Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Hercule Poirot and Lord Ribbesdale

While watching one of those delightful Masterpiece Mysteries on Christmas Eve—it was Hercule Poirot in an episode from 1995 titled “Poirot’s Christmas”, with the inimitable David Suchet, I noticed that a portrait of the (soon to be dead) wealthy old man who had hired Poirot looked rather familiar. I paused the show and captured this shot (on right) with my camera. 

I ran to my bookshelves to get a book of Sargent portraits by Elizabeth Prettejohn, written as the exhibition book for one of the most magnificent exhibits of Sargent paintings in the last fifty years—I saw it at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 1998. Turning the pages quickly, I found the portrait I’d been reminded of in the Poirot mystery:  Lord Ribbesdale. Though not a full-length portrait, the painting used in the mystery story was undoubtedly painted with Sargent’s portrait in mind – the stance, the draped coat, even the flattened pilaster in the background mimicked the original very well. What fun to see it on TV! 

Prettejohn’s description of the Lord Ribbesdale portrait is fascinating, as she sets forth the hypothesis that while Sargent chose the traditional stance of an Englishman’s portrait, his use of hunting clothing instead of military dress—including substituting the sword with a riding crop—is a strong indication of the dramatic changes undergone by British aristocracy, who no longer held the power and sway of their forebears, but rather seemed mostly representative of the new “leisure class” whose main activity was elite sports, like fox hunting and horse racing. Sargent always insisted that he didn’t “psychologize” his sitters and only painted what was before his eyes, but we know that he spent a good deal of time choosing exactly what his sitters would wear, and arranging the background to suit his perception of a portrait. Hard to believe he wasn’t arranging a little social commentary!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Madame X: Then and Now

 Artists, and especially photographers, have always been fascinated by the scandalous "Madame X", one of Sargent's most famous portraits, and the one of which he wrote in a letter when he sold it (c. 1917) to the NY Metropolitan Museum of Art, "probably the best thing I've ever done." 

Here is the "original" portrait in a black & white photo, the only known photograph of the portrait as it was originally displayed, with Virginie Amelie Gautreau's dress strap hanging off her shoulder. Later, after the Salon of 1884 was over, Sargent took the portrait back to his studio on Boulevard Berthier and scraped away the offending strap, painting it so it was firmly attached to the lady's shoulder. You'll have to read my novel to learn more about the whole backstory! (coming late January 2013)

A few years ago, Nicole Kidman posed for some interesting Vogue photographs in which she was dressed as famous portraits, one of which was, of course, Madame X.  Didn't quite get the posture right (imho), and Ms. Kidman looks less serene, more startled and anxious than Amelie Gautreau -- and her right arm isn't nearly as contorted (something that Sargent's subject complained about endlessly!)


And then, just this morning, I came across this delicious new take on Madame X. It's featured on a website of an artist, James Kinser (, working with photographer Niki Gangruth, who together deftly and brilliantly explore the "rich, undefined land between genders" in a project they call "Muse". There are several other re-visioned famous portraits (Vermeer, Ingres, Magritte) that are well worth seeing. Again, the pose doesn't exactly duplicate everything, especially that twisted right hand, but I think this one has more of the cool serenity of the original. There was, in fact, a strong undercurrent of "gender-bending" at the end of the 19th century and a little beyond (think Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, Toulouse Lautrec); Singer Sargent and the crowd he ran with were kind of on the experimenting edge of this kind of "new world."


Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Palazzo Barbaro in Venice

I loved writing the section in my novel about Ralph Curtis and John Sargent at Ralph's family's "digs" in Venice: the famous Palazzo Barbaro. At left is a photo of the palazzo from across the Grand Canal, where I was standing when I was in Venice in September, very close to the Peggy Guggenheim museum (which was closed that day). Here's some information about it: 
The Palazzi Barbaro — also known as Palazzo Barbaro, Ca' Barbaro, and Palazzo Barbaro-Curtis — are a pair of adjoining palaces in the San Marco district of Venice, on the Grand Canal, originally built in 1425 and 1465. After the Barbaro family died out in the middle of the 19th century, the Palazzo was bought by a series of speculators who auctioned off furniture and paintings. 

In 1881 the older palazzo was rented by a relative of John Singer Sargent, Daniel Sargent Curtis. Daniel’s son Ralph was one of John’s best friends, and they were art students together in Paris.  Daniel and Ariana Curtis purchased the Palazzo in 1885, and repaired and restored the Barbaro and hosted many artists, musicians, and writers. Palazzo Barbaro became the hub of American life in Venice with visits from Sargent, Henry James, James Whistler, Robert Browning, Claude Monet, Isabella Stewart Gardner, and Edith Wharton among them. Henry James finished his novel The Aspern Papers in Palazzo Barbaro at a desk still housed in the palace today. James included a description of the Barbaro ballroom in his novel The Wings of the Dove. In 1898, John Singer Sargent painted An Interior in Venice (above), a group portrait of the Curtis family in the salon. On the right, seated, you can see "dear, brutal Ariana" Curtis (as Violet Paget wrote of her in a letter) with her husband Daniel in the forefront, and Ralph and his wife in the background.

Isabella Stewart Gardner used the Palazzo as a model for her house (and ultimately museum) in Boston. Palazzo Barbaro was used as a location in the 1981 Brideshead Revisited TV series adaptation as the home of Lord Marchmain (Laurence Olivier) and his mistress; it was also used as a location in the 1997 film adaptation of The Wings of the Dove. The Palazzo has recently undergone a full aesthetic and structural exterior restoration.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Sargent's Venetian Days

I was in Venice in September, and spent one precious afternoon walking through the calles (tiny narrow alleys) and the campos (plazas or squares, many of them tiny, just a large intersection of alleys), taking photos of places that reminded me of the many paintings Sargent created during his sojourns in Venice, a city he loved very much. Here's two samples of what I found, compared to one of my favorite Sargent oil paintings (Venetian Street Scene) and another watercolor below:


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been...

My second historical novel--Portraits of an Artist, about John Singer Sargent--is about to be published. It will be available in February 2013, to be specific, both online and in bookstores. My publisher is The Sand Hill Review Press of San Mateo, California. 

It has been a long and interesting journey that started fifteen years ago when I saw a major exhibit of Sargent's works at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. As I start this blog about my novel, the artist and his art, I want to show you the painting that was the beginning of it all for me: Portraits d'Enfants, also known as The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit. I hope you keep coming back for more, as there is a lot more to see.

This portrait was painted in 1883. I stood in front of this painting for a very long time, and came back to it again and again--there was a mystery here, I felt it very deeply--and then I later read a single sentence about the Boit girls attributed to Sister Wendy Beckett of PBS Art fame, “There’s something sad about the picture, and when I discovered that these four pretty, wealthy girls never married, not one of them, one begins to feel that Sargent had intuited something of that….” 

I said to myself, I have to write a novel about them, some day. But what started out as a story about the four daughters became instead a story about the artist and his portraits during a very intense, deeply creative time in his life: Paris, 1882-1884, when he painted not only this unique portrait, but also others whose stories are worth investigating....more to come.