Perceptive biographies of a quartet of Gilded Age women.
During his long and fruitful career as a portraitist, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) counted among his opulent subjects four women embedded in the glittering, passionate, and sometimes-tawdry landscape of 19th-century high society. Drawing on much archival material, Lucey (Archie and Amélie: Love and Madness in the Gilded Age, 2006, etc.) returns to themes of her last book, revealing love, madness, greed, and occasional triumph at a time when even wealth did not necessarily guarantee women independence. Sargent himself stands at the periphery of Lucey’s engrossing stories, although he was handsome, dashing, and astonishingly productive. Portraiture supported him and his family, but toward the end of his career, he disdained the genre; he was tired, he said, of flattering his patrons. Lucey chose her subjects well: four women who responded in unexpected ways to the challenges that they faced. Elsie Palmer, daughter of a rich Colorado businessman, was destined to be the caretaker for her family until, at the age of 35, she courageously decided to marry—the only way, writes the author, that she could flee her father’s “smothering demands.” Lucia Fairchild was the sister of the beautiful Sally, subject of one of Sargent’s most enigmatic portraits. Raised in “a cocoon of privilege, money, and influence,” the Fairchild girls and their brothers saw their wealth vanish. Lucia managed through a combination of “talent and raw courage”: encouraged by Sargent, she became an artist, working tirelessly to support her spendthrift husband and their children. The lovely heiress Elizabeth Chanler suffered from a hip infection that left her strapped to a portable bed for two years during adolescence. She fell in love, scandalously, with a friend’s husband, the writer John Jay Chapman, and they married after his wife died suddenly. Isabella Stewart Gardner grew up a rebellious tomboy and never lost her willfulness and determination. She became the most prominent art collector of her time, leaving her collection—including Sargent’s work—in her own museum.
Colorful, animated portraits sympathetically rendered.