In our rush these days to make art accessible, we often forget that what’s before us is an aesthetic object, one that we make sense of in a number of ways—perceptually, theoretically, experientially. We can educate our eye, refine our judgment, and quicken our appreciation of the art object, all with the intention of drawing nearer to the artist and his creation, but we can never really experience the intimacy of inspiration, the moment when the artist conceived of a work and set about bringing it to life.

Donna M. Lucey recognizes this and so pursues another kind of intimacy in Sargent’s Women, focusing on the lives of four subjects painted by John Singer Sargent (1856–1925).1 Ms. Lucey is a popular historian rather than an art critic, and she admits that the book isn’t intended to provide “an art history lesson but a secret guide to [these four women’s] emotions.” A devoted researcher, she relates a lively account of the eight years she spent traveling, deciphering letters and journals, and piecing together families and fates, indulging in, as she calls it, “Gilded Age porn.” It is certainly the case that Lucey has assembled definitive biographies for three of her four subjects; the fourth, Isabella Stewart Gardner, has been amply covered elsewhere so what’s presented here is necessarily a much-condensed tale.

Of the continuing debate over the reputation of John Singer Sargent, Lucey offers little. Sargent painted during a period of immense social change, depicting the upper classes when many felt that the elite should be censured rather than celebrated. His technical brilliance confounded critics who championed new movements that prized spontaneity and improvisation. The seeming ease with which he created scintillating effects of light, color, and texture often led to accusations of facility and superficiality. Perhaps most damning, he never painted anything abstract, a charge that has come to have very little sting these days when classical realism is making a comeback.

Sargent first attempted to portray Elsie Palmer, the seventeen-year-old daughter of an American railroad magnate, in the great hall of the Tudor manor house her family was leasing. Next, he tried her in the garden with roses and a puppy. It was not until he posed her in the house’s seventeenth-century chapel that the portrait finally worked. Although Virginia Woolf described Elsie as “marmorial and mute,” it seems rather that Elsie is composed, becalmed, patient. With her unconventional outfit, her undressed hair, and her confrontational stare, Elsie may have been captured at the one remarkable moment of an otherwise unremarkable life.

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Miss Elsie Palmer, 1889, Oil on canvas, Ightham Mote, Kent

As a work of art, Sargent’s 1890 portrait of Sally Fairchild disappoints, being little more than a plein-air oil sketch. (It was described in the auction catalogue of Sargent’s estate as “Girl veiled with sailor hat poor unfinished.”) Lucey tartly notes that Sargent thought otherwise since he kept the portrait with him until the end of his life. Sally Fairchild herself was a prickly but handsome woman, one so alluring that she was named in a divorce suit when she was in her eighties. But Lucey devotes most of this section to Sally’s sister, Lucia, a painter and miniaturist. Lucia learned painting from Sargent and left delightful diaries about “Sarge,” his nervous energy, his love of Wagner, and his lively and opinionated conversations. The story of Sargent trying to get a custodian at the Louvre to turn the Venus de Milo so it would catch the light better is priceless.

At first glance, Sargent’s 1893 depiction of Elizabeth Chanler appears to be one of his conventional society portraits. But in its light effects, the subject’s rich black dress, and the painting’s neutral background, we see how well Sargent absorbed the lessons of his teacher Carolus-Duran and his enthusiasms for Frans Hals and Diego Velázquez. Lucey finds a barely concealed sense of chaos in this portrait, citing the “restless” cushions on which Elizabeth leans and the subject’s fugitive beauty; more likely, the author is allowing what she has learned about Elizabeth’s sad life to color her interpretation. By asserting that the artist “intuited the storms” of Elizabeth’s life, Lucey reinforces the idea of Sargent as a sentimentalist. To the contrary, I would submit that he was far too much of a professional to allow his treatment of a client, even one as young and pensive as Elizabeth, to be dictated by emotions.

Here, Lucey might have considered where Sargent was at this stage of his career. He had recently moved to London and set up a studio in bohemian Tite Street. While the move no doubt had something to do with the Parisian scandal following the 1884 exhibition of his portrait Madame X, Sargent also had his eye on the emerging market for portrait commissions among the British upper class. Elizabeth offered perhaps a low-risk opportunity to experiment by painting a congenial (American) acquaintance in the grand manner while incorporating avant-garde elements such as might be seen in the portraits of, for example, Manet. It is this subtle daring, coupled with his splendid technique, that elevates the portrait to more than simply a “dark-eyed Madonna . . . radiating innocence.”

The fourth portrait is Sargent’s 1888 depiction of the inimitable Isabella Stewart Gardner. It is instructive to compare, although Lucey does not, the portraits of Isabella and Elizabeth. Both women wear black with striking jewels, have intertwined fingers, and share the scene with a decorative element in red and gold. The differences reflect the subjects’ age and social position: Elizabeth wears an ornate pendant on a thin gold chain, her youth and beauty presumably being ornament enough. Isabella, on the other hand, while she has lovely arms and an hourglass figure, was no beauty; according to Lucia Fairchild’s diaries, Sargent referred to Isabella as “a lemon with a slit for a mouth.” Isabella, her lips parted as if about to speak, is festooned in exquisite pearls and rubies, even down to her slippers. Where Elizabeth is seated amid identifiable furnishings, Isabella stands against an undifferentiated decorative design (it was a piece of Renaissance textile). Elizabeth is depicted with aplomb in an academic style, while Isabella’s portrait is much more impressionistic, with even a hint of symbolism.

Lucey is more interested in Isabella, the celebrity socialite and voracious art collector, whose delicious story has been related by many biographers, including Douglass Shand-Tucci, whose The Art of Scandal (1997) was surely a model for this book. None of the other subjects are as fascinating, although taken together they form a composite of all that was so remarkable about the Gilded Age: devotion to the arts, new forms of self-expression, rich domestic life, as well as larger themes such as early trends in global commerce and industry—all of which resulted in the cultural treasures that we now enjoy in so many American museums.

Invoking one of today’s most ubiquitous terms, Lucey’s book is a populist one, marred by colloquialisms and tiresome class resentment against “robber barons.” Recovering the lives of these four subjects, she does indeed create a sense of intimacy, a kind of connection with people lost to history, but of the aesthetics at work in Sargent’s paintings we must supply our own connections.

  1.  Sargent’s Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas, Donna M. Lucey; W. W. Norton & Company, 336 pages, $20.36.