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Americans Abroad

July 2024
19min read

To Henry James, as to his fellow expatriates Whistler and Sargent, the culture of the Old World was “vast, vague and dazzling,” yet they could never quite forget or abandon the New


Worn out by the excitement of his first day in one of the cities of his dreams, a young American managed to find time that evening to dash off a letter from Rome to his younger brother in the States. “At last—” he wrote, “for the first time—I live! … I went reeling and moaning thro’ the streets, in a fever of enjoyment.” The newly born and ecstatic consciousness belonged to Henry James, who at twenty-six—the year was 1869—was well launched on a promising literary career; the brother, who was to become equally eminent, was William James.

This was not Henry James’s first trip abroad. He had spent much of his youth in Europe, having been taken there by his father, Henry James, Sr., one of the most independent American minds of his day and a great believer in the value of foreign travel and education. But it was Henry Junior’s first visit on his own. And it was to start him thinking that he might do something almost unheard of at the time: leave America and take up permanent residence in Europe, trading the New World, with all its spaciousness and possibility, for the Old.

The movement back across the Atlantic was not entirely without precedent. There was the remote example of Benjamin Franklin, who had lived for many years in England and France; of Benjamin West; and later of Washington Irving, with his seventeen-year sojourn in England and Spain. Other men, too, mostly writers, had spent considerable periods abroad, although usually in official positions: James Fenimore Cooper, who had gone to France in 1826 as United States consul at Lyons and had remained seven years after giving up the job; Henry Adams, who had been his father’s secretary at the London embassy during the Civil War; William Dean Howells, who had been consul at Venice during the same period. James may also have heard by then about the strange figure of James McNeill Whistler, the painter who had been in Europe for almost fifteen years.

There was a rich tradition of European travel and study for Americans. Rome was filled with American painters and sculptors feverishly copying ancient works or prowling through the ruins, and almost every American writer of reputation had put in a Wanderjahr or two on the Continent: Hawthorne, Melville, Lowell, Longfellow, even Emerson. But to live in Europe was another matter. Emerson, for all his peculiar narrowness and basic philistinism, was not expressing an unpopular opinion when he wrote that “men run away to other countries because they are not good in their own, and run back to their own because they pass for nothing in the new places.”

That Henry James had not been “good” in his own country was highly questionable. Certainly he had not had very much outward success by the time, six years after the feverish days in Rome, he did pack up and set off permanently for Europe. But seldom has a man transplanted himself for more profound reasons than James did; it was the life of his art, not the life of his ego, that he felt would be better served abroad. For this immensely subtle intelligence had felt itself starved for material and above all for perspectives in the United States of his day.

The long catalogue of American deficiencies to which James was later to ascribe Hawthorne’s difficulties as an artist applied with equal force to his own situation. America had

… no sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church … no army … no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities nor public schools … no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class … The elements of high civilization, as it exists in other countries … are absent.

Europe, on the other hand, was “vast, vague and dazzling—an irradiation of light from objects undefined.” James was to spend his life identifying those objects while working in the light they shed, but he was never to turn his back on the relative darkness. “I have always my eyes on my native land,” he would write to William. America and Europe remained always for him in the most productive relationship: innocence and experience, naïveté and power, newness and tradition. He was to operate at the center of those sets of terms, using their tension and interpenetration as the source of his vision of human life, and in particular the life of the American, that child of ingenuous hopes, great expectations, and radical inexperience.

He was almost alone in the endeavor. During these years, however—the post-Civil War era in America and the high Victorian age in England—there were two countrymen of James who also bore the title, or epithet, of expatriate. They were both painters, one a great innovator, the other a master craftsman. The lives of James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent were to cross that of Henry James at many points. Among them the three men were to constitute a microcosm of America-in-Europe, to develop their art there as they could not have done at home, and to open the way by their example for a later generation that was to descend upon Europe in far greater numbers and with much more unruly passions and appetites.

