Grand Affair: John Singer Sargent in His World

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A bold new biography of legendary painter John Singer Sargent, stressing the unruly emotions and furtive desires that drove his innovative work and defined the transatlantic, fin de siècle culture he inhabited.

A great American artist, John Singer Sargent is also an abiding enigma. He scandalized viewers on both sides of the Atlantic with the frankness and sensuality of his work, while dressing like a businessman and crafting a highly respectable persona. He charmed the possessors of new money and old, while reserving his greatest sympathies for Bedouins, Spanish dancers, and the gondoliers of Venice. At the height of his renown in Britain and America, he quit his lucrative portrait-painting career to concentrate on allegorical murals with religious themes--and on nude drawings of male models that he kept to himself.

In The Grand Affair, the scholar Paul Fisher offers a vivid life of the buttoned-up artist and his unbuttoned work. Sargent's nervy, edgy portraits exposed illicit or dark feelings in himself and his sitters--feelings that London, Paris, and New York high society was fascinated by yet kept at bay. Where did these feelings come from and how did they drive his art? Fisher traces Singer's life from his wandering trans-European childhood to the salons of Paris, and the scandals and enthusiasms he elicited, and on to London, where he mixed with Henry James, Oscar Wilde, and other aristocrats and eccentrics, and formed a close relationship with a lightweight boxer who became his model, valet, and traveling partner. In later years, he journeyed around the world with his friend and patron Isabella Stewart Gardner, and devoted himself to a new model, the African American elevator operator and part-time contortionist Thomas McKeller, who would become the subject of some of Sargent's most daring and powerful work.

Relating Sargent's restless itinerary, Fisher explores the enigmas of fin de siècle sexuality and art, fashioning a biography that grants the man and his paintings new and intense life.