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Mortal Longings

The White Blackbird: A Life of the Painter Margarett Sargent by Her Granddaughter

by Honor Moore
Viking, 372 pp., $29.95

In 1986, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston mounted an exhibition called “The Bostonians: Painters of an Elegant Age, 1870-1930.” It collected formal portraits, landscapes, and still lifes by the renowned painters of the Boston School: Childe Hassam, Winslow Homer, William Paxton, Edmund Tarbell, and the prince of the portraitists, John Singer Sargent. Many were members of the Boston Art Club, painters who lived on Marlborough Street and had studios on Beacon or Boylston Streets. Their works are by, for, and about Boston society. There are enough silks and feathered hats in their pictures to open a shop, enough chinoiseries to fill a museum, enough flowers to hold a funeral. They are pleasing paintings, to be sure, inspired mostly by the Impressionists, but their emphasis on interior scenes—drawing rooms, breakfast rooms, bedrooms—and closed-in, snow-covered city streets tends to suggest something of the character of nineteenth-century Boston, its cozy gentility, moral superiority, intellectual stuffiness, and suffocating boredom. Although the exhibition included works by a number of women, it did not include those of one of the most celebrated women painters in Boston at that time, John Singer Sargent’s fourth cousin, Margarett Sargent.

Margarett Sargent was not of the Boston School. In both her life and her paintings, Sargent tried to break free of the actual and artistic Boston. For the first half of her life, she was unusually successful at escaping the constraints of her place in society. An extraordinary beauty and the debutante of her day, Sargent put off marrying long enough to complete an artistic education that would make her a promising modernist. She apprenticed herself to George Luks, a leftist painter and amateur boxer whose realist works earned him a place among “the Eight” who broke with Impressionism and introduced a reluctant National Academy of Design to the European avant-garde in the famous Armory Show of 1913. Under his tutelage, Sargent began painting works inspired by Matisse’s expressionism and the Fauves’ use of hot, acid colors. She contributed to more than thirty exhibitions in New York, Boston, and Chicago; nine shows were devoted solely to her work. But then in her early forties, at the height of her career, Margarett Sargent stopped painting. Honor Moore, Sargent’s granddaughter, has painstakingly reconstructed her grandmother’s largely forgotten life by way of asking why.

Margarett was born on August 31, 1892, the sixth child of Jenny Hunnewell Sargent and Frank Sargent, in Wareham, Massachusetts, at the family’s seaside house. Margarett seems to have always rebelled against family expectations, first as a demanding, sickly toddler, and later as a tomboy with a sharp tongue. She particularly vexed her mother, who was prone to be overwhelmed by her six children and the burden of moving seasonally between three separate households in Wellesley, Boston, and Wareham.

A disobedient and dilatory student, Margarett was eventually expelled from a day school in Boston and sent, at sixteen, to Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut, where she began to learn about both art and independence. She sketched constantly, and, at the home of a local graduate of Miss Porter’s, she saw her first Impressionists, including Monets, a Degas, and a Mary Cassatt. At eighteen, she pleaded with her parents to allow her to go to Italy, and came home after a year in Florence “crazy about Donatello,” as her brother Dan recalled, and talking “about becoming a sculptor.” In Italy, according to her astonished friends, she had acquired a unique sense of style and a wardrobe of “extraordinary clothes.” Soon after returning from abroad, Margarett went to New York with a thousand dollars her father had given her for her nineteenth birthday and bought a pastel by Mary Cassatt. Her cousin recalled, “It was after Florence that Margarett began to be different from other people.”

Tall and slim, her pale skin set off by dramatically dark hair and light-blue eyes, Margarett was a sensation the year she came out, perhaps as much for her self-confidence and panache as for her beauty. In those who met her over the next several years (including Betty Parsons, the famous gallery owner and collector, and Archibald MacLeish, who wrote her love poems) Sargent inspired memories not of good looks but of grace and glamour. Just before her twentieth birthday, she got engaged to Edward (Eddie) Morgan, a distant relative of J.P. Morgan and a friend of her brother Dan’s. Her mother did not approve. A year later, her mother reconciled and wedding presents arriving, Margarett broke the engagement, announcing to her shocked fiancé and family, “I’m going to Italy to sculpt.”

