A review of the novel Portraits of an Artist by Mary F. Burns.
Sand Hill Review Press
326 pp. $16.95
In 1996 I saw an exhibit of portraits by Picasso at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, entitled Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation. The exhibit was rich with portraits painted by the artist in the numerous changing styles that he pioneered or transcended over the course of his long career.
In addition to the art, what struck me is that most of the portraits were of Picasso's lovers and wives. The identifying plaques by each painting were full of information about how Picasso had met each woman, how long he had been with her, whether married or no, and so on. The portraits themselves were often redolent with sexuality, leaving no doubt in the viewer's mind about how Picasso felt about each model
In Portraits Of An Artist, Mary F. Burns takes a reverse approach. The subject of her historical novel is the American painter John Singer Sargent, who spent most of his life traveling around Europe and making his living as a portrait painter. The book is narrated in the form of monologues from a baker's dozen of people that Sargent painted, ending with a chapter narrated by Sargent himself. The characters include well known names such as Henry James and Violet Paget (better known by her pen name, Vernon Lee) and include Sargent's sister Emily, the Boit family, and of course, Madame Gautreau, the subject of the infamous Madame X portrait.
Most of what these characters tell us is factual, except for the story of the crush fourteen-year old Florence Boit felt for Sargent which ends with her nervous breakdown.
In the Picasso exhibit, the portraits of Picasso's lovers gave us a clear insight as to Picasso's carnal feelings toward each woman. In these monologues by Sargent's portrait subjects, nearly everyone, whether male or female, is enamoured of, or at least hugely attracted to, Singer Sargent. As it becomes clearer that Singer Sargent is a homosexual the women's hearts are broken.
The only one who isn't attracted to Sargent is Madame Gautreau. There were rumors at the time of the exhibit of the portrait of Madame X in the salon that Sargent had painted the face of Albert de Belleroche, who Burns posits as Sargent's lover, in place of Madame de Gautreau's face. Burns resolves this controversy by making it clear that the two looked quite a bit alike, implying that the resemblance is coincidental. But she also uses the controversy to wrap up the Florence Boit story in a surprising and heartbreaking way.
Much of the novel is taken up with Sargent's real life quest to become a high society portrait painter in Paris. His portrait of Madame X was supposed to be his ticket into that world, and the scandal that eruped around it (which Jonathan Jones argues was more the result of the painting portraying Madame Gautreau as a trophy wife, which offended even Parisian bourgeois values) led him to decamp to London where Henry James did his utmost to assure his career there.
One of this book's greatest pleasures is the deeper understanding that it brings us of how Sargent went about his work. The books opens with a discussion of El Jaleo, a painting I've admired many times at the Isabella Stuart Gardener museum (Gardner built a whole Spanish Cloister style room with a Moorish arch to display the painting). Also very pleasurable is the account of Sargent's difficulty finding the right pose, background, and color range for Madame X and his sense of "Eureka!" when he revisits the portraits of Frans Hals.
If you like romance, history, intrigue, and art, this book is richly rewarding and highly recommended.
Mary F. Burns is on the Conference board of directors and book reviewer for the Historical Novel Society. Her previous novels include J-The Woman who Wrote the Bible, The Lucky Dog Lottery, and The Tarot Card Murders. Her short stories have won several awards.