sternly sincere in his look and tone that further questions seemed impertinent.  I had repeated opportunity to ask them, however, for after this we spent much time together.  Daily for a fortnight, we met by appointment, to see the sights.  He knew the city so well, he had strolled and lounged so often through its streets and churches and galleries, he was so deeply versed in its greater and lesser memories, so imbued with the local genius, that he was an altogether ideal valet de place, and I was glad enough to leave my Murray at home, and gather facts and opinions alike from his gossiping commentary.  He talked of Florence like a lover, and admitted that it was a very old affair; he had lost his heart to her at first sight.  “It’s the fashion to talk of all cities as feminine,” he said, “but, as a rule, it’s a monstrous mistake.  Is Florence of the same sex as New York, as Chicago?  She is the sole perfect lady of them all; one feels towards her as a lad in his teens feels to some beautiful older woman with a ‘history.’  She fills you with a sort of aspiring gallantry.”  This disinterested passion seemed to stand my friend in stead of the common social ties; he led a lonely life, and cared for nothing but his work.  I was duly flattered by his having taken my frivolous self into his favour, and by his generous sacrifice of precious hours to my society.  We spent many of these hours among those early paintings in which Florence is so rich, returning ever and anon, with restless sympathies, to wonder whether these tender blossoms of art had not a vital fragrance and savour more precious than the full-fruited knowledge of the later works.  We lingered often in the sepulchral chapel of San Lorenzo, and watched Michael Angelo’s dim-visaged warrior sitting there like some awful Genius of Doubt and brooding behind his eternal mask upon the mysteries of life.  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.  We did all this and much more—wandered into dark chapels, damp courts, and dusty palace-rooms, in quest of lingering hints of fresco and lurking treasures of carving.

I was more and more impressed with my companion’s remarkable singleness of purpose.  Everything was a pretext for some wildly idealistic rhapsody or reverie.  Nothing could be seen or said that did not lead him sooner or later to a glowing discourse on the true, the beautiful, and the good.  If my friend was not a genius, he was certainly a monomaniac; and I found as great a fascination in watching the odd lights and shades of his character as if he had been a creature from another planet.  He seemed, indeed, to know very little of this one, and lived and moved altogether in his own little province of art.  A creature more unsullied by the world it is impossible to conceive, and I often thought it a flaw in his artistic character that he had not a harmless vice or two.  It amused me greatly at times to think that he was of our shrewd Yankee race; but, after all, there could be no better token of his American origin than this high æsthetic fever.  The very heat of his devotion was a sign of conversion; those born to European opportunity manage better to reconcile enthusiasm with comfort.  He had, moreover, all our native mistrust for intellectual discretion, and our native relish for sonorous superlatives.  As a critic he was very much more generous than just, and his mildest terms of approbation were “stupendous,” “transcendent,” and “incomparable.”  The small change of admiration seemed to him no coin for a gentleman to handle; and yet, frank as he was intellectually, he was personally altogether a mystery.  His professions, somehow, were all half-professions, and his allusions to his work and circumstances left something dimly ambiguous in the background.  He was modest and proud, and never spoke of his domestic matters.  He was evidently poor; yet he must have had some slender independence, since he could afford to make so merry over the fact that his culture of ideal beauty had never brought him a penny.  His poverty, I supposed, was his motive for neither inviting me to his lodging nor mentioning its whereabouts.  We met either in some public place or at my hotel, where I entertained him as freely as I might without appearing to be prompted by charity.  He seemed always hungry, and this was his nearest approach to human grossness.  I made a point of asking no impertinent questions, but, each time we met, I ventured to make some respectful allusion to the magnum opus, to inquire, as it were, as to its health and progress.  “We are getting on, with the Lord’s help,” he would say, with a grave smile.  “We are doing well.  You see, I have the grand advantage that I lose no time.  These hours I spend with you are pure profit.  They are suggestive!  Just as the truly religious soul is always at worship, the genuine artist is always in labour.  He takes his property wherever he finds it, and learns some precious secret from every object that stands up in the light.  If you but knew the rapture of observation!  I gather with every glance some hint for light, for colour, or relief!  When I get home, I pour out my treasures into the lap of toy Madonna.  Oh, I am not idle!  Nulla dies sine linea.”

