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Henry James's Europe

Dennis Tredy
Annick Duperray
Adrian Harding

VI. Authorship and Self-Representation

21. James’s Faces: Appearance, Absorption and the Aesthetic Significance of the Face

Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen

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  • 1 One of the profiles was printed in A.L. Coburn’s Men of Mark, an en-face photograph is reprinted i (...)
  • 2 See Bogardus (10) and McWhirter (275) for references to this letter. The original letter is kept i (...)

1On 27 June 1906, James wrote to his literary agent, James B. Pinker, that he had found the right image for illustrating the first volume of his New York Edition: the ”very good & right (beautifully done) photographic portrait” by Coburn (Horne A Life in Letters 435). Coburn shot three profile portraits from which James selected the smallest as the one best suited for his purpose.1 James also offered directions to Coburn on how to crop the chosen photograph for the desired effect, suggesting that it should be ”reduced down to above the resting hand—that is to about the middle of the trunk” (Saltz 258).2

2In James’s letters we witness an author far from uninterested in (though often troubled by) the visual appearance of his literary texts and his own literary (if not physical) image. From Kaplan’s biography, we learn that throughout his life, James had an uneasy relationship both with photography as an art form and with his own appearance captured in such reproductions. In a letter, for instance, James wrote: ”I am terribly unphotographable & have fewer accumulations of that sort of property than most people” (Kaplan 299). Kaplan maintains that James would only confront the camera occasionally and selectively, due to his highly developed vanity (Kaplan, as a narrative motif, has James posing in front of mirrors examining his appearance), and ”whether painted or photographed, he did not like how he looked” (299).

3It is no surprise then, that I have only been able to find three other occurrences of James’s face prefacing his texts in early editions: a drawing by Sargent in the second volume of The Yellow Book, a photographic portrait accompanying the serialised version of The Ambassadors, and, curiously, the apparition of Coburn’s profile in Lubbock’s 1917 edition of James’s unfinished novel The Sense of the Past, a novel in which a ghostly portrait from the past plays a significant role. It is surprising, however, that James chose so blatantly to ’face’ his authorised literary testament in the visual paratext of the New York Edition.

4In the frontispiece, the author is looking to the right toward the title page, which is visible only through the transparent paper veil of the tissue overlay. At least so the profiled face appears in its reproduction in the New York Edition. In the photograph James is merely posing as if he is looking out of the frame at something invisible to the camera. In the frontispiece reproduction the gaze is provided with an object: the black letters on the veiled whiteness of the title page. While the reader scans the author’s face for expressive signs, the reproduced eye of the author may be contemplating ”the veiled face of his Muse” that James, in the preface to Volume I, Roderick Hudson, claims is the reward of a growing artistic experience made visible through his own experience of re-reading and re-seeing his novels and tales ([1980] xxxix). The reader may also imagine that the author’s gaze is directed not only to the title page, but toward all the texts and images that follow in the twenty-four volumes of the entire Edition.

5The author is absorbed in his gaze. If not entirely indifferent, his gaze at least expresses a certain impatience with the reader. It directs the reader to proceed without hesitation, and to ’listen’ to the words that follow with a seriousness and attentiveness suggested by the author’s steadfast-gazing eye, which is kept in dark shadow beneath his arching forehead and protruding eyebrow.

6Naturally, the conventional iconic value of the frontispiece author portrait as symbol or imprimatur precludes ’reading’ the face of the author, but this portrait seems, on the contrary, to invite reading, even as James blatantly avoids the gaze of the beholder. The face wants to be read through its photo-graphic textuality of black and white tonal qualities, the central ear as a readable cipher (a physiognomic sign of identity), the right forehead as the cranial site of the imagination. The expression of the eye, where all facial readings must begin and end, is the expression of an absorbed reader.

