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John Singer Sargent's painted ladies

by Tavo Amador

Does any artist evoke the "Gilded Age" of late 19th-early 20th century America better than John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)? Most of Sargent's extraordinary portraits capture his subjects' assurance that their privileged positions will insulate them from life's pain. But as Donna M. Lucey shows in "Sargent's Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas" (Norton, $29.95), they weren't protected from tragedy.

Sargent was likely homosexual. One client noted his attraction to handsome Venetian gondoliers. Painter Jacques-Emile Blanche said his sex life was "notorious in Paris, and in Venice, positively scandalous. He was a frenzied bugger." While a student, he lived with and painted handsome aristocrat Albert de Belleroche, whom he called "Baby." Sargent also produced many homoerotic drawings of male nudes.

Who are these four women whose lives Lucey summarizes? Elsie Palmer (1872-1955) was born to wealthy Americans. Mother, known as "Queen," Elsie, and her two younger sisters lived for long periods in baronial English homes. General William Palmer was a railroad tycoon and investor whose work often kept him away from his family for months. Their home, Glen Eyrie, had a spectacular setting below Pike's Peak in Colorado Springs.

Elsie sat for Sargent at 17. In the portrait, dressed in white, she stares defiantly at the viewer - a hint about her personality. Elsie was devoted to Queen, and after her death, cared for her father in Colorado. Dedication to her parents, not marriage, seemed her destiny. But unknown to General Palmer, Elsie and wealthy English writer Leo Myers had met in London, had been corresponding, and saw each other during Elsie's visits to England. At 35, she told her father that she would marry Myers. The wedding took place on Jan. 30, 1908, at Glen Eyrie. Presumably, the general and Elsie sisters attended. General Palmer may have been disappointed, but he left Elsie a substantial inheritance.

Elsie and Leo had a difficult marriage, however. Despite some literary success, he found living an "overrated pleasure" and committed suicide in 1944. She died in England, cared for by a former staffer from Glenn Eyrie.

Sargent's portrait of Sally Fairchild (1869-1960) is atypical - her face is hidden by a blue veil. But Lucey focuses on Sally's younger, "plain" sister Lucia, a successful portrait miniaturist. She worked to support her socially prominent artist husband, Henry Brown Fuller, who couldn't earn a living. Lucia battled undiagnosed multiple sclerosis, raised their two children, made excuses for Fuller's failure to provide, and worried constantly about money. Lucia's father, Charles Fairchild, was a Harvard graduate and self-made millionaire. He married the daughter of a Boston judge. They had four sons and two daughters. After Fairchild died, the family lost its money. One son, Gordon, the Master at St. Paul's, a prestigious boys school, was caught in an amorous situation with a student. Ashamed, he took his life. Another son also killed himself.

Sargent painted frail Elizabeth Chanler (1867-1937) when she was 27. She had "the face of a Madonna and the eyes of a child." But she also had a firm mouth, an indication of surprising strength. Her poor health seemed to preclude marriage. She would be "brave but virginal," kind, self-sacrificing, the emotional mainstay of the family. She proved those predictions wrong.

Her great grandfather was William B. Astor, the wealthiest man in America. She was the eldest of 10 surviving children, and orphaned at 10. Her guardians sent Elizabeth to an exclusive English girls school on the Isle of Wight, which resulted in long separations from her siblings.

In 1889, Elizabeth's best friend, Minna Timmins, married Jack Chapman, a descendent of Chief Justice John Jay. The three were very close. Jack wrote intense letters to Elizabeth. They saw each other - often without Minna - whenever possible. Minna died in 1897, leaving two children. A year later, Elizabeth and Jack wed. They had three children, the last a stillborn daughter.

Jack, a highly regarded writer, was emotionally unstable. Once, to punish himself for behaving improperly, he burned his hand off. He had a breakdown in 1901 - just as Elizabeth gave birth to their first child. Yet Elizabeth's devotion to him and her family never faltered.

Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1927) was born in New York City, the eldest of four. Her grandfather ran a bar in Brooklyn. Her father owned a successful linen import business before making a fortune in mining. Despite her undistinguished lineage, she attracted John Lowell Gardner III, a Boston Brahmin whom she married in 1860, to the jealous dismay of the city's eligible blue-blooded maidens. She moved to Boston, where her nonconforming ways shocked many, but delighted Jack and his mother.

Their son, born in 1863, died two years later. The next year, she suffered a miscarriage and learned she couldn't have any more children, which devastated her. In 1875, Jack's brother died, leaving three sons. The Gardners became their surrogate parents.

They were adventurous world travelers, not tourists. Traveling stimulated Isabella's acquisitive passion for art. Her taste was eclectic, but she was especially drawn to Old Master paintings. Her father left her over $1 million, and Jack was wealthy, but she lacked the resources of Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, or J.P. Morgan, rivals in acquiring art. Nonetheless, she had a keen eye, relied on experts (notably Bernard Berenson), and amassed a collection that remains remarkable. It's housed in the eponymous museum she built to her specifications.

Sargent's 1888 portrait of her met with disapproval from Boston's blue bloods, but delighted Isabella. She flaunts her trim figure, bare shoulders, fantastic jewels, notably the priceless pearls that circle her small waist. She wasn't a conventional beauty, but made the most of what she had. Artist and sitter clashed initially, but later became good friends. He painted her again, after she suffered several strokes. She's draped in white, concealing her frailty, her expression serene.

These women showed great independence and courage in an era that didn't expect either from them. One can only wonder at the other stories behind Sargent's magnificent portraits.

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