Saturday, November 23, 2013

Visual Delights of Sargent's Watercolors

Here's a link to a video I put together of the many lovely watercolors displayed at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts exhibit of John Singer Sargent's paintings -- plus a few of his very famous portraits in oils that the MFA also has. I think you'll enjoy it!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Fabulous Watercolors Exhibit

Visiting Boston earlier this week, I spent several hours at the MFA's spectacular exhibit of Sargent's watercolors--and of course, paid my obeisance to the Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (more on that soon). Here are some of the exciting paintings on view. Get there if you can do it!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Re-Creating Sargent's Glorious Watercolors

Serendipity strikes again! The Historical Novel Society Conference in June in St. Petersburg, Florida, has yielded up a great new connection and resource from the extensive network of the historical fiction sister-and-brother-hood! Bruce Macbain, author of Roman Games and The Bull Slayer, and his wife Carol, purchased my Sargent book and lent it to a friend, Wendy Soneson, who happens to be a terrific artist and great fan of Sargent's. Wendy is currently scheduled to give demonstrations of Sargent's watercolor  technique at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in October, in conjunction with the huge exhibit of Sargent's watercolors there. Her websites are well worth looking at: and for both the Sargent paintings and her own portraits and landscapes.

In the meantime, here is a wonderful version by Wendy of that infamous Amelie Gautreau (Madame X) in one of the gazillion poses Sargent tried before he found the right one. And a few more of his paintings, a la Wendy.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

A Living Madame X

A few weeks ago, I attended (and helped plan and run) the 5th North American Historical Novel Society, held at the Hotel Vinoy in St. Petersburg, Florida. Three hundred-some historical fiction authors, editors, agents and just plain fans had a great time over the long weekend of sessions and parties and gatherings. At our 'dress-up' Saturday night dinner banquet, including a Costume pageant, one of our author-attendees, Leslie Carroll (her nom de plume is Juliet Gray), showed up dressed very much like the infamous Virginie Amelie Gautreau, Sargent's scandalous "Madame X". Of course, I had to take a picture of her in the proper pose, although there wasn't an appropriate little table nearby.  Thanks, Leslie!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Family of Edward Darley Boit

After the period of time covered in my novel (1882-84),  hard times lay ahead for the Boit family, at least emotionally. Isa died in 1894, and the four girls (Florence, Jane, Mary Louisa and Julia), with their father, continued their travels throughout Europe, Great Britain and the U.S. But none of the girls liked America very much, and Ned, too, preferred the ease and openness of Europe to his native land. He was married again in 1897 to a very young woman, a friend of his daughter Mary Louisa, confusingly enough named Florence, and together they had two boys. Unfortunately, his second wife died a few weeks after giving birth to her second son, in 1902. After recovering from this untimely death, Ned renewed his interest in his painting, and mounted several exhibitions of his work (one with Sargent in Boston). Ned died in 1915, in Florence. 
As for the Boit daughters, Florence (leaning against the pillar in the painting) was always a rather odd duck, never evincing the slightest interest in marrying or attending the usual social events. She was an avid player of the relatively new sport of golf—which she introduced to the Boston area, inspiring the local rich folks to build a course at a country club in Newport. She and a cousin, Jane Boit Patten, nicknamed “Pat” to distinguish her from the innumerable Jane’s and Jeanie’s in the family, became fast friends and in later years, lived in what was called a “Boston marriage”, two spinster ladies living together. 
The second daughter, Jane (standing next to Florence, facing forward), both before Isa died and afterward, was ill a great deal, both physically and emotionally, and spent several periods of time in and out of “retreats” and institutions where she underwent various cures to allay her apparently rather violent fits of anger and depression. Not much is known about Mary Louisa (standing to the far left, hands behind her back) except that she and Julia (on the floor with her babydoll) were always together, and Julia became fairly well known for her paintings and illustrations in water colors. Florence died at age fifty-one, on December 8, 1919, in Paris. 
With the outbreak of WWII in 1939, the three remaining sisters moved back to the United States. Julia and Mary Louisa (also known as “Isa” like her mother) lived in Newport, where Mary Louisa died on June 27, 1945, at age seventy-one. Jane (or “Jeanie” as she was known) died at the age of eighty-five on November 8, 1955, in Greenwich, Connecticut. Julia passed away in February 1969, at the age of ninety-one.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Franz Hals - Inspiration for Sargent's Madame X?

