The Magnificent Ambersons
by Booth Tarkington (1918)
Barnes & Noble Classics (2005)
336 pp

Portia in a Pink Blouse, 1942
Guy P. Du Bois (American, 1884 - 1958)
oil on canvas

Portrait of Booth Tarkington, 1916
James M. Flagg (American, 1877 - 1960)
oil on canvas
Detail of Portia in a Pink Blouse

Detail of Portia in a Pink Blouse

The figure, that of a well-dressed woman with aristocratic bearing — witness the tightly coifed hair, the high cheekbones, the patrician nose — sits against a velvety mauve background, her face turned away. A fine black blot composes the eye, indistinct, almost a void, and yet her gaze beguiles. It is distant, one cannot follow it except by following the line of her nose down to her full lips, which have a certain sad turn at the corners. (Then she must be looking down.) And here, at the nose, thin yet furious black strokes radiate across the strong outline of her chin. What a contradiction: that calm, wistful mien — steadfast, even ageless — rendered in bold, brisk lines, as if racing headlong toward the future.

As I plunge into this painting, Guy P. Du Bois’ Portia in a Pink Blouse (1942), in an attempt to further probe this incongruity, I am reminded of George Amberson Minafer, the protagonist of Booth Tarkington’s 1918 novel The Magnificent Ambersons, a haughty young man who stoically accepts his fate, resigning himself to the changing times, even as the fire of his passionate character, fed by a misguided, aristocratic “theory of life,” burns unceasingly below the surface. Of course the author, who purchased Portia in a Pink Blouse in 1944, would not have made this connection, for he had completed his Pulitzer-winning work nearly thirty years earlier. But one cannot help wondering what about the impressionistic painting spoke to Tarkington, whose collection of portraits otherwise reflects a preference for the traditional, those highly formalized and painstakingly lifelike compositions perfected by seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth-century masters.

Portia in a Pink Blouse

Portia in a Pink Blouse

The curators of A Gentleman Collector from Indiana: Portraits from the Collection of Booth Tarkington (on display now through February 26, 2017, at the Indianapolis Museum of Art) hazard a guess in their label to Portia in a Pink Blouse: Portia Novello Le Brun, the painting’s subject, was a fellow writer, and Tarkington seems to have been inspired by writer portraits, as his collection attests. Perhaps. Still, the label also explains that, despite Tarkington’s opinion of modern art as “noisy” and “violent,” he found this painting “haunting.” Indeed it is. Portia in a Pink Blouse is by far the most captivating of the portraits chosen for this exhibition. Reflecting on this collection in conjunction with The Magnificent Ambersons, then, a sharper portrait of Tarkington himself emerges, one that sees a “gentleman” caught at the crossroads of a generational shift, struggling to make sense of the changing face of America.

Born in 1869 in Indianapolis, Newton Booth Tarkington was, like his protagonist George Amberson Minafer, a privileged Midwesterner who attended the elite Phillips Exeter Academy and Princeton University before returning to the Indiana which would figure so prominently in his work. Nevertheless, as the exhibition points out, his first avocation was that of painter. He studied under famed Hoosier Group artist T.C. Steele before giving up painting for literature.

Visitors unfamiliar with Tarkington’s writings will find the exhibition thoughtfully guides them to an appreciation for the deep influence of the visual arts on Tarkington’s fiction (and vice versa). This curatorial hand is most evident on the exhibit’s back wall. Select reproductions of the author’s personal papers — a lively interplay of text and image revealing a versatile mind flourished with a wry sense of humor — surrounds a quotation from Erwin Panofsky, in his preface to the 1946 Princeton University Library exhibition of Tarkington’s publications: “And as Booth Tarkington looks upon works of art with the psychological interest of the novelist so does he look upon human beings with the loving acquisitiveness of the collector.”

