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  • Writer's pictureLisa Sysun

Sargent's Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas

Updated: Jan 3, 2019

By Donna M. Lucey

Clockwise from top left; Elsie Palmer, Elizabeth Chanler, Isabella Stewart Gardner, and Sally Fairchild.

Being an ardent John Singer Sargent fan, I couldn’t wait to dig into this book. Donna Lucey doesn’t disappoint.

With vivid detail, Lucey sketches out the lives of four of his female subjects that rivals the canvas work done by the portrait-master himself. The stories behind his ultra-wealthy patrons are privileged, ostentatious, and at times, tragic.

The Lady in White, 1889-1890. John painted Elsie with simplicity; a simple smocked dress and modest necklace, wrapped around the waist by a subtle mauve shawl is set against the austere wooden background of Mote’s chapel hall. Her blank, haunted stare belies a secret she seems to want to share.

Set in the late 19th century and beginning with Elsie Palmer, the story travels between Ightham Mote, the medieval English manor house where her mother, Queen, took refuge; to her father’s Colorado castle, Glen Eyrie. A railroad baron and former Civil War General, William Palmer is dedicated to his family but driven by business. Queen surrounds her daughters with the cultural elite of the day, wherever the family stayed. Actors, writers, and artists were frequent guests. Sargent, Ellen Terry (most celebrated stage actress of the day), and Henry James enjoyed many holidays at the ‘Mote.’ After her mother’s death from a heart attack at the age of forty-four, Elsie returned to Colorado, dabbled in spirituality and, for a time, a forbidden love affair with a married man.

Sargent’s younger sister, Violet, befriended Sally Fairchild while in England. John spent leisurely summers from 1889-1891 with her family in Nahant, a resort town northeast of Boston. Charles, the patriarch, was an ultra-wealthy investment banker. Sally enchanted Sargent, as she did everyone else. Beautiful, self-assured and independent, Sally was the first woman to attend a lecture at Harvard. There were endless proposals for marriage, none of which she entertained.

Portrait of Sally Fairchild, 1885. Sally’s portrait shows us the striking and self-assured woman Sargent captured that summer in Nahant. Her auburn hair and deep brown eyes, the rose in her cheeks, the straightness of her posture; all combine to portray the proud and haughty woman Sally would become.

Content, she chose to stay at home and care for her mother. Her younger sister, Lucia, admired Sargent’s talent and harbored a love of her own for art. Plain and plump, often overshadowed by Sally, Lucia’s personal story of love, courage, and loss is riveting. Marrying an artist with no real prospects of making money, Lucia painted murals and miniatures to support her growing family. They settled in Plainfield, New Hampshire and became members of the Cornish Arts Colony made up of artists, writers, musicians, and actors. Meanwhile, the financial crisis of 1893 hit the Fairchild family hard. Charles’ favored investments, western railroads, and real estate had gone bust. The family fortunes slowly disappeared. Sally remained single until her eighties when she took up with a man nearly fifty years her junior!

Sargent painted twenty-seven-year-old Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler at his studio in London in June of 1893. Hands clasped, resting on apillow, Elizabeth stares determinedly, daring you to ask what she’s thinking. Her great-grandfather was William B. Astor, the wealthiest man in America. Her mother, Margaret, the Astor heiress, died of pneumonia while pregnant with her twelfth child at just thirty-seven years old. At nine years old, Elizabeth became the surrogate mother for her nine surviving brothers and sisters. Her grief-stricken father, John Chanler, a lawyer and former three-term U.S. Congressman from New York, couldn’t cope with his large brood. The family estate at Rokeby, near Rhinebeck, New York, was run by a succession of governesses, tutors, and servants.

Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler (Mrs. John Jay Chapman), 1893. John said that Elizabeth had “the face of the Madonna and the eyes of a child.”

Just two years later, while at school at Ashcliff on the Isle of Wight across the English Channel, Elizabeth’s father succumbed to a sudden case pneumonia. She was now an orphan, and eventually, became an invalid from a mysterious disease. Strapped to a board to limit movement, Elizabeth gradually overcame her malaise, and with a limp, began to walk again. Straight into the arms of her best friend’s husband! Elizabeth’s affair with Jack Chapman was more like two damaged and lost souls finding solace in one another. They married many years later after Jack’s wife Minna died of a blood clot after delivering her third child.

Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1888. Sargent was paid $3,000 for this portrait. She seems about to say something, possibly some direction on how to capture her face. He redid it eight times. Her low-cut black dress, the string of pearls circling her waist, and those rubies, even on her shoes. Belle loved the portrait, but her husband hated it. He asked her not to display the painting until after his death. It remained private she passed in 1924. It now resides in the Gothic Room.

Isabella Stewart Gardner, or ‘The Collector,’ provides a fitting culmination for this book. She also happens to be the founder of my favorite museum in Boston, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Henry James said of Isabella, “She is not a woman, she is a locomotive – with a Pullman car attached.”

A very apt description. Isabella steamrolled through obstacles to get what she wanted. “Belle” was not a beautiful woman, on the contrary, she was short and plain, with a pale complexion and piercing dark blue eyes. What she lacked in physical beauty, Belle more than made up for in ambition. She married John Lowell “Jack” Gardner, Jr., scion of one of the wealthiest families in Boston in April of 1860. Belle loved to create drama by calling attention to herself, scandalizing the blue bloods in her adoptive hometown.

After their young son, Jackie, died of pneumonia before he was two years old, Belle sunk into a depression. When her second pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, doctors advised that she get away with Jack. They left Boston and traveled all over the world, eventually amassing an art collection that rivaled the grandest museums of the day. They collected paintings, manuscripts, antiquities, rare illustrated books, tapestries, religious relics, textiles, furniture, ceramics, glassware and other assorted curiosities.

Henry James introduced Belle to Sargent in 1886. He painted her portrait shortly afterward. She was infuriating and demanding, but over the course of their lives, Belle became his great patron and one of his dearest friends.

After Jack’s death in 1898, Belle purchased marshy land in the Fenway area to house their massive collection. She hired famed architect William Sears to design a museum with private quarters for her on the fourth floor. Belle called it ‘Fenway Court’ and it emulated the 15th century Venetian Palazzo Barbaro. The museum opened on January 1, 1903, with a grand celebration featuring a performance by members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The story of these four women, their families, and Sargent has been written with beautiful detail by Lucey. A must-read if you’re drawn to the works of John Singer Sargent or the man himself.

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