For several months in 1883, John Singer Sargent worked feverishly to capture the image of Virginie Amelie Gautreau--soon to be known as the "infamous" Madame X--both at his studio in Paris, and later, at the summer chateau of the Gautreau family in the west of France in St.-Malo. Sargent had painted and sketched Mme. Gautreau in oils, watercolors, pastels and charcoal--sitting, standing, lying down, walking in the garden--and was unable to fix on the exact right pose and setting for what he desired to be a magnificent portrait. Here are some of his attempts.

In July he took a short break from his labors, and travelled with friends up to Haarlem, Netherlands. There he visited the Haarlem City Hall, which also served as an art museum for an incredible collection of Dutch masters, including one of Sargent's favorites, Franz Hals. (b. 1582 – d. 26 August
1666). Hals was known for having introduced a more familiar, intimate style of portraiture, especially in group portraits. Here on the left is a self-portrait done in his classic style, with loose brushwork, a plain background, and the sitter's shadow on the wall.
As I researched Sargent's life and travels, I took a close look at Hals' paintings, and decided that there was sufficient reason to consider Hals' style as an inspiration for the final portrait of Madame X. Not only is the plain brown background a striking effect, along with the shadow, but the odd twist of a sitter's body can often be seen in Hals' larger portraits. He frequently had his subjects touching a chair or table that was half in and half out of the frame. There is a subtlety and a richness in the deep blacks and browns, especially as contrasted with white collars and ruffs, and rosy skin. The most decided difference between any of Hals' subjects and the Madame X portrait is that Hals' people all look forward at the viewer, frank, open, honest, amused, interested. 

Not Madame X, however. She disdains to look the viewer in the eye. She is an inaccessible Beauty. Her skin is not rosy (except for her ear, where her pale powder makeup didn't reach, apparently--that rosy, natural-colored ear was quite a scandal). The alabaster color of her arms and shoulders, her neck and face, are the "white ruff" counterpart of Hals' paintings. Not even a necklace relieves the pallor of her skin, although the straps of her dress are diamonds in gold chain links. The original painting had her right shoulder strap falling down on her right arm--scandal again. She is dressed (or "barely dressed") all in black -- and as the ladies of Paris instantly realized, she's not wearing a corset, or any proper undergarments. It is a fact that shortly after Sargent returned from his trip to Haarlem, he fixed upon this pose, these colors, this dress as the component parts of his masterpiece, so I think I'm in a pretty safe place thinking Hals was the inspiration. After the uproar and outrage of its showing at the 1884 Salon, Sargent kept the painting in his studio and did not lend it out for exhibition until once in 1911 in Italy, and then finally at the 1915 San Francisco Panama-Pacific International Exhibition. After that, rather than ship it back to England, he sold it to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it hangs in splendor today in the newly built wing of American Art.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Sargent and the Duchess of Marlborough

I just read an oddly entertaining historical novel, A Weekend at Blenheim, by J.P. Morrissey, that included not only Winston Churchill (as might be expected) but also John Singer Sargent! It is a gnarly tale of deceit, arrogance, lust, hate and blind ambition, and the aristocracy comes off as most unattractive to say the least. Consuelo (nee Vanderbilt) was an American heiress who was quite blatantly "married off" to the 9th Duke of Marlborough (known as "Sunny" which he absolutely was not) when they were both quite young, in 1895. Consuelo's wedding present of $2.5 million pretty much saved Blenheim from crumbling to pieces. The two were divorced, quite messily, by 1921. Anyway, in the novel, Sargent is there for the weekend, along with the purely fictional protagonist who is the plebian observer of all the wretched goings-on. Sargent is spoken of, sotto voce, as a "sodomist", yet is witnessed in flagrante with the Duchess by our intrepid observer who sees them through a window--the Duchess is posing nude while Sargent, also nude, makes ardently drawn charcoal sketches of her, then falls upon her with decided passion! (my my!)

Sargent did indeed paint an enormous portrait of the Duke's family (above)--not at all his best effort, imho--but he was "told" that it was to complement an earlier painting of the 4th Duke and his family by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Here is Reynolds' portrait, as well as a sketch of Duchess Consuelo by Sargent. 