The magnificent AmbersonsBut readers of Tarkington’s immense body of stories, novels, plays, and essays, in particular his most famous work, The Magnificent Ambersons, will come to the exhibition armed with a deeper appreciation for the interleaving of portraiture and literature within the author’s worldview, and therefore will find it not very surprising to learn that Tarkington referred to the portraits in his collection as “friends.” In fact, a large photo of the author’s library shows one of the exhibition’s selected portraits hanging opposite his cluttered desk, and one need not leap far to conclude that he must have stared long and hard at that painting until it came alive for him, as so many of the others surely did. As the various labels demonstrate, he used seemingly insignificant details in the portraits to imagine entire backstories for each of the “friends” he gazed upon. (In fact, for the painting titled Portrait of a Doctor [circa 1572], his imagination and psychological insight led him to a rather iconoclastic conclusion about the identity of the painting’s subject, a conclusion which art scholarship has only recently managed to confirm.) Yet this interest in the human face is nowhere more evident than in The Magnificent Ambersons, where Tarkington employs highly individualized descriptions of facial features and expressions as windows into a character’s psychology, approaching the interiority of a modernist work with feet firmly planted in the tradition of literary realism.

The novel chronicles the rise and fall of the Amberson family over three generations straddling the turn of the twentieth century. George Amberson Minafer is the indulged only grandson of an unnamed Midwestern town’s founder. Upon returning to his family’s estate following his graduation from an East Coast college, George desires nothing but to settle down to the life of a gentleman and take no career, despite the urging of his grandfather, who wishes he would go on to study law, and his intended, Lucy Morgan, who delays acceptance of George’s marriage proposal until he decides what he will “do” for a living. Meanwhile, a romance is rekindled between George’s mother Isabel and Lucy’s father Eugene, who were nearly married before Isabel at the last moment chose George’s father. Eugene comes to town with his new invention, an automobile, and over the course of the novel, his fortunes rise in parallel with those of the modernizing city, while urbanization and the rapidly transforming economy leave George and his family behind.

The Magnificent Ambersons is, to begin, a generational novel, where the decadence of the times is traced through the lineage of a single family, and the faces of the older generations, often described as lined or aging, become the stage upon which this drama plays out. To highlight this arc of fortune, Tarkington links the three generations early on through the outward features of Major Amberson, Isabel Amberson Minafer, and George, thereby employing heredity as a sort of mirror that reflects the changing times:

[…] and, standing thus together, the trio offered a picturesque example of good looks persistent through three generations. The Major, his daughter, and his grandson were of a type all Amberson: tall, straight, and regular, with dark eyes, short noses, good chins; and the grandfather’s expression, no less than the grandson’s, was one of faintly amused condescension. There was a difference, however. The grandson’s unlined young face had nothing to offer except this condescension; the grandfather’s had other things to say.

For Tarkington, faces communicate, and in this case they foreshadow: While the three are bonded by inherited features, George is singled out as the latest iteration of a type, one somehow emptier. He will therefore prove the embodiment of a hollowing out of the aristocracy, and the reader cannot help but feel a sense of foreboding for the ways in which a somehow unprecedented shift in social consciousness will etch itself into the lines of his face the way less dramatic changes have worn down the features of his predecessors.

The narrator does not linger solely over this generational portrait, but rather goes on to introduce us systematically to each of the book’s entire cast of characters, creating quick, but detailed, physical sketches. One visualizes the hand of the artist flying over the page, tracing the charcoal outlines later to be recreated in the oil tableau. Yet the sketches themselves are works of art: Tarkington accomplishes so much with a mere few sentences, fixing the character of his personages so assuredly through their outward idiosyncrasies that they become the fixtures around which this self-contained world in its social upheaval pivots. Two portraits in particular are worthy of note.

First is the “queer-looking duck,” as George on first glance describes him, Eugene Morgan:

The duck parted his thick and longish black hair on the side; his tie was a forgetful looking thing, and his coat, though it fitted a good enough middle-aged figure, no product of this year, or of last year either. One of his eyebrows was noticeably higher than the other; and there were whimsical lines between them, which gave him an apprehensive expression; but his apprehensions were evidently more humorous than profound, for his prevailing look was that of a genial man of affairs, not much afraid of anything whatever. Nevertheless, observing only his unfashionable hair, his eyebrows, his preoccupied tie and his old coat, the olympic George set him down as a queer-looking duck, and having thus completed his portrait, took no interest in him.

