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…

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