What was perhaps most shocking to Boston society, as well as to the families, was the fact that she was serious. But her declaration also announced other emerging facets of her character: grandiosity, impetuousness, and a carelessness with others’ feelings that would become, on occasion, cruelty.

Jenny was “mortally wounded” that her daughter had done such a thing. “You didn’t break it!” she exclaimed…. The fault, in Dan’s eyes, was Margarett’s, but the tragedy was equally his. The broken engagement had—“of course,” he nearly shouted decades later—broken his closest friendship. “Margarett had ‘immortal longings,”’ he explained, intending the deepest parallel to Cleopatra: “She wanted more than you could get. Nothing banal was good enough for her.”

It was a decision that, as Moore notes, “required courage,” but it also established what would become a pattern throughout Sargent’s life of disengagement and withdrawal, eventually extending to her work as an artist.

At twenty-one, Sargent began apprenticing herself to a variety of teachers, accepting commissions from family and friends. Her first works to be publicly displayed, in 1916, at the annual exhibition of the Art Institute of Chicago, included a bronze of her nephews, smoothly and conventionally modeled. In the summer of 1917, Sargent began developing a more graphic, rougher style after studying with Gutzon Borglum, the grandiloquent, self-consciously proletarian sculptor who eventually carved Mount Rushmore. That winter she moved, with a friend from her days at Miss Porter’s, Marjorie Davenport, to New York City to work at Borglum’s studio. (Sargent and Davenport had a kind of Boston marriage in which Davenport served her friend as model and housemaid, a relationship characteristic of Sargent’s tendency to make use of other people.) Borglum introduced her to George Luks, who derided the Boston School as “the pink and white painters.”

Luks became Sargent’s mentor: she sculpted him, he painted her. Luks taught Sargent to draw and instilled her life-long habit of carrying a sketchbook everywhere with her, and he presided over her transition to painting, introducing her to the watercolorist Maurice Prendergast, and to the Fauve painter Alfred Maurer, undoubtedly important influences on Sargent’s use of color, the juxtaposition of intense, biting yellows, lavenders, and turquoise blues. Luks called the portrait he painted in profile of Margarett by his nickname for her, “the White Blackbird.” In it, she gazes demurely downward in a low-cut dress and dark feathered hat that emphasize her pale coloring; she seems vulnerable, wistful, and strangely lacking in the forcefulness she exudes in photographs and self-portraits.

Moore, in interviews with her grandmother’s elderly siblings and friends, catches their still-fresh outrage and exasperation with Margarett and something of the liberality of the times, hidden beneath a superficial veneer of respectability. Margarett had an extraordinary number of suitors of whom she took advantage, as she did of Marjorie Davenport. She encouraged their attentions, their admiration, their presents, but offered no commitment and little feeling in return. Of Marjorie’s jealousy, Moore writes,

She and Margarett shared a bed, and though nothing documents what they did there, Marjorie, at the end of her life, raged against Margarett with the fury of a thwarted lover.

Margarett’s sexual independence, Moore suggests, was a complicated exercise in power, rebellion, and contempt. She strung Shaw McKean along for eight years, until her father died, in 1920, when she was twenty-seven. Unwilling to face her filial duty to live with her mother as the unmarried daughter, Margarett called Shaw and, with characteristic detachment, said, “I guess I will marry you.” (She never informed Marjorie Davenport of the engagement, wiring her the news on the day of the wedding.) What followed, from their wedding day henceforth, was a tragic marriage of almost Whartonian dimensions.

