I recently heard these on our local Beethoven Network. They are by Jean Sibelius titled, Five Characteristic Impressions.
Strapless by Deborah Davis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I have recently discovered how much I love the paintings of John Singer Sargent (and also his contemporaries like Whistler and William Merritt Chase). My interest was first peaked when I read a book review of Sargent's Women. Learning the background of the artist's subjects make the works more significant.
I realize now that is why some people are not interested in art. I took a trip to Europe with such a friend. I was so excited to see the architecture and famous works of art that I knew so much about. She found it all a bore. But then she did not have any prior knowledge to what she was looking at and it meant nothing to her.
When I taught music in a grade school I learned that in order for a student to understand what you are trying to teach them, you must find out what they already know and build on that. Once you have built a foundation of prior knowledge you can then add new knowledge.
As a teacher this was my goal. I exposed my students to as much music and literature and art as possible in order to inspire an appetite for the wonderful things of this world.
All that to say, Strapless, like Sargent's Women, has given me the prior knowledge I need to truly enjoy Sargent's work.
While Sargent's Women examined the lives of four of Sargent's portrait subjects, Strapless examines the life of one. And not only her but the entire backdrop of 19th century Parisian life, and also, to a lesser extent Americans and their reasons for living in Paris.
The book starts in New Orleans where an old aristocratic family had plantations and wealth; Virginie Amelie Avigno was born into privilege and luxury. After the Civil War, her family deserted the South to reconstruct itself and settled in Paris where an American could easily live like royalty at half the cost and also find eligible husbands for beautiful daughters.
Amelie soon became the belle of Paris, acquired a rich husband and with the freedom being a respectable, married woman afforded her, spent her days at balls, horse races, and every other social occassion Paris had to offer a lovely young woman. She created a stir wherever she went.
Considered the most beautiful woman in Paris, her arrival at any destination caused a stir and was recorded in all the newspapers.
Davis describes the glamorous climate of Paris. With the rise of the bourgeouis, shops were catering to the cosmetic demands of their new clientele. We see all the different tricks and methods women used to look beautiful. Amelie took to powdering herself with a pale, lavender powder she believed set her skin off to its most alluring.
Also in Paris was a, as yet unknown but aspiring artist, John Singer Sargent. His career had been going well and his work had been accepted into the Salons for the last couple of years. He conceived of making a portrait of the most famous woman in Paris as a calculated business move to project his career to the heights he reached for.
In short, things did not go as planned. The Paris public hated it. They felt the portrait was shocking, especially since the original version had Amelie's strap hanging off her shoulder. Her skin was described as "corpse-like". The newspapers had a field day. The woman who had so recently been worshipped was now despised. It was the end of Amelie's reign over Paris.
But the beginning of Sargent's career. The notoriety helped propel his career to world fame while Amelie sunk into ignoble anonimity.
Davis' account is thorough and fascinating. We learn about Parisian life, about an unknown Sargent, and the sad ending to a promising life.
What is mostly sad to me, is that such a scandal would ruin a woman. Her entire life was centered around being adored. Even without the painting, she would have eventually aged out of the "beautiful young thing" stage. Apparently being the focus of attention was her only "rasion d'etre". She became a recluse and ultimately died alone, being estranged by that time from even her husband who only served as a financial vehicle at any rate.
I conclude that Amelie was not only vain, but vapid. There are many beautiful young women who, when they aged, still managed to keep a bright social life, largely because they had the intellect to occupy themselves with worthwhile pursuits and good company, even if it wasn't an adoring company of young, besotted men.
In her thirties, Amelie tried to regain her fame. She had several more portraits made of herself, but none that incurred public interest. Her group of admiring men became older and older until she simply stayed home and out of public life.
That is the greatest tragedy. A person who cannot move out of the past. Youth is so fleeting and Amelie never seemed to realize it. She did not even have the foresight to buy her portrait.
Sargent repainted the strap to a more prim location and kept the painting in his studio for more than thirty years. After Amelie died, he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where it hangs to this day.
I have seen the painting, when I visited the Museum on many occasions, but I was not interested in American portraiture at the time so barely glanced at it. Now that I have built up my own prior knowledge, I would like to return and see the painting that started a one career and ended another.
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