The Madonna of the Future

tutorial, critical comment, plot, and study resources

The Madonna of the Future first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly for March 1873. It was reprinted two years later as part of James’s first book, The Passionate Pilgrim and Other Tales, published by Osgood in Boston, 1875. It became a very popular tale and was frequently reprinted in collections of James’s stories.

The Madonna of the Future

Raphael – The Madonna of the Chair (1513-1514)

The Madonna of the Future – critical commentary

James wrote a number of stories about art, artists, their achievements, and their reputations – both whilst alive and after their death. The Madonna of the Future is about a would be artist. Theobald has an enormous reverence for the world of Art, and Italian Renaissance painters in particular. He is well informed about the history and the technical details of what they have produced.

He takes what we would now call a high romantic view of art – that an appreciation of its values offers entrance into a quasi-religious and transcendental realm which can sustain the individual even whilst they might live in reduced circumstances or even poverty. This is a view of art which John Carey discusses at some length in his study What Good are the Arts?

Theobald has worshipped at this shrine of art for years and years – and he gives a very persuasive account of his enthusiasms in the face of the narrator’s more sceptical, materialist view of art appreciation. But there are two problems with Theobald’s position. The first is that he has no real creative life force, and the second is that he has been living ‘in denial’ with his plan for the ultimate art work.

His idea for the ideal Madonna has been gestating for two decades, but no fruit has been borne. And this is reflected in his relationship to Serafina. She might have been a virgin-like Madonna (with child) when he first met her, but now she is an old woman. She clearly gets by via her association with ‘visiting gentlemen’ – which is perhaps as close as James could come in the 1870s to implying that she was a prostitute.

What makes the story admirable is the well-sustained pathos of Theobald’s characterisation, and his ultimate tragedy in defeat of an unrealised dream. There is no bitterness or schadenfreude in the story. Mrs Coventry is quite right: Theobald has been telling everybody about his grand scheme, but has produced nothing.

Yet the fact that the narrator follows him into his dream and into his poverty lends a sympathetic pathos to this character sketch of a clearly deluded man. James wrote about artists who could not paint, authors who could not write, great thinkers who could only talk – and yet he was enormously productive himself, for the whole of his fifty year creative life span.

The Madonna of the Future – study resources

The Madonna of the Future The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon UK

The Madonna of the Future The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon US

The Madonna of the Future Complete Stories 1864—1874 – Library of America – Amazon UK

The Madonna of the Future Complete Stories 1864—1874 – Library of America – Amazon US

The Madonna of the Future The Madonna of the Future – eBook formats at Gutenberg

Red button The Cambridge Companion to Henry James – Amazon UK

Red button Henry James at Wikipedia – biographical notes, links

Red button Henry James at Mantex – tutorials, biography, study resources

The Madonna of the Future – plot summary

An un-named outer-narrator relays the account of an inner-narrator (H—) in which he describes a youthful visit to Florence. When viewing the sculptures in the Palazzo Vecchio, he is accosted by Mr Theobald, a man who enthuses about the spirit of the place and its general artistic heritage. He is an American and claims to be an artist with standards so fastidious that he has not sold or kept a single picture.

Next day the narrator meets him again in the Uffizi gallery. Theobald continues to rhapsodise about Art, and when they proceed to the Pitti Palace the narrator himself is full of enthusiasm for Raphael’s picture The Madonna of the Chair. Theobald takes an idealist, almost metaphysical view of art criticism, whereas the narrator offers a more materialist interpretation of the picture – that pretty young women were fashionable at the time the portrait was painted. Theobald’s reply to this becomes a prescription for what could be done in the present historical phase. The narrator guesses that he is in fact describing his own aspirations.

The two men meet every day for the next fortnight, and the narrator continues to be astonished by Theobald’s enthusiasm, his knowledge, and his commitment to the world of high Art.

However, Mrs Coventry, a long-time American resident and patronne in Florence informs the narrator that Theobald is a talentless dreamer in whom people have given up believing. He claims to be painting a Madonna which will be a composite of all previous masterpieces of the Italian school.

