Sunday, July 22, 2018

Sargent's Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas by Donna M. Lucey

I'm still listening to Jean Sibelius.  Here's his 13 Pieces.

Sargent's Women: Four Lives Behind the CanvasSargent'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.

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Brian Joseph said...

Super review Sharon. I think that it is a neat idea to include mini biographies of these women within one volume. I think that I would look at the paintings differently after reading this. It is sad that these women lived such an unhappy lives. You are correct, wealth does not ensure happiness.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hello Brian. You must be an early bird. You comment is always waiting for me when I get up. :)

I know that being written about can never show anyone the whole picture of your life and I also know that an author probably tends towards the salacious in order to attract readers, however, it does seem that these women's lives were rather empty, even though they had so much money and associated with such an intellectual crowd.

It helps me appreciate Henry James writing so much more (I must be one of the few people in the world who like Henry James) because these are the people he writes about in his stories. In fact I think the husband of one of these women was a character in one of his books.

Mudpuddle said...

excellent post, Sharon... and fascinating... i know zilch about painting, and this book sounds like a good read. too bad money makes people go crazy sometimes; or maybe it's just in the genes. what's a Venn diagram? showing my ignorance here: it sounds familiar and i probably knew once but not any more... very interesting subject... tx

Ruth @ with freedom and books said...

The first thing I noticed is the woman on the cover of the book, which I vaguely remember is the same woman on the cover of my old copy of Madame Bovary. She was a fairy shallow woman, Madame Bovary, and I wonder if that was the reason they put that particular portrait on the cover. Anyway, I am curious why the art on my covers is chosen for some classics and if there are any connections.

Considering the man who burned his arm as penance -- he probably did it more out of pride for his own image and manhood than actual endearment and protection of his wife's honor, which would explain why he could flippantly have an affair. Just my observation. I know that's not the point.

Nonetheless, very insightful.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Mudpuddle. I just read your post and need to comment. I have an opinion that the very, very rich and very very poor have something in common: they don't think the rules apply to them. And I think this has been the cause for a lot of unhappiness.

A Venn diagram is two circles that overlap. You use it to compare and contrast things. The things that are unique to each thing go in the part of the circles that don't overlap and the things they have in common go in the overlapping part.

I used this diagram when I taught music to teach students to compare to different works, such as an orchestra from the 19th century and one from the 18th century. What do they have in common? (String instruments). What's different? (19th cent. orchestra is much larger, uses greater dynamic range etc...)

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Ruth. That would be interesting to know why the cover designers chose a certain painting or photo. Of course the primary reason is to attract and the secondary one to represent the subject of the book.

The portrait on the cover above is of Elizabeth Chanler, one of the Astor orphans who inherited a huge fortune. Her life was not perfect, she suffered a lot of illness and had a shorter leg due to TB but I think the expression on her face shows definite self-possession and confidence.

Which is interesting because I don't think that Madame Bovary exhibited any of those qualities. She was a selfish, demanding strumpet. And ultimately a coward. She couldn't even die with courage.

Book reviews making Bovary out to be some kind of feminist hero makes me angry.

R.T. said...

As wide as a gate! Oh my! I’ll pass on reading the book, but I admire your colorful review.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Ha, ha. I suppose I shouldn't have written that, but it's true. I don't know why women wore corsets. It really made their rear ends look gigantic.

Mudpuddle said...

i remember Venn diagrams: they're used in geology to define terrains and strata... just goes to show how much i've forgotten... i have to disagree re the poor... i was one for awhile and the people i knew were just like others: with a few exceptions, they just wanted a chance to improve their lives, to feed their families and to have a bearable life... being poor is not a joke: it's desperately difficult both in social and economic terms, and most genuinely are trying their best to survive in this world... nowadays, they ARE most people in this troubled earth; they just need a some sort of future to look forward to...

Sharon Wilfong said...


