In the Spring of 1998, Christopher and I took our two daughters, ages five and seven, to Washington, D.C. Reeling from the recent loss of my father, father-in law, and sister-in-law within weeks of one another, still grieving my mother’s death five years earlier, and after undergoing surgery for what would be my first brush with cancer, I needed to get out of town. We all did.
We visited the National Zoo, Library of Congress, and the National Mall with its sea of cherry blossoms against a backdrop of iconic white buildings. We shed tears at the Vietnam Memorial. All of it was memorable and important, but it was a chance visit to an art museum that left the greatest impression on me.
One blue-skied morning, we wandered into the National Gallery of Art where a banner announced a special exhibition of paintings by John Singer Sargent (American, 1856-1925). The major exhibit, the first since the artist’s memorial showings after his death, featured works from numerous collections. I remembered Sargent from an art history class at the University of Michigan and recalled being drawn to his paintings at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
“Shall we?” Christopher asked.
I wanted to say yes, but worried the girls might become bored or tired once we entered. We’d already tested their patience at the Air and Space Museum where a spectacular planetarium program saved the day.
“What do you think?” I asked the man who regularly says yes. Within minutes, the four of us joined the queue into galleries containing portraits and landscapes that Sargent painted during his travels throughout Europe, Northern Africa, and the United States, as well as studies he made at the Western Front during World War I.
The girls seemed as captivated as me by what hung on the walls, large images of men, women, and children from far away places and another time.
Sargent, born to expatriate Americans living in Florence, Italy, spoke four languages and studied the Classics. He played piano and acquired a passion for art and architecture in Rome, Geneva, London, and Madrid, cities where his family resided for short periods. At age 18, he trained in Paris with portrait painter, Carolus-Duran, a modernist known for a free, spontaneous style. Sargent, adopting his mentor’s technique, earned praise at the Paris Salon, the official art exhibition of the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, arguably the greatest art event in the Western world.
His brilliant start, however, stalled in 1884, at age 28, following his Salon submission of a painting entitled Madame X. Defiance of convention in his portrait of socialite Madame Gautreau, the American wife of a French businessman, resulted in scandal. His depiction of Madame Gautreau, regal and confident, the strap of her black silk dress slipping off her bare shoulder onto blue-tinged skin, shocked the French. At the request of Madam Gautreau’s mother, Sargent adjusted the painting and moved the offending dress strap to its proper place, but the damage was done. His Parisian commissions evaporated.
“Ooh-la-la,” my seven-year-old said as she stood before the painting. She liked the image, as did I. Madame Gautreau, her head turned in profile, appeared powerful, comfortable in her skin. “She looks like Wonder Woman.”
This might be what troubled the Paris Salon.
Ultimately, Sargent left France for England at the encouragement of his friend Henry James. With help from James, and various well-connected friends and acquaintances, he became the toast of Boston and London as the celebrated portraitist of his generation. He painted Robert Louis Stevenson, Claude Monet, John D. Rockefeller, Frederick Law Olmsted, Isabella Stewart Gardner, and a long list of those who populated Edwardian society. Loose brushwork and luminosity mark his work, but his success was due to his discovery of beauty in every subject.
In 1892, Sargent painted Lady Agnew of Lachnaw while she recovered from a serious illness, a fact that resonated with me. Dressed in white, with a mauve sash at her waist, the woman radiated light.
Both girls coveted her dress. “Look at her purple belt, Mama.”
I lingered before the portrait and concluded her direct gaze and inviting half-smile suggested perseverance in the face of adversity. At that moment, so depleted by loss, I needed her strength. I thought if I could have anyone paint my portrait, it would be Sargent. He might have seen the light in me that I feared was no longer visible.
Sargent’s Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose painted in 1885 and 1886, stopped us in our tracks. It’s a painting that illustrates the value of visiting museums, of seeing original art. Sargent’s subjects, nearly life-sized children, light paper lanterns at dusk in a field of flowers. The canvas glows. At first, I was convinced there must be a light source behind the painting. After closer examination, it was evident Sargent’s magic was layered pigment, capable of capturing candlelight in twilight. The girls stared. I suspect they wanted to climb into the frame, enter the garden of pink roses, yellow carnations, and lilies, to join those white-frocked children, faces aglow.
Christopher kept up with the girls as they breezed through the remainder of Sargent’s landscapes. “Take your time. We’ll be outside the exhibit,” he told me as the girls pulled him into the next gallery.
I took him up on his offer and savored each work. Finally, I came face to face with a self-portrait of the artist. Sargent’s image was at odds with the amusing description of him studying his subjects, then dashing to the canvas to apply paint with quick strokes, all the while humming a little tune. In the portrait, he looks elegant in his suit coat and perhaps a little too serious, but for the sparkle in his eye that I discovered later, like the illumination of Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, dims in every reproduction. Seeing that glimmer, I fell in love with the man, grateful for his life’s work, his focus on light and grace.
When we left the museum, I felt revived, convinced the experience had planted seeds of something wonderful in our daughters. They’d witnessed all that light. Although it may seem slightly crazy, our visit triggered a shift in my perspective. Just maybe, the existence and recognition of beauty in this imperfect world could help me survive the dark times, the losses, when I was at risk for despair. I decided from that point forward to grasp every bit of light and grace that came my way.
Over the years, I’ve been thrilled to discover connections I have with the artist. I grew up on Florence Street in a community outside of Detroit. I learned a man named Nicola d’Inverno, with the same last name as the man I married, looked after Sargent when he lived in England. I traveled to Florence, Italy, where I fell hard for the city’s history, architecture, and culture. I’ve also visited Boston to see Sargent’s body of work housed in the city’s museums and grand public library. This past spring, I was surprised to stumble upon one of his paintings at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. Although I’d never seen the work before, it felt like I’d run into an old friend.
I’m happy to report this story doesn’t end there. Fast-forward a little over 20 years from our Washington trip, when I discovered that a friend—a poet, artist, and teacher—faced complicated open-heart surgery. I had trouble sleeping before her scheduled operation and nervously awaited news of its outcome. The miraculous happened and in roughly a week she headed home. After waiting for her to settle into her recovery phase, I stopped by for a short visit. She opened the door to her home, offered me tea and scones, inquired about my health, and looked nothing like a woman who’d recently had her rib cage pried open. Only the telltale red scar tissue visible above the neck of her shirt suggested what she’d endured.
Within days, my friend sent me a package through the mail. What I found in the cardboard box made me laugh, then cry. At some point well before her surgery, I’d mentioned on social media about my Sargent portrait fantasy. My friend, only two weeks post-surgery, found a photograph of my face, added it to a copy of Sargent’s Lady Agnew painting, and transformed me into a work of art without me ever mentioning that particular painting or that I’d seen it years earlier. As my friend’s body did the hard work of knitting back together, her generous heart busied itself with creation.
I adore this collaboration between artists separated by over a hundred years. I’d like to think it would make Sargent smile. It’s a reminder that art is my companion, one with the ability to encourage, bring joy, and heal.
The memory of being at the right place at the right time to attend the Sargent exhibit fills me with wonder—and gratitude for artists, friendships, daughters always happy to wander museums with me, and, of course, love for the man who practices the art of saying yes.