Portraits of an Artist: Gleaning Secrets from the Canvas

Last week in San Francisco at Bookshop West Portal, author Mary F. Burns launched her new book Portraits of an Artist, a novel about American portraitist John Singer Sargent, published by Sand Hill Review Press. Burns discussed how her research into the painter’s life and letters, and those of several of the subjects he painted, led her to portray Sargent as he’s never been presented before—as a young, sensual, independent man striving to hide his sexuality in an era when it was a crime to be homosexual—as his friend Oscar Wilde was to learn the hard way.

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Madame X

Sargent was an enigmatic figure even to his friends and family—he never married, but was intimate with many of the fin de siècle celebrities in Paris, London and Venice: Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Edward Burne-Jones, Sarah Bernhardt, to name but a few.

San Francisco, CA (PRWEB) February 25, 2013

“For decades after the death in 1925 of the celebrated portraitist John Singer Sargent, his private life—as well as his paintings—just didn’t seem all that interesting,” Burns said. The swagger and boldness of his larger-than-life-size portraits of aristocrats, presidents, staggeringly wealthy industrialists and social climbers of La Belle Époque had pretty much gone out of vogue once The Great War devastated Europe—and after the Great Depression brought the United States to its knees. But starting in the mid-1970’s, thanks to Sargent’s grand-nephew Richard Ormond, there’s been a growing revival and more than a few major exhibitions of Sargent’s work—both portraits in oil and an immense collection of watercolors—that have deservedly brought his work back into the public eye.

But Sargent’s private life has still been somewhat of an enigma, with only a few revelations here and there in the last decade or so about his inner life, the emotional import of his paintings, and his status as a “permanent bachelor.” Portraits of an Artist, her latest work of historical fiction, is grounded in letters and research about Sargent and his circle, and presents a psychologically imaginative portrait of the great artist at the height of his career, the early to mid 1880’s in Paris.

Sargent was an enigmatic figure even to his friends and family—he never married, but was intimate with many of the fin de siècle celebrities in Paris, London and Venice: Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Edward Burne-Jones, Sarah Bernhardt, to name but a few. 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.

What happened to drive him from Paris? 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. Burns’ novel takes on the mystery of these paintings, and portrays the motivations and passions that underlie Sargent’s creative force and brilliantly revealing art.

The portrait of “Madame X,” which hangs in the newly designed American Art wing of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, created a scandal in Paris that was the subject of weeks of newspaper articles, editorial cartoons and of course, created a social backlash that drove both the subject of the portrait (Virginie Amélie Gautreau, an American woman of French origins) and the painter himself to leave the city to escape the ignominy. Not only was the nature of their relationship under heavy scrutiny, but the daring portrayal of a woman considered to be a “professional beauty” was also called into question for its boldness and suggestive “modern” sexuality.

The other painting, titled “Portraits d’Enfants” was a highly original and daring piece of art that portrayed in an unusual style the four daughters of Sargent’s fellow American and painter, Edward Darley Boit, as mysterious and seemingly isolated figures in a dark and shadowy, seven-by-seven-foot square painting. “The first time I’d ever knowingly seen a Sargent portrait,” Burns explains, “was at a major exhibition of his work at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 1999. I stood for an hour in front of the ‘Daughters’ painting. I vowed I would write a novel about them some day.”

Burns’ research revealed that none of the four Boit girls ever married, and two of them spent some periods of their lives in sanatoriums, battling depression and mental illness. “When I learned this,” Burns says, “I knew there was a story behind this painting that I could either find out—or imagine.” This portrait is at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, a gift of the four girls upon the death of their father.

Portraits of an Artist, published by Sand Hill Review Press, is available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books Inc., and local bookstores. It is wholesaled through Ingram.