Quincy Adams Shaw McKean, a direct descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, played polo, raised fox terriers, and worked as a stockbroker at a prominent Boston firm. The day before he married Margarett Sargent, he lost most of his money in a stock crash, making him financially dependent on his new wife and his very rich mother. Moore describes the newlyweds’ honeymoon drive to New Hampshire:

Suddenly Shaw turned to Margarett. “You think that you married me for my money,” he said lightly. “Well, I don’t have any; I’m going to live on yours; you’ll have to live on your looks.”

He then proceeded, as they picnicked alone in the woods, to force himself on his protesting bride, who, Moore writes, “more than once, when she spoke of the incident,…used the word ‘rape.”’ Their relationship never recovered from these beginnings—her long years of rejection and indifference, his spite and wounded pride—and their frustration and disappointment with each other doubtless contributed to Margarett’s increasing instability over the years, her alcoholism, depression, and final withdrawal from painting.

Moore suggests that Sargent married when and whom she did in order to protect her artistic life: as “seven years earlier, she had retreated from marriage to protect [it].” For the first few years, despite the tension between herself and her husband, the gamble seemed to be paying off. Margarett transformed McKean’s seventeenth-century New England saltbox north of Boston into a grand estate, “Prides,” planting elaborate gardens and enlarging the house to contain a studio for herself and to display the paintings Shaw had inherited—Corots, a Rembrandt, a Delacroix—and those she continued to buy, a Picasso, André Derain’s Mademoiselle X, and works by Marie Laurencin and Maurice Vlaminck. An essay by Anne Higonnet in the catalog accompanying an exhibition of Sargent’s work at the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College this summer notes that had Sargent’s collection “remained intact, it might look like one of the better Modernist collections of its time.” Sargent had a sophisticated eye and was adept at incorporating elements of the technique and style of the masters into her own work, but her paintings remained the work of a tasteful collector.

She continued working throughout her pregnancies, bearing two daughters and then twin sons, so that, at the age of thirty-two, “she had four children under three years old.” She hired a governess for the girls and two nurses for the twins and kept working, now in plaster relief. At thirty-three, she had her first solo exhibition at the Kraushaar Galleries in New York, showing watercolors, the plaster reliefs, and a bronze head. Some of the notices were patronizing (“The fascinating Mrs. Q.A. Shaw McKean, known to the artistic world at Margaret [sic] Sargent, is showing her things this week…. While Margaret has her art, Shaw has his dogs which he loves almost as much as she loves her creations.”) but others praised the quality and “economy” of her line.

This early work seems tentative and preliminary, scattered between differing media. It was in the late 1920s and 1930s, after she reached her mid-thirties, that Sargent completed her most memorable paintings, self-portraits and paintings of women that display the influence of Modigliani in the long sensuous necks and arms, and of Matisse in the aggressive juxtaposition of strange, strong colors. Their individuality lies in the demeanor of Sargent’s subjects, seated but strained, passive but, as in an untitled 1932 portrait of a top-hatted woman, seemingly ready to spring forward in attack or self-defense. The two women in Bathers (1930) jostle each other in a sexual, playful way, but their obliterated faces suggest something of the same depression and wary aggression that is a constant in Sargent’s portraits. She caught her own contradictory feelings, a joking hostility, vulnerability masked by a defensive, pushy rejection of those closest to her.

After her children were born, Margarett threw herself into a frenzied social life that seemed aimed partly at wounding the husband who had wounded her. She entertained lavishly, having adulterous affairs with many of her house guests, men and women, including Isabel Pell, the actress; Roland Balay, a French art dealer; and Jane Bowles, the writer, all of whom she sketched. She took tea with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas; painted Jimmy Durante; met Harpo Marx; even dined, on one occasion, with Hitler. She carried on an extensive affair with Eddie Morgan, according to Moore, meeting him in hotels in New York and Philadelphia. She drank heavily. Her children were often greeted in the morning by the news that their mother had a headache and could not be disturbed. Her behavior gradually grew wilder, uncontrollable. She passed out in public and in front of her children. Shaw would be called at work to come home and deal with his wife.