7If pictures want anything from their spectators, as W. J. T. Mitchell has recently suggested, they want to arrest the motion of the reader’s eyes (36). James’s face urges the reader to halt in front of it, and to conform to the gaze and the profile of the author. The absorbed gaze of the author is what attracts the beholder. As Michael Fried points out in Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (1980), it is the very significance of absorption in painting that it brings the reader to halt in front of it, keeps him or her spellbound and unable to move (Fried 92). According to Mitchell and Fried’s exploration of Diderot’s doctrine of ”absorption” (defined as the realisation of an unawareness of the beholder in a painterly or theatrical tableau), pictures want ”a kind of mastery over the beholder,” to bind the observer to the picture with a spell comparable to the arresting stare of Medusa: ”The painting’s desire is to change places with the beholder” (Mitchell 36). The picture, in other words, wants to turn the beholder into a picture and the picture itself into a beholder. All visual objects and portraits in particular want to come alive in our imagination, and not only the ones similar to Pygmalion’s: Poe’s ”Oval Portrait;” Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray; or, indeed, James’s ghostly portrait in The Sense of the Past. Paintings and sculptures are always partly materialisations of human ways of seeing, and in this sense they ”stare back at us.”

8James’s face in the frontispiece portrait both wants something from the reader/beholder and fulfills a reader’s desire to see the face of the author in the book. It establishes identity between the authority and the text it ’faces,’ but it is also indifferent to being seen. In fact, it does not want to be seen; it renounces any direct sign of desire through its absorbed indifference to the beholder, the stone-like face’s anti-theatrical ”absorption” in its own internal drama—maybe it does not even want to be seen? (Mitchell 45)

  • 3 The Ambassadors was originally published in 1903 and later revised and reprinted in the NYE as Vol (...)

9As in the modern aesthetics Fried is excavating, the paradox of the figure of absorption is comparable to the ”double-consciousness” explored by James in The Ambassadors.3 The term defines Strether’s burdensome errand in Europe, and may be found as an adequate term to apply to the absorbed face in the frontispiece: ”He was burdened […] with the oddity of a double-consciousness. There was detachment in his zeal and curiosity in his indifference” (18).

10James’s represented face is doubly conscious of being the object of the reader’s gaze, of placing itself in the field of such a gaze, and of desiring to detach itself with an indifferent expression worn with much zeal. Strether’s sense of representation as ”ambassador” in Europe conforms to the representational logic of absorption also readable in the face of the author: its curious indifference, its half-willingness to be seen and, in turn, to represent.

11In Julie Rivkin’s ’revision’ of the theme of renunciation in ”the logic of delegation” as textual dynamic in The Ambassadors, we find a confluence of the thematic and the formal, compositional, function of ambassadorship. Rivkin states that ”James invites us to see Strether’s role as substitute or delegate for another absent authority, James himself” (Rivkin 57). I will add that this logic of delegation extends to include the author of the New York Edition preface as well, and may also be extended to include the first frontispiece, the author’s half-willingness to represent himself and his text, and his avoidance of coming face to face with the reader, by delegating the authority of the writing author to an author-as-reader, to exist through intermediaries.

12Although the paratextual devices of the frontispiece author portrait and the facsimile signature in the first volume of the Edition on their ”face value” make claims for authorial identity, authenticity, originality, and intimacy, the texture of this profiled face and the absorbed gaze of the author affect the reader differently. The affect recalls the logic of authorial delegation that James conceived with his ”central-consciousness” narrative technique; the author is speaking through masks of both others and himself or from under a veil.

13In the preface to The Golden Bowl, James refers to his narrative voice as radically impersonalised, as a voice or impression of somebody else. In this final preface of the New York Edition, where James elaborates on his experience of revising his novels and tales and where he presents the reasons for including Coburn’s photographs as frontispieces, James defines such a narrator as ”the impersonal author’s concrete deputy or delegate, a convenient substitute or apologist for the creative power otherwise so veiled and disembodied” (The Golden Bowl [1987] 19).

14In The Ambassadors this delegation of narrative authority is negotiated in the novel itself in its dramatisation of the supplementary constitution of the self and the possibility for self-perception. In the Edition the delegation of authority, textual authority as well as authorial self-perception, is visually figured in the profiled, disembodied face in the frontispiece. We find that the profiled face and its absorbed gaze direct the reader’s attention toward the delegation of narrative voice crucial to James’s late novelistic discourse.

15Meyer Schapiro, in a meticulous study of faces in medieval art, suggests a grammar of facial representations that throws light on the correspondence between James’s profiled face and his practice of narrating through deputies. The profile is, according to Schapiro, ”like the grammatical form of the third person, the impersonal ’he’ or ’she’” (38). The profiled face is not like the en face portrait appropriate as a symbol or as a carrier of a message beyond its own appearance. Instead, the profile is absorbed in its own represented space where its legibility rests in its actions in the shared space of the image; it does not want to be seen, as Mitchell suggests. The face in the frontispiece represents the author in the same way that the central-consciousness narrator functions as the author’s representative—the profiled face is the author’s delegate, his final apology.