Whistler, Sargent, and James—those are the names we think of when we contemplate that first thin line of expatriates. Other Americans came increasingly to live in Europe for various periods during the late decades of the nineteenth century, and still others—businessmen, socialites, writers—shuttled between the two continents, sometimes maintaining homes here and abroad. But the two painters and the novelist stood out by the definitiveness with which they made their choice and by the awareness that they brought to its implications.

When in the fall of 1875 James settled down in a “snug little troisième” near the Place Vendôme in Paris, he was repeating the first step in the pilgrimage made by Whistler. This eccentric man, half visionary and half drawing-room wit, had also spent much of his youth in Europe, mainly at St. Petersburg, where his father, a former United States Army engineer, had been invited by the czar to supervise the building of a railroad to Moscow. Later young Whistler had attended West Point—at the time when Robert E. Lee was superintendent—only to be expelled after committing a series of half-comic escapades and flunking chemistry (“Had silicon been a gas,” he recalled years later, “I would have been a major-general”). Then Secretary of War Jefferson Davis found him a job etching and mapping at the U.S. Coast Survey Office, but he had spent more time in Washington salons than at his job. Finally, in 1855, the memory of Henri Murger’s Scènes de la Vie de Bohème fresh in his mind, he had gone to Paris to test the talent for painting which he had long displayed.

In 1874, John Singer Sargent had come to Paris to study art. Unlike James and Whistler, Sargent had not been born in America, although his roots there went far back. His father was a surgeon, a moody man whom today we would call neurotic, who had taken his family to Europe after a troubled career in the States. John had been born in Florence, had traveled with his parents throughout the Continent, in an endless nomadic existence, (James was later to write a story, The Pupil, about this talented youth and his restless, socially ambitious parents), and finally, at eighteen, he had come to Paris to begin his career.

By 1875 Whistler had long since left Paris for London, after having failed to make much of a dent in the French scene. Sargent was to follow him because he made the wrong kind of dent. After several years of study with a leading French portrait painter, Carolus-Duran, he had just begun to make a reputation when he was brought up short by one of those artistic scandals which the nineteenth century contained in abundance. His daringly accurate portrait of Madame Gautreau, an unorthodox beauty who dressed provocatively, used lavender face-powder, and dyed her hair scarlet, was exhibited at the Salon of 1884, thereupon bringing down upon Sargent the anathemas of polite French society, on whose good will he depended for his commissions.


A year of dwindling revenues persuaded him to try his luck in England, though not without some ironically tinged misgivings. “There is perhaps more chance for me there as a portrait painter,” he wrote to a friend, “although it might be a long struggle for my painting to be accepted. It is thought beastly French.”

James had preceded Sargent across the Channel. He spent only a year in Paris, in fact, during which time he served as correspondent for the New York Tribune and made the acquaintance of such men as Turgenev, Flaubert, Zola, the Goncourts, and Daudet. But though we find him writing to William Dean Howells that “I am turning into an old and very contented Parisian,” James was never more than a fascinated visitor to that city. England was the place for him, as he had always known. The decision to go there was abrupt, and the transformation rapid. Two months after the letter to Howells he writes to William James: “I am turning English all over. I desire only to feed on English life and the contact of English minds—I wish greatly I knew some.”

He was not long in overcoming the deficiency. Within a year he was able to write to his sister Alice that he had dined 107 times in private homes the previous winter, his fellow guests ranging from Tennyson to Gladstone. He quickly struck up friendships with Fanny Kemble, the Irish writer George Moore, and later with George du Maurier, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Edmund Gosse. Two years after his arrival his short novel Daisy Miller was published, making his name for the first time widely known to English readers. Yet even before that we find him writing that London was “the place in the world in which, on the whole, I feel most at home.”

Not that the city was an unmitigated joy to him. He called it a “great grey Babylon” and wrote to Alice that “the place sits on you, broods on you, stamps on you with the feet of its myriad bipeds and quadrupeds.” But he swiftly came to love its massiveness, its imperial tone, and above all its quality as an almost sacred city of culture, where civilization, in his opinion, had reached its highest level of development. To penetrate into the most secret precincts of the holy city—to let his imagination and intellect play over the rites, ceremonies, and displays it offered, to be a purposeful onlooker at the moral and social dramas enacted on its thousand stages—was what he had wanted and what he now robustly sought.

