Unstill Lives: The Wyndham Sisters, by John Singer Sargent

The-Wyndham-Sisters-artist-John-Singer-SargentWhen you look at a painting, do you identify more with the artist, or his subject?

For myself, it's the latter. I'm always wondering what the subject is thinking at any given point in time. I'm sure at first there is some exhilaration at being the subject of such abject scrutiny. Considering the length of time it takes for a painter to finish a work, I'm sure eventually boredom sets in, then eventually impatience for the project to be over and done with. 

The writer in me wants to mine the emotional depths illuminated by the artist: in this case, the incomparable John Singer Sargent.

These women — sisters with the last name Wyndham – came from a wealthy London family. They are (from the left) Madeline Adeane (1869–1941), Pamela Tennant (1871–1928), and Mary Constance, Lady Elcho (1862–1937).

I presume to ease their boredom and to accommodate them in more comfortable surroundings, Sargent chose to paint them in the drawing room of their family home, in posh  Belgrave Square as opposed to his (I presume) much smaller studio.

The painting was complete around 1900.

In it, opulence abounds: in their satin gown, the large flower, the plush sofa where they lounge.

By today's standards, these women aren't beauties per se, but they were considered vivacious social butterflies. No matter. Sargent was known to make his subjects comelier than life afforded them, elongating some features, illuminating  others. The hues and shading are always flattering. When Sargent displayed this painting the Royal Academy's annual exhibition in 1900, the Prince of Wales nicknamed it"The Three Graces." 

In fact, they and their brothers — George, a writer and politician; and Guy, a soldier — were part of politically astute intellectual salon of twenty or so friends, known as the Souls, which gathered to from the 1880 to about the time this picture was painted. They were annointed as such by Lord Charles Beresford, a British admiral and member of Parliament, also affectionately known as Charlie B. His take on the group: ""You all sit and talk about each other's souls — I shall call you 'the 'Souls.'"

What a wonderful starting point for a novel! Considering the times they lived — Irish uprising, Home Rule, the Gilded Age, the Edwardian era — and the smart set  in which they ruled supreme (which included two future prime ministers as well as a writers, artistis, and quite few titled aristocratics)  the sisters' lives must have been quite interesting: and yes, tragic, as some of its members perished in the Great War.

— Josie

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