16Face-reading, or the face as a master-trope of reading, has received prominence partly for its visualisation of the very process of interpretation: fragments are connected to make a whole and surfaces are analysed for the interiors they give access to and mask.

17Throughout his career, James invested much in the typology of characters as most prominently recognisable in their facial features. In the novels, we find persistent references to physiognomy. The American opens with an elaborate physiognomic scrutiny of Christopher Newman’s face as he sits absorbed in the Louvre:

The gentleman on the divan was the superlative American […] His complexion was brown and the arch of his nose bold and well-marked. His eye was of a clear, cold gray […] He had the flat jaw and the firm, dry neck which are frequent in the American type […] It was the eye, in this case, that chiefly told the story; an eye in which the unacquainted and the expert were singularly blended. It was full of contradictory suggestions; and though it was by no means the glowing orb of a hero of romance you could find in it almost anything you looked for.
(The American [1978] 2-4).

18In The Ambassadors, Chad’s face reveals to Strether’s scrutinising gaze a change in his character:

[T]he inscrutable new face that he had got somewhere and somehow was brought by the movement nearer to his critic’s. There was a fascination for that critic in its not being the ripe physiognomy, the face that, under observation at least, he had originally carried away from Woollett […] It was as if in short he had really, copious perhaps but shapeless, been put into a firm mould and turned successfully out
(The Ambassadors [1994] 96-97).

19This is a change that recalls Roderick Hudson’s central statement, ”surely I haven’t the same face?” ([1980] 64).

20Strether experiences a similar change of ”the elements of Appearance” upon his arrival in England before the dressing-glass of his hotel room. Here, confronted with his own face, ”[n]othing could have been odder than Strether’s sense of himself” (The Ambassadors 20). Like his sense of Chad’s face, his own had been ”disconnected from the sense of his past.” Strether’s critical scrutiny of Chad’s face and ’story’ in Paris is, of course, as much an attempt to restore the knowledge of his own self. The instrument readily available to this critic of inner knowledge is physiognomic interpretation, or face-reading, which is revealed to be a mode of aesthetic reading that perceives of faces as molded, designed sculptural representations. Physiognomic reading allows both for a description and knowledge of others’ characters and of one’s own.

21Face-readingasportrayedinTheAmbassadorsfurtheratteststothecentrality of interpretation as both a visual and cultured activity wherein as much is revealed about the physiognomic reader as the face of the other. Subjecting the other to the scrutinising gaze of the physiognomist reveals one’s own face as open to such reading, to become the observed and not the observer, as the social-detective narrator realises in The Sacred Fount (1901), a novel centrally concerned with the interpretation and misreading of appearances: ”Hadn’t everyone my eyes could at present take in a fixed expressiveness? Was I not very possibly myself, on this ground of physiognomic congruity, more physiognomic than anyone else?” (157).

22The meaning bestowed upon the face, in James’s turn of the century conception, is produced by the observer, by a way of looking, and not by any essence leaving its trace on the face: ”you could find in it almost anything you looked for.” It is especially the eye that produces this mirror effect revealing more about the gaze than the face.

23The frontispiece portrays not only an absorbed face, but also the type of observer that engages it; it is deeply immersed in a modern aesthetics of the face, but also in a mode of face-reading that since Aristotle has been given the same name as the object it studies: physiognomy.

24The face as a primary subject in the history of art, and the figurative significance of the face as being poised vulnerably somewhere between surface and substance, is also what we find in Georg Simmel’s understanding of ”the aesthetic significance of the face” in his 1901 essay bearing that title. To Simmel the importance of the face in both the arts and in our cultures, is closely tied to its ability to signify the ’soul,’ and that access to the soul goes by way of an aesthetic reading of the ways in which a face obtains symmetry and unity between its disparate elements and expressions. The face gives the beholder an impression of something ’behind’ the face that provides this unity of form to the face. However, if we follow Simmel’s ”rhetorical basis or his technology of the face,” the ’behind’ is actually revealed to be an ’in front’ or, more precisely, a self-generative face-giving that could be compared to Levinas’s conception of ”the face of the other” and Deleuze and Guattari’s machines of faciality (Siegel 105). This is what Simmel writes about the structuring and aesthetic form-giving of the face as a pertinent symmetric and unified expression of the soul, as the soul’s mirror, as a symbol for, and an interpreter of personality as Appearance:

[T]he eye epitomizes the achievement of the face in mirroring the soul. At the same time, it accomplishes its finest, purely formal end as the interpreter of mere appearance, which knows no going back to any pure intellectuality behind the appearance
(Simmel 281).

