Places: The Portrait of a Lady

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: serial, 1880-1881; book, 1881

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: c. 1875

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Rome

*Rome. Portrait of a Lady, TheCapital of Italy and major center of Western art and culture that provides the novel’s primary setting. Isabel Archer’s initial response to Rome is similar to that expressed by James himself on his first visit there in 1869: “She went about in a repressed ecstasy of contemplation.” Isabel’s state of mind is suggested by her lodgings, the Hôtel de Paris on Via St. Sebastiano, a sunny Roman street lined with trees on one side and a hill covered in greenery on the other. The hotel, a short walk from the Pincian Gardens, is located near the Spanish Steps and the Piazzo de Spagna, a popular gathering place for English tourists during the nineteenth century and the neighborhood in which James himself often stayed. Isabel visits many of the famous Roman sites–the Forum, the Palazzo Doria Pamphili, the gallery of the Capitol with its Hall of the Dying Gladiator, and St. Peter’s Basilica–all suggestive of a historical tradition so deeply entrenched it can become an oppressive force.

After rejecting several offers of marriage because she fears they will interfere with her desire to experience life, Isabel ironically accepts Gilbert Osmond’s proposal. Her marriage transforms her from a passionate, independent woman to an objet d’art, another item in Osmond’s art collection. The change is symbolized by the change in her residence. The darkness of the Palazzo Roccanero is in sharp contrast to the airiness of the Hôtel de Paris.

Palazzo Roccanero

Palazzo Roccanero. Isabel’s home in Rome after her marriage to Osmond. James modeled Roccanero after Rome’s Palazzo Mattei, which was built on the site of the ancient Circus Flaminius in the early seventeenth century. Situated on one of the many “tortuous, tragic streets of Rome,” Roccanero is a “dark and massive structure.” Even the “damp” interior courtyard receives very little direct sunlight. The palazzo contains both “frescoes by Caravaggio” and “mutilated statues and dusty urns,” indicating both the positive and negative aspects of tradition and culture. Representing Osmond’s oppressive hold over Isabel, the palazzo, a “domestic fortress,” seems to imprison her.


Gardencourt. English country estate by the River Thames, near London, that is the residence of Isabel’s cousin, Ralph Touchett. Gardencourt appeals to Isabel’s imagination that has been stimulated by her reading and daydreaming in her grandmother’s house in Albany. As the word “garden” implies, the setting is idyllic, but Isabel soon encounters a snake in the garden in the personage of Madame Merle, Osmond’s former mistress.

After leaving England, Isabel travels with Mrs. Touchett to Paris, then to Florence, where Madame Merle introduces her to Gilbert Osmond, whose elegance and sophisticated taste impress her, and finally Rome. At the end of the novel, she returns to Gardencourt, against Osmond’s objection, to tend to the dying Ralph. Gardencourt thus frames the novel, highlighting the change in Isabel; no longer innocent and naïve, she has acquired the wisdom that comes from disappointment and suffering.


*Albany. Capital of New York State that is Isabel’s hometown, a prosaic place suggesting that Isabel will be unprepared for the sophistication of Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond. Upon the death of her father, Isabel leaves Albany, embarking on a tour of Europe with her aunt, Mrs. Touchett.

BibliographyGrover, Philip. Henry James and the French Novel: A Study in Inspiration. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1973. Analyzes all of James’s works up to and including The Portrait of a Lady. Tries to show the ways in which James was influenced by Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and the French l’art pour l’art movement. Compares the themes and subjects of French writers with those of James.Kelley, Cornelia Pulsifer. The Early Development of Henry James. Rev. ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965. Traces the development of the Jamesian novel from Roderick Hudson (1876) through The Portrait of a Lady. Examines French influences on James but also claims that the two novelists who influenced James most significantly were Turgenev and George Eliot, whose influence can be seen best in The Portrait of a Lady.Kirschke, James J. Henry James and Impressionism. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston Press, 1981. Traces impressionist influences on James and claims that impressionism is the key to comprehending the modernist movement in literature and the pictorial arts.Matthiessen, F. O. Henry James: The Major Phase. New York: Oxford University Press, 1944. Written by one of the foremost critics of American literature, this study examines James’s expatriatism and the paradox that although James had cut himself off from America, his novels deeply searched the American consciousness.Poirier, Richard. The Comic Sense of Henry James: A Study of the Early Novels. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. Claims that all James’s novels prior to The Portrait of a Lady are an apprenticeship for the writing of that work. Traces all the themes and characters of The Portrait of a Lady to earlier works.
Categories: Places