Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Lizzie Siddal - Victorian Supermodel

Most of us have heard Janice Dickinson nattering on and on about being called the world’s first ‘supermodel’ and how no one else deserves that title but her. But there was once another woman, during the Victorian era, which also could be said to be deserving of the title supermodel. Her name was Lizzie Siddal, and she was the face of the Pre-Raphaelite painters. You may not know her name but you know her face, floating down the river in John Everett Millais’s painting of Ophelia, or in any number of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s works.

Lizzie Siddal was born Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall on July 25, 1829. Her parents were lower middle class but with pretensions to the middle class. Like Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Lizzie’s father believed that he was the rightful owner of a successful couching inn called Crossdaggers in Derbyshire. Unfortunately he spent a fortune trying to unsuccessfully prove it. Like something out of a Dickens novel, the case dragged on for years. Finally, Lizzie’s sister Clara threw all the relevant documents on the fire one night to finally end the disasterous lawsuit. Still Lizzie and her brothers and sisters were raised with the knowledge that they were somebody, despite the fact that their father made his living making and running a cutlery business.

When Lizzie was old enough, she went to work for a milliner named Mrs. Tozer. It was there that her life changed. Lizzie was striking, tall and thin with luxuriant red hair and pale, pale skin. She was the opposite of what was accepted as the ideal of Victorian beauty at the time but she was just the thing an aspiring painter found attractive. It was 1849 and Lizzie was 20 years old, and wondering if anything was going to happen in her life when she met a poet named William Allingham, who had come to pick up a fellow co-worker named Jeannette. Although Allingham wasn’t impressed with Lizzie, he thought she might make a good model for his friend Walter Deverell who was attempting to paint a scene from the play Twelfth Night and needed a Viola. When Deverell went to see Lizzie at Mrs. Tozer’s shop he knew that he’d found the model he was looking for, but being a gentleman and realizing that Lizzie was not a working class girl, he used his mother to convince her that he was making a legitimate offer. Mrs. Deverell went one step further and agreed to talk to Lizzie’s mother.

Modeling for an artist at that time was considered akin to prostitution, so while Lizzie was understandably flattered, she was also wary of what exactly it would mean. Lizzie’s mother didn’t take much convincing. She knew that her daughter’s life was a hard one and that for someone of Lizzie’s delicate constitution, modeling would be easier work and it paid better than she was making at Mrs. Tozer. She was making 24 pounds a year working in the milliner’s shop.

It was through Deverell that Lizzie became acquainted with the other artists associated with the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood including Millais, and the one who would become the center of her life, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood was a group of artists, who like the Impressionists after them, were rebelling against the prevailing art of the time, the grand old masters such as Reynolds and Gainsborough. They were interested in medieval art, the rich colors of the art before Raphael hence their names. Rossetti who was one of the leaders of the movement came from a family of Italian ex-patriots who moved to London. He was actually born Charles Gabriel Dante Rossetti on May 12, 1828, but changed his name to reflect his lifelong obsession with the Italian poet Dante Alighieri dropping the Charles completely. From the moment that Rossetti saw Lizzie sometime in the winter of 1849/1850, he felt that he had found his destiny, his Beatrice.

At the time they met, Rossetti was quite attractive with long flowing dark hair and intense brown eyes. He and Lizzie were about the same height, 5 foot 7. Georgiana Burne-Jones, the wife of the painter, Edward Burne-Jones said of him, “no one could produce the peculiar charm of his voice with its sonorous roll and beautiful cadences.” Rossetti was also didn’t drink nor did he smoke. They also had similar temperaments, both were high-strung and intense. They were also depressive and prone to wild mood-swings, and inclined to jealous fits, needing to be the most important person to the other. More than likely they were both bi-polar. When they were happy, they didn’t need anyone else for company, preferring to spend days just the two of them. When either one of them was unhappy or depressed, they would make life a living hell for the other one.