So offended is George by Eugene’s peculiar appearance and gauche, free-spirited manner, that he completely dismisses him. The narration follows suit by referring to him only as the queer-looking duck until, two chapters later, when we learn through Lucy that he is her father. This not only logistically allows the author to create suspense by holding the character at a distance, it also singles Eugene out as not belonging to the Amberson milieu. Indeed, it is this unconventionality, this easy adaptability, which will propel him into “new-money” society, even as the Ambersons, failing to see the writing on the wall, cling to the sinking ship of their social class.

In contrast to Eugene, Wilbur Minafer, George’s father, is paradoxically distinguished by his rather unremarkable appearance, which the narration treats as an afterthought, employing indistinct language for his caricature: “Baldish, dim, quiet, he was an unnoticeable part of this festival,” “probably the last person in the big house at whom a stranger would have glanced twice.” Here Tarkington uses the so-called silence of Wilbur’s features to speak volumes about his orthodoxy. Not only does he belong squarely in his milieu, Wilbur is a product of it. He epitomizes the “old guard,” and as the plot progresses, we see him fade away both literally and figuratively: While the narration is littered with hints about his failing health, his death – and, subsequently, the revelations about his troubled finances, over which he was so meticulous – takes the family by surprise. Into the vacuum created by Wilbur’s death moves Eugene, the parvenu, both in terms of class and in his relationship with Isabel. With subtle brushstrokes, Tarkington illustrates through Wilbur how the seemingly seismic shift in fortunes was in fact a slow death, a Gilded Age whose gradual tarnishing simply escaped notice.

But however much the novel’s faces “speak,” they also “listen,” such that a character’s innermost feelings are projected onto another through a sort of artistic appreciation of the other’s portrait. George struggles to understand his own disquietude after glimpsing his mother’s “pretty glow,” studying her visage for some explanation. And in a portentous conversation, Eugene explains to his friend Fred Kinney why it is that Isabel does not see her son’s many faults, with the response, “[B]eauty’s in the eye of the beholder, and the angel is all in the eye of the mother.” Indeed, the intensity of Isabel’s love for her son — that depth of feeling which will lead her to a painful sacrifice — is echoed each time she gazes upon his physical beauty. It’s as if his face is transformed into that of an angel by the sheer force of her maternal instinct.

Isabel’s face, too, “converses,” receiving the message of Eugene’s love for her and reciprocating. It is not until George witnesses this back and forth in the subtle changes that have come over her since his father’s death that he understands his own rage:

A hot dislike struck him at the sight of Eugene; and a vague revulsion, like a strange, unpleasant taste in his mouth, came over him as he looked at his mother: her manner was eloquent of so much thought about her companion and of such reliance upon him. And the picture the two thus made was a vivid one indeed, to George, whose angry eyes, for some reason, fixed themselves most intently upon Isabel’s lifted hand, upon the white ruffle at her wrist, bordering the graceful black sleeve, and upon the little indentations in her cheek where the tips of her fingers rested. She should not have worn white at her wrist, or at the throat either, George felt; and then, strangely, his resentment concentrated upon those tiny indentations at the tips of her fingers – actual changes, however slight and fleeting, in his mother’s face, made because of Mr. Eugene Morgan. For the moment it seemed to George that Morgan might have claimed the ownership of a face that changed for him. It was as if he owned Isabel.

Here, so much is conveyed in the smallest detail. Isabel’s scandalous wearing of white at the sleeves and throat, when she should be in mourning. The coy dimples made by her fingers as she bends toward Eugene to listen. And all of this, to George, signals that his mother no longer belongs to him. That, in effect, Eugene has painted his love onto Isabel, creating a portrait that is his alone to gaze upon.

