Friday, February 28, 2014

A Tribute to Henry James - Requiescat in Pacem - 28 February 1916

On the 98th Anniversary of the Death of the Great Author Henry James, who died in London on 28 February 1916

Having spent the last two months reading the final volume of Leon Edel’s vast biography of Henry James, it was with many poignant and sympathetic feelings that I came to the last chapters of the book just yesterday, which dealt with the tragedy of the onset of World War I, and ultimately, the Master’s death. His initial reaction to news of war, in a letter to a friend, was to see it as “a nightmare from which there is no waking save by sleep” and as living under “the funeral spell of our murdered civilisation.” He spent a great deal of time in London, visiting wounded soldiers in the hospitals, chatting with them about the little details of life, providing them through his calm and measured presence with the peace of ordinary life—he knew the very right note to strike.

In the last days of his life, felled by two strokes in two days, he struggled valiantly to use his words to find his way. His secretary and amanuensis, Theodora Bosanquet, dutifully typed out his words as he spoke, as she had been doing for the previous thirteen years. His great mind wandered through the years of his life; he often thought he was in other cities than London, and with other people, many of them long dead. One of the very last coherent conversations he had was with Mrs. William James, who had travelled across an Atlantic Ocean threatened by German submarines to be at her brother-in-law’s bedside, as she had promised her late husband she would be. Henry expressed the wish that her sons “had connections” in England.

“You are their connection with England and Europe,” Mrs. Williams James said.

“Yes, I know, and I should say, without being fatuous, with the future,” said Henry.

“With the future always. They will try to follow you.”

“Tell them to follow, to be faithful, to take me seriously.”

Let us praise Henry James by taking him seriously. I invite my fellow writers and readers of great fiction to contemplate and find enrichment in some of the Master’s ruminations about our craft.


“Life is, in fact, a battle. Evil is insolent and strong; beauty enchanting, but rare; goodness very apt to be weak; folly very apt to be defiant; wickedness to carry the day; imbeciles to be in great places, people of sense in small, and mankind generally unhappy. But the world as it stands is no narrow illusion, no phantasm, no evil dream of the night; we wake up to it, forever and ever; and we can neither forget it nor deny it nor dispense with it.” ― Theory of Fiction

“It takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature.” –The Art of Fiction

“If you have work to do, don't wait to feel like it; set to work and you will feel like it.”
Roderick Hudson

“Nothing, of course, will ever take the place of the good old fashion of ‘liking’ a work of art or not liking it; the more improved criticism will not abolish that primitive, that ultimate, test.”
The Art of Fiction

“To put all that is possible of one’s idea into a form and compass that will contain and express it only by delicate adjustments and an exquisite chemistry, so that there will be at the end neither a drop of one’s liquor left nor a hair’s breadth of the rim of one’s glass to spare—every artist will remember how often that sort of necessity has carried with it its particular inspiration.”

“To revise is to see, or to look over, again—which means in the case of the written thing neither more nor less than to re-read it. I had attached to it [revision], in a brooding spirit, the idea of re-writing—with which it was to have in the event, for my conscious play of mind, almost nothing in common.”

And some personal advice from Mr. James:  “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.” (from a letter to a friend)

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Visual Delights of Sargent's Watercolors

Here's a link to a video I put together of the many lovely watercolors displayed at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts exhibit of John Singer Sargent's paintings -- plus a few of his very famous portraits in oils that the MFA also has. I think you'll enjoy it!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Fabulous Watercolors Exhibit

Visiting Boston earlier this week, I spent several hours at the MFA's spectacular exhibit of Sargent's watercolors--and of course, paid my obeisance to the Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (more on that soon). Here are some of the exciting paintings on view. Get there if you can do it!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Re-Creating Sargent's Glorious Watercolors

Serendipity strikes again! The Historical Novel Society Conference in June in St. Petersburg, Florida, has yielded up a great new connection and resource from the extensive network of the historical fiction sister-and-brother-hood! Bruce Macbain, author of Roman Games and The Bull Slayer, and his wife Carol, purchased my Sargent book and lent it to a friend, Wendy Soneson, who happens to be a terrific artist and great fan of Sargent's. Wendy is currently scheduled to give demonstrations of Sargent's watercolor  technique at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in October, in conjunction with the huge exhibit of Sargent's watercolors there. Her websites are well worth looking at: and for both the Sargent paintings and her own portraits and landscapes.