Lizzie was unlike any of the other women of Dante’s acquaintance. There were her striking looks for one thing. While Dante adored his mother and sisters, they were already showing the sourness and bitterness at the lot life had handed them. She also dressed very differently from other Victorian women, preferring to wear loose clothing resembling the dresses worn in medieval times, generally without a corset. Dante was also aware that Lizzie was from a different social class than he was. He didn’t introduce her to his family until after his father’s death in 1854. Lizzie, for her part, wouldn’t have dreamed of bringing home an artist to her family knowing that they wouldn’t have approved. Despite these obstacles, they couldn’t help falling in love.

After posing for Deverell, Lizzie posed other painters such as William Holman Hunt. She was still continuing to work at Mrs. Tozer part time, giving her a regular salary to supplement her modeling. The painting that brought her a certain amount of fame was Millais’ portrait of her as Ophelia. This required her to spend hours immersed in water in a bathtub. Although Millais came up with an ingenious way to heat the bathtub so that Lizzie wouldn’t be cold, during one session the lamps underneath went out and Lizzie spent several hours floating in cold water. The effect of the painting was stunning but Lizzie ended up with a severe cold. Soon afterwards, Rossetti asked Lizzie to stop posing for other painters and to pose only for him. Although this meant that she had less of an income, Lizzie agreed. She had also begun showing an interest in painting and poetry herself, and Rossetti encouraged her in her endeavors. Lizzie’s poetry contained dark themes about lost love or the impossibility of true love, and her paintings reflect the Pre-Raphaelite preoccupation with the Arthurian legends and other medieval themes. She illustrated scenes from Sir Walter Scott and poems by Tennyson.

The relationship between Rossetti and Lizzie would be fraught over the next 9 years as Lizzie waited impatiently for him to make up his mind to marry her. Unfortunately for Lizzie, she had fallen in love with a commitment-phobe. It wasn’t that Dante didn’t want to marry her; he didn’t want to marry anyone. In fact after Lizzie’s death, although he had several passionate relationships, he never remarried. However, Dante’s indecisiveness about their relationship put Lizzie in a tenuous position. Everyone they knew knew that they were a couple. While they didn’t live together, Lizzie spent considerable time at his place while still keeping her own rooms. No respectable man would marry her since she had a reputation as being Dante’s mistress. What made matters even worse was that Dante knew what he was doing to Lizzie and suffered enormous amounts of guilt about it. Still he ping-ponged back and forth on the subject, holding out the hope of marriage and then taking it back, usually after about of one of Lizzie’s ‘illnesses.’

This indecisiveness led Lizzie to extended periods of ill-health that were psychosomatic in nature for the first part. In other words, she would use emotional manipulation to keep him by her side, whenever she felt him straying, which he did several times during their relationship. Rossetti seemed to have had a thing for his friends’ models. He fell first for Annie Miller, a jolly working class girl who was the favorite model of William Holman Hunt. In fact, Holman Hunt hoped to marry her, as soon as he played Henry Higgins to her Eliza Doolittle. That didn’t stop Rossetti for making a play for her that was accepted when Holman Hunt went abroad to paint. Lizzie was in agony over the relationship, she’d also begun taking laudanum, an addictive mixture of opium and alcohol that was prescribed for everything from toothache to cramps during the 19th century. Before too long, Lizzie had become addicted. Her addiction caused her appetite to disappear, and she grew thinner. This was another way for Lizzie to manipulate Rossetti by refusing to eat. Several times, he was called to her side, when he thought she was dying only to have her miraculously recover.

When Lizzie and Rossetti’s family finally met, it wasn’t a match made in heaven. While Lizzie could be charming and fun with people that she liked, with people that she knew resented her, she could be sullen and wary. Lizzie was quite aware that Rossetti’s family had reservations about her, not the least being that she was socially beneath him. They had wanted him to marry either an Italian or someone of a higher social standing. They were also concerned about his obsession with her. They weren’t the only ones. The eminent critic John Ruskin had taken an interest in Rossetti’s work, and Rossetti in turn showed him Lizzie’s sketches and art work. Ruskin was convinced enough by her talent to offer to pay her an annuity of 150 pounds a year. This made her an independent woman. Around this time Lizzie left Rossetti for the second time after he dangled the promise of marriage before her only to renege. She had already left him once to travel around Europe for several weeks. Now she took herself off to Sheffield to live with some distant relatives. For the first time in years, Lizzie was taking less laudanum that usual and was making a real effort with her art. However the idyll was not to last, she came back to London and Rossetti’s arms. It seems that they couldn’t live with or without each other.