Whistler had come to London nearly twenty years before with somewhat the same expectations. As a painter he did not of course have James’s hunger for complex social experiences or his instinct for moral investigation, but for him too London was the center of the civilized world. He was to become deeply attached to it, though he was never assimilated or accepted by it to the degree that James was, or Sargent later on. For Whistler, with his startling appearance—the small slender form, a monocle screwed into his right eye, “a long fawn-colored frock-coat and pink or yellow ribbons as shoe laces in highly polished black slippers”—his irreverence, and most of all his disturbingly new kind of painting, was a shock to Victorian sensibilities, however much the age thought of itself as open to newness in art.

It was one thing to admire Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites, but quite another to make room among the pieties and conventions of the day for Baudelaire, Swinburne—and Whistler—about whom there clung something unsavory, dangerous, and unsettling. Only a few strong patrons and critics were capable of open admiration, though Whistler could rely upon society at large for a certain interest, half-grudging, always imperceptive, and ever ready to turn against him.

Within the art world, by the same token, he was not likely to endear himself, considering the nearly closed corporation into which such English painters as Millais, Burne-Jones, and Watts constituted themselves, and considering too the sense Whistler had, and flaunted, of the superiority of his own work to anything then being done in London. He was rash enough to advise Rossetti to frame his sonnets and paint his poems, while a little drama Whistler enacted before one of the paintings in an Academy show at the National Gallery was the talk of the town for months.

The picture was by Frith, one of the most popular painters of the day, a master of realistic detail and anecdotal sentimentality. Adjusting his monocle, Whistler stared at the canvas while a crowd gathered expectantly around. “Amazing!” they heard him say. “This picture tells a story. See, the little girl has a pussy cat, the other little girl has a dog—and that little girl has broken a toy; there are real tears rolling down her cheeks. Amazing!” After which he let the monocle drop into his hand and sauntered away.

Yet Whistler did exert more than a negative influence on the period. He did a good deal of interior decorating, and his gift to London interiors, as his biographer Horace Gregory says, “was a rebirth of sunlight in hitherto cluttered and crowded rooms.” His painting, too advanced to win him honors, brought him instead the loyal following of a small group of artists who were to make up the next aesthetic generation. And his ideas, expressed in conversation, occasional writings, and most notably in the famous “Ten O’Clock Lecture” of 1885,* forced a reconsideration of attitudes toward art, especially those that insisted on its didactic or moral function.

Whistler’s career in England reached its crest by 1878, the year of the so-called Ruskin trial. John Ruskin was the most influential critic of the day, even though he had grown steadily more querulous and crackbrained as his schemes for social regeneration failed to take hold. Whistler had long seemed to him the epitome of decadence, and his irritation at the shockingly outspoken and iconoclastic American finally boiled over in these lines, which Ruskin published in the newspaper he owned: “I have seen and heard much of cockney impudence before now, but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Whistler ill-advisedly brought suit for libel. As it turned out, he won the case, the honest English burghers on the jury agreeing that he was a serious and hard-working, if incomprehensible, artist. But the expenses of the trial forced him into bankruptcy (his improvidence had always been legendary), and he also suffered the peculiarly Victorian stigma of having, for whatever reason, had his name associated with unpleasant things like judges, juries, and bailiffs. As a result his reputation declined among the classes that could have supported his work, thus weakening his never very strong sense of self-assurance.

The years that followed saw him painting less and spending more time in France and Italy (there is a story that in Venice he once hired a barge with a band to play “Yankee Doodle,” added some of his paintings, and floated it down the Grand Canal). He became, in time, a figure from the romantic past (Marcel Proust, spying Whistler’s lavender gloves at a reception, pocketed them as a memento). The publication, in 1890, of The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, a collection of notes, letters, and documents having to do with the various scandals and aesthetic controversies he had been involved in, revived for a time the legend of his earlier weight and formidability. And during the last years of his life a visit to his studio (where, it is true, he was not doing much painting) became, for junketing Americans, one of the things to do, like seeing Notre Dame or the Tower of London.

