Sargent's Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas by Donna M. Lucey
This was one of two books I read with my student reading group at Indiana University this semester. I chose it because I knew a bit about John Singer Sargent, I often recognized his works and appreciated the attention to detail he gave to the clothing his subject's wore. I often found myself admiring his portraits at the Chicago Art Institute and shortly after I moved to St. Louis I learned they had just purchased a Sargent portrait of a young girl for $2.2 million! I was eager to learn more about this artist and share my love of art and fashion history with my students.
The book is divided into four chapters, each chapter tells the life story of one woman whose portrait was painted by John Singer Sargent. Chapter 1 is about Elise Palmer, my students and I felt her portrait was haunting and a bit unnerving. She was the youngest of the four women when she sat for Sargent to paint her portrait. Chapter 2 is about Sally Fairchild, or rather the portrait was of Sally but the chapter focused primarily on her sister, Lucia, who the author deemed to be the more interesting of the two. Chapter 3 is about Elizabeth Chanler, who although still suffered through great tragedies in her life seemed to fair better than the subjects of the previous two chapters. Last but not least, in Chapter 4 we learn about Isabella Stewart Gardner who was by far the favorite among my students. We enjoyed her rebellious nature and her contributions to the art world.
When first looking at a work of art, particularly a painting, I usually ask myself the following questions:
- Tell me about the woman in this painting.
- What do you think the woman is thinking or doing?
- Tell me about the place in this painting (the setting or scene.)
- What is the woman's relationship to the place? (Do you think she is familiar with the setting? Does she look comfortable? Formal? Relaxed?)
- What do you think is happening in this painting?
- What words would you describe the mood?
- What do you think might be the message or theme of this painting?
What I found the most interesting when reading about each of the lives behind the canvas was that I never could have imagined the complexity of each woman's life: the tragedy she faced, the loss she endured, the love of her life, the places she traveled, etc. I was struck by how little I really thought about the people depicted in the painting, especially when visiting art museums. I would appreciate the artistic talent or the beautiful clothing, I would assume that they were quite wealthy since they had most likely commissioned the portrait. But, for example, I never would have guessed that Elizabeth Chanler, the woman sitting on the sofa in an elegant black dress was sickly most of her life and was left with a permanent limp.
I had so much fun discussing this book with my students, and drawing lessons from the text that I could relate to their studies of fashion history, that I put together a four-part lesson plan that I will share with you in its entirety. If you're interested in learning more about late Victorian fashion (focusing primarily on 1880s and 1890s) then click over and walk yourself through the lesson. I wrote the document with college professors teaching fashion history courses in mind, but it would work just as well for individuals curious for more information about fashion history. I hope you enjoy!