Dante painted Lizzie many times over the course of their relationship, the most painting being Beata Beatrix (the painting in the upper left hand corner) which he painted as a memorial after her death. She was also his muse for his poetry as well as his painting. In his art he idealized. In one of his poems “The Blessed Damozel,” he writes.

The blessed damozel leaned out
From the gold bar of Heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
Of waters stilled at even;
She had three lilies in her hand,
And the stars in her hair were seven.
Her robe, ungirt from clasp to hem,
No wrought flowers did adorn,
But a white rose of Mary's gift,
For service meetly worn;
Her hair that lay along her back
Was yellow like ripe corn.
Herseemed she scarce had been a day
One of God's choristers;
-- From The Blessed Damozel

Lizzie worried as the years went by and Rossetti still hadn’t married her, that he would replace her with a younger, prettier muse. Her fears were not unfounded because Rossetti fell for Jane Burden, who met while working in Oxford along with several other friends including William Morris. Jane was 18, pretty with dark hair and sensuous features. Although Morris laid claim to the stunner first, and eventually married her, Rossetti also fell hard for her. There was also Fanny Conforth, another model, who was voluptuous and full of fun. She eventually went to work for Rossetti as his housekeeper after Lizzie’s death.

Finally in 1860, after ten years together, Rossetti made an honest woman of Lizzie. They were married in the seaside town of Hastings on May 23. Lizzie was so frail that she had to be carried to the church. Soon after their marriage, Lizzie discovered that she was pregnant although she feared for the baby’s life due to her addiction. Her prediction proved correct because the baby was born stillborn in 1861. Both Rossetti and Lizzie were devastated. A few months later, Lizzie became pregnant again for the second time. Still suffering from post-partum depression, she committed suicide by taking an overdose of laudanum in February 1862. Rossetti discovered her in bed unconscious and clutching a note asking him to provide for her youngest brother Henry who was mentally handicapped. Rossetti called four doctors to try and revive her but to no avail.

Rossetti burned the note and her death was ruled an accident by the coroner. It wasn’t until years after Rossetti’s death that the truth about Lizzie’s death was revealed when his niece published a biography. In Lizzie’s coffin, Rossetti placed the only copies of many of his poems, sliding the book under her hair. She was buried in the Rossetti plot along with his father at Highgate cemetery. Years later, he had her grave opened and the poems removed. This was done in the dead of night in order to avoid public curiosity. Charles Augustus Howell, who was with Rossetti at the time, later spread the story that when the coffin was opened; Lizzie’s corpse was perfectly preserved, her hair continuing to grow after her death. The poems were not a success after they were published and it was said this act haunted Rossetti for the rest of his life.

The years after Lizzie’s death were not easy for Rossetti. He started an affair with Jane Morris in 1869 that Morris willingly turned a blind eye to, but after years of abstaining from alcohol, he began to drink. He also became addicted to chloral. Convinced that he was going blind and couldn’t paint, in his later years he became a virtual recluse. He died on April 9, 1882 at the age of 53. Even in death, Rossetti and Lizzie are not together, while she is buried at Highgate, Rossetti is buried at All Saints Cemetery in Kent.

The love story of Lizzie and Rossetti was plagued by unhappiness. Despite their great love, they brought out the best and the worst in each other. But their love also gave the world some of the greatest art ever created.


Lucinda Hawkslay - Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Scandalous Book Review: Stealing Athena by Karen Essex

I was in Philadelphia a few weeks ago when I had that moment that most book lovers hate, the one where you have finished a book, and you don't have another one on deck. Fortunately I was only a few blocks away from Borders, where I picked up a copy of Stealing Athena by Karen Essex. I had wanted to read this book when it first came out but as my TBR pile keeps growing until it's almost as tall as me, the thought had languished. Thank god I had nothing to read so that I could finally get my hands on this wonderful novel.

