"In “Sargent’s Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas,” [Donna M. Lucey creates] a rollicking snow globe version of an almost unimaginable world of wealth, crackpot notions of self-improvement and high-flying self-indulgence (like now; you know who you are, Goop) woven around an often passionate commitment to, deep admiration for and wide-ranging pursuit of the fine and literary arts (less like now). Lucey is a persistent detective and a bemused, sometimes amused, storyteller, attentive to interesting, hilarious, disturbing detail: Isabella Stewart Gardner’s enormous diamonds, some of which had names and which she “wore atop her head on gold spiral wires so that they’d bob and sparkle as she talked”; the teenage Elizabeth Chanler, strapped to a “long machinelike” board for two years to “cure” her limp; Sally Fairchild, after a lifetime of serving as her mother’s nurse and bodyguard, hitting her stride at 80 by seducing a 30-year-old married man. “If that young woman can’t hold her husband,” she sneered, “that’s her lookout.”
“Sargent’s Women” presents biographies of four American ladies whose lives intersected with John Singer Sargent’s. The detail is deep, sometimes unnecessarily so, and the theme, that Sargent’s portraits “hinted at the mysteries, passions and tragedies that unfolded in his subjects’ lives,” is pursued in every chapter.
Elsie Palmer, who starts things off in “The Pilgrim,” sat for Sargent when she was 17. It was a difficult commission and she was 18 by the time it was finished. Although Sargent’s early sketches show her as innocent, childlike and charming, Lucey tells us that the finished portrait “dispenses with charm.” In the final painting, Elsie looks like a grim little ghost, with her blunt bangs, pop eyes and pale little face. She’s clad in a pleated linen dress that resembles a shroud.
...Elsie Palmer’s life was centered on Colorado, then famous for its curative mountain climate, and the home of her father, known as the General, who made his fortune in railroads and built a great estate, Glen Eyrie, at what would become the town of Colorado Springs. After her mother, called Queen (not an uncommon nickname, it seems, among wealthy Americans of the time), suffered a heart attack and was told to avoid the thin Colorado air, she brought her daughters to England and embarked on a life of socializing with “lovers of art and music and literature.” When she died, Elsie returned to Colorado to run the household for her demanding father, a task made even more difficult after he was thrown by his horse and paralyzed. She escaped by marrying a nice, odd, rich younger man, with whom she’d been secretly engaged. For the ceremony at Glen Eyrie, she wore “a long brown wrap, covered with huge metal buckles.” Strung across it like the pieces of a coat of mail were “cords holding tiny bronze figures of animals of all kinds — a thousand of them.” Although Elsie’s husband, Leo Myers, had a great, unexpected success in the 1930s with a trilogy of novels set in 16th-century India, he remained a troubled soul and killed himself in 1944. We last see Elsie, at 82, with an old family retainer, taking long walks through the English countryside. For me, the fascination of this often passive, largely talentless woman lies in the trappings of her life. Although I did love the story of her oddball romance."