25The eyes in the visually represented face are the devices that structure the very pictorial space in which the mirroring of the soul takes place. The represented eye sees appearances before they are subject to interpretation. It is because the represented eye structures the visual space (in the same way Schapiro determines the profile instead of referring to something ’behind’) that appearance, according to Simmel, may lead to ”the veiling and the unveiling of the soul” (281).

  • 4 See also Michael Fried, Manet’s Modernism, for a discussion of Manet’s work that ”rebuffs or at le (...)

26As a master trope in the many ”sciences of identity” in the past centuries, as in James’s works, the face presents a surface or a canvas that no longer discloses interiority. Such a face of pure appearance, ”which knows no going back to any pure intellectuality behind the appearance,” Jonathan Crary suggests, is already conceivable and visually representable as early as in the 1860’s in the works of Manet: ”In much of Manet’s work the face, in its casual amorphousness, becomes a surface that no longer discloses interiority or self-reflection, an unsettling site of pictorial effects traceable through the next two decades into the late portraits of Cézanne” (Crary 92).4

27James was particularly preoccupied with facial ’systems’ of representation at the time of his work on recollecting, annotating and revising his collected works. While designing his own literary testament, and while he was engaged in re-writing and re-packaging his literary works, he was also remediating his own image, and contemplating the very process of remediating the aesthetic significance of his face. In the first decade of the twentieth century we find, in James’s critical and epistolary work, a prominence of sculpted faces and busts, testifying to his aesthetic concern with what he termed, the ”whole face-question” and ”a system of face.”

28In 1906, James was explicitly thinking in terms of the aesthetic remediation of the face in sculpture through photographic reproduction as evidenced in his epistolary correspondence with the young American-Norwegian sculptor Hendrik Andersen.

  • 5 According to Kaplan, their relationship was mostly an epistolary friendship.
  • 6 See the letter from James to Andersen from May 1906: ”I look at your kodaks (as I suppose them) ov (...)

29A stream of letters was exchanged between them (Kaplan 448).5 The letters, as requested by James, often included photographs of the sculptures, or ”Kodaks,” that Andersen had just completed of family and friends who visited his Rome studio. The letters and photographs were not only the media through which James would have to peruse and communicate his thoughts on Andersen’s works; they also served as substitutes for the intimacy that James longed for with the young sculptor.6 It was not only Andersen who sent photographs. On 7 September 1900, James enclosed a photograph of his new facial appearance: ”P.S. I enclose a poor little Kodak-thing of my brother and me. He is thin & changed & I am fat & shaved!” (Gunter 33). This example further testifies to the relentless reinvention and examination of his own visual appearance, his own bearded or beardless face, in words and in photographs that he for some reason did not find ”terrible” enough to refrain from sending to his young friend in exchange for photographs of statues. James’s changed facial appearance at the turn of the century and his relentless examination of his own physical image in photographic reproductions points to the importance of the visual representation of the face to James as aesthetic object, and as a currency in social and private communications. In fact, according to Kaplan, James always initiated a friendship by exchanging photographs (503).

  • 7 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has also pointed to the similarity between some of the formulations in the p (...)

