An innovator of fiction before and during the Gilded Age, Henry James was unafraid to venture outside stylistic comfort zones— mindfully blazing new trails for follow-on writers. James’ short story “The Real Thing”, dissected in the context of both the artist/narrator and James himself, who “constantly experimented with ways to refine his writing…” (Charters 593), serves the reader with an appropriate glance at the artists process through the naturalist tone of the story that, at its foundation, permeates with realism.
An artist’s life often swerves in and out of success. Artists either adapt to financial hurdles by catering their talents to what is popular and lucrative in order to carry their field of expertise into the future, or they flightily fade into a sunset composed by a fighting artist’s oil on canvas.
In “The Real Thing”, the artist/narrator relishes in his semi-stable career of portrait paintings, and his bread and butter: illustrations for Cheapside period fictional stories. The artist’s method in the story is itself realistic, as even the droll illustrations the artist creates are done so with the most creative superiority— superiority that the artist believes attainable for such projects.
The quirky man and wife Monarch, who are referred to the artist by a known landscape painter, courteously invade the artist’s studio with a proposition to be allotted placement in the cast of posing models. The artist eventually caves to their persistence, but after a few rounds at the drawing board, begins to develop an observational loss of control. Sizing up Mrs. Monarch, the artist admits:
At first I was extremely pleased with her ladylike air, and it was satisfaction, on coming to follow her lines, to see how good they were and how far they could lead the pencil … [but] do what I would with it, my drawing looked like a photograph or a copy of a photograph. (James 602)
And what can be further reaching realism than photography? Take Dorothea Lange’s 1930’s works for example— the epitome of realism as an art form that took hold of Lange’s lens with a death-grip.
The artist in “The Real Thing” also understands his limitations, in juxtaposition to Henry James’ philosophy that set his writing styles adrift into territories at times perhaps mismatched, James’ protagonist is aware of the blunt realism, that he is not Leonardo or Raphael; “I might only be a presumptuous young modern searcher …” (603) — nonetheless, a searcher of reality.
But at times the artist appears uncertain about his comfortableness with reality, as when Mrs. Monarch states that “’the drawings you make from us, they look exactly like us …’” whereby the artist replies mentally “I recognized that this was indeed just their defect” (606).
This turn of faith is perhaps due to outside influence, specifically, the budding art critic and moonlighting painter Jack Hawley, who calls the artist “off the hinge” and sneeringly asks: “What’s the meaning of this new fad?” (607).
Although the artist in “The Real Thing” has inadvertently danced with realism, he does not recognize the innovative theme that will stand to pervade many mediums of artistry in the future. Enabled by the uniqueness of the Monarchs, he inwardly recognizes the mysterious and ill-founded power of realism. The artist has experienced the revelation, but unfortunately does not understand it. He apprehensively returns to his old artistic forte (under the influence of Jack Hawley and the security of making a living at what he knows best); here again, the line between the artist and his creator Henry James is off the hook, as James is well outside the warm and fuzzy “popular” writing styles and the artist of the “Real Thing” performing an about face in opposition.
Retaining the Monarchs as “house-help,” the artist returns to his old ways, using pose models with thespian personalities and costumed bodies that he can manipulate to fulfill mainstream wants. The Monarchs — the real thing –are, in turn, baffled: “the real thing could be so much less precious than the unreal” (611).
Fortunately, James did not follow in the footsteps of his character, the artist. He instead continued to hone his own philosophy of the “art of fiction,” and in doing so, adjusted the literary lens of realism into focus.
James, Henry. “The Real Thing.” Charters, Ann. The Story and its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. 8th . Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 593-611. Print.