Reading Group Guide

  1. Book ImageSargent's Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas

    Donna M. Lucey

    A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice Selection

    “[Lucey] delivers the goods, disclosing the unhappy or colorful lives that Sargent sometimes hinted at but didn’t spell out.”—Boston Globe

Discussion Questions

  1. John Singer Sargent confided to an acolyte, “Portrait painting, don’t you know, is very close quarters—a dangerous thing.” What do you think Sargent meant by that? Do you agree? Why or why not?
  2. Consider the epigraph to the book: “His quarry was a suitable subject, his trophy the creation of a thing of beauty.” What do you think of this take on the artistic process? How does it suit Sargent?
  3. Sargent maintained that his paintings were not psychological studies. He merely painted what he saw. What does that say about Sargent’s own psychology?
  4. Sargent was known for the fabrics and props he used to make his paintings particularly eye-catching. Lucey writes, “The accoutrements were crucial—perhaps a hat, a rose in a hand, a pair of oversized Asian vases to tower over a group of children, a costume covered in beetle wings.” Why do you think he chose to strip everything down in Elsie Palmer’s painting? Why such simplicity for this particular subject?
  5. Lucey writes, “Perhaps Sargent posed Elsie, consciously or not, in front of that dun-colored linen-fold paneling in an ancient chapel because he sensed she harbored an interior world that was almost religious in its intensity.” How do events in her later life bear out that claim?
  6. Sargent supposedly liked “that very calm expression” on Elsie’s face. How would you describe Elsie’s expression?
  7. Sargent chose to paint the beautiful Sally Fairchild in a blue veil. According to Lucey, Sargent’s evocation captured a “self-assured, beautiful, and privileged young woman with an independent streak.” But a veil also suggests chastity. What do you think of Sargent’s decision to pose twenty-one-year-old Sally in the veil?
  8. Lucey suggests that Sargent perhaps should have chosen Lucia Fairchild as his subject rather than her sister, Sally. What distinguishes Lucia? What distinguishes Sally? Who do you think is more compelling as the subject for a portrait? Who is more sympathetic?
  9. Sargent warned Lucia that one had a better chance for happiness without intense passion. He told her that “terrific love” might lead to bitter disappointment and “Terrific hate.” What do you think of this advice? Do Sargent’s women suffer in their quest for “Terrific love”?
  10. Sargent said that Elizabeth Chanler possessed “the face of a Madonna.” She appears remarkably calm in her portrait, and yet curators at the Smithsonian American Art Museum have pointed to tension. Do you recognize that tension?
  11. How accurately does Sargent paint Elizabeth’s internal landscape? Consider Elizabeth’s eyes, posture, and clothing.
  12. After Elizabeth falls in love with John Jay “Jack” Chapman, she writes passionately to him, “I crave more habit of you Jack—I need the close waking & sleeping intercourse of every moment of life.” Elizabeth’s desire for Jack is clear in her letters. Did her transition from a sickly and overly burdened child to a woman of intense romantic passion surprise you?
  13. After viewing the acclaimed Madame X, Isabella “Belle” Stewart Gardner wanted Sargent to paint a similarly provocative portrait of her. How did you react to the finished painting? What does the painting say about Belle’s sense of herself?
  14. The French critic Paul Bourget saw Belle’s portrait and wrote, “This woman can do without being loved. She has no need of being loved.” Given what you know about Belle, what do you think of Bourget’s critique?
  15. Sargent painted Belle for a second time when she was eighty-two years old. Lucey writes, “Shrouded in white cloth, she sits on a couch propped up with cushions; her pale expressionless face seems to be disappearing into the cloth, about ready to vanish.” What were your feelings on seeing this portrait?
  16. Which of Sargent’s women most intrigued you? Why?
  17. Sargent created more than nine hundred paintings and sketches in his lifetime. How do you feel about Lucey’s decision to examine these four subjects?
  18. Biographers have depicted Sargent as robustly masculine. Friends called him “a frenzied bugger.” Others noted that he avoided romantic relationships yet needed constant companionship. His sittings were often like small parties. Did Sargent’s behaviors and peculiarities surprise you? Why or why not?
  19. Do you think Sargent’s personality somehow shows itself on the canvas?
  20. Together, Sargent’s women—Elsie, Sally, Elizabeth, and Belle—represent high society during the Gilded Age. Yet each woman is unique, and each one managed to flout convention in her own way. Do women still face some of the same challenges today?

About Donna M. Lucey

Donna M. Lucey is the author of the New York Times best-selling Archie and Amélie and other books, the recipient of two National Endowment for the Humanities grants, and a 2017 writer-in-residence at Edith Wharton’s The Mount. The media editor at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, she lives in Charlottesville.

Books by Donna M. Lucey

  1. Book CoverSargent's Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas

    A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice Selection

    “[Lucey] delivers the goods, disclosing the unhappy or colorful lives that Sargent sometimes hinted at but didn’t spell out.”—Boston GlobeMore