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?

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