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Posts Tagged ‘John Singer Sargent’

This past week or so I’ve been reading Sy Montgomery‘s illustrated memoir How to Be a Good Creature: a Memoir in Thirteen Animalswhich my book club is discussing next week, and Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X by Deborah Davis. The friend who went to the Five Colleges booksale with me last year went again this year and got Strapless. I had picked it up myself at some point (possibly on a free cart), so when I asked her lately what she was reading I decided to read it as well.

I’ve written about Sy Montgomery’s last few books here at bookconscious — if you’ve been here with me you know she is an excellent writer who combines eye-opening, thought provoking insights into the animal world with similarly observant and self-aware insights into the human animal. Many of her books are part memoir — she is a large-hearted person who shares her own thoughts and emotions and that’s part of what makes her writing so delightful. Reading her work often feels like listening to a friend telling you about their life.

How to Be a Good Creature is more like listening to a wise teacher. Montgomery reflects on how from a young age she felt more at ease with animals than other children, how she took a dream trip as a “citizen scientist” in the Australian Outback that changed her life, and how the many vertebrates and invertebrates (a tarantula named Clarabelle as well as more recently, the octopuses made famous in her best-selling The Soul of an Octopusshe’s known have contributed to her life and added to her understanding of the world. “Just being with any animal is edifying, for each has a knowing that surpasses human understanding,” she writes. “Knowing someone who belongs to another species can enlarge your soul in surprising ways.”

There are some tough things in this book; if you’ve read any of Montgomery’s other books you know she didn’t have the best time as a child and had a longstanding rift with her parents that she handled with grace and empathy. Montgomery has also lived with bouts of depression. But ultimately she has come through some very real challenges with her spirit and her large heart in tact with help from the animals she has known, and she writes about that here. So if you’re in the mood for a book that will restore your faith, if not in humanity (although there are also many wonderful humans in Sy Montgomery’s life and she writes affectionately about them as well), at least in the general goodness of creation, this is a book for you. And of course, if you’ve had an animal help you through difficulties you’ll be nodding along.

If on the other hand you want to read a book that will remind you that obsession with fame and a press that inundates readers with sordid and titillating stories and profits from feeding a perceived mass desire to judge people and relish in their bad fortune are nothing new, Deborah Davis’s Strapless is for you. It’s certainly also a book about John Singer Sargent, and about the wealthy, vain, eccentric French Creole woman, Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, who Sargent painted in his iconic portrait of Gilded Age Paris, Madame X. Even if you’ve never been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see that famous painting you’ve probably seen an image of it at some point. You may or may not know it caused a sensation and humiliating criticism for both artist and subject when Sargent showed it at the Paris Salon in 1884 in large part because it originally portrayed her with one strap fallen off her shoulder.

This is incredible to us today, but Davis does an excellent job of showing exactly how bizarre it was then, given the types of entertainment popular in Paris at the time. This aspect of the book is a fascinating and somewhat alarming examination of how humans have always created strangely detrimental ways of engaging with each other in society. A very popular activity in 1800s Paris was viewing dead bodies at the morgue, another was reading ridicule of famous people in newspapers, and still another was reading sensational reports of crimes. The next time you despair of the endless cycle of bad news and the obsession over Kim Kardashian’s shape, remember this is nothing new.

Beyond this disheartening reminder that dehumanizing popular culture is not a contemporary invention, Davis provides a really interesting look at the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century art world, at Sargent’s career and work, at his friend Henry James’ role in helping Sargent gain the attention he deserved, and the many other people who befriended him, commissioned his work, or admired it. I am an admirer, and I also am a big fan of Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose own scandalous portrait (which like Madame X does not appear scandalous today), is one of two portraits he painted of Gardner on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Which also holds one of his famous large scale works, El Jaleo. Gardner actually built a space to display El Jaleo before she even owned it.

Anyway, as my friend noted, there is a lot packed into this book, and it’s a really interesting read. I learned new things about Sargent even though I also read Sargent’s Women not that long ago. That book was also good, but focused more on the wealthy American and English women he painted (including Gardner). If you enjoy art, or even if you don’t but you’re fascinated by culture and history, you will enjoy Strapless.

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One of the joys of cataloging is that I see books as they come in that I might not otherwise notice. Sargent’s Women by Donna Lucey was on one of my carts in the late fall and I was excited to read it. One of my favorite places is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and one of the four women Lucey writes about in this book is Gardner. I started reading Sargent’s Women after visiting the museum last weekend and hearing a docent talk about some of Sargent’s work, including his famous portrait of Gardner.

The three other Sargent portraits Lucey writes about are of Elsie Palmer, Elizabeth Chanler Chapman, and Sally Fairchild, although that chapter is primarily about Sally’s unconventional sister, Lucia Fairchild Fuller. Each woman’s story is interesting in its way. Fuller seemed the most compelling to me, not only because she came to live in New Hampshire near Cornish, where an arts colony thrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but also because she overcame illness and adversity to support her family with her own art (she became a renowned miniaturist ).

If there’s a common thread between these women it’s their status — all were wealthy, although Fuller fell on hard times because her husband was an entitled jerk and neither he nor his family cared to support Fuller and their children. All four women moved in rarified circles, where Sargent worked. Gardner was the only one who really did what she wanted in life, and enjoyed the support of those closest to her for the most part. These families seemed to all be pretty awful to each other, too, and it’s not just a matter of men ruling over women’s lives, although they did that plenty. There were mothers, sisters, and aunts interfering as well.

The four women are interesting to read about, in their way. I would have liked to know more about Sargent himself, although that’s not the point of this book. Sargent’s Women is interesting, and you could dip into a chapter, set it aside, and come back later to read about another woman and her portrait. It’s always intriguing to look at the lives of women mostly forgotten to history, even very privileged women, and to understand a little about the context in which an artist painted. This book, like the paintings of these women, gives us a glimpse into a world most of us can’t imagine.

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