The Grand Affair: A Thrilling Biography of John Singer Sargent

Growing up in Rome in the mid-19th century, John Singer Sargent could not have asked for a better informal education for the world-class artist he would become. He was surrounded by museums overflowing with great art and just as important, his ebullient, energetic American mother hosted gatherings of painters, sculptors, poets and writers. 

Sargent’s mother was obsessed with European culture and may have modeled that enthusiasm for her son.  She also was an inveterate traveler “for her health,” so the family traipsed all over Western and Central Europe with young Sargent watching, studying, sketching–whether in museums or on mountain tops.  It’s fascinating to read about the challenging mountaineering he did in Switzerland with his father, something you might not associate with a man who later spent so much time in salons and studios.

This was a period when living in Europe cost much less than in the U.S. and  Americans like his mother were ravenous for culture of the Old World. Sargent grew up multilingual, voraciously interested in art, and Rome is where he was first exposed to an artistic subject that would be a constant in his life, though somewhat secret: male nudes. 

Whether painter or connoisseur, back then you could appreciate these nudes as the “ideal representation of humanity” without arousing suspicion, but Sargent’s sketches and paintings showed more than just artistic fascination.  Fisher explores this terrain with wit and style, referencing many of Sargent’s sketches and paintings that were unknown during the painter’s lifetime to make this crucial point.   As he puts it, they “stood out as charged, emotional composition.”

Sargent never married and had many deep friendships with male artists and models as long as he lived, while cultivating rich, powerful “iconoclasts and divas” like the famed art collector and Isabella Gardner.  Was he queer?  It seems obvious that he was and that it was part of his unique vision of people which astonished other painters, including tutors and teachers–and eventually made him famous. 

Some of the best writing in the book explores the not-so-hidden gay salons and haunts in Paris, New York, and Venice and how artists, writers, and wealthy men flirted with this subculture or made themselves at home in it. Fisher also deftly explains all the ways in which Sargent often focused on wealth and celebrity in his work while interrogating it as well, with many subtle touches of eroticism.  Fisher couldn’t be a better guide in analyzing paintings: he’s illuminating without ever coming across as academic or dry.

He also deftly analyzes Sargent’s keen business sense: even in his early twenties, Sargent knew how to cultivate wealthy sitters so he could attract more of them and knew what was daring and unique enough to have work publicly displayed.   He did that while remaining in his public persona “understated, hard-working, and self-effacing.” The author does a splendid job charting Sargent’s peripatetic life and the ways in which he presented as comme il faut but was actually innovative and even disruptive in his art, testing the limits of what the public might accept.  That thread is important for contemporary readers who might need some of the painter’s work decoded due to its subtlety.

Given the book’s subject and the gorgeous color plates, it’s strange that the cover is so grim and unappealing.  Fisher’s luscious book deserved better production, something worthy of his subject’s style and genius, worthy of this “painter of luminous complications.”  It also deserved much better copy editing because there are too many missing words and repetitions throughout the book.

All the same, this masterful biography is perfect not just for fans of the painter but for anyone eager to read more about The Gilded Age.  One celebrity after another passes through these pages–including Henry James, Robert Louis Stevenson, Monet, Isabella Gardner–and Fisher ably interrogates the privilege that artists like Sargent benefited from, without sounding like too much of a scold.

Be prepared to spend some time on Google looking up paintings and painters you might not have heard of before. And readers might also want to try Donna Lucey’s brisk and entertaining Sargent’s Women which explores the colorful biographies of the women behind four of his iconic portraits.

A lifelong fan of vivid biographies, Lev Raphael fell in love with Sargent’s portraits in college.  One of the most enthralling exhibitions he’s ever attended was the mammoth 1987 show of the painter’s work at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Raphael has reviewed books for Bibliobuffet, The Detroit Free Press, Jerusalem Report, The Washington Post, and The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram.

A Taste of Grand Rapids

I was in Grand Rapids last week to do an interview on WGVU about my newest mystery State University of Murder. The host Shelley Irwin is a terrific interviewer because she’s so well-prepared and enthusiastic.

When we were finished, I stayed on to have even more fun. I crossed the Grand River to the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) and arrived when it opened at 10am. That’s my favorite time for any museum at home or abroad because there’s rarely a crowd and you can linger in front of a work without feeling like you’re getting in someone’s way.

I was lucky to grow up in New York Cuty where my parents took me to the Guggenheim, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, MOMA and others from as far back as I can remember. We went so often that I didn’t just have favorite artists, I had favorite paintings and sculptures.  I’ve always found enjoyment, solace, and adventure in museums and especially love encountering artists I don’t know or know only be name.  Or work by artists I admire but have never seen before.

GRAM is in a spectacular modernist building that has the feel of a temple, and it’s filled with light and attractive galleries for a collection spanning Rembrandt to Rauschenberg. Some years ago I saw a splendid Warhol retrospective there that made me appreciate the depth and range of his work, and I’ve also been to GRAM for the yearly international competition Art/Prize.

Last week, I was delighted to find a Rembrandt self-portrait engraving at GRAM because it reminded me of visiting his home in Amsterdam and all the times I’ve encountered his work in other museums here and abroad.  There were portraits everywhere that spoke to me, including the one below by Gilded Age painter William Merritt Chase.  His work has always appealed to me because I grew up in a Gilded Age apartment building and went to a public library built in the same period.  Seeing this “Lady in Opera Cloak” from 1893 also reminded me of the many Edith Wharton novels I’ve read.

Sated in one way, I was hungry in another and I strolled a few blocks over to Bistro Bella Vita and had a terrific lunch. The restaurant is in a former factory, has high ceilings, wooden pillars, exposed brick walls and a soothing color palette of orange and brown with a dash of teal for contrast.  I felt great before I even looked at a menu.

My affable server was very knowledgeable about the food and wine without being pedantic.  I started with roasted Brussels sprouts that had a sauce with Greek Yogurt as its base. That may sound like an unlikely combination, but it was delicious. I moved on to seared gnocchi which were perfect, not too soft, not too dense. House-made, they came in a savory ragù of pork and Riesling, topped with fried sage. It was to die for, truly.

I was full but couldn’t resist the olive oil cake which was airy and the lightest I’ve ever had–and beautifully presented as you can see above. Dining at this restaurant reminded me of fabulous bistro meals I’ve had in France, Italy, and Belgium, and I can’t wait to go back to Grand Rapids for another grand meal.

Lev Raphael is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association and his favorite city in Europe is Ghent.  He’s the author of a memoir/travelogue My Germany and two dozen other books in a wide range of genres.  He teaches creative writing online at