The Painting That Started Me Writing...
Mary F. Burns
It was November, 1999. I was about to turn fifty (in six months) and I could feel my literary clock ticking— if I didn’t start writing seriously now, it wasn’t going to happen. When my husband took a business trip to Washington, D.C. that month, I went with him, and strolled over to the National Gallery while he was in meetings. Fate and Chance and Serendipity all smiled down upon me that day—the largest-ever exhibit of John Singer Sargent paintings happened to be there that week. I went three times. I bought the exhibition catalog. I had never seen his work before, and I was stunned.
The painting that intrigued me the most was the enormous (7 x 7 foot) "Portraits d’Enfants," also known as the "Daughters of Edward Darley Boit." Seen in person, up close, the painting is haunting and mysterious, with heavily laid-on swashes of pure white paint that leap out of the utter darkness of shadows in the background.
I wanted to write a novel that told this story, whatever it was. But I realized that, quite frankly, I didn’t know how to write fiction. Oh, I wrote what I called "corporate fiction" in my daily work life (PR and communications) but it was time to do the real thing. I had just left my corporate job that year, and had time on my hands. I wrote a short story and submitted it to the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference—and was accepted! The story took third place! It was a fabulous four days of talking about nothing but writing—what joy! Four years later I was invited to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers program, a draft of a novel under my arm as I attended their excellent sessions. Six years after that my first historical novel was published: J—The Woman Who Wrote the Bible. And finally, finally, I turned back to my idea about John Singer Sargent and his mysterious portrait of the Daughters.
Upon doing a little online research, I found to my dismay that there was already a work of fiction about this painting! How often has that happened! (About four times, for me, with various topics.) Happily, it was a very short YA story that included ghosts and paranormal activities, so I didn’t think that would be a problem. But in researching the Boit family, I found a very interesting quote by Sister Wendy Beckett of PBS Art fame, referring to Sargent’s portrait of the girls:
"There’s something sad about the picture, and when I discovered that these four pretty, wealthy girls never married, not one of them, one begins to feel that Sargent had intuited something of that… Sargent was superb in showing what a person looked like. And we tend to forget that, even at 26, as he was then, he was able to suggest what a person was like, and what their future might be."
That, I felt, was the core of what my novel was going to show. With that idea of Sargent’s intuitive painting in my mind, I read numerous biographies of him and his friends and contemporaries, and the people whose portraits he painted. I studied his paintings, thinking and imagining who these people were, and how they had been portrayed in the painting, what was hidden and what was revealed. Then I finally had to put all the books and papers and websites aside and start writing.
It took two years and many drafts of the book. I changed the point of view from first person to third person to multiple persons; I added and dropped characters; I lost my way a few times and found it again. And in the end, I discovered that I had unearthed a plausible story, a believable mystery that ‘fit’ with the haunted look of those four girls, and the man who painted their portrait—in addition to imaginatively chronicling other critical events in Sargent’s life, like the scandal of the "Madame X" portrait that compelled him to leave Paris for London.
It was a very different story from what I had imagined early on it might be—all writers know how those characters take hold after a bit and start telling their own tale, despite what the author thinks she wants to do! But it was one that I think—believe—hope—feels true to life, and that if Sargent were alive now and were to read it, he might nod his head in agreement that there’s something to it, after all.
Mary's novel Portraits of an Artist was published on February 1, 2013 by Sand Hill Review Press. Please visit her blog about all things Sargent as well as her book trailer.