Henry James

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Henry James

by John Singer Sargent
oil on canvas, 1913
33 1/2 in. x 26 1/2 in. (851 mm x 673 mm)
Bequeathed by Henry James, 1916
Primary Collection
NPG 1767

On display in Room 19 on Floor 2 at the National Portrait Gallery

Sitterback to top

  • Henry James (1843-1916), Novelist. Sitter in 16 portraits.

Artistback to top

  • John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Portrait and landscape painter and muralist. Artist or producer associated with 72 portraits, Sitter in 5 portraits.

This portraitback to top

By the time this portrait was painted in 1913, James was at the end of a career which had seen the success of novels such as The Wings of the Dove (1902) and The Golden Bowl (1904). This portrait was commissioned to celebrate James's seventieth birthday by a group of 269 subscribers. Ultimately the artist John Singer Sargent, a fellow American and friend, waived his fee. When it was completed James pronounced the portrait to be 'a living breathing likeness and a masterpiece of painting'. It almost breathed its last before most people had a chance to see it for themselves. When the portrait went on show at the Royal Academy exhibition in May 1914, a suffragette named Mary Wood slashed the canvas three times with a meat cleaver, striking the area around James’s right eye three times before she was apprehended.

Related worksback to top

Linked publicationsback to top

  • 100 Portraits, p. 88
  • Victorian Portraits Resource Pack, p. 38
  • 100 Writers, p. 81
  • Cooper, John, A Guide to the National Portrait Gallery, 2009, p. 45 Read entry

    The portrait catches the novelist with the instantaneous immediacy of a photograph. ‘Our doubt is our passion’, James wrote, ‘and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.’

  • Cooper, John, Visitor's Guide, 2000, p. 85
  • Edited by Rab MacGibbon and Tanya Bentley, Icons and Identities, 2021, p. 103
  • Essay by Barbara Dayer Gallati, John Singer Sargent: Painting Friends, 2015, p. 66
  • Funnell, Peter, Victorian Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection, 1996, p. 38
  • Funnell, Peter (introduction); Marsh, Jan, A Guide to Victorian and Edwardian Portraits, 2011, p. 42 Read entry

    The American-born novelist Henry James (1843-1916) settled in England, at Lamb House, Rye (now owned by the National Trust), in 1898. By the time this portrait was painted he was at the end of a career that had seen the success of early novels, such as Portrait of a Lady (1881), followed by the late masterpieces The Wings of the Dove (1902) and The Golden Bowl (1904). James commands a reputation as one of the greatest writers in the English language, through works that reflect the contrast between new American culture, and European tradition. This portrait was commissioned to celebrate James’s seventieth birthday by a group of 269 subscribers organised by the American novelist Edith Wharton, although ultimately Sargent, a fellow American and friend, waived his fee. When it was completed James pronounced the portrait to be ‘a living breathing likeness and a masterpiece of painting’.

  • John Cooper, National Portrait Gallery Visitor's Guide, 2006, p. 85
  • Ormond, Richard, Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, 2015 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 12 February - 25 May 2015), p. 164
  • Sargent, John Singer, John Singer Sargent, 2018, p. 22 number 3
  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 333
  • Various, William Morris: Words & Wisdom, 2014 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 16 October 2014 - 11 January 2015)
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 181 Read entry

    The American-born novelist Henry James is especially remembered for his novels that explore the conflict between American and European attitudes, such as Washington Square (1880), The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and The Golden Bowl (1904). Painter and playwright Walford Graham Robertson, who knew both men, described John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) and Henry James as true friends in his publication Time Was: Reminiscences (1931): ‘They understood each other perfectly and their points of view were in many ways identical.’ This closeness perhaps explains the difficulty that Sargent found in executing an effective likeness of the novelist. He had portrayed James three times previously, but remained dissatisfied with his efforts. The plan for the 1913 portrait was initiated by the American writer Edith Wharton, who petitioned James’s friends in England to subscribe to the commission in celebration of his seventieth birthday. By this date Sargent was uncomfortable with portrait painting, having largely ceased the practice, and nervous about painting his friend. Both sitter and artist were, however, immensely pleased with the result. The portrait achieved notoriety whilst on display at the Royal Academy in 1914 because on 4 May it was attacked by Mrs Mary Wood, a militant suffragette who slashed the picture three times with a small hatchet before being restrained. Although it was fully restored by the artist, the tears in the canvas can still be discerned.

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1913back to top

Current affairs

The Suffragette, Emily Davison dies after stepping out in front of the King's horse as a protest at the Epsom Derby. In the same year the Liberal government passed the Cat and Mouse Act allowing them to release and re-arrest Suffragettes who went on hunger strike while in prison. Davison, herself, had been on hunger strike and was force-fed while detained at Holloway Prison.

Art and science

Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring comes to London following its premier at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. Audiences were shocked by Stravinsky's rhythmic and dissonant musical score and by the violent jerky dancing of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, which were intended to represent pagan ritual.


Henry Ford introduces the assembly line at the Ford Motor Company, rapidly increasing the rate at which the famous Model T could be manufactured, leading to massive growth in the motorcar industry and demonstrating to other industries the efficiency of mass production.

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Rosalind Whyte

14 February 2018, 15:57

I think this is the painting that was attacked by suffragettes when exhibited at the Royal Academy, Burlington House in 1913.

"Suddenly we heard crashing blows and the falling of splintered glass ... we were in time to see a frail woman with a small hatchet or chopper, striking viciously at the already slashed portrait of Henry James by Sargent." Sir Alfred Munnings quoted in School of Genius

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