But while the characters’ vivid portraits give form to the arc of their emotional evolutions, there is another face that is rapidly changing alongside theirs. It is the face of the American city. The novel returns incessantly to depictions of the unnamed metropolis, often personified as the restless, clamorous, soot-stained stranger. George, finding himself adrift in his own unrecognizable era, wanders the streets searching for familiar faces in the crowd. He finds none, only takes note of the foreign features among the multitudes into which his ancestral stock is absorbed. To be sure, this passage disturbs. The narration paints a negative picture of turn-of-the-twentieth-century America, but it is unclear whether the text portrays immigration as bearing some responsibility for this transformation or merely embodying progress in the abstract, with all its attendant ills: overcrowding, industrial pollution, and urban sprawl. The contemporary reader cannot help but condemn both viewpoints, particularly given the current political rhetoric. Or, in the least, to see the novel’s social commentary as arbitrary: After all, were the Ambersons themselves not interlopers, brashly claiming a frontier they then proceeded to alter, to shape as they saw fit?

Nevertheless, the sentiment underlying George’s seemingly self-centered reflections is clear: Modernity, in transforming the cityscape, transforms the face of a nation. And the narratorial finger points most insistently at the automobile. Here it would not trouble the reader’s conscience to agree. Certainly the advent of the automobile had profound effects upon American identity as we know it today. Indianapolis (and the Midwest more broadly) is particularly synonymous with the car. Ironically, Tarkington puts his eulogy — for, whatever your views on urbanization, this novel comes down hard on the side of loss — into the mouth of Eugene: “With all their speed forward [automobiles] may be a step backward in civilization — that is, in spiritual civilization. It may be that they will not add to the beauty of the world, nor to the life of men’s souls [. . .] But you can’t have the immense outward changes that they will cause without some inward ones [. . .]” The automobile, then, took the pencil from the artist’s hand: No longer did humanity idealistically create cities in its own image. Instead, the automobile scored the landscape with the hurried, incoherent strokes of highways, and man was forced to adapt. The result was alienation, a face — its individual experiences etched into every line — lost to the crowd. Anonymous.

Of course we cannot conclude from the text alone how Tarkington viewed the societal changes which brought a close to the Gilded Age. Although distant, dipping in and out of various perspectives, the narration most closely hews to George’s point of view, and it is through George’s eyes that we gaze upon the modernizing city. Neither does George himself seem to fully grasp his own deep sense of loss. Still, this exhibition may help shed some light on the author’s own ambivalence. By the time Tarkington had purchased Portia, modernism was well under way and the critiques of The Magnificent Ambersons, itself an evocation of a bygone era when published, were dated. Yet despite its hurried lines, its garish pastels, and its seeming confirmation of all that Tarkington hated about modern art, the novelist was drawn to Portia’s face, saw in it not a stranger, but a “friend.” Indeed, she exudes a certain proud grace that Tarkington must have admired; after all, he buttressed his protagonist’s many flaws with this same unyielding sense of honor. Perhaps, then, Portia in a Pink Blouse strikes a hopeful note that, like George, who ultimately experiences a sort of redemption, Tarkington, too, managed to find in modern art a balm for his nostalgia.

A Gentleman Collector from Indiana is a fascinating exhibit, unusual in its focus on the collector over the artworks and artists represented. While the selection is small, tucked in an out-of-the-way corner of the museum and therefore easy to miss, the six paintings chosen give ample insight into the mind of the novelist at work. Or was it his painter’s gaze that fed his novelistic imagination, penetrating outward forms to mine the psychological wealth beneath? One senses that for Tarkington, artist, novelist, were merely two shades along the same stroke of genius. Those within easy access to the Indianapolis Museum of Art would do well to return again and again, simply to follow Tarkington’s lead and spend time in the presence of his “friends,” uncovering the secrets their faces must surely be dying to reveal. Perhaps the exercise will change how we see our own modernizing world: train us to pluck the individual from out of the faceless crowd like the expert collector recognizing and acquiring a thing of beauty.

Booth Tarkington

Portrait of Booth Tarkington

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