The narrator invites Theobald to an opera, but he refuses and instead invites the narrator to meet Serafina, the most beautiful woman in Italy, who acts as his model. The narrator is disconcerted to find that she turns out to be an unexceptional and rather stout woman who is no longer young. Theobald reveals that she was an unmarried mother who he rescued and has maintained ever since, following the death of her child. He is also shown Theobald’s portrait sketch of the child, which he admires.

When Theobald asks the narrator his opinion of Serafina, he tells him quite honestly that she is old. This stark honesty shocks Theobald, who realises that he has spent years deceiving himself. The narrator feels slightly guilty for bringing him to this realisation, and encourages him to finish the long-awaited portrait of Serafina as Madonna. Theobald is crestfallen, but vows to finish it in a fortnight.

Theobald then disappears, so the narrator goes back to Serafina’s apartment in order to locate him. She is entertaining another man – who is a vulgar and pretentious artist of trashy objects. Serafina defends Theobald as an honourable friend of twenty years standing, and gives the narrator his address. The other visitor tries to sell the narrator the tasteless statuettes he makes.

When the narrator visits Theobald, he finds him in miserably poor conditions, He is also paralysed with inactivity in front of an empty canvas. He realises that for all his theorising, he has no creative power whatever. The narrator looks after him, but he collapses in a brain fever and dies. After the funeral, the narrator meets Serafina in a church, where she implicitly reveals to him that she is a prostitute.

Principal characters
I the un-named outer narrator
H— the inner-narrator
Mr Theobald an American art enthusiast
Mrs Coventry an American patroness of art in Florence
Serafina Theobald’s ideal woman
an ‘artist’ of kitsch rubbish statuettes

The Madonna of the Future - Henry James portrait

Henry James – portrait by John Singer Sargeant

Further reading


Red button Theodora Bosanquet, Henry James at Work, University of Michigan Press, 2007.

Red button F.W. Dupee, Henry James: Autobiography, Princeton University Press, 1983.

Red button Leon Edel, Henry James: A Life, HarperCollins, 1985.

Red button Philip Horne (ed), Henry James: A Life in Letters, Viking/Allen Lane, 1999.

Red button Henry James, The Letters of Henry James, Adamant Media Corporation, 2001.

Red button Fred Kaplan, Henry James: The Imagination of Genius, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999

Red button F.O. Matthieson (ed), The Notebooks of Henry James, Oxford University Press, 1988.

Critical commentary

Red button Elizabeth Allen, A Woman’s Place in the Novels of Henry James London: Macmillan Press, 1983.

Red button Ian F.A. Bell, Henry James and the Past, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1993.

Red button Millicent Bell, Meaning in Henry James, Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, 1993.

Red button Harold Bloom (ed), Modern Critical Views: Henry James, Chelsea House Publishers, 1991.

Red button Kirstin Boudreau, Henry James’s Narrative Technique, Macmillan, 2010.

Red button J. Donald Crowley and Richard A. Hocks (eds), The Wings of the Dove, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1978.

Red button Victoria Coulson, Henry James, Women and Realism, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Red button Daniel Mark Fogel, A Companion to Henry James Studies, Greenwood Press, 1993.

Red button Virginia C. Fowler, Henry James’s American Girl: The Embroidery on the Canvas, Madison (Wis): University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.

Red button Jonathan Freedman, The Cambridge Companion to Henry James, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Red button Judith Fryer, The Faces of Eve: Women in the Nineteenth Century American Novel, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976

Red button Roger Gard (ed), Henry James: The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge, 1968.

Red button Tessa Hadley, Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Red button Barbara Hardy, Henry James: The Later Writing (Writers & Their Work), Northcote House Publishers, 1996.

Red button Richard A. Hocks, Henry James: A study of the short fiction, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1990.

Red button Donatella Izzo, Portraying the Lady: Technologies of Gender in the Short Stories of Henry James, University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Red button Colin Meissner, Henry James and the Language of Experience, Cambridge University Press, 2009

Red button John Pearson (ed), The Prefaces of Henry James, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.

