Review: Sargent's Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas

Sargent's Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas Sargent's Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas by Donna M. Lucey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was fortunate to receive an Advanced Reading Copy of this book

3.5 Stars

John Singer Sargent has long been my favorite American painter. I first became fascinated with his work in the early 80's and was lucky enough to have been able to view the massive Whitney Museum of American Art retrospective of Sargent's work back in 1986. One thing that was evident from his massive production is that Sargent had immense natural facility that is often overlooked by his being brushed off as merely a high society portraitist. Like many artists before him, Sargent painted commissioned portraits on the Continent, in England, and in the United States, in order to make a living. These funded his peregrinations, documented in exquisite watercolours, oils, and simple sketches, throughout Southern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. His society portraits, many of which look as if they have captured characters straight out of an Edith Wharton novel, run the gamut from an homage to Velazquez (The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882) to the famously scandal-imbued Madame X (Virginie Amélie Avegno, Madame Pierre Gautreau, in a portrait that pretty much ruined her life). Sargent, an American expat who grew up in British and European society, was able to blend smoothly into high society and, until the "petite gaffe" with Virginie Gautreau at the Paris Salon exhibition in 1884, enjoyed a reputation of pleasant discretion. His reputation badly frayed after the Paris Salon of 1884, he departed Paris with the painting in tow. Sargent quickly recovered his reputation in England and the US, taking on some of his best known portraits. (Virginie, on the other hand, withdrew from society and though later commissioned portraits by Courtois and de la Gandara, never recovered her reputation, and was separated from her husband at her death. An interested reader can get the short version here or check out the book Strapless. )

Modern viewers of Sargent's portraits may look at them and wonder who exactly these people were. While male subjects often had public lives and accessible biographies, far less is often available about his female subjects. Lucey has given us short biographies of four of Sargent's American female subjects, all of whom came from some of America's most privileged families. (Presumably American-born Virginie was excluded since she has already been the subject of another book?) Detailing the lives of Elsie Palmer, Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler, the Fairchild sisters, Sally (subject of several portraits) and Lucia (subject of none) and the iconoclast, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Lucey captures the lives of these women, particularly focusing on the period of time when they were painted by Sargent.

While the chapter devoted to Elsie Palmer was interesting, providing information about the Palmer family, the Aesthetic Movement at Ightham Mote, and Glen Eyrie, I found the chapter on the Fairchild sisters to be quite odd. Although Sally Fairchild was the object of a number of portraits by Sargent including a blue-veiled portrait now in a private collection, the bulk of the chapter is about her sister Lucia, presumed too homely by Sargent to bother painting, and who was herself a painter. So little information is provided about Sally's life that I found her selection for the book to be rather disappointing.

The chapter on Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler, later Mrs. John Jay Chapman, was the most interesting to me. Filled with pathos, one feels the poignancy of her early childhood and youth, and the tinge of scandal with her late marriage to her deceased best friend Minna Timmins' husband John Jay Chapman, who was the great love of her life, even when Timmins was still alive. This was a moving biographical sketch.

Isabella Stewart Gardner needs no real introduction to Sargent fans, or to Bostonians. She has been the subject of several books (a point which only makes me question the exclusion of Virginie Gautreau and inclusion of Sally Fairchild) This was an interesting chapter providing a brief biographical sketch of Belle Gardner, or Mrs. Jack, as she was also known. She was both Sargent's patron and friend. This ebullient woman had a great impact on art, privately collecting works by some of history's greatest artists. (Sadly, a number of them are equally famous for being part of art history's greatest theft, a 1990 robbery of 13 works from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, a museum whose security is greatly constrained by the terms of Gardner's bequest creating the museum. Although recently there is a sign that there may be a bit more movement on resolving the heist case.)

I found the descriptions of the paintings by Lucey to be interesting and I'm not sure I always agreed with them. Elsie Palmer's painting, Young Lady in White feels almost preternaturally still and constrained, perhaps presaging her decades of being caught between two very different worlds (elite English society favored by her mother and a more rural Colorado lifestyle favored by her father) and her being shackled to a caregiver role in her family while her younger sister Dos engaged in an affair with the married man that Elsie loved. This portrait is currently on loan from the Colorado Fine Arts Center to Ightham Mote, in Kent, though December 2017. The Sally Fairchild painting favored by Lucey, that of her in a blue veil, while striking, reflects the fact that we don't really learn much about Sally in this book. This portrait is also now in a private collection (as are the other two portraits of her) so unless it is loaned for an exhibit at a major institution, the reader is not likely to see it in person. She remains rather obscured to the reader. The beautiful portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler, one of Sargent's better known portraits, now held by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Art, speaks to me less of "innocence" than of her great personal strength and resolve. Sargent's admiration for his subject is palpable in this portrait. No doubt the similar health struggles shared by Elizabeth and Sargent's sister Emily fueled his empathy for Elizabeth. The prime of life portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner depicts her powerful persona against a backdrop that would suit a renaissance painting. This painting, of course, remains on display at the Isabella Stewart Garner Museum in Boston. Sargent's delicate watercolor of her in dotage, swathed in white, is far more powerful to me than the large oil painting of her in her prime. It was touching that he painted her again, something that no doubt gave her pleasure. I do have to say however, much as I love Sargent, when I think of Mrs. Jack, I'm more inclined to think of her in the style of the dramatic pose in the Anders Zorn painting, also on display in that museum.

All in all, I found the book to be a pleasant read. Those looking for a biography of more of Sargent than his subjects may be disappointed to see little of Sargent here, but I found the book, particular the Chanler chapter, to be commendable for giving us a story to pair with these pretty society women, whose single job and worth were tethered to making a powerful marriage and retaining social position. These were real women, with real lives, loves and sorrows.

Readers interested in perusing more of Sargent's catalog should check out the virtual museum of his work at

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