Henry James met the sculptor Hendrik Christian Andersen in Rome in 1899. Andersen was thirty years his junior but the two developed a close relationship and maintained correspondence for around fifteen years.
On encountering Andersen, James was enamoured with him and became one of Andersen’s first patrons, purchasing his sculpture Count Alberto Bevilacqua for £50. He said of the sculpture, which he kept in his house in Sussex: ‘I shall have him constantly before me as a loved companion and friend’, intimating an attachment and affection for Andersen from the earliest stages of their relationship.
Andersen seemed to recall the pattern and shape of James’ novel, Roderick Hudson, which had been published twenty five years prior to the two men meeting but may perhaps illuminate some of James’ attraction for the young artist.
James letters, seventy seven of which are in the library of University of Virginia, show a great deal of affection and sensual / sexual love for Andersen. Unfortunately, Andersen’s replies are not available so there is limited balance in assessing their true relationship. It is thought they only met six possibly seven times, and they ceased corresponding in 1915 because of what James described as Andersen’s ‘megalomania’.
Whilst the tone of James’ letters though is self-evidently erotic, it is also caring and affectionate, as evidenced by this letter written after the death of Andersen’s brother, the painter Andreas. Andreas died of tuberculosis at the comparatively young age of 33, in 1902.
February 9th 1902
My dear, dear, dearest Hendrik.
Your news fills me with horror and pity, and how can I express the tenderness with which it makes me think of you and the aching wish to be near you and put my arms round you? My heart fairly bleeds and breaks at the vision of you alone, in your wicked and indifferent old far-off Rome, with the haunting, blighting, unbearable sorrow. The sense that I can’t help you, see you, talk to you, touch you, hold you close and long, or do anything to make you rest on me, and feel my participation – this torments me, dearest boy, makes me ache for you, and for myself; makes me gnash my teeth and groan at the bitterness of things. I can only take refuge in hoping you are not utterly alone, that some human tenderness of some sort, some kindly voice and hand are near you that may make a little the difference. What a dismal winter you must have had, with this staggering blow at the climax! I don’t of course know what fragment of friendship there may be to draw near to you, and in my uncertainty my image of you is of the darkest, and my pity, as I say, feels so helpless. I wish I could go to Rome and put my hands on you (oh, how lovingly I should lay them!) but that alas, is odiously impossible. (Not, moreover, that apart from you, I should so much as like to be there now.) I find myself thrown back on anxiously and doubtless vainly, wondering if there may not, after a while, [be] some possibility of your coming to England, of the current of your trouble inevitably carrying you here – so that I might take consoling, soothing, infinitely close and tender and affectionately-healing possession of you. This is the one thought that relieves me about you a little – and I wish you might fix your eyes on it for the idea, just of the possibility. I am in town for a few weeks but I return to Rye April 1st, and sooner or later to have you there and do for you, to put my arm round you and make you lean on me as on a brother and a lover, and keep you on and on, slowly comforted or at least relieved of the first bitterness of pain – this I try to imagine as thinkable, attainable, not wholly out of the question. There I am, at any rate, and there is my house and my garden and my table and my studio – such as it is! – and your room, and your welcome, and your place everywhere – and I press them upon you, oh so earnestly, dearest boy, if isolation and grief and the worries you are overdone with become intolerable to you. There they are, I say – to fall upon, to rest upon, to find whatever possible shade of oblivion in. I will nurse you through your dark passage. I wish I could do something more – something straighter and nearer and more immediate but such as it is please let it sink into you. Let all my tenderness, dearest boy, do that. . . .
In 1902, Andersen’s brother died of tuberculosis at the comparatively young age of 33. Olivia Cushing, the brother’s widow, arrived to stay with Andersen in Rome at which point discussions and plans were made to commemorate Andreas. The funeral monument grew into an idea of a Palace of Arts, and then further progressed into a plan for a World City, full of sculptures and galleries and museums, and even a zoo. This urban philosophy is evident in Andersen’s tome A World Centre of Communication (1913) which is about social and spiritual renewal through the arts, particularly sculpture (which was Andersen’s talent). It seems this towering pursuit of social reform alienated James, and perhaps marked a growing difference in their personal politics: James was an individualist who pursued peace, and Andersen pursued a (some say) megalomanic version of society, whilst living in a country falling prey to the rise of fascism.
Upon Cushing’s death in 1917 Andersen was left a lot of money which he used to commence building a villa as part of his ‘World City’ idea. Between 1922 and 1925 Villa Helene was built to Andersen’s design with a carving studio in the nearby Piazza del Popolo.
Andersen died in 1940 and bequeathed all of his work to the Italian state, although he insisted that Villa Helene be made available to his model and adopted sister Lucia until her death, whereupon in 1979, the house was taken into the state’s full time ownership. It is a now a museum called Il Museo Hendrik Christian Andersen, dedicated to Andersen and it was finally inaugurated in 1999 for the fifty-ninth anniversary of his death.
James, Henry, edited by Zorzi Rosella, Beloved Boy, Letters to Hendrik C. Andersen 1899 – 1913 (London: University of Virginia Press, 2008).
Images via National Trust, The Rome Tourist Board, Rocaille.it, and Jason Cochran.