Tag Archives: John Singer Sargent

Book Review: Sargent’s Daughters

Sargent's Daughters: A Biography of a Painting by Erica E. Hirschler

I picked up this book at the Agnes Scott Library after feeling a hole in my life that can only be filled by John Singer Sargent. My love of the expatriate is no secret. One of my first art history related posts was about The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit. Two of his paintings are among my top ten favorite pieces of art. I have a weakness for figural representations and society portraits. I love knowing the stories of models and the distinction between someone posing as something else and a portrait.

I’ve read a book about one of Sargent’s paintings before-Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X by Deborah Davis. That book was a wonderfully engaging story about a woman whose reputation and notoriety had been eclipsed by the man who painted her. I would recommend that book to any one interested in the subject, however the same does not go for Sargent’s Daughters.

I enjoyed the book a lot and learned quite a bit. But in an effort to be completely inclusive in the history of the Boit family through at least three generations, John Singer Sargent, the Gilded Age in Boston, London and Paris, and the art surrounding this time period, while containing the tome to little over 200 pages, the pace comes off as manic. Also, lots of names are thrown about and within a background in understanding of the art, it is hard to find a grasp on the context because the other context provided is society names. Also the art discussed is not the stuff of intro level survey, or even upper level classes in most undergraduate programs. John Singer Sargent is the stand out of Victorian and Edwardian art who firmly was not any of the avant-garde styles surging through Paris. So the other names mentioned are not commonly discussed outside of this circle of expatriates not participating in the avant-garde.

However, once the author establishes context and then dives into the lives of the Boits and Sargent and the life of the painting after its patrons and painter, the pace calms and the book becomes much more interesting.

I also enjoyed the very feminist historical approach at the sisters’ lives after the painting. Long as it been remarked on  “how sad” it is that none of the sisters ever married. But Hirschler looks at their lives, as well as the lives of many unmarried women in the Boston age, and determined that they were not doomed to unfulfilled lives simply for their lack of marriage, especially since their fortunes allowed them to live with the pressure to be married.

Overall, I would recommend this book to someone who knows a little bit about expatriates from the Gilded Age (read any Edith Wharton or Henry James) and has an interest in Sargent. It made me appreciate both him and this painting even more.

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the wonders of a library card

John Singer Sargent's Madame X

I just got a library card from my local library. My first check out was Strapless: John Singer Sargent and The Fall of Madame X, and it was so wonderful. Whatever this genre is, it is just about my favorite to read, outside of novels. That genre being books that look at the art/literature of the time and then explicate the lives of the people surrounding it. Like in Strapless you don’t just get a description of the painting and people’s reactions to them, but you also get a biography of Sargent, Gautreau (Madame X), and other subjects of Sargent’s work, as well his friends and peer artists of Belle Epoque Paris.

I really do just love Sargent. And I love this painting so much, but still it isn’t even my favorite. I prefer Sargent’s painting of multiple people, usually women in one family like The Daughters of Edward Darley  Boit, which I have raved and ooohed over before, or a picture of a mother and daughter in white and red which I cannot find right now. Still Madame X is a gorgeous painting, and I cannot wait until I get to the go to the Met again and see it.

Daughters of Edward Darley Boit

Another example of the genre I was talking about is Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles 1910-1939 by Katie Roiphe, which looks at married, committed, and adulterous couples in people associated with, and around the Bloomsbury group. My dad got me this book The Bolter about Idina Sackville, cousin of Vita Sackville-West, seems to be of a straight biography but I do love all Sackvilles/Edwardian people.

I also checked out Adam Bede by George Eliot, and I loved Middlemarch and Mill on the Floss was checked out. So that will be next on my summer reading list. Whoo!

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new internet/life pastime: retronauting which leads to an art history discourse

Most of my internet life is spent doing one of two things: actively facebooking or passively waiting for my facebook to reload. I am trying to kick this habit, like a lot of my friends. But I don’t think I could do internet cold turkey like I used to do my myspace days because I rely so much on the internet to a. communicate with my college b. get information from my college c. do research for college [and my pet side projects]. The internet is a big part of the college education! Especially at a school where we have an AMAZING Digital Design Fellow, Shannon, who helps students understand how to use the internet to their advantage in their education and completely inspires me to keep blogging [and happens to be my lovely boss!]

So I’m now on the look out of more life-enriching internet hobbies. I like Runner’s World because I almost always go running afterwards. And if you’ve read “The Goals”, you know that oee of my long-term goals is to run a marathon and Runner’s has great blogs by runners who are in the process of training.

I used to like Etsy a lot for the inspiration, but now that I have a somewhat disposable work-study income, I try to steer away from anything that smells of online shopping.

Well, How to be a Retronaut appeals to my need to be both motivated and inspired. It is basically a super, disorganized and wonderful encyclopedia of photographs, film, music, design, with the goal of rethinking what is iconic of and associated a certain period. Maybe this appeals more to my art history side. But it is lovely and inspiring none the less.

One that I adored was “The summer of 1910 caught in a delicate colour...” focusing on the autochromes of Etheldreda Laing of her two daughters Iris and Janet. Maybe because I’ve obsessively watched A Room with a View five times in five days but I love their clothes and the art in these images. I would love to see a resurgence of autochromes but apparently [according to Wikipedia] there has been interest in it, but people have had trouble recreating the unique additive technique on the glass plates that were used.

I just love the painterly quality to the images. This one is by far my favorite because Janet and Iris look about the same age as my younger sister and me now and it such a tender moment of sisterly love, along with parental love because I feel like the viewer can tell that Laing cared deeply for her subjects, contrasting to my favorite John Singer Sargent painting,

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, John Singer Sargent, image from Wikipedia

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, where the girls are so distant and disengaged from the viewer, each looking like she has some secret and something better to do.

Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez, image from Wikipedia

Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez, image from Wikipedia, click through for larger picture

“Daughters” in turn is often compared to “Las Meninas” by Velazquez. So much so, that the Sargent is going to the Prado until mid-May 2010 to hang next to its predecessor. Which reminds me how much I want to go to Spain to just stare at Velazquezs and Goyas for hours. I personally like the Sargent more, though I do really love Velazquez, simply because Sargent creates this world of isolation for the girls but the painting at first glance is four sisters in a room, not the strained, yearning place that Sargent depicts. And while Sargent uses subject matter to create ambiguity, Velazquez uses visual trickery, with his imposing canvas and self portrait and mirror that reflects where the viewer is standing as the subject of picture Velazquez’s painting, the king and queen of Spain. Somehow, I feel using the subject to exemplify its own ambiguity is more sincere than Velazquez technique, though his is no less impressive.

Still GOAL OF POST. Check out How to be a Retronaut, or look for your own inspiring websites! Explore the internet outside of JSTOR for school and Facebook for avoiding school.

Other posts I found inspiring:

Vivid colour pictures of London’s Peace Day, 19th July 1919… [first image just replaced “Daughters” as my background image

Beautiful colour shots of the streets of Dublin 50 years ago…

64 exquisite colour miniatures of Cornwall, August 1913… [Can I be invited to your next party, people in first photo?]

Haunting colour pictures of England before the First World War…

10 pictures conjuring the past from thin air…

Most of the posts that piqued my interest were the ones about the World Wars in England and the times immediately before and after. Maybe because my perception of the time then is so romanticized by films. I don’t know if it is just me, but these high resolution pictures are jarring because so many of the pictures look different from today’s film that is hard to imagine the world looking that way, even if I can tell myself over and over that they saw with the clarity that I do. A bit of an existential photo crises on my part as I view them.


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