Portraits of an Artist

A Novel of John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent was an enigmatic figure in his private life—he never married, but was intimate with many of the fin de siècle celebrities in Paris, London, Venice:  Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Edward Burne-Jones, Sarah Bernhardt. In 1882, Sargent was twenty-six and rising rapidly to fortune and fame, especially in Paris—but by the end of 1884, he had retreated from the City of Lights, disgraced and grieving, to make a new home in London. During these years, Sargent produced what are widely considered to be two of his very finest paintings, the Daughters of Edward Darley Boit and Madame X, haunting portraits with dark psychological depths that engage and puzzle the viewer. Mary F. Burns’ second work of historical fiction—Portraits of an Artist—imaginatively portrays the motivations and passions that underlie Sargent’s creative force and brilliantly revealing art.

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Visit my blog  about John Singer Sargent  www.portraitsofanartist.blogspot.com.

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Sargent/Paget Historical Mystery Series

John Singer Sargent and his childhood friend Violet Paget (aka writer Vernon Lee)
become amateur sleuths, focusing their artistic and literary sensibilities to solve
various murders and crimes that fall in their way.

The first book, THE SPOILS OF AVALON, is a dual-time-period mystery that reaches
back to 1539 as Henry VIII is despoiling the Catholic monasteries — and involves John and Violet in 1877 as they seek a murderer in the north of England.

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The second book, THE LOVE FOR THREE ORANGES, is set in Venice in the dark winter of 1879. John and Violet are afloat in murder amidst secrets and long-held grudges in an ancient palazzo on the Grand Canal, where John’s artist friend Giacomo is first suspected to be the killer. But when the police arrest John, Violet must overcome the forces of evil–both human and supernatural–to find the real killer.

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The third book: THE UNICORN IN THE MIRROR—It’s Paris in the Spring of 1881: John Singer Sargent’s portraits are garnering praise at the Salon, and Violet Paget is on her way to a literary rendevous in London. But their lives are interrupted by the dramatic murder of a friend, and the theft of a priceless work of art at the Musee de Cluny, where a medieval tapestry may hold the clue to the crime.

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The fourth book: THE ELEVENTH COMMANDMENT—Embroidered from a true and amazing story, this mystery engages John and Violet when it quite literally lands on their doorstep one afternoon in Paris in 1884. Travelling in haste from Paris to Rotterdam and back again, then on to London, the intrepid duo–joined by an old friend from their first case (The Spoils of Avalon)–endeavor to unravel the mysterious circumstances around the death of Moses Shapira, an antiquarian dealer from Jerusalem. He was the purveyor of the infamous “Shapira Scrolls”, 3000-year-old biblical documents that he maintained were an earlier edition of Deuteronomy, the scripture containing the Ten Commandments — but with an extra commandment. Denounced as a forger and con man by the British Museum experts, Shapira left London in disgrace, only to be found shot dead in his hotel room in Rotterdam six months later. That’s where John and Violet pick up the case.  Click here to buy a print copy or pre-order your e-book.       Click here to watch the trailer!

PRAISE for The Eleventh Commandment

“Burns’ prose is sharp and, at times, poetically melancholic; it also admirably avoids providing easy answers to the questions it raises. Overall, it’s an exceedingly intelligent and entertaining novel. A thrilling whodunit and an edifying work of historical fiction.”–Kirkus Reviews

“Burns has done her homework. She worked closely with leading Shapira researchers around the world and read countless contemporary reports from the nineteenth century to carry her narrative along. The Eleventh Commandment is high drama, a page-turner, and well worth the read. Get it, read it, and recommend it to others.” –Ross K. Nichols, author of The Moses Scroll


John Singer Sargent has fled Paris after the debacle of “Madame X”, the painting that destroyed his reputation—but he begins to heal and paint again in the Cotswolds village of Broadway. There, in a Bohemian enclave of American and British artists, writers, illustrators, poets and actors, he begins to create a painting that will make him famous once again—the luminous portrait of two little girls in a garden: “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”.

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Reading Mrs. Dalloway

“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” You read the first sentence, and you’re in. In the midst of things; in medias res, a classic, and classical, element of Literature. Reading Mrs. Dalloway is a deep and broad look into Virginia Woolf’s classic novel of poetic consciousness, revealing allusions, prompting musings, deepening thought, and exploring hidden treasures as we accompany Clarissa Dalloway during her famous Hours. This book is a non-academic, literary essay, and is intended to help illuminate and enliven the text for readers who love Virginia Woolf and Clarissa Dalloway, and want to spend some time in that fanciful, brilliant, intense world of post-Great War London.