30On 31 May, half-way between James’s two sittings for Coburn in 1906, James responded to a previous letter that Andersen had included, apart from ”three ’kodak-views’ of [Andersen’s] self, [his] mother and the friend,” ” [n]umerous little photographs of [Andersen’s] work” (Edel 402). James is reluctant about going into details about the sculptures but would do so if they were not so far apart. He further writes: ”I should go down on my knees to you for instance, to individualize and detail the faces, the types ever so much more—to study, ardently, the question of doing that—the whole face-question” (402). A few months later, James again complained about Andersen’s way of doing his sculptured faces, the types, the ”whole face-question,” in a letter dated 20 July. James responded to a new set of photographs, ”2 Kodak-figures,” that Andersen had included in his latest letter: ”They are very beautiful to me, as to everything but their faces—I am quite impertinently unhappy (as I told you, offensively, the last time) about your system of face” (412). From these two letters we find the suggestion that around the time when James was contemplating the question of illustrations—that is, when he was collaborating with Coburn on the first frontispiece—he was corresponding, through letters and photographic reproductions of sculptures, with another young visual artist engaged in the aesthetic significance and execution of the face in sculpture, the ”whole face-question” or a ”system of face.”7

31Though Andersen was unsuccessful, James still suggested that he should turn his attention to the face; more precisely, James suggests that Andersen ”do [his] bust!”

You ought absolutely to get at Busts, at any cost of ingenuity—for it is fatal for you to go on indefinitely neglecting the Face, never doing one, only adding Belly to Belly—however beautiful – & Bottom to Bottom, however sublime. It is only by the Face that the artist—the sculptor—can hope predominantly & steadily to live—& it is so supremely & exquisitely interesting to do!
(Gunter 61).

32There seems then to be strong evidence for the fact that James was thinking about the representation of his face in sculptural terms in 1906, and it is as such that the reader meets the thrice removed remediation of the author’s bust in the frontispiece. James’s recasting of his face, as a rebirth of his literary career in a renewed ’friction with the market,’ his encounter with his past work and his aesthetics, seem intricately interwoven with the personal and artistic (predominantly epistolary) relationships of patronage he maintained with the two much younger visual artists. It is as if these two youths, Coburn and Andersen, function as discursive mirrors in which James negotiates his own physical and artistic appearance in written letters and photographs of and to himself as a younger other.

33The photographed, sculpted face of the author that we encounter on the threshold to his literary testament is, then, deeply invested in aesthetic and hermeneutic issues, which James explored in works immediately preceding the New York Edition and in the famous prefaces: the investigation of social surfaces and the interpretive constructivism central to so many of his main characters. It is also a playful presentation of the author figure. It both offers the author’s face to the reader as a traditional sign of textual authority and authenticity, and simultaneously refuses to reveal anything behind its mere appearance, testifying to James’s narrative strategy of authorial impersonality. James was, throughout his career, unwilling to include frontispieces and especially photographs of himself in his published work, but in the author portrait for the first volume of the Edition, he found a way to weave his own face into the fabric of his work—beardless and ’busted’— at one and the same a figure that does not give anything away and a very personal document reflecting his relationship with two younger visual artists and his own art of the novel.


1 One of the profiles was printed in A.L. Coburn’s Men of Mark, an en-face photograph is reprinted in Peter Buitenhuis’s The Grasping Imagination. William Veeder has reprinted seven other photographs taken by Coburn on this occasion in Henry James – Lessons of the Master. See also Charles Higgins (664) for a discussion of the photographs resulting from this session.

2 See Bogardus (10) and McWhirter (275) for references to this letter. The original letter is kept in the Henry James Collection at the University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville.

3 The Ambassadors was originally published in 1903 and later revised and reprinted in the NYE as Volumes XXI and XXII, 1909. Rosenbaum has based his edition on the text of the NYE.

4 See also Michael Fried, Manet’s Modernism, for a discussion of Manet’s work that ”rebuffs or at least strongly resists all attempts at hermeneutic penetration” (Fried 401).

5 According to Kaplan, their relationship was mostly an epistolary friendship.

6 See the letter from James to Andersen from May 1906: ”I look at your kodaks (as I suppose them) over again, while I write and they make me groan, in spirit, that I’m not standing there before the whole company with you” (Nadel 93).

7 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has also pointed to the similarity between some of the formulations in the prefaces to the New York Edition and his letters addressed to the ”younger men”—among them Hendrik Andersen, Jocelyn Persse, and Hugh Walpole: ”This sanctioned intergenerational flirtation represents a sustained chord in the New York Edition” (Kosofsky Sedgwick 218).


Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen is Lecturer in Scandinavian Literature at UCL. His PhD thesis (2007) concerned Henry James’s New York Edition of his collected novels and tales in the context of the visual culture and print culture of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. He has published articles in The Henry James Review on authorship and the figure of attention in James’s work, and is a contributor to the anthology Henry James in Context (2010).


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