Zimmerman (The Women of the House: How a Colonial She-Merchant Built a Mansion, a Fortune, and a Dynasty, 2006, etc.) examines the mysterious couple in John Singer Sargent’s famous painting Mr. and Mrs. I.N. Phelps Stokes.
This “Gilded Age romance” is both a starry-eyed look at how the wealthy lived during the turn of the century and a love story full of highs and lows. The woman in the painting was Edith Minturn, nicknamed “Fiercely” for her independent streak, whose family made a fortune from shipbuilding, which it lost and regained. The man in the painting was her husband I.N. Phelps Stokes, who, though his family was in banking, was set on becoming an architect. The portrait that immortalized them was a wedding gift to the new couple, intended to show the new bride in all of her elegant finery. Instead, Sargent presented a portrait of young American vitality and, possibly, a feminist statement in a time when women were struggling for the right to vote. Zimmerman, like Sargent, sees something more in these two. She was a classic beauty who served as the model for the Statue of the Republic at the famous World’s Columbian Exhibition and became a devoted wife, mother and advocate for the poor. He was a talented builder whose dreams of affordable housing for the underclass were derailed by an obsessive desire to complete a massive study titled The Iconography of Manhattan Island. Their lives were big but not dramatic; they were the kind of people who would have inspired James and Wharton, but whose own stories seem mostly interior.
Zimmerman tells an intriguing history from the available evidence, but Sargent’s subjects ultimately remain out of reach.