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Of Ripeness & The River

A woman goes on a journey…

It’s 1982 — a time when a “long-distance” phone call was expensive; when people still wrote letters and sent postcards; when paper maps were the best guide to driving around the country. The Internet hadn’t yet begun to replace actual visits to libraries for research and discovery. Yes, a “slower” time–although we who lived then didn’t think it was!

Clare Yates is an English professor whose life was overturned, betrayed even, and she retreats to her university town in rural Illinois to start again. She comes across an intriguing entry in Jack London’s diary that resonates in her soul–and it sets her off on a road trip to find out what she can about Jack, the “fine lady” he mentions, and a life that Clare thinks she may have lived before she was born.

NOTE: This novel was awarded the Bronze Medal by The Historical Fiction Company in November 2022, and also given a 5-STAR Excellent Highly Recommended rating.

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Ember Days

On the edge of the cultural earthquake that would be the 1960s, the people who live in the coastal village of Mendocino in 1959 can feel it coming.

Beats and jazz, poetry and art are spilling out of San Francisco onto the northern coasts of California. World War II is laid to rest, but people feel restless. When a village son, now a priest, comes back home to bury his mother, he finds his younger brother gone and a town full of secrets—some of them his own. Ember Days, named for the ancient marking of the change from one season to the next, reveals the heart’s deep longings and fears in the face of truth and change, life and death.

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Isaac and Ishmael

The first in a new trilogy, Novels of Genesis, Isaac and Ishmael follows the familiar story lines in the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament) but presents individual persons on a human scale in order to explore the thorny, complex and delicate relations between these brothers, who live in a place where time and eternity touch. A new God is coming into being here: Yahweh, the uncanny, irascible, mischievous, bargaining God who participates in the life of a new people and compels them to a new way of being human.

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J–The Woman Who Wrote the Bible

Like the women of the Red Tent, even the daughter of King David lived in a world ruled by men. But this woman was born to break the rules of both men and God in order to learn the art of writing, and with it, a power that could reveal the hidden truth, or slay a man with a single word. Secretly initiated into the magic of writing, Janaia finds she must master the sublime powers and visions that come with this “knowledge of good and evil,” a journey which reveals the secrets of life and death through heartbreak and sacrifice.
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In the Cage & At Chalk Farm

A Classic & A Sequel: A new series from Word by Word Press debuts with a classic Henry James short story “In the Cage” paired with a sequel, “At Chalk Farm.” The delightful, audacious and imaginative heroine of James’s story continues her journey as she moves beyond the telegraph cage at Cocker’s grocery establishment, and is on her way to becoming “the new woman” of the late 19th century—-defying social class, traditional gender roles, marriage conventions and economics in order to find out who she is and what she will become in the new order.
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Crapy Cornelia
& The Grace of Uncertainty

A Classic & A Sequel: The second in the series, the wonderful story Crapy Cornelia by Henry James shows his critical eye on the bustling, brash and blatantly modern City of New York in 1909, and in particular, Washington Square, which James had known intimately as a child, when it was a village of quiet families and good manners. The Grace of Uncertainty takes the same characters and opens up the veiled hints, the nuances, and the suppressed longings that hide behind the correct manners, the subdued gestures, and the occasional candid outbursts that James allowed his characters to display.

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The West Portal Mysteries

The Lucky Dog Lottery – A mysterious death … a statue with a secret … a $60 million lottery … hi-tech intrigue … and a battle with the elusive master criminal Meringue – all add up to adventure, danger and excitement for Cynthia Montrose, her English bulldogs Roscoe and Kiwi, and her best friends Maureen and henry. In this first of the West Portal Mysteries, criminals meet their doom in the otherwise friendly San Francisco neighborhood of West Portal, nestled between Twin Peaks and the Pacific Ocean, only a decade or two behind the high-speed life of the City by the Bay.

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The Tarot Card Murders — A mysterious secret from twenty years ago … Tarot cards left on the doorstep … and murder … all add up to new excitement and challenge at Halloween for Cynthia Montrose and her two lovable English bulldogs Roscoe and Kiwi.  And Cynthia continues to get crosswise with her ex-high-school-boyfriend, Detective Leonard Vlainich, because she’s always in the middle of whatever criminal activity happens to land in the otherwise peaceful neighborhood of West Portal, just west of Twin Peaks in San Francisco.

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