James’ Impressionism

“The only effectual way to lay it to rest is to emphasize the analogy to which I just alluded–to insist on the fact that as the picture is reality, so the novel is history. That is the only general description (which does is justice) that we may give the novel. But history is allowed to represent life; it is not, any more than painting, expected to apologize.”

James, Henry. “The Art of Fiction” in Partial Portraits. London; New York: MacMillan & Co. pg. 379

James’ analogy between pictorial art and fiction is a fascinating theme that has added so much to modern fiction. The mere process of using one’s art to comment on his own medium seems to be a common feature of modernism. James’ thoughts on writing the novel take me back to Picasso and Warhol, painters who, through their own work, asked, “What constitutes as art?” changing the purpose of painting thereafter. Since then, art has become much more self-indulgent, and the beauty of art is in the variety of impressions that different painters are able to display through their respective lenses of creativity. In the past, when painting had many more utilitarian purposes, art was meant to appease those who paid for it. For example, painters like Rembrandt who portrayed nobility still altered the reality of the portraits, but they did so in order to portray what the noblemen wished to look like. Likewise, when historians have portrayed reality in the past, they have also done so in order to appease those in power. James wishes to highlight that the novel, like modern painting, has the feature of freedom, and that is beautiful. The freedom to create a work that is solely from one’s imagination, one’s impression of reality, is the Art of Fiction.