Thursday, August 31, 2017

A Panorama of the Gilded Age, Seen Through Sargent’s Art

by Amy Bloom

New York Times

August 31, 2017

The Gilded Age (of white Americans), from the 1870s to about 1900, is a joy to research and write about. Crazy rich people doing, building and saying mad, impulsive, sometimes beautiful and often ridiculous things: traveling cross-country for séances; wearing leather pajamas while breakfasting next to a corpse; creating fantastical gardens and grand interpretive dance or poetry entertainments at lavish or ramshackle country homes. Mark Twain and his co-author Charles Dudley Warner are thought to have come up with the phrase for their novel of the same name, taking it from Shakespeare’s “King John”: “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily ... is wasteful and ridiculous excess.”

This period of rampant industrialization produced an enormously wealthy, largely oblivious 1 percent, of which Donna M. Lucey is a most sympathetic and intelligent chronicler. In Archie and Amélie, her 2006 book about a Gilded Age couple’s childhoods, disastrous marriage and lives post-divorce, she introduced us to Amélie Rives, goddaughter of Robert E. Lee and author of the once-sizzling The Quick or the Dead?, a novel about the erotic yearnings of a widow for her late husband’s brother, something Rives then repeated in real life with a similar passion for her eccentric-verging-on-floridly-psychotic husband’s younger brother. In that book, Lucey also took us through the life and poshly hard times of Archie Chanler, who was dashing, wealthy and crazy as a coot, with no modern psychotropic drugs to contain his florid delusions (I am Napoleon). They were a glamorous, absurd, doomed couple, and Lucey did her lucid, thoughtful best by them.

In Sargent’s Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas, she does even more of what she does best, creating 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.”


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