Henry James on “The Real Thing”

Henry James’s story “The Real Thing” begins with an impoverished, upper class couple presenting at the studio of an artist, who paints portraits but also does illustrations for books. The artist hopes for a double portrait but soon realises that the couple have no money. What they want is a job, as models for his illustrations.

The artist employs them, not least because they seem perfect for a book he is illustrating about an upper class couple. They are “the real thing,” what could be better? But he finds that none of the drawings go well.

A contrast is provided by a poor Cockney girl who models regularly for the artist. One day she plays a Russian princess. She is wholly convincing. The drawings are superb. On another occasion a penniless Italian immigrant who becomes the artist’s servant plays Count to the Cockney’s princess, again the drawings are a success.

The artist keeps trying with the upper class couple, but an artist friend eventually confirms that the drawings are hopeless. He fires the upper class couple, but desperate for an income they are content to arrange the Cockney’s hair and serve tea to everybody, including the Italian servant.

This is a story about the artifice and strange chemistry of art, confirming that if you want to create “the real thing” then “the real thing” may not be the best starting place.

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