Stealing Athena is the story of two women seperated by thousands of years, Mary, Countess of Elgin and Aspasia, the mistress of Perikles, and the monument that unites them, the Parthenon in Athens. When we first meet Mary, she is 21 and a newlywed, on her way to Constantinople as her husband has just been appointed Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Mary is pregnant for the first time, alternatively excited and frightened at the adventure of a lifetime. She becomes a great favorite not only of the Capitan Pasha but also the Sultan. Mary uses her influence to help her husband obtain what we now know as the Elgin Marbles. At first the plan was just that the artisans would draw and take molds of the treasures in Athens, but soon the plan expands to actually removing as much of the ruins as possible to Britain. Bruce defends his actions by claiming that if they were left they would only be used as building materials by the Turks or carried off by the French. He is doing Britain a great service.

The action then moves back in time to around 500 BC when Perikles is the leader in Athens. Aspasia's brother-in-law basically gives her to Perikles as his concubine. Aspasia and Perikles enter into a tentative relationship. Aspasia has ambitions to be a philosopher and Perikles encourages her to continue. Soon she is giving relationship advice to the men of Athens and acquiring powerful enemies who seeks to get rid of not only her but Perikles as well. The building of the Parthenon becomes a bone of contention between Perikles and his enemies. Aspasia becomes good friends with the architect Pheidias as well as one of his apprentices Sokrates.

As the years pass, Elgin's obsession with the Parthenon grows. He goes into debt and expects Mary, who is the richest heiress in Scotland to continually foot the bill for his obsession. Mary realizes that Elgin sees removing the marbles as his way to immortality, but she wonders at what cost?

Essex does a remarkable job at constrasting the two women and the times that they live in. Both live in eras where women are second class citizens, which Mary learns to her detriment when her husband takes the momentous step of divorcing her after their return to Scotland. Aspasia must face her enemies when she is put on trial for blaspheming against the goddess Athena and for trying to turn the good wives of Athens into prostitutes, charges for which she is blameless. However, while Perikles is supportive of Aspasia and defends her at her trial, Elgin turns against Mary as his life begins to spin out of control.

The reader's sympathy is with Mary as she struggles to control her husband's debts, using her charm and vivacity to try and get him released from prison after he is arrested by Napoleon when Britain and France are back at war. While one feels for Elgin because of the torture that he must endure, his arrogance once he is released and the way he treats Mary make it hard to feel too sorry for him.

Mary and Elgin's story is how a marriage can unravel when ambition and obsession come between two people. Elgin is willing to bankrupt Mary in order to get what he wants, a harsh realization for Mary to come to terms with. She had always suspected that Elgin had married her for her money but his actions during the divorce trial make it quite clear. Mary comes into her own as a woman during her marriage to Elgin. She has experiences that no western woman can lay claim too, seeing inside the walls of the seraglio in Constantinople, the world of the harem.

There is a poignant point in the story where Mary constrasts the lack of freedom the women in the harem have with her own life, only to discover that she has less freedom than she had supposed. When Mary is in Paris, heavily pregnant trying to affect Elgin's release, gossip is spread about her, that she is having too good a time in Paris. The gossip reaches her parents and Elgin's mother-in-law, and they chastize her. Mary can't believe that her parents, especially, would be so willing to believe gossip about her. While in Paris, she begins to lean heavily on an old friend of her husband's, Robert Ferguson who falls deeply in love with her.

Mary Elgin has five children in six years, her second son William dies when he is a year old. Worn out and in pain from childbirth, Mary determines that she will have no more children, and begs her husband to consider birth control. When he refuses, she decides that they will no longer have relations. As far as Elgin is concerned, sex is not just for pleasure but also for procreation. He needs more than one heir to his title and Mary's vast fortune. Mary's decision to try and control her reproductive organs causes her husband to sue for divorce, rather than come to some sort of compromise, and pushes her into the arms of Robert Ferguson.

Essex does a magnificent job of detailing the lush world of the Ottoman Empire with the world of Perikle's Athens. For me, however, I found Mary Elgin's story much more compelling then Aspasia's. Perhaps because there is simply more information about Mary Elgin's life than Aspasia's. Mary left behind letters and diaries that give the reader a wonderful glimpse into who she really was. Aspasia, however, remains much more of a cipher.