I don't argue with that, but I have family members who are poor and, not to sound hard-hearted, while some people are genuinely in hard circumstances-I was that person once and am grateful for people who helped me- other people just aren't good with their money.

Or they have a parasitical nature. My cousins got into drugs and had babies intentionally to get on the welfare system. When my one cousin was told by the state of Oregon that they would not be increasing her welfare check after her fourth baby, she got her tubes tied.

I know we can't generalize. People are poor for different reasons. I used to live off peanut butter sandwiches and Raman noodles. I lived with an elderly woman for the room and board. But I never stayed there and I did not think anyone owed me anything.

My cousins think differently.

It's also hard to live in certain parts of the country. If you try to work at all, such a big chunk of your money is taxed and you still can't get ahead. That's how it was for me in New Jersey. The really rich and the very poor could afford to live there, those of us in the middle got the shaft.

Which is why I live in Texas.

As for this troubled earth, as a Christian I am one who lives with hope, because this world is not all there is, thank God, because otherwise, rich or poor we're just existing for a little while and then we're gone.

Take care Mudpuddle!

Mudpuddle said...

as i've been known to say: there are over 6 billion universes on the planet...

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Mudpuddle. I owe you an apology. You're right. I should not be making sweeping generalizations like I did. Who am I to talk about other people. There's good, bad and ugly in every social sphere. I should have compassion on people, not contempt.

I really have to work on that compassion thing. It's not my strong point.

Ruth @ with freedom and books said...

A hero? That's interesting. I tried to watch the more recent film version of MB, and I had to stop about 1/3 of the way through; they portrayed her as a victim. She's neither a hero or a victim. She was a selfish manipulator for sure.

Sharon Wilfong said...


And why anyone would think Flaubert meant anything other than exposing the corruption of human nature is a prime example of Critical Theory. An English professor explained to me that C.T. is when you do not try to understand what the author was trying to say. You simply impose your own interpretation on the work.

I guess that is why a lot of Victorian female protagonists have suddenly become feminist warriors in the eyes of English professors and students.

R.T. said...

Hmmm. Sharon, your comment about the English professor and critical theory sounds like something I might have mistakenly said when out of my mind and under the influence of pain killers; so, I might be motivated to set the record straight about literary criticism via some postings at my blog (and I might even use the motivation to revisit my nearly forgotten English professor notes from my classroom years at two different colleges). As for Flaubert, we might find some agreement within our more noticeable disagreements; in fact, I’m tempted to revisit MB, but first I will post a review of a Flaubert biography just to get myself in the mood.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi R.T. actually a young professor at the university where I work explained critical theory that way to me, assuming I understood him.

But I look forward to reading what every you have to say about it because I respect your expertise and input.

I can't wait to read what you have to say about Flaubert.

Carol said...

I was relieved the book didn’t malign Lady Agnew of Lochnaw. That’s one of my favourite paintings 🙂 Gardner’s husband wasn’t very complimentary. Fun review, Sharon!

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Carol. I really enjoyed this book and have become a huge Sargent fan. I have to look up Lady Agnew. She probably wasn't scandalous to be worth writing about.

Gardner's husband wasn't complimentary but when you read what he had to put up with, he was being pretty nice to her.

Marian H said...

This sounds like an interesting bit of history! The only picture by Sargent I recognize instantly is Madame X. I don't know if it's more humorous or disturbing that what was "scandalous" back then is commonplace now. Still, when you read about these people's lives, it makes you think times really haven't changed that much, just the facades.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Marian. I really wonder if there was some jealousy going on because Madame X and her mother saw nothing wrong with the portrait before it was exhibited. Not to mention that there were plenty of nude paintings also on exhibit that year.

Madame X was an American and I think maybe there were some Parisians that were glad to see her taken down a notch.

But you're right as far as modesty goes. I can't watch music videos anymore; I think strip bars and pole dancers must be out of business because you can get it all on YouTube.