I was introduced in Florence to an American lady whose drawing-room had long formed an attractive place of reunion for the foreign residents.  She lived on a fourth floor, and she was not rich; but she offered her visitors very good tea, little cakes at option, and conversation not quite to match.  Her conversation had mainly an æsthetic flavour, for Mrs. Coventry was famously “artistic.”  Her apartment was a sort of Pitti Palace au petit pied.  She possessed “early masters” by the dozen—a cluster of Peruginos in her dining-room, a Giotto in her boudoir, an Andrea del Sarto over her drawing-room chimney-piece.  Surrounded by these treasures, and by innumerable bronzes, mosaics, majolica dishes, and little worm-eaten diptychs covered with angular saints on gilded backgrounds, our hostess enjoyed the dignity of a sort of high-priestess of the arts.  She always wore on her bosom a huge miniature copy of the Madonna della Seggiola.  Gaining her ear quietly one evening, I asked her whether she knew that remarkable man, Mr. Theobald.

“Know him!” she exclaimed; “know poor Theobald!  All Florence knows him, his flame-coloured locks, his black velvet coat, his interminable harangues on the beautiful, and his wondrous Madonna that mortal eye has never seen, and that mortal patience has quite given up expecting.”

“Really,” I cried, “you don’t believe in his Madonna?”

“My dear ingenuous youth,” rejoined my shrewd friend, “has he made a convert of you?  Well, we all believed in him once; he came down upon Florence and took the town by storm.  Another Raphael, at the very least, had been born among men, and the poor dear United States were to have the credit of him.  Hadn’t he the very hair of Raphael flowing down on his shoulders?  The hair, alas, but not the head!  We swallowed him whole, however; we hung upon his lips and proclaimed his genius on the house-tops.  The women were all dying to sit to him for their portraits and be made immortal, like Leonardo’s Joconde.  We decided that his manner was a good deal like Leonardo’s—mysterious, and inscrutable, and fascinating.  Mysterious it certainly was; mystery was the beginning and the end of it.  The months passed by, and the miracle hung fire; our master never produced his masterpiece.  He passed hours in the galleries and churches, posturing, musing, and gazing; he talked more than ever about the beautiful, but he never put brush to canvas.  We had all subscribed, as it were, to the great performance; but as it never came off people began to ask for their money again.  I was one of the last of the faithful; I carried devotion so far as to sit to him for my head.  If you could have seen the horrible creature he made of me, you would admit that even a woman with no more vanity than will tie her bonnet straight must have cooled off then.  The man didn’t know the very alphabet of drawing!  His strong point, he intimated, was his sentiment; but is it a consolation, when one has been painted a fright, to know it has been done with peculiar gusto?  One by one, I confess, we fell away from the faith, and Mr. Theobald didn’t lift his little finger to preserve us.  At the first hint that we were tired of waiting, and that we should like the show to begin, he was off in a huff.  ‘Great work requires time, contemplation, privacy, mystery!  O ye of little faith!’  We answered that we didn’t insist on a great work; that the five-act tragedy might come at his convenience; that we merely asked for something to keep us from yawning, some inexpensive little lever de rideau.  Hereupon the poor man took his stand as a genius misconceived and persecuted, an âme méconnue, and washed his hands of us from that hour!  No, I believe he does me the honour to consider me the head and front of the conspiracy formed to nip his glory in the bud—a bud that has taken twenty years to blossom.  Ask him if he knows me, and he will tell you I am a horribly ugly old woman, who has vowed his destruction because he won’t paint her portrait as a pendant to Titian’s Flora.  I fancy that since then he has had none but chance followers, innocent strangers like yourself, who have taken him at his word.  The mountain is still in labour; I have not heard that the mouse has been born.  I pass him once in a while in the galleries, and he fixes his great dark eyes on me with a sublimity of indifference, as if I were a bad copy of a Sassoferrato!  It is a long time ago now that I heard that he was making studies for a Madonna who was to be a résumé of all the other Madonnas of the Italian school—like that antique Venus who borrowed a nose from one great image and an ankle from another.  It’s certainly a masterly idea.  The parts may be fine, but when I think of my unhappy portrait I tremble for the whole.  He has communicated this striking idea under the pledge of solemn secrecy to fifty chosen spirits, to every one he has ever been able to button-hole for five minutes.  I suppose he wants to get an order for it, and he is not to blame; for Heaven knows how he lives.  I see by your blush,” my hostess frankly continued, “that you have been honoured with his confidence.  You needn’t be ashamed, my dear young man; a man of your age is none the worse for a certain generous credulity.  Only allow me to give you a word of advice: keep your credulity out of your pockets!  Don’t pay for the picture till it’s delivered.  You have not been treated to a peep at it, I imagine!  No more have your fifty predecessors in the faith.  There are people who doubt whether there is any picture to be seen.  I fancy, myself, that if one were to get into his studio, one would find something very like the picture in that tale of Balzac’s—a mere mass of incoherent scratches and daubs, a jumble of dead paint!”

Henry James, 1843-1906. The Madonna of the Future, 1875

Image: Raphael (1483-1520. Madonna of the Chair, 1515. Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti), Florence, Italy

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Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space - creator of art projects - writer on art

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