Hmm, maybe there was something to that fictional affair after all?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Sargent at the DeYoung in San Francisco

I recently learned there are three John Singer Sargent paintings in my own backyard (almost) -- at the DeYoung Museum! Two of them were already familiar to me, and I love them.

The first is titled "The Dinner Table", with Mrs. Albert Vickers in the center and her husband not too visible on the right. Sargent painted the whole Vickers family in 1884 during the summer after the scandal and debacle of "Madame X" sent him running from Paris to England.

The second painting is a later watercolor of a man fishing in a mountain stream. After about 1906, Sargent took no more orders for portraits, though he painted or did charcoal sketches of friends; he concentrated on watercolors which he excelled in.

The third painting, below, is of Caroline de Bassano, Marquise d'Espeuiles; the portrait was painted in 1884. As usual, Sargent painted the clothing with a fine eye for lacy detail and satiny folds. From the expression on the Marquise's face, however, I'd say he kept her standing there a little too long for her liking!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Sargent at the Brooklyn Museum

The Brooklyn Museum of Art is about to open a major exhibition of John Singer Sargent's watercolors, from April 5 through July 28th. As described on the museum's website: "This landmark exhibition unites for the first time the John Singer Sargent watercolors acquired by the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in the early twentieth century. The culmination of a yearlong collaborative study by both museums, John Singer Sargent Watercolors explores the watercolor practice that has traditionally been viewed as a tangential facet of Sargent’s art making. The ninety-three pieces on display provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity to view a broad range of the artist’s finest production in the medium."
Bridge of Sighs, Venice

I'm delighted to add that the museum gift store will have my novel, Portraits of an Artist, in stock and for sale during the exhibition.Thanks, Brooklyn!

Thursday, February 28, 2013

R.I.P. Henry James

Today was the 97th anniversary of Henry James' death. He is by far my favorite "classic" writer. To Mr. James, I lift a glass of port and say, "Well lived, well written, well read, dear Mr. James!"

This famous portrait of Henry James was painted by (who else?) John Singer Sargent, in 1912. There is an earlier sketch by Sargent, too. The two met in 1883 and James was very taken by the young, handsome and talented Euro-American artist, and was instrumental in helping Sargent find many clients in England after he'd "fled" from France. I couldn't resist writing more than one scene in my novel that featured James.

Two recent books for James fans: The Master, a novel by Colm Toibin, and Portrait of a Novel, non-fiction about one of James's most famous novels, by Michael Gorra.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Excerpt from PORTRAITS


I see them now in mirrors, on darkened windows, in waking dreams—all the faces I have painted. Children, and men, and women. Always the women, with their languid eyes, their tense, anxious lips, their serene brows and haughty noses.
John Singer Sargent, a painter of portraits, that’s who I am. I chose to be a painter of portraits because I was very good at it, because I liked the acclaim, the society, the weekends at country houses outside Paris and London and Florence—and because it paid well, very well. I died a rich man. Childless, unmarried, though not unloved—no, not unloved.
The portraits of my friends are the book of my life—my paintings are the words that I can never find to explain myself, to defend myself, even to know my very self. Two portraits in particular, painted before I reached the age of thirty, haunt me even now, more than all the rest. One became a private grief, softened by time but never truly healed. The other, a public scandal that changed everything. Together they turned me from a young man, a foolish man, into a sad and sorry shadow that only I could see when I looked in a mirror. I wonder if you can guess which ones they are? As the years dragged on, I endured as the entertaining, successful, eccentric old swell who ate too much, smoked too much—and let no one come too close.
As I cannot easily speak for myself, and as I yearn to be known, at least a little, I will allow my portraits to speak for me—their stories will illuminate mine. You may say that I am still keeping myself one step removed, so that you, reader, will not come too close—well, that’s as may be.  It is there in those portraits you must seek me, if you would know me.
I am the painter of portraits.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


The Book Launch reading and party is set! If you're in the San Francisco Bay Area, please come on Thursday, Feb. 21st, 7:00 pm, to Bookshop West Portal, 80 West Portal Avenue, San Francisco. It's going to be fun!