Still I highly recomment this novel and I'm looking forward to reading Karen Essex's backlist of novels.

Stealing Athena - Karen Essex, Doubleday, 2008
Mistress of the Elgin Marbles - Susan Nagel (a fantastic biography of Mary)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Regal Twelve

Thanks to Heather Carroll of The Duchess of Devonshire's Gossip Guide for bringing attention to Alexia Sinclair's amazing series of portraits called The Regal Twelve. She honors some of the most vivacious and intriguing women in history in altered photographs that combine history, fantasy, and fashion. Marie Antoinette leads the procession as the "Extravagant Queen," along with several scandalous women who have been featured on the blog including Cleopatra, Catherine the Great, and Queen Christina of Sweden.

I would love to own the complete series of these images if I won the lottery. Catherine the Great's purple dress is to die for! But then I'm also dying to own the Marie Antoinette Barbie as well. Can you imagine this as the cover for Scandalous Women if I get published?

Head over here to check out the site.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Madame X: The story behind one of the world's most famous paintings

One of the things that I am grateful for is that I live in a city with one of the world's foremost art museums, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although the cost is $20, it is suggested, not fixed, so tourists and residents can pay what they can afford. Since I'm broke, I pay the bare minimum. Still it is worth it to spend time in a museum that is the largest in the US, with a collection that rivals the Louvre.

And one of the most visited paintings in the museum is John Singer Sargent's portrait of Madame X. Whenever I visit the museum, I always have to head over to the American wing to pay a visit. There's something about the painting that just draws you in. Perhaps it is the haughty expression of the subject's face turned in profile, or the sexiest dress ever seen on a Victorian. Seriously I had no idea that they wore dresses that erotic back then before I saw this painting. Her copper hair, her white white skin with the faint touches of red on the ears and lips, and the tiny crescent in her hair are just magical.

Perhaps it is the enigma of who she was and why she was called Madame X, and not by her real name. For years, I've been dyirn got know more about this woman. Thanks to Deborah Davis' splendid book, Strapless, everyone can now find out more about Virginie Amelie Gautreau and the creation of Madame X. The book is a dual biography of both Amelie and Sargent, from their early lives, until the prophetic decision to have Sargent paint her portrait.

Virginie Amelie Avegno was born in New Orleans, LA, of French creole parents on January 29, 1859 (making her an Aquarius). Her father Anatole Avegno fought bravely in the Civil War and was wounded at the battle of Shiloh in 1862 when Amelie was only three years old. Unfortunately he died of his wounds, leaving her mother a widow with two small daughters. After her younger daughter Valentine's death in 1866, her mother decided to leave the sad memories behind and move the family to Paris. As a French creole, Marie Virginie spoke French probably better than she spoke English and both the Avegnos and the Ternants (Marie Virginie's family) had long kept apartments in Paris, spending several months of the year there. Although the Civil War devastated many families, the Avegnos still had plenty of money, so Amelie grew up in the lap of luxury, strictly chaperoned by her mother. A few years after their arrival, the Second Empire was swept away in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war. The Third Republic meant that the old aristocracy was now out of favor, and bankers and businessmen held the power in politics and society. This meant that Amelie, as an American, had a better chance at making a good match.

At the age of 19, Amelie married Pierre-Louis Gautreau who was 40. Called Pedro, his family had made their money in not just banking and shipping, but also in importing bat guano from Chile. Now that Amelie was properly married, she could start breaking the rules. She could read what she wanted, so out without a chaperone, and have affairs as long as she was discreet. Amelie soon set out to conquer Parisian society. Luckily for Amelie she was incredibly striking with copper colored hair, pale white skin, and a Roman nose. Because her skin was so pale, she tinted her ears, cheeks and lips with rouge and filled in her eyebrows with a mahogany pencil. The fashions of the times decreed that most women should dress like an upholstered sofa. Amelie decided to dress in a way that suited her more curvaceous figures, wearing loose clothing in pastel colors that called attention to her swan-like neck and her soft white shoulders. She wore her hair in a simple grecian knot adorned with a little diamond crescent. Within months, Amelie was a sensation in Paris.

