I'm still listening to Jean Sibelius. Here's his 13 Pieces.
Sargent's Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas by Donna M. Lucey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The value of this book is that if someone is a fan of John Singer Sargent's portraits, as I am, the stories behind four of the portraits are a real boon. No longer are the women staring out at you from the canvas an empty shell but someone with a history.
I suppose if someone were to create a Venn diagram out of the lives of these four women they would see that what they all had in common was the fact that they were extremely rich American women. They belonged to the upper crust of society of the 19th century. But being rich doesn't make someone happy. It does not make someone nice, or a good financial steward or even autonomous over one's life, although they certainly had privileges that the average person did not.
They spent much of their lives in Britain, hanging out with intellectuals and bohemians, scorning the rich business men who were their fathers or husbands, whose money they rode on to live out their idle lives, never working a day themselves.
That may make these ladies less than desirable, but frankly it is true. They were rich and selfish and even though their lives weren't always rosy, a lot of the unhappiness had more to do with strong will and poor marriage choices.
The first portrait is about a youngish girl, Elsie Palmer, who carried a burden of family responsibilities that would have sunk weaker shoulders. But she soldiered on, finally marrying in her thirties, someone who her family was against, but I think she was trying to free herself from her controlling father, especially since she had to leave England to live with him and her sisters in Colorado after her mother died. Her first romance did not work out, because he was a married man and anyway, her sister ran off with him and became his mistress.
The second woman is as vague as her portrait which is only a side view with her face wrapped in a scarf. Sally Fairchild was so beautiful that all sorts of rich and famous men asked for her hand in marriage. She said no to them all and stayed devoted to her mother all her life. And that's about all we know of her, so Lucey concentrates on her more colorful sister Lucia.
Lucia married for love and then spent her life supporting her husband and children through painting. Neither side of the family would support her because they were against her career as an artist. Yet somehow she eked out a living and maintained a social life with the same artists and writers who socialized with the other ladies in the book. She became a known miniaturist in her day, painting tiny portraits of the Morgans, Rockefellers and other prominent members of New York society of the day.
The third portrait is the most beautiful yet. We see a self-possessed woman regarding us with confidence and a calm demeanor. Elizabeth Chanler was one of the famous Astor orphans and lead a childhood that was wild until relatives intervened and put her in a strict British school for ladies. She tended to be sickly while growing up and one of her legs was shorter than the other, probably due to undiagnosed tuberculosis.
Yet when she was old enough she carried on a clandestine affair with her best friend's husband. The whole thing is strange. This man, Jack, beat up a man whom he thought insulted his wife, Minnie. He was mistaken and in penance burned his arm in a fire. The arm was so badly injured it had to be removed. So why did he later cheat on his wife? You're willing to lose an arm for her honor but not be faithful to her?
And why would any woman be attracted to a man of that quality?
Minnie died suddenly, freeing Jack to marry Elizabeth. This he did and soon after went insane. He slowly recovered and they remained devoted to each other for the rest of their lives, but his children had their own problems, some committing suicide, which was apparently a habit among the rich. Lucia and Sally Fairchild had four brothers who also ended their lives.
Lucey saves the most scandalous for last. Isabelle Stewart Gardner married money and lavished it on herself and her interests. She seemed to have two main interests: scandalizing Boston society with rebellious and outrageous behavior (by Victorian standards) and collecting art. Her portrait by Sargent is considered risque because her "decolletage" is exposed with a low cut dress. Frankly I've seen lower necklines on earlier portraits. Gardner adored her portrait and the uproar it caused. Frankly I find it hideous. She stands with her hands clasped in front of her with her rear end jutting out, looking as wide as a gate, probably due to the corset was wearing and her mouth open.
Her husband, upon seeing it said, "Well, it looks like hell, but it looks just like you."
While I found the women in this book not the most particularly interesting people I've read about, it did inspire a thirst for more of Sargent's art and I have ordered some books of his work accordingly.
View all my reviews