At a museum, do you ever wonder where those grand portrait subjects go when they step out of the canvas back into their lives? Let's follow a few and find out.
Elsie Palmer, daughter of a railroad-baron father, is trapped "like some fairy-tale princess imprisoned" in her family's Rocky Mountain castle. Lucia Fairchild Fuller, a beloved member of the Cornish art colony in New Hampshire, sacrifices her health for her family and her artistic ideals. Elizabeth Chanler, fabulously wealthy but hobbled by a damaged hip, helps watch over her siblings while her youth and marriage prospects melt away. And Isabella Stewart Gardner, born in Manhattan and long frozen out of New England society, astounds Boston Brahmins with her private museum.
Like characters from the writings of Edith Wharton, these women were smart, passionate, willful, adventurous and striking-looking — particularly when immortalized by John Singer Sargent. Their enticing collective mini-biographies make up "Sargent's Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas," by Donna M. Lucey. We learn something of Sargent's personality, his technique and his circumstances, but Lucey primarily uses him as a portal through which to glimpse these assertive spirits of the Gilded Age.
In Fuller's case, the author performs an eyebrow-raising sleight of hand, for it is Lucia's sister Sally whom Sargent painted in his well-known blue-veiled portrait. But Lucia is by far the more interesting of the two, and Sargent was an inspiration to her own work. Ultimately, we forgive this bait-and-switch as we grow infatuated with the endearingly openhearted and bohemian Lucia.
We're tempted, at first, to regard each of these women only as poor little rich girls. We are soon reminded, however, that in a situation such as Fuller's, a stormy market can devour wealth in an instant. Her father's railroad and real estate investments were destroyed in the depression of 1893. Although her family tried to keep up appearances, Lucia barely scraped by. Palmer, Chanler and Gardner inherited and maintained their fortunes, but money didn't spare their families the ravages of untimely deaths, physical and mental ailments, suicides, war and other tragedies. Merciless out-of-the-blue infections, a spine-snapping toss from a horse, an aviator's fatal plummet at the hands of a World War I German gunner — these are just a few of the myriad misfortunes battering these lives of privilege.
The era prescribed the social graces for these women, but their well-educated minds and yearning temperaments urged them toward social revolutions. Sargent's sensitive renderings of these maverick souls may have been enhanced by his own unconventional circumstances: The convivial and workaholic artist was drawn partly or wholly to men; he was, at the least, cagey about his personal life.
Lucey's prose is invitingly conversational and quick-flowing. Her character sketches are colorful and she is not, thank goodness, above conveying some wonderfully catty gossip. For instance, as Lucia's marriage to the talented but astonishingly self-centered artist Harry Fuller crumbled in the New Hampshire arts colony, fellow Cornish residents, the painter Maxfield Parrish and the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, carried on affairs with their favorite models. Saint-Gaudens even "had his own shadow family, conceiving a child with model Davida Clark, his vision of ethereal beauty who posed for several of his most famous works: the scandalous nude statue of Diana that twirled atop Stanford White's pleasure palace, Madison Square Garden — and his winged bronze angel Amor Caritas, meaning 'love is charity,' though Gussie, the artist's deaf and cranky wife, might not have thought so."
Gardner provides Lucey with particularly picturesque material. At the unveiling of her museum home in 1903, Belle, as she was called, "welcomed her opening-night guests from a landing at the top of a curving stairway. She was a regal presence in black, slathered with jewels: a ruby, pearls (149 of them), and two enormous diamonds named 'Rajah' and 'Light of India,' which she wore atop her head on gold spiral wires so that they'd bob and sparkle as she talked." They don't make 'em like that anymore.
Even after strokes had taken away most of her movement, at 82 she inspired Sargent to paint "Mrs. Gardner in White" (1922). Unlike the controversial, brassy oil portrait of her that he had created decades before, this watercolor "was a work of peace, a heartfelt tribute to the woman he'd grown to love and admire." She died soon after. And the next year so did he, in bed at his London home, a copy of Voltaire's "Dictionnaire philosophique" beside him.
Perhaps in his last hours Sargent stumbled upon this musing from that compendium: "People have declaimed against luxury for two thousand years, in verse and prose, and people have always delighted in it."
Alexander C. Kafka has written about books and the arts for The Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Chicago Tribune. On Sept. 12 at 5:30 p.m., Donna Lucey will speak at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 8th and F Sts. NW, Washington, DC.
By Donna M. Lucey
W.W. Norton. 336 pp. $29.95