"Decayed literature makes the richest of all soil" -- Henry David Thoreau, 1852
We like to imagine Thoreau a certain way: alone in the woods, living a timeless life of the mind devoid of outside influence, his Walden his alone. But as the exhibition This Ever New Self: Thoreau and his Journal at The Morgan Library & Museum proves, the writer was deeply involved in the issues of his day. The exhibition is wonderfully committed to the journals he studiously kept for decades -- a dense and forbidding world made digestible by the Morgan's curators. In the show we are treated to how the revolutionary history of his hometown of Concord influenced the young author and the early death of a brother inspired his first published book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.
As a young naturalist, Thoreau began to collect samples, trace old maps, and engage in the nature writing for which he is so famous. But we are reminded that his failure to pay a tax in 1849 landed him behind bars and spawned his landmark lecture Civil Disobedience, still heavily leaned on today. The steel lock that secured his cell is present in the exhibition and provides a visual lead in to what he committed himself to next -- the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts. We learn of Thoreau's relationship to John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry and his correspondence with the day's most outspoken abolitionists. His was not an isolated world.
His old journals, not that different from those available today, and the small, modest green painted desk and humble walking stick present in the exhibition do suggest a solitary life, one devoted to the world through his lens. Walden is referred to repeatedly but refreshingly is not the focus of this exhibition. A densely written leaf of the manuscript is present, though, and we are left with the lasting impression that retreating into a world of our own design is a political act.
Opposite the hall, but visually worlds away, is the exhibition Henry James and American Painting. While this exhibition includes some examples of James' manuscripts, books and photographic portraits, the main thrust of the show is a dazzling array of important paintings, an alternative view into James' circle and a pleasant diversion for the Morgan. Of note to this writer, and a palate cleanser following the Thoreau exhibition, is Whistler's Nocturne, Blue and Silver: Battersea Reach, 1872–1878, on loan from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. The painting, nearly void of any representation, is a dreamy, impressionistic view and instantly settles one into what James' London must have felt, rather than looked, like.
I am always struck by the painterly abilities of Frank Duveneck and John La Farge whose portraits line the exhibition. But the show is stolen by a series of paintings by another American master who worked in London, John Singer Sargent. Here we see his depiction of the Scottish adventure author Robert Louis Stevenson, lithely crossing a room while his wife lounges. A small format tour de force depicts the Curtis family in their cosmopolitan dress within a large and lavishly decorated room in Venice. This work contrasts nicely with the group of plainly clad women presented in an enormous empty room above a canal in the same city, which hangs nearby. Lastly, we relish in Sargent's portrait of James painted in 1913, loaned by the National Portrait Gallery in London, in which the stout James gazes intently at the viewer as his watch chain and ring catch the light.
These exhibitions highlight the Morgan’s vast holdings and expert ability to put on exhibitions that bring the past to life.
The Morgan Library & Museum
Both exhibitions on view through Sept 10
225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street
New York, NY 10016
Benjamin D. Maxham (1821–1889), Henry David Thoreau, 1856, daguerreotype. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of an anonymous donor.
John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Henry James, 1913, oil on canvas, © National Portrait Gallery, London, bequeathed by Henry James, 1916.