The portrait of the real lady who inspired Henry James

Isabel Archer is one of the tragic heroines of the Henry James universe who appears in one of his best and best-known books, The Portrait of a Lady. Written 140 years ago, the work is still a spectacular study of feminism, the oppression of society, and the opposition between a new world and an old one.

Isabel is a spirited and adventurous young American woman who refuses to accept that a woman’s life is defined by marriage. She wants to know the world and have autonomy in her decisions, but unfortunately, it is precisely her almost innocent conviction that makes her fall into the tricks of manipulators after her fortune. Like Henry James‘ SPOILER ALERT books, the story’s conclusion is controversial and sad.

Isabel Archer’s trajectory is inspired by the life of the American painter Elizabeth Boott Duveneck, a friend of the writer. Lizzie, as she was known, was the only child of wealthy musician, Francis Boott. Born in Boston, she was raised in luxury in Florence, Italy. Through her father, who encouraged her to paint, Lizzie met the young Frank Duveneck, who at age 27 was already considered one of the great American painters. His paintings are considered realistic and direct, opening up a new way of applying paint on canvas. Lizzie was enchanted with her work and went to study with Frank in Italy, thus born a romance between them.


The social difference between the two, as well as their age (Lizzie was two years older than Frank), made the relationship taboo. Lizzie’s father, Francis, was a firm believer that Frank only wanted his daughter’s fortune and expressed his concerns to Henry James, who agreed. “For him, it’s just advantage and for her just courage”, he wrote at the time about the relationship. Although Francis later changed his mind about his son-in-law, it is no wonder that part of the relationship between Francis and Lizzie also served as an inspiration for Washington Square, another classic by the writer, which coolly and precisely analyzes the harsh female reality in the 21st century. 19. Lizzie and Frank didn’t get married until she was almost 40. They had a son, but she died two years later, a victim of pneumonia that cost her life. They say she got sick after spending hours posing for a portrait made by her husband. It was winter and she had the flu which quickly progressed to pneumonia.

As with many women of her time, Lizzie’s work (although praised) was overshadowed by her marriage and her husband. After his death, Frank declined in his art, and Lizzie was often blamed for both the painter’s change in style and his downfall brought on by depression after his death.

Lizzie’s work was portraits, landscapes, and scenery in general. The friendship with the James family began in Boston and continued throughout her life, including visits by Henry to Villa Castellani, where the painter lived with her father and which served as the basis for the book The Portrait of a Lady for the house of Gilbert Osmond and their daughter, Pansy.

In the book SPOILER ALERT, Osmond manipulates Isabel into falling in love and getting married, appearing to encourage her independence only to mercilessly emasculate her after they are married. In the end, Isabel has the option to leave him, but she chooses to go back to her husband and their unhappy union. The ending written by Henry James is heavily criticized by feminists, but it is realistic for the time, only highlighting the lack of opportunity for a woman to actually be independent. It wasn’t just Isabel who in the writer’s books suffered from conservative society’s judgments. The book is both beautiful and deeply disturbing.

After Lizzie’s death, Frank returned to the United States, but his art declined sharply. Although he was a painter, he made a sculpture in honor of his wife, which is considered one of his best works. The original is on Lizzie’s tomb in Italy. The marble reproduction, commissioned by his father-in-law, Francis, is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The bronze sculpture depicts Lizzie with a peaceful expression as if she is asleep.

Henry James attended Lizzie’s funeral and wrote an emotional letter to her father about the tribute being paid to her. “We were moved to tears”, he wrote, “the great truth is that only Art triumphs over destiny”.

The Henry James books that were inspired by Lizzie (The Golden Bowl, Washington Square, and Portrait of a Lady) have already been adapted for film. Portrait of a Woman, from 1996, brought an excellent Nicole Kidman into the skin of Isabel Archer. Washington Square, on the other hand, became a stage play and the film The Heiress, from 1949 with Olivia de Havilland, earned her her first Oscar for Best Actress. Unfortunately, Lizzie’s true story has yet to be portrayed in a dignified manner. Unfortunately.

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