Sargent’s Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas

Donna M. Lucey. Norton, $29.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-393-07903-6
Lucey (Archie and Amélie) examines the fascinating lives of four women affiliated with the inimitable painter John Singer Sargent, “portraitist to New York’s Gilded set.” The women, three of whom appear in Sargent’s paintings, include Elsie Palmer, who was plucked from a cushy life of English aristocracy and forced to assimilate into the American West after her mother’s death, and Elizabeth Chanler, whose tragically misdiagnosed tuberculosis of the hip resulted in her being strapped to a board for two years as a teenager. Sargent painted Isabella Stewart Gardner twice, once in youth and once shortly before her death at age 82. In the years between, she amassed an incredible art collection that included a Vermeer and a Botticelli. Lucey goes a bit off script to focus on Lucia Fairchild, who never appeared in any of Sargent’s paintings (though her sister Sally did), but it is the right choice. Lucia’s life is endlessly intriguing. A working artist who lived in New Hampshire’s eccentric Cornish Arts Colony among luminaries such as sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and actress Ethel Barrymore, Fairchild led a successful career creating affordable miniature paintings to support her children and deadbeat husband. Oddly, there is little biographical information on Sargent himself, who remains something of an enigma throughout the book, though Lucey does analyze his artwork and his aesthetic choices. Still, Lucey ably pulls these four compelling women out of obscurity with insight and infectious enthusiasm. (Aug.)
Reviewed on: 06/05/2017
Release date: 08/22/2017
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