Though no longer a lion of art or society, he did not lose his wit and vivacity. In 1895, when Whistler was sixty-one, Arthur Symons wrote that he had never seen “anyone so feverishly alive as this little old man, with bright withered cheeks … darting eyes … and above all … exquisite hands, never at rest.”

There could not have been a greater contrast to Whistler than John Sargent. A stolid, phlegmatic man, tall and robust and possessed of astounding energy and stamina, he had none of Whistler’s mannerisms. He would never have dreamed of devising an emblem for himself, such as Whistler’s “W” in the shape of a butterfly, nor of trying to advance his name in any way but through the solid, craftsmanlike progress of his painting. And though Sargent was also privately critical of most Victorian art—and was, in fact, regarded as something of a revolutionary himself—he had none of Whistler’s penchant for tipping over applecarts. It was enough for him to labor pretty much within the established order, being content for the most part to let his reputation slowly grow until he eventually became the man by whom, if one were anyone at all, one simply had to be painted.

Sargent was greatly helped by Henry James when the former arrived in England in 1885. James’s circle of friendships extended by now to the great houses of the realm, to politics and the intellectual world, and of course to the arts, and he tirelessly introduced the young painter around. He wrote to his brother about the “gifted Sargent, whose work I admire exceedingly, and who is a remarkable artistic nature and charming fellow,” and the two developed a close friendship—Sargent in his laconic way following James into dozens of drawing rooms, where they became known as “the inseparables.” (Sargent and Whistler, it might be remarked, respected each other but were never close, while between James and Whistler there existed a definite coolness, based largely on irreconcilable differences of personality.)

Though Sargent’s reputation grew steadily in England, it was America that gave him his first real boost. He went there in 1887 to paint a society matron’s portrait, and soon found himself much sought after. A laudatory essay in Harper’s by James, timed to coincide with his arrival, helped considerably, as did a meeting with Mrs. Jack Gardner, the wealthy Bostonian who was becoming one of the great patrons and art buyers of that golden age of American collecting. Soon a friend could write in his diary of hearing of Sargent around New York “being entertained very much and painting Mrs. Vanderbilt and others.” Upon his return to England he found himself in noisy demand, with everyone from the nouveaux riches to the scions of ancient houses, from generals to actresses, clamoring to sit for him.

As the years went by Sargent’s fame rose, together with his prices. He became almost as familiar a figure in New York and Boston as in London, traveling frequently back and forth across the Atlantic trying to keep up with the flood of commissions. In time there was scarcely anyone of importance whose portrait he hadn’t painted. He made the official death sketch of King Edward VII (earlier he had refused a knighthood from that sovereign because of his American citizenship, which he always prized) and painted portraits of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson during their Presidencies, remarking about the latter that “it takes a man a long time to look like his portrait, as Whistler used to say—but he is doing his best.”

During World War I Sargent served the British government as a war artist, the 62-year-old man astonishing the troops with his unconcern for danger and his endurance. Gradually he wearied of portrait painting, both because of the atmosphere of social pressure and snobbery that surrounded it and because it failed to satisfy his artist’s nature. He took fewer and fewer commissions, turning to mural painting and still life. His attitude toward “paughtraits,” as he came to call them, may be seen in an incident that occurred toward the end of his life, although one suspects that taste and political values played their part as well.

At the close of 1923, when Sargent was staying in Boston, an important emissary approached his cousin, Mary Potter, of whom he was very fond. No less a person than President Coolidge, confided the visitor, nourished an interest in having the master do his portrait. After a good dinner, over brandy, Mrs. Potter brought the matter up. “You’ve ruined my whole dinner,” Sargent spluttered, and the subject was dropped.

Equally at home in England and America by now, Sargent had nevertheless taken on an unmistakably British appearance, a thing that prompted the acidulous Henry Adams to write: “I can understand how an American catches English manners; and how they do catch English minds!” His fame, as he entered his last years, was equal on both sides of the Atlantic, each country claiming him for its own.

