The Italian Presence in American Art, 1860-1920

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview

13. Lizzie Boott at Bellosguardo

CAROL M. OSBORNE, Stanford University Museum of Art

Born in Boston in 1846, the painter Elizabeth Boott was brought up in Italy by a widowed, dilettantish father who devoted himself to her care and education. The story of her life as an artist has a decidedly Jamesian flavor, one that is an appealing amalgam of Italian cosmopolitanism and American puritanism. Its données were money, talent, and intelligence; its principal setting, the Villa Castellani on the hill of Bellosguardo above Florence (Plate 109); and its dénouement came--as Henry James would have it--not simply with marriage, but rather with marriage to the wrong man, Frank Duveneck.

Much of Lizzie Boott's career unfolds in more than eighty letters Henry James wrote to her from the time of their first acquaintance, when both were in their early twenties, until her death at the age of forty-two. 1 Their friendship was deep and affectionate. And over the years James drew imaginatively upon it for the creation of Americans abroad who found themselves caught in the entanglements of love and money, culminating finally in Adam and Maggie Verver, the father and daughter of James's last great novel, The Golden Bowl, James used the Villa Castellani, where Lizzie's father, Francis, rented an apartment for more than thirty years, as the setting for the home of Gilbert Osmond and his daughter Pansy in The Portrait of a Lady. Part of the novel was written while James was living down the road at the Villa Brichieri.

In actuality, however, the life Lizzie Boott led there and in Boston, Paris, Rome, and Munich did not tally with the life of the convent-bred Pansy Osmond, though James evidently incorporated episodes from Lizzie's girlhood into the novel. From the narrative revealed by Boott's letters, journals, poems, exhibition records, sketchbooks, oils, and watercolors 2 we see that she was preoccupied all her life by the art of painting and by a steadfast determination to succeed as a professional artist. Gentle but determined, Lizzie Boott came early to understand that following such a career was a way of remaining in control of her life. And she had the good fortune, first, of having a parent who fully endorsed her ambition to paint, and second, of finding in early adulthood a sense of identification with a group of like-minded women artists ambitious to compete in the public domain who yet respected and encouraged one another.

Lizzie's father (Plate 110) loved music and theater and painting--all the arts that he found so lacking in Boston at mid-century. Francis Boott had spent some wander years on the continent after graduating from Harvard in 1831 and knew for himself the cultural richness of Rome. Thus, some years later, distraught over the death of an infant son and a tubercular young wife, he took his year-old daughter to Italy in order that the two might make a new life together there (Plate 111). Assuming for himself the nurturing role of caregiver--but with an assist in both kitchen and laundry--Boott saw to Lizzie's care and education patiently, thoughtfully, and evidently with considerable delight. 3 During those early years in Florence, Francis, by then in his forties, undertook for himself the serious study of musical composition at the Florentine Academy with Luigi Picchianti, professor of counterpoint, eventually earning a modest reputation as a composer. His orchestral music was occasionally performed in Italy. But Boott was better known in the States for art songs setting to music the poetry of Longfellow, Lowell, and William Wetmore Story, among others.

During this same period in the 1850s, Boott engaged as young Lizzie's first drawing teacher Gior

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