Eventually things came to a head when Margarett, who had always been relatively discreet, began a public affair in a Boston hotel with a golfer and gambler named Harry Snelling. Shaw, and then Shaw’s mother, stepped in, and Snelling left Margarett, who had been talking about divorcing her husband for him. The McKeans went to Europe. Shortly after they returned, Margarett stopped painting.

While Moore records the effects Margarett’s drinking and disruptive behavior had on her family, she does not offer it as the only explanation for the deterioration of her grandmother’s work and life. The question of why Margarett Sargent stopped painting is something for which Moore offers no easy answers; indeed, it is a virtue of this autobiographical biography that it succeeds in evoking the unfathomable nature of a personality. Nor does Moore exaggerate the importance or quality of her grandmother’s painting. Sargent’s work enlarged her life from that of a Boston socialite to that of a woman who, however unconsciously, captured the particular emotional bind of someone empowered by money and position even as she is imprisoned by them. But her increasingly self-destructive behavior would keep her from ever attaining real independence as a woman or as an artist. Sargent never achieved her own style, never rose above her influences.

There was a history of depression in the family; Margarett’s mother and her mother’s mother had both suffered from it, to the point of withdrawing completely from society. Margarett’s brother Frank killed himself in 1919, after returning from service in World War I; he had earlier been denied a commission in the army because of “nervousness.” And her older sister, Jane, suffered breakdowns. But Margarett was at the pinnacle of her success when she abruptly stopped painting.

Margarett Sargent herself seems to have had little insight into her reason; according to a friend, “Margarett was not an introspective person.” When Honor Moore visited her grandmother, aged eighty-two, and showed her a portfolio of her earlier drawings, Margarett said, “Why did I ever stop?” Moore asked, “Why did you stop?” Margarett’s response was, “It got too intense.”

Moore describes what may have been Sargent’s last painting, attempting to suggest that her grandmother’s almost willful blindness to herself—to her own motives and acts—may provide one explanation:

On the left side of the painting is a standing mirror with a white wood frame. In the mirror is reflected the part of the room where an artist would stand to paint the scene, but we do not see her, see instead a Sheraton sofa, the pale-brown floor, corner of a rug, tawny walls. Logically, Margarett, posing in her chair, should be reflected in the mirror, but she is not…. The woman casts no reflection, and there is no evidence of the artist. Knowing we cannot be sure, let’s say this is Margarett’s last painting—herself with no face, casting no reflection in a mirror she clearly faces.

Margarett’s life deteriorated markedly after she stopped painting:

When the force with which Margarett approached painting lost its object, those around her felt the consequences. She talked all night, spilling virtuosic, hilarious stories. She planned a party to bring this person together with that one, to celebrate a new friendship. She planned a garden. She got angry.

She began to experience severe manic and depressive episodes. Her children left home for college and marriage, and in 1944 Margarett checked into Four Winds, a sanitarium in New York, and began a series of shock treatments; she would return several times over the coming years. In 1947, Shaw McKean fell in love with another woman and divorced his wife, something his children had long wanted him to do. For a time, Margarett traveled in Europe, but because of her breakdowns her eldest daughter had to be named her legal guardian. During her last two decades, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, she recovered enough from her depression and a stroke to entertain again in an apartment on Tremont Street in Boston; in 1973, she held her last grand party at Prides. In 1977, after suffering more strokes, she was moved to a nursing home, and Prides was sold without her knowledge, its paintings auctioned off. She died on January 21, 1978. Most of Sargent’s own paintings were warehoused for years, with the exception of Blue Girl, a painting she sent to her twenty-one year old granddaughter, Honor Moore, who would eventually describe its subject, a woman framed by her black and blue clothing, gazing guardedly off to the left, “staring as if interrupted. A stranger.”

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