The Portrait of a Lady is considered one of Henry James' best works, and it was his first large commercial success. The book was published in serial installments simultaneously in MacMillan's Magazine (in England) and the Atlantic. Up until this point, James had not made much money from his writing, although his novel The American was relatively successful. He was able to negotiate good terms for The Portrait of a Lady -- and thus to make quite a bit of money from the novel. It is particularly interesting because it was established as a work of high literary merit as an American novel, but also within the canon of traditional European novels. James, who received a transatlantic education by being raised in Europe and America, was influenced by the European tradition of realism and naturalism (authors such as Flaubert, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Zola).
At the center of The Portrait of a Lady stands a very American heroine. She is shown to be very American in that she has "freedom of choice" (Edel 262), rather than being confined to her social status (as determined by marriage or birth). Isabel Archer is not bound by the social mores of the Americans who have been socially integrated into Europe (such as her relatives, the Touchetts). She is characterized by the many possibilities her fresh perspective and loosely determined social relation to the world allow for her - but in the course of the novel, this freedom is shown to be not so easy to assert without falling prey to the conventions and machinations of her more conservative peers. The novel is about a desire for freedom, and the difficulties and illusions one may fall prey to in the attempt to assert one's own individuality. It is about the social interdependence of people on one another, and the need to understand one's actions as related to the actions and desires of others.
James saw Isabel Archer as a female Christopher Newman (the main character of his book The American, in which an energetic, successful man visits France only to be slighted by a woman's family, who consider him too low-born for him to marry their daughter). He wanted to present her as a youthful romantic with many ideas, curiosity, and liveliness. Critics believe that James’ then-deceased cousin Minny Temple, whom he had called a “flame-like spirit”, inspired Isabel. Leon Edel has also supposed that Isabel is a version of James himself -- he was not that much of an "heir," but had achieved a high status with those who were rich. He was interested in what Isabel would do with her privilege.
Henry James began writing The Portrait of a Lady in April of 1880, from the Hotel de l'Arno in Florence, Italy. This book was written after the success of The American, and also after James had just published Washington Square. At the Hotel de l'Arno, he lived above a woman named Lizzie Bootts, a painter who had had a very sheltered life and traditional education. As he was writing The Portrait, he noted the evolution of Lizzie's love affair with her painting master, Frank Duveneck, who was a "child of nature and of freedom" (Edel 252). Also while he was writing The Portrait of a Lady, he met Constance Fenimore Woolson, a woman of significant literary position, whom he noted was a kind woman, but given to a particular deafness, in which she would hear only the answers she wanted to hear. She had been pursuing him throughout Europe because of his own literary talent and they had finally met in Florence. Constance was a middle-aged woman who was unmarried, and she was very interested in art, although she was offended by nudity in statues. (We might note the parallel between Constance, known as "Fenimore" to James, and Isabel Archer's prudishness and earnestness for learning coupled with deafness.) By the time he left for England in June of 1880, he had finished a large section of The Portrait of a Lady. When James returned to England, he met his brother William James, whom he had not seen since 1875. William James, a famous psychologist and professor, was suffering from chronic nervousness and a problem with his eyes.
He returned in early of 1881 to Florence, where he completed the novel. He found a room in Venice, a city which he found teeming with life. He would later recall how he would hear the chatter coming up through the windows of his apartment.