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.