Red button Richard Poirer, The Comic Sense of Henry James, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Red button Hugh Stevens, Henry James and Sexuality, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Red button Merle A. Williams, Henry James and the Philosophical Novel, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Red button Judith Woolf, Henry James: The Major Novels, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Red button Ruth Yeazell (ed), Henry James: A Collection of Critical Essays, Longmans, 1994.

Other works by Henry James

Henry James The BostoniansThe Bostonians (1886) is a novel about the early feminist movement. The heroine Verena Tarrant is an ‘inspirational speaker’ who is taken under the wing of Olive Chancellor, a man-hating suffragette and radical feminist. Trying to pull her in the opposite direction is Basil Ransom, a vigorous young man from the South to whom Verena becomes more and more attracted. The dramatic contest to possess her is played out with some witty and often rather sardonic touches, and as usual James keeps the reader guessing about the outcome until the very last page.

The Madonna of the Future Buy the book at Amazon UK
The Madonna of the Future Buy the book at Amazon US


Henry James What Masie KnewWhat Masie Knew (1897) A young girl is caught between parents who are in the middle of personal conflict, adultery, and divorce. Can she survive without becoming corrupted? It’s touch and go – and not made easier for the reader by the attentions of an older man who decides to ‘look after’ her. This comes from the beginning of James’s ‘Late Phase’, so be prepared for longer and longer sentences. In fact it’s said that whilst composing this novel, James switched from writing longhand to using dictation – and it shows if you look carefully enough – part way through the book.
Henry James What Masie Knew Buy the book at Amazon UK
Henry James What Masie Knew Buy the book at Amazon US


Henry James The AmbassadorsThe Ambassadors (1903) Lambert Strether is sent from America to Paris to recall Chadwick Newsome, a young man who is reported to be compromising himself by an entanglement with a wicked woman. However, Strether’s mission fails when he is seduced by the social pleasures of the European capital, and he takes Newsome’s side. So a second ambassador is dispatched in the form of the more determined Sarah Pocock. She delivers an ultimatum which is resisted by the two young men, but then an accident reveals unpleasant truths to Strether, who is faced by a test of loyalty between old Europe and the new USA. This edition presents the latest scholarship on James and includes an introduction, notes, selected criticism, a text summary and a chronology of James’s life and times.
Longstaff's Marriage Buy the book at Amazon UK
Longstaff's Marriage Buy the book at Amazon US

Henry James – web links

Henry James  web links Henry James at Mantex
Biographical notes, study guides, tutorials on the Complete Tales, book reviews. bibliographies, and web links.

Henry James web links The Complete Works
Sixty books in one 13.5 MB Kindle eBook download for £1.92 at The complete novels, stories, travel writing, and prefaces. Also includes his autobiographies, plays, and literary criticism – with illustrations.

Henry James web links The Ladder – a Henry James website
A collection of eTexts of the tales, novels, plays, and prefaces – with links to available free eTexts at Project Gutenberg and elsewhere.

Red button A Hyper-Concordance to the Works
Japanese-based online research tool that locates the use of any word or phrase in context. Find that illusive quotable phrase.

Henry James web links The Henry James Resource Center
A web site with biography, bibliographies, adaptations, archival resources, suggested reading, and recent scholarship.

Henry James web links Online Books Page
A collection of online texts, including novels, stories, travel writing, literary criticism, and letters.

Henry James web links Henry James at Project Gutenberg
A major collection of eTexts, available in a variety of eBook formats.

Henry James web links The Complete Letters
Archive of the complete correspondence (1855-1878) work in progress – published by the University of Nebraska Press.

Henry James web links The Scholar’s Guide to Web Sites
An old-fashioned but major jumpstation – a website of websites and resouces.

Henry James web links Henry James – The Complete Tales
Tutorials on the complete collection of over one hundred tales, novellas, and short stories.

Henry James web links Henry James on the Internet Movie Database
Adaptations of James’s novels and stories for the cinema and television – in various languages. Full details of directors and actors, production features, film reviews, box office, and even quizzes.

© Roy Johnson 2013

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