By Elizabeth Kerri Mahon
I’ve been reading The Artist’s Way, and Julia Cameron suggests taking yourself on weekly dates to refill the well. So, last Friday, I took a little train to Boston to see the Fashioned by Sargent exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, which closed this past Monday. I know what you’re thinking, “Elizabeth, you took a day trip to Boston to visit a museum? Are you crazy?” Why yes, I am; thanks for noticing. I had initially planned to see the exhibition when it moved on to the Tate Britain in London in February, mais je suis pauvre en ce moment. So, my only option was to take an eight-hour round trip to Boston to see it. I’m a huge Sargent fan if you hadn’t guessed already. However, I wasn’t alone on my adventure; I brought along my partner in crime, Leslie Carroll, who was just as eager to see the exhibition as I was. The first hiccup on our trip was that our train was late arriving at Back Bay. The second hiccup was that the green T line wasn’t running, but they did have a free shuttle bus that would drop us off right in front of the museum. Admission for the museum and the exhibition was pricey, $34, which I think is more than the Metropolitan Museum of Art charges for admission.John Singer Sargent’s reputation as a painter has waxed and waned for almost a century since he passed away in 1925. He is considered one of the most successful portrait artists of his era. If you want to know the truth, I prefer his non-portraits, landscape paintings, and watercolors. You can see the influence of the Impressionist painters and Velasquez, Van Dyck, and Gainsborough on his art.
Fashioned by Sargent focused on the artist’s relationship with subjects and their clothes. Sargent would often suggest items of clothing for his sitters to wear or would pull period garments and accessories that he owned. He had no qualms telling his subjects to wear something else if he didn’t like it.
The exhibition was crowded because it was a holiday weekend, so getting excellent photographs of my favorite paintings was hard, but I got a few, which I will share. I apologize in advance for this being a very photo-heavy post. One of my favorite paintings is that of Dr. Samuel Pozzi, a noted gynecologist. This has to be one of the sexiest 19th-century paintings I’ve ever seen, including Sargent’s portrait of Madame X. Look at him in his sexy red dressing gown!
Fashioned by Sargent focused on the artist’s relationship with subjects and their clothes. Sargent would often suggest items of clothing for his sitters to wear or would pull period garments and accessories that he owned. He had no qualms telling his subjects to wear something else if he didn’t like it. The exhibition was crowded because it was a holiday weekend, so getting excellent photographs of my favorite paintings was hard, but I got a few, which I will share. I apologize in advance for this being a very photo-heavy post. One of my favorite paintings is that of Dr. Samuel Pozzi, a noted gynecologist. This has to be one of the sexiest 19th-century paintings I’ve ever seen, including Sargent’s portrait of Madame X. Look at him in his sexy red dressing gown!
Many of the portraits were shown with the gown that the sitter wore in the painting.
This is a portrait of Louise Pomeroy Inches by Sargent from 1887. Louise is shown wearing a silk velvet scarlet evening gown. Below is the gown, a darker red than it was photographed. It reminded me of my costume when I played Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion for the third act when she returned from the Embassy Ball.
The piece de resistance, however, was the portrait of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, along with the costume she wore on stage and in the picture. Below is the painting by Sargent.
Terry’s costume was designed by her chief costumer, Alice Comyns Carr. Carr was associated with the Aesthetic dress movement. Carr began working with Terry and her chief costume designer, Patience Harris, in 1882, and by 1885, Carr had replaced Harris as her chief costume designer. She championed looser, more flowing clothing for women than the tightly corseted fashion of the period. Dressmaker Ada Nettleship crocheted the costume to resemble soft chain mail and used beetle wings to create an iridescent effect. The costume usually resides at Terry’s former home, Smallhythe, in Kent. I’m grateful that they were able to loan it for the exhibition.
After grabbing lunch at the museum, Leslie and I headed to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Since we were in Boston, we might as well! The museum is only a short walk from the Museum of Fine Arts, and they had a small exhibit that dovetailed with the MFA exhibition. Plus, there was a $2 discount on the admission price after showing our MFA tickets! This was my second visit to the museum, and I highly recommend it. It’s the first museum created by a woman in the United States. One of my favorite things about the museum is that after the famous art heist, which has never been solved, you can still see the spots where those paintings would have been. Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924) came from new money and married old money. Her husband, John ‘Jack’ Lowell Gardner II, was what they call a ‘Boston Brahmin,’ one of those families that either came over on the Mayflower or shortly after. He was also one of Boston’s most eligible bachelors! They married when Isabella was 20.
The couple had one child who died before his second birthday, and Isabella was never able to have more children. Instead, she threw herself into not only traveling but also studying. She attended classes at what was known as the Harvard Annex (later Radcliffe College), studying Dante and the classics. It wasn’t until after her father’s death in 1891 that Isabella began to collect art seriously. Although she and her husband were wealthy, they weren’t super rich like J.P. Morgan or Henry Clay Frick, so Isabella had to be strategic in her collecting. Her husband’s death in 1898 spurred Isabella to realize her dream of a museum to showcase the paintings and decorative arts she and Jack had collected on their travels.Stewart Gardner sat for her portrait with Sargent in 1888. He was paid $3,000 (a little over $99,000 in today’s money) for the picture. The painting caused a bit of a scandal when it was exhibited at the St. Botolph Club, although not as big as the Madame X portrait. It was jokingly nicknamed “Woman: An Enigma.” Jack Gardner seems to have asked his wife not to show the portrait again publicly while he was alive, and it was placed in the Gothic Room, which remained private until Mrs. Gardner died in 1924.
If you want to know about the portrait, here is a great blog post from the museum’s website. This dress is not the same one that Stewart Gardner is wearing in the portrait, but you can get an idea of how tiny she was.
After the museum, we returned to Back Bay to catch our train back to Manhattan, tired but happy after seeing so much fantastic art and fashion.
What I’m watching:
Belgravia on Amazon Prime/MGM+ - This series is based on Julian Fellowes’ novel of the same name. The Trenchard family have recently ascended to the aristocratic society of London’s Belgravia, but a decades-old love affair comes back to haunt them and jeopardize the happiness of many. If you liked Downton Abbey or The Gilded Age, then you might like Belgravia. Dance Life on Amazon Prime: I just discovered this series last night. It’s a reality TV docuseries about the Brent Street School in Sydney. These young dancers are incredible, but the amount of pressure that’s put on them as teenagers is unbelievable. it’s just a fraction of what they will encounter after they graduate and are in the professional dance world.
What I’m reading:
I’m revising the first few chapters of the WIP, so I’m back to doing research, which means going through all the research books that I currently own, as well as adding new ones.
ELIZABETH KERRI MAHON is a native New Yorker and unabashed history geek. She is the author of Pretty Evil New York: True Stories of Mobster Molls, Violent Vixens, and Murderous Matriarchs and Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History's Most Notorious Women. A pop-culture diva, Elizabeth has written for the popular quiz site Reward TV.com. She is also a professional actress who has played virgins and vixens in everything from Shaw to Shakespeare and has a new column at email@example.com.