During the years when Sargent was constructing his solid reputation and Whistler his image of eccentricity and avant-garde notoriety, Henry James was slowly—almost imperceptibly, he sometimes felt—becoming known. Today of course he is regarded as one of the three or four greatest practitioners of the novel in English, but during his lifetime a good part of what reputation he had rested on the fact that both in his person and in his work he stood for the Anglo-American relationship, the confrontation of the Old World in all its subtlety with the New. Whistler and Sargent were on and of the scene; James, to his readers, friends, and correspondents then, and to us now, was the scene.

After he had gained a measure of attention with Daisy Miller, the story of a young, artless American girl brought to a tragic end by the weight and complexity of Europe, James’s novels and stories continued to concentrate largely on the international theme in such major works as The Portrait of a Lady (1881). Their heroes and heroines were Americans who brought innocence and a sense of potentiality to the encounter with European sophistication and sense of limits, and their fate was usually to find themselves disillusioned and sadly wise. Later James turned to books with purely English or American characters and settings until finally, in the so-called “major phase,” during which he wrote his richest works— The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl —that motif returned, immeasurably more complex and resonant.

There was never a more acute observer of social and moral life than James. To get the material for his books meant an unremitting attention to detail, to subtleties of dress and speech, and to nuances of gesture, and he gathered these details through an astonishingly dense participation in society, plunging into English reality, on that level at least, with a voraciousness few men in a new environment have ever equaled. “I am getting to know English life better than American …” he wrote in 1888. Yet at the same time he would feel periodically depressed by the demands upon him that his friendships and connections required, so that we discover him writing to a friend once that “I am trying … to get out of society—as hard as some people try to get in.”

At length, in 1898, he purchased a little house in the seaside town of Rye, in Sussex, and installed himself there with several servants, a secretary, and a typewriter for whose “Remingtonese” he apologized to his correspondents. He never married (neither did Sargent; Whistler at fifty-four married the widow of the architect E. W. Godwin, but they had no children), yet he enjoyed opening his home to visitors and entertaining them generously.

By this time, when he was nearing sixty, he had become almost the model of an English country gentleman. There is a description by a friend, H.G. Wells, of James’s hall table. On it there lay, Wells wrote, “a number of caps and hats, each with its appropriate gloves and stick; a tweed cap and a stout stick for the marsh, a soft comfortable deerstalker if he were to turn aside to the golf club, a light brown felt hat and a cane for a morning walk down to the harbour, a grey felt with a black band and a gold-headed cane of greater importance if afternoon calling in town was afoot.”

Yet however much James took on English coloration and manners, America was never far from his thoughts. He had returned for extended visits during his early years in England and then settled into a long, unbroken absence. But he kept in touch through his contacts with visiting Americans and through his voluminous correspondence. On the eve of the Spanish-American War he wrote to William that “the blaze about to come leaves me woefully cold.… I see nothing but the madness, the passion, the hideous clumsiness of rage.” And apropos of Teddy Roosevelt a few years later: “I don’t either like or trust the new president, a dangerous and ominous Jingo.”

By 1903, when he was sixty and had not been home for nearly twenty years, the itch to return was upon him. He wrote to a friend that “Europe has ceased to be romantic to me, and my own country, in the evening of my days, has become so.” The next year he went back, revisiting the scenes of his childhood and youth and embarking on his first real exploration of the country. A year or two later, back in England, he set down his impressions in a book that ranks among the most illuminating interpretations of America that we possess, as well as one of the great travel documents of all time.

The American Scene was written by a “reinstated absentee” who was profoundly moved by the changes that had taken place since he had last been home. The United States, he wrote, was now a “society reaching out into the apparent void for the amenities, the consummations, after having earnestly gathered in so many of the preparations and necessities.” Yet he found its raw energy and bursting strength a source of mixed pride and horror. New York showed him “the power of the most extravagant of cities, rejoicing … in its might, its fortune, its unsurpassable conditions …” But it was also “the huge, jagged city,” each skyscraper a “vast money-making structure”; the metropolis seemed likely to become “a huge, continuous fifty-floored conspiracy against the very idea of the ancient graces …”

America was dominated by a “universal will to move—to move, move, move, as an end in itself, an appetite at any price.” And he wrote that “to make so much money that you won’t, that you don’t ‘mind,’ don’t mind anything—that is absolutely, I think, the main American formula.” And yet The American Scene was suffused with love for the great, clumsy, burgeoning country, with hope for its ambiguous future, and with reverence for its dilemmas, tragedies, and splendors. It was a source book of later American writing, as a James biographer, F. W. Dupee, has said, “full of the unborn spirits of poems by Hart Crane and plays by Eugene O’Neill.”

