Saturday, August 7, 2010

When Art Meets Life--and Murder

what alice knew cover

What Alice Knew by Paula Marantz Cohen "stars" Henry James and his two siblings, William and Alice, as the main characters.  It also prominently features their friend, John Singer Sargent, and several other artists and writers.  While reading the book I couldn't help but wonder which of the characters and paintings were real and which weren't.  This is just a small sampling of what I found.

henry james

Henry James (above) is obviously a real-life someone.  He and Sargent were great friends, but he had to have his portrait painted twice because the first one pleased neither the artist nor the subject.  I would love to get my eyes on that rejected work, but I have yet to find it.

I actually remember this painting from the first-ever art history course I took, although I didn't know it was of Henry James at the time.  The instructor used it as an example of Sargent's skill--to make the links in the watch chain, for example, he dipped half his brush in bright yellow paint, and the other half in a dark gold, then just painted the links--simple! 

I think this is a great portrait of James--you can see that he's always thinking and trying to be serious, but has an intrinsic humor; it looks like he's trying hard not to smile.  I kept picturing James like this in my mind while I was reading the book.

Alice James

I also really wanted to find a picture of Alice James, Henry's sister.  She spends most of her time in bed due to incapacitating headaches.  Unfortunately, I couldn't--but I did find a painting of William James' wife, who was also named Alice.  Doesn't she just look... yeah.  Poor woman.

Ellen Terry

The portrait above is of Ellen Terry, a famous dramatic actress in the Victorian era.  By painting her in the persona of Lady MacBeth, Sargent was following in the footsteps of famous eighteenth-century portraitists like Sir Joshua Reynolds.  The scene where Sargent paints this work is actually in What Alice Knew, and is so much fun!

Vernon Lee

Another great scene in the book is the dinner party Henry and Alice throw to lure one of the murder suspects into questioning.  Among the other guests is famous actress Fanny Kemble, Constance Fenimore Cooper (whom I'm guessing is Constance Fenimore Woolson?), and Vernon Lee, whose portrait is seen here.  Her real name was Violet Paget, but, as the book put it, "had lately, in rebellion against her femininity, renamed herself Vernon Lee").  How cool is that?

Vernon Lee's portrait is actually one of my favorite Sargent portraits, just because you can practically see her personality, almost as if she's right there in front of you.  I also like it because Sargent painted it after he had sworn off portraiture, so you can tell it's a portrait of friendship and everything he likes about Vernon--who apparently was quite the irrepressible character.

daughters of edward darley boit

Another very interesting character in the book is Ella Abrams, the daughter of a prominent Jewish businessman.  I thought for sure she and her family were real historical figures, but so far I haven't been able to find them.  In the book she was painted several times by Sargent, as was her family.  I immediately thought of this work, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit--probably just because it's one of his most famous pieces, but I also thought the familial atmosphere of the Abrams in the book and Boits in this work was very similar.

walter sickert

One person I did NOT expect to be a historical personage was Walter Sickert, mainly because he was the most obvious murder suspect in the book.  But, surprise, he was a real Victorian painter!  Here we see a photograph of him from 1911, around the time of the book's epilogue.  Does he look like a murderer to you?

jack the rippers bedroom

I was also surprised to find out the real Walter Sickert was tangentially involved in the Ripper murders--or so he believed--and that he's been accused of being the Ripper several times.  He claimed to have roomed with the Ripper briefly, based on some incidents related by his landlady, and painted a work he titled Jack the Ripper's Bedroom (pictured above).  Several writers have used this as a jumping-off point to argue he was the actual killer, including Patricia Cornwell, who supposedly bought up nearly all of his paintings and then destroyed them in the search for his DNA.  She denies this--although she does claim to have samples of Sickert's DNA, and that it matches samples found on the Ripper letters, soooo... how'd you get those samples, Cornwell?  Just sayin'.

camden town murder

More than likely, Sickert was simply a sensationalist capitalizing on the Ripper murders, just as he did with this painting, Camden Town Murders.  It was exhibited during a later period of London-based serial killings (c. 1911).  This work appears in the very last scene in What Alice Knew, along with the observation, "Perhaps Jack the Ripper is back."

What Alice Knew is an excellent book that's very well-researched and will submerge you completely into Victorian London.  It comes out September 7th--check back then for my review!

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