Henry James, “A Landscape Painter” (1866)

Jasper Francis Cropsey

Jasper Francis Cropsey, ‘The Valley of Wyoming.’ This large studio work was commissioned in 1864 by Milton Courtright (1810 – 1883). Courtright was born and raised on his family’s farm in the heart of the Wyoming Valley. In his account book, Cropsey recorded a payment of $125 from Courtright on August 4, 1864, and three additional payments in January, March, and May 1865, totaling $3, 500. On August 8, Cropsey made at least two preparatory drawings of the site (now in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). One of these served as the basis for the oil sketch for this painting (see 25.110.63). This final version of the picture was shown at the National Academy of Design in New York in 1865. It retains an original frame and plaque with a poem written in 1809 by the Scottish poet Thomas Campbell. (From the Met.)

Locksley is a wealthy, or particularly good-looking” man who was engaged to a “most mercenary” miss Leary who wanted him for his money, broke that engagement, and died at 35. The story is his journal, in the possession of a woman who frames the story in her introduction. Locksley seeks a place to isolate himself and paint. He meets Captain Richard Blunt, former seafarer and inveterate liar, and sets up in his idyllic house and retreat. He wants to stand on his own merit. If that fails, “I shall fall back upon my millions.” Blunt has a 27 year old daughter who provides for the household by teaching kids piano. Esther is “honest, simple, and ignorant,” of course, because this is Henry James. Still, it’s an idyll. The captain lies, but so does he: “Which is the worse, wilfully to tell, or wilfully to believe, a pretty little falsehood which will not hurt any one? I suppose you can’t believe wilfully; you only pretend to believe. My part of the game, therefore, is certainly as bad as the Captain’s. Perhaps I take kindly to his beautiful perversions of fact, because I am myself engaged in one, because I am sailing under false colors of the deepest dye.” He and Esther exchange insults, tiresomely, much like da Tanka and Mileson in the William Trevor story. She was engaged previously but didn’t want to get married until her beau got rich. He went and got rich in China, without her. That may explain what Locksley sees as her sourness. Now she’s been friends with a Mr. Johnson, but turns his marriage proposal down flat, even though she’d told Locksley that she’d marry the first who asks even if he’s “poor, ugly, and stupid.” Eventually she agrees to marry Locksley. When he tells her to read his diary, she tells him she’s already read it. She knows he’s rich. “You deceived me, I deceived you. Now that your deception ceases, mine ceases,” she tells him. “It was all make-believe virtue before.” He calls her a false woman. “No–simply a woman,” she tells him, bringing out James’s misogyny again. “Come, you be a man.”

The Atlantic Monthly, February 1866.

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