In 1879, Amelie and Pedro had their only child, a daughter named Louise. Soon as she could, Amelie was back in the social whirl of Paris night-life. She appeared everywhere and anywhere, a Anglo-Parisian 'It' girl. Within three years, Amelie's fame spread from Europe to America. In 1880, a reporter for the New York Herald newspapaer wrote a story about her called "La Belle Americaine: A New Star of Occidental Loveliness Swims into the Sea of Parisian Society." Not everyone loved Amelie. Gossips sneered and called her "A Professional Beauty," suggesting that Amelie worked at her appearance when a woman of her glass was not supposed to work at anything. But there was one group that adored Amelie above all others and that was the artists who clamored for the chance to paint or sculpt her unconventional beauty. One artist, an American named Edward Simmons, proclaimed her a goddess and confessed that he "could not help stalking her as one does a deer."

Amelie knew that she had to choose the creator of her first major portrait with major care. It was as important as choosing the right dress or the right hairstyle. She couldn't just trust anyone unless she was sure that he would create a masterpiece. It turned out that the man who would make her famous was another expatriate American living in Paris, John Singer Sargent.

At the time that Amelie met Sargent, he was 28 and had already had a great deal of success as a painter. Although he was American, he was actually born in Florence in 1859. His father Fitzwilliam Sargent was a doctor from Philadelphia and his mother Mary Newbold was of an artistic temperment. After the death of their first child, Sargent's mother had a nervous breakdown and convinced her husband that she could only recuperate in Europe. Thus beginning an almost thirty year odyssey of wandering from one European country to another to save money.

From childhood, Sargent showed prodigious talent as an artist. Fortunately he had parents who were sensitive to his needs. In 1874, the Sargents settled in Paris so that Sargent could study art. He began to study with the noted artist and portrait painter Carolus-Duran. Sargent had a prodigious work ethic, he was shy and taciturn, and seemed much older than he actually was. Despite the fact that he didn't exactly fit in with his more high-spirited bohemian class-mates, he began to make friends. It helped that he was so supremely talented, that his fellow class-mates were in awe of him. One student described him as "one of the most talented fellows I have ever come across: his drawings are like the old masters'."

When he took the exam for the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, he passed on the first try, which unusual particularly for an American. Sargent decided early on that he would be a portrait painter, mainly because he needed to make money to support his parents and his two sisters. After returning from his first trip to America in 1876, he began preparing for his first submission to the prestigious Salon, the art world's equivalent of the Cannes Film Festival. Every year, hundred of artists as well as art students submitted work for the Salon. The show ran 6-8 weeks, and the entire art world not to mention Parisian society attended. Having a painting accepted and wear it was hung, could make or break an artist. In 1877, his first painting of a young woman named Fanny Watts was not only accepted but hung where the crowds could see it. Sargent had arrived.

Over the next several years, his reputation grew but Sargent knew that he needed to paint something or someone that would take his career to the next level. Sargent was determined to paint Amelie Gautreau. He speculated that if his painting of her was a success, soon all of fashionable Paris would follow in her dainty footsteps. Unfortunately neither Sargent nor Amelie could imagine the public reaction to the portrait that he painted of her. After Amelie agreed to pose, Sargent found that she had the attention span of a gnat. He was also slightly infatuated with her, and that led to a kind of block in getting the painting on canvas. It wasn't until his infatuation with her died, that he was able to create. He personally went through her wardrobe and chose the black dress that she wears in the portrait.

When Amelie first saw the finished portrait, she was pleased with Sargent's depiction of her. While Sargent had doubts and worries about the painting, she was sure that it would be a sensation and that she would get more attention than ever. Sargent's success would be her success, when Paris would formally acknowledge his talent and her beauty. An early review in Le Gaulois had called Madame X "remarkable, of rare distinction and interest."