After the visit of 1904–05 James never returned to the States. He lived on in England, writing continuously, though his most important work was behind him. Honors began to come to him: a degree from Harvard in 1911, one from Oxford the following year. Then, on his seventieth birthday, in 1913, 270 of his English friends raised a fund to present him with a golden bowl (a reference to his novel) and a commission for Sargent to paint his portrait.

When World War I broke out, James, horrified at what he considered the German threat to civilization and dismayed by American neutrality, took a step he would otherwise have been unlikely to contemplate. As a gesture of solidarity with the country that had accepted him so generously, he renounced his American citizenship and on July 26, 1915, became a British subject. Half a year later he was dead. After two memorial services in London, his ashes were taken to America, as he had asked, and there interred in the little cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where so many of his ancestors lay.

Whistler had been the first of the trio of expatriates to die, in 1903. Sargent was the last, in 1925. For Whistler, recognition in his native land came late, and it was muted. It was not until some thirty years after his death that the ironic tribute was paid him of having his Portrait of the Artist’s Mother —a painting he had always thought of as an Arrangement in Grey and Black, its actual title—reproduced on a United States postage stamp issued in honor of Mother’s Day. Sargent, on the other hand, was able to see his name in large, bright letters on posters adorning the sides of Fifth Avenue buses, when a huge show of his paintings was held in New York the year before his death. And James’s reputation advanced steadily with the years.

But though recognition at home came in different degrees and at different paces, the effect of these three expatriates on the arts in America was very much of a piece. All three, though especially James and Whistler, helped bring American painting and literature to a new level of sophistication by placing them in closer contact with European sources and developments, and by setting examples of daring, persistence, and high seriousness. Ezra Pound’s poem “To Whistler, American” expresses something of what that meant to a younger generation:

You also, our first great, /Had tried all ways; /Tested and pried and worked in many fashions, /And this much gives me heart to play the game … 

You had your searches, your uncertainties, /And this is good to know—for us, I mean,  /Who bear the brunt of our America /And try to wrench her impulse into art.

But between 1903 and 1925 the quality of expatriatism changed. The European exile of American artists and writers was no longer unusual, and soon it became a myth of freedom and exotic stimulation which anyone could partake of—if he had a rudimentary income and wasn’t troubled by responsibilities. The year of Whistler’s death Gertrude Stein moved into the little house at 27 Rue de Fleurus in Paris that was to see the beginnings of so much modern art and writing. In 1908 Ezra Pound arrived in London and proceeded to turn English culture on its head. After that the movement became a procession.

Out of this impulse of flight and search came many of the most valuable achievements in recent American art and literature. But it is unlikely that James, for one, would have given it his unqualified approval. To be an exile was a difficult and dangerous thing, he had always felt; and he had in fact, during his years in England, continually urged other American writers to stay home. “It’s a complex fate, being an American,” he once wrote to Charles Eliot Norton, “and one of the responsibilities it entails is fighting against a superstitious valuation of Europe.”

Our over-regard for Europe, while becoming weaker, is not likely soon to disappear. There will always be those of us who have to go to Italy or France in order to be able to say that we are alive for the first time. But future historians will no doubt discuss a phenomenon of which James could have had only a premonition. The superstition has begun to work the other way: for every talented American abroad there is an equally talented European who has come here, or wants to come, for refuge, nourishment, and the satisfaction of his dreams.

* Given in St. James’s Hall, Piccadilly, on February 20, and later repeated at Oxford and Cambridge, this was a discussion-provoking summary of all his views on art.



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