They hold your eye, the women in John Singer Sargent’s paintings. In fact, they don’t just hold it, but seize it — whether through their poise or allure or elusiveness.
It makes perfect sense, then, that biographer and art historian Donna M. Lucey should want to know more about who they were and how their paths crossed with Sargent’s.
“Sargent’s Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas” consists of four novella-length biographies of women who sat for the painter. Lucey’s prose can be breathless, even gossipy. But for the most part she delivers the goods, disclosing the unhappy or colorful lives that Sargent sometimes hinted at but didn’t spell out. Her sources are the voluminous diaries and correspondence that these women kept.
First up is Elsie Palmer, daughter of William Palmer, a Colorado railroad baron and his culture-crazed wife, Mary, or Queen to her friends. Sargent’s portrait of her, “Miss Elsie Palmer” (1889-1890), is a true anomaly in his oeuvre: an intensely symmetrical treatment of a seemingly placid young woman that gives off worrying psychic alarm signals. The portrait took him two years to complete — unusually long for him and a sign that he had trouble coming to grips with his 18-year-old subject.
“It turned out,” Lucey writes, “that the mysterious young woman on Sargent’s canvas with the blank expression . . . had fiery passions bubbling beneath her serene surface.”
Her father was a diet-and-exercise martinet, imposing a strict regimen on her as a condition for receiving an allowance. Her mother was a hypochondriac certain she was soon to die and she anxiously started training Elsie, at age 13, to take over her maternal duties from her.
On the romantic front, Elsie — after falling for a married man who led her on for years before switching his affections to her younger sister — wound up marrying at 35. Her husband, writer L.H. Myers (“The Root and the Flower”), killed himself in 1944. Elsie lived until 1955. Sargent couldn’t have known these details of her future. Yet the way the portrait throws off sparks feels close to clairvoyant.
Lucey’s second choice of portrait — “Lady with a Blue Veil (Sally Fairchild)” — is odder, in that she focuses less on Sally than her sister, artist Lucia Fairchild Fuller. It’s a tale of sibling enmities, lost family fortunes, illnesses and suicides — and a reminder that behind the illusions of breezy confidence that Sargent created, struggles and losses sometimes prevailed.
Sargent’s 1893 portrait of Elizabeth Chanler opens the door onto another challenging life, and Lucey is shrewd about “the tension in the portrait – the utter stillness of [Chanler’s] face versus the jumble in the bottom half of the painting where her clasped hands try to keep a colorful ‘restless’ pillow under control. Chaos is not far from the serene surface.”
Chanler overcame the early loss of both parents and a hip disease that left her lame to find love in her late 20s. The object of her affection, unfortunately, was her best friend’s husband, writer John Jay Chapman. Following his wife’s death they were able to marry, but his “smoldering good looks and intellectual intensity” came accompanied by mental instability. (His nonchalant account of how he lost his left hand in an attempt to atone for a sin is a high point of the book.)
Lucey’s fourth subject, Isabella Stewart Gardner, creator of the museum that bears her name, will be of greatest interest to Bostonians. Sargent painted her twice: once in her grand-dame years and again, in an eerie watercolor, just before her death. She led quite the rambunctious life and Lucey makes the most of it, opening her chapter with a choice description of Gardner by Henry James: “She is not a woman, she is a locomotive – with a Pullman car attached.”
Gardner, Lucey tells us, was Sargent’s “greatest patron, and — though she could be infuriating and demanding — she became one of his dearest friends.” We see her on her voyages to Egypt and Europe, engaging in the “cloak-and-dagger” side of art collecting and high-handedly driving her collaborators crazy as she creates her museum. She’s a piece of Boston history and the figure in the book with the closest connection to Sargent, who advised her on her art acquisitions as well as benefiting from her purchases of his own work.
“Sargent’s Women” is a good read, but does contain a few errors, especially concerning British geography. Bournemouth was a bustling seaside resort in the 1890s, not a “village” as Lucey has it, and the Isle of Wight is not “across the English Channel” from England.
That sows some distrust about other specifics, but doesn’t diminish the book’s chatty pleasures, which are considerable.
Four Lives Behind the Canvas
By Donna M. Lucey
Norton, 311 pp., illustrated, $29.95
Novelist Michael Upchurch (“Passive Intruder”) is the former Seattle Times book critic.