In the meantime, here is a wonderful version by Wendy of that infamous Amelie Gautreau (Madame X) in one of the gazillion poses Sargent tried before he found the right one. And a few more of his paintings, a la Wendy.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

A Living Madame X

A few weeks ago, I attended (and helped plan and run) the 5th North American Historical Novel Society, held at the Hotel Vinoy in St. Petersburg, Florida. Three hundred-some historical fiction authors, editors, agents and just plain fans had a great time over the long weekend of sessions and parties and gatherings. At our 'dress-up' Saturday night dinner banquet, including a Costume pageant, one of our author-attendees, Leslie Carroll (her nom de plume is Juliet Gray), showed up dressed very much like the infamous Virginie Amelie Gautreau, Sargent's scandalous "Madame X". Of course, I had to take a picture of her in the proper pose, although there wasn't an appropriate little table nearby.  Thanks, Leslie!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Family of Edward Darley Boit

After the period of time covered in my novel (1882-84),  hard times lay ahead for the Boit family, at least emotionally. Isa died in 1894, and the four girls (Florence, Jane, Mary Louisa and Julia), with their father, continued their travels throughout Europe, Great Britain and the U.S. But none of the girls liked America very much, and Ned, too, preferred the ease and openness of Europe to his native land. He was married again in 1897 to a very young woman, a friend of his daughter Mary Louisa, confusingly enough named Florence, and together they had two boys. Unfortunately, his second wife died a few weeks after giving birth to her second son, in 1902. After recovering from this untimely death, Ned renewed his interest in his painting, and mounted several exhibitions of his work (one with Sargent in Boston). Ned died in 1915, in Florence. 
As for the Boit daughters, Florence (leaning against the pillar in the painting) was always a rather odd duck, never evincing the slightest interest in marrying or attending the usual social events. She was an avid player of the relatively new sport of golf—which she introduced to the Boston area, inspiring the local rich folks to build a course at a country club in Newport. She and a cousin, Jane Boit Patten, nicknamed “Pat” to distinguish her from the innumerable Jane’s and Jeanie’s in the family, became fast friends and in later years, lived in what was called a “Boston marriage”, two spinster ladies living together. 
The second daughter, Jane (standing next to Florence, facing forward), both before Isa died and afterward, was ill a great deal, both physically and emotionally, and spent several periods of time in and out of “retreats” and institutions where she underwent various cures to allay her apparently rather violent fits of anger and depression. Not much is known about Mary Louisa (standing to the far left, hands behind her back) except that she and Julia (on the floor with her babydoll) were always together, and Julia became fairly well known for her paintings and illustrations in water colors. Florence died at age fifty-one, on December 8, 1919, in Paris. 
With the outbreak of WWII in 1939, the three remaining sisters moved back to the United States. Julia and Mary Louisa (also known as “Isa” like her mother) lived in Newport, where Mary Louisa died on June 27, 1945, at age seventy-one. Jane (or “Jeanie” as she was known) died at the age of eighty-five on November 8, 1955, in Greenwich, Connecticut. Julia passed away in February 1969, at the age of ninety-one.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Franz Hals - Inspiration for Sargent's Madame X?

For several months in 1883, John Singer Sargent worked feverishly to capture the image of Virginie Amelie Gautreau--soon to be known as the "infamous" Madame X--both at his studio in Paris, and later, at the summer chateau of the Gautreau family in the west of France in St.-Malo. Sargent had painted and sketched Mme. Gautreau in oils, watercolors, pastels and charcoal--sitting, standing, lying down, walking in the garden--and was unable to fix on the exact right pose and setting for what he desired to be a magnificent portrait. Here are some of his attempts.

In July he took a short break from his labors, and travelled with friends up to Haarlem, Netherlands. There he visited the Haarlem City Hall, which also served as an art museum for an incredible collection of Dutch masters, including one of Sargent's favorites, Franz Hals. (b. 1582 – d. 26 August
1666). Hals was known for having introduced a more familiar, intimate style of portraiture, especially in group portraits. Here on the left is a self-portrait done in his classic style, with loose brushwork, a plain background, and the sitter's shadow on the wall.
As I researched Sargent's life and travels, I took a close look at Hals' paintings, and decided that there was sufficient reason to consider Hals' style as an inspiration for the final portrait of Madame X. Not only is the plain brown background a striking effect, along with the shadow, but the odd twist of a sitter's body can often be seen in Hals' larger portraits. He frequently had his subjects touching a chair or table that was half in and half out of the frame. There is a subtlety and a richness in the deep blacks and browns, especially as contrasted with white collars and ruffs, and rosy skin. The most decided difference between any of Hals' subjects and the Madame X portrait is that Hals' people all look forward at the viewer, frank, open, honest, amused, interested. 

Not Madame X, however. She disdains to look the viewer in the eye. She is an inaccessible Beauty. Her skin is not rosy (except for her ear, where her pale powder makeup didn't reach, apparently--that rosy, natural-colored ear was quite a scandal). The alabaster color of her arms and shoulders, her neck and face, are the "white ruff" counterpart of Hals' paintings. Not even a necklace relieves the pallor of her skin, although the straps of her dress are diamonds in gold chain links. The original painting had her right shoulder strap falling down on her right arm--scandal again. She is dressed (or "barely dressed") all in black -- and as the ladies of Paris instantly realized, she's not wearing a corset, or any proper undergarments. It is a fact that shortly after Sargent returned from his trip to Haarlem, he fixed upon this pose, these colors, this dress as the component parts of his masterpiece, so I think I'm in a pretty safe place thinking Hals was the inspiration. After the uproar and outrage of its showing at the 1884 Salon, Sargent kept the painting in his studio and did not lend it out for exhibition until once in 1911 in Italy, and then finally at the 1915 San Francisco Panama-Pacific International Exhibition. After that, rather than ship it back to England, he sold it to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it hangs in splendor today in the newly built wing of American Art.