The Master


John Singer Sargent (1856–1925)
Henry James, 1913 Oil on canvas
National Portrait Gallery, London, bequeathed by Henry James, 1916
© National Portrait Gallery, London

In spring 1912, Sargent drew a charcoal portrait of James (which the artist presented to King George v after James’s death). In March, James wrote to Edith Wharton: “I have sat again to Sargent with complete success, and he has made an admirable drawing. He kept on with the work of the two previous séances—and brought it round, beautifully developed, and redeemed and completed. It’s a regular  rst class living, resembling, enduring thing.” Sargent was, therefore, the natural choice when, the following year, a group of James’s friends commissioned an oil portrait to mark his seventieth birthday. James described the  nished oil portrait, which captured its subject’s reserve and sensuous intelligence, as “Sargent at his very best and poor old H. J. not at his worst; in short a living breathing likeness and a masterpiece of painting.”


This portrait of Henry James by John Singer Sargent, which was done in 1913 to mark the 70th birthday of James, was paid for by his friends. In a way, it's the culmination of James's close relationship to painting and painters. He posed for it, and he wrote many letters about it.

His relationship with Singer Sargent is in one way a mirror image between writer and painter. They had both wandered in Europe as children. They both moved easily between France and England. They were both very interested in fashion, and they both were workers. They both were two men, two bachelors, who really devoted their lives to their art.