To Sargent and Amelie's horror, the public reacted differently. They thought that she looked monstrous and decomposed. The dress suggested to viewers that she wasn't wearing a petticoat underneath. The falling strap and lack of any adornment, (Amelie wore no jewelry apart from the diamond crescent in her hair), made it seem as if she were naked. She looked shameless and shocking. Women were particularly vocal in their disapproval. Amelie was in despair at the reaction to the portrait. Amelie's family tried to convince Sargent to remove the portrait from the Salon but he refused. He told Amelie's mother that he had painted exactly what he saw. Madame X with its subject's artificial pallor and stylized pose was an accurate reflection of the woman. Of course, there was no chance now that the Gautreau's would be buying the portrait.

Madame X garnered Sargent his first bad reviews as an artist. The critic for L'Evenement lambasted the painting: "Mr. Sargent made a mistake if he thinks he expressed the shattering beauty of his model." Other critics called the painting 'vulgar' and him 'spineless.' Sargent's career now hung by a thread. When Sargent asked for permission to remove the portrait so that he could retouch it by raising the fallen strap, he was refused. Meanwhile, Amelie and the painting was caricatured in Le Charivari and the painting was satirized in everything from mock advertisements to spurious letter campaigns.

Amelie went into hiding until the scandal blew over. Meanwhile Sargent reclaimed the portrait after the Salon was over and returned it to his studio where he finally got the chance to raise the strap. Still he had no intention of exhibiting the painting, even retouched. It sat in his studio for years, while Sargent moved to England for several years to paint. When Amelie finally reappeared in Parisian society, she discovered that her days as an "It" girl had passed. She was no longer of public interest. Over the years, she had other portraits painted of her, but not ever created the stir that Madame X had. As her beauty diminished, Amelie became a virtual recluse. She had become the female equivalent of Dorian Gray, tyrannized by her own image, forced to live in the shadows of Madame X. She died, forgotten, in 1915.

Sargent, on the other hand, weathered the storm much better. As the years passed, Madame X gained in cachet. He discovered there were other women like Isabella Stewart Gardner who would be happy to be painted as seductive. For a time, he moved back to the States, to New York where he had a studio on Washington Square, painting the portraits of Gilded Age, nouveau riche. He was soon commanding $3,000 a portrait. Still anyone who wanted to see Madame X had to come to Sargent's studio in Tite Street in London or in New York. In 1916, the year after Amelie's death, Sargent sold the painting to The Metropolitan Museum of Art for $1,000. Although his reputation has waxed and waned over the years, he now stands as one of America and the world's greatest artists.

Despite his many paintings, it is still Madame X that most people think of when they think of John Singer Sargent. Portrait painters are in some ways pyschiatrists, the best reveal the inner most workings of their subject. In Madame X, Sargent revealed an unattainable beauty and the decadent society she embodied. They are forever entwined.

Friday, May 15, 2009

And the Winner is.....

And the winner of a copy of The Diamonds of Welbourne Manor is:

Helen Pilz

Helen, please email me off line at scandalouswoman@gmail.com with your address.

Also, the winner of The Last Rose, Avon Lady Jerrica, if you could also email me at scandalouswoman@gmail.com with your address so that I can mail you your copy.



Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Suzanne Valadon

Recently Jelena from The Sundance Channel sent me a link to a Mother's Day post about Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938), an artists model and painter during Le Belle Epoque France. Suzanne not only was the first woman admitted to the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts, she is also the mother of the painter Maurice Utrillo.

The daughter of a laundress, born Marie-Clementine Valadon, Suzanne first became a circus artist at the age of fifteen, until a fall from the trapeze a year later ended her circus career. Instead, Suzanne moved to Montmartre, the center of the bohemian art world in Paris at the time, to pursue her interest in art.

She worked first as an artists model, working with Toulouse-Lautrec, who gave her painting lessons in exchange. She had an affair with Renoir, and became good friends with Edgar Degas, among others. Degas encouraged her art and bought drawings and paintings from her as she pursued her career.


Sunday, May 10, 2009

Scandalous Women welcomes Amanda McCabe

Scandalous Women is pleased to welcome historical romance author Amanda McCabe to the blog today.

Amanda McCabe wrote her first romance at the age of sixteen, a vast epic starring all of her friends as the characters, written secretly during algebra class. She's never since used algebra but her books have been nominated for many awards, including RWA's prestigious RITA award, The Romantic Times Bookreviews