Two paintings defined his life–one, a private grief; the other, a public scandal.

When I first started thinking about this novel, in 1999, I focused on Sargent’s enigmatic “Portraits d’Enfants”, exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1883. The four daughters of Edward and Isa Boit are presented, for a portrait, in a most unusual way:  the eldest daughter (Florence, 14) has barely a profile of her face to show us who she is. She and her sister Jane (age 12) almost sink into the dark brown shadows of the room beyond the hall where they are posed in the family’s Paris residence on Rue Hauptmann. It’s possible the two older girls are holding hands, but not clear. What is clear is that they are all separated in space, and maybe affection, as the two younger girls (Mary-Louisa, 8 and Julia, 4) stand or sit far from each other and their two older sisters. Their pinafores are almost uniforms, stiff and virtually undifferentiated. There are no smiles, just blank or thoughtful stares into the middle distance. An art critic at the time dubbed it “four corners and a void” after a well-known children’s game (sort of a tag-you’re-it within four “corners”), which seemed to me to express the psychological darkness that looms in the atmosphere.

The painting intrigued me, and I “knew” there was a story there, so in 2008 I began writing what I thought was going to be a novel telling this story. But when I was about half way into it, things changed, as they so often do in writing. After reading three biographies and numerous letters of the artist, I have found that my novel has come to be a searching portrait of the artist himself, John Sargent, much in the same way (I say this with all humility) as is Colm Toibin’s haunting novel of Henry James (“The Master”). My novel covers the years 1882-1884, extraordinarily creative years for Sargent, during which he painted perhaps his two most significant paintings, one of them being the “Daughters.”
The other portrait is the famous “Madame X”, which I recently viewed at the New York Met. A magnificent painting, it looms large in the legend of Sargent’s career, and was the flashpoint of a heady scandal that rocked the world of art and high society in Paris in 1884. “Madame X” was an American woman, Amelie Gautreau, born in New Orleans and transplanted to Paris at an early age by her ambitious mother. At the time of the portrait, she was about 24 years old, just two years younger than Sargent, married to a ‘dwarfish’ wealthy Frenchman, and had a little girl. There was evidently a frisson of sorts between Amelie and Sargent—she was notoriously “sexual” in her presentation of herself in society. But Sargent was also drawn to emotional entanglements with young men—it was an interesting time—and it makes for some very intriguing story-telling.

After reading three biographies of Sargent, poring through numerous art books and critical essays, as well as letters and notes, this novel has turned into a very exciting journey of emotional, artistic and psychological exploration into a man’s life, work and soul. After writing the whole novel with a third-person omnisicient narrator, I decided to revise it and make it a multiple-first-person format, with several of Sargent’s closest friends and most famous sitters be the “Portraits” who tell their own stories about their connection with him–and through their voices we gain multiple and often intimate understandings of the artist himself.

N.B. “Madame X” is on display at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art; the “Portraits d’Enfants” is at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Two very fine books about these paintings are “Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X” by Deborah Davis, and “Sargent’s Daughters: The Biography of a Painting” by Erica Hirshler. 

Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, by John Singer Sargent
Madame X, by John Singer Sargent 

3 thoughts on “John Singer Sargent

  1. As an irredeemable lover of historical fiction, JSS, and La Belle Époque I’d like to say thank you and “Brava!” for Portraits of an Artist. I’ve never been able to parse the appeal of the “novel of manners” and our imaginings of a more ideal era, but the hook is in deep. Welcome to my private constellation of favorites like Patrick O’Brian, Alan Furst, Edith Wharton and others. (H. James, while brilliant, is sometimes a bridge too far.) I hope to inhale more of your books in the year ahead. (Actually I’ll pace myself to make them last longer.) Tally ho, jolly good, and all that rubbish, as Violet or Ralph might say. BTW, going forward, you deserve deckle edge hardcovers in Sabon typeface. Fare well!

    1. Dear Mr. Esler, I’m delighted you liked Portraits so much, and thank you for the compliment of placing me in such brilliant company. I haven’t read much O’Brian, but I love Alan Furst and Wharton too. James, however, is a particular favorite but I know he is very much an acquired taste! I happen to be working at this very minute on the third “Sargent/Paget” mystery, which is set in Venice and involves the Lady & Unicorn tapestries that are in the Musee du Cluny in Paris. And I DO so appreciate the accolade of deserving “deckle edge hardcovers in Sabon typeface”, which tells me you are either in my “age cohort” (of baby boomers) or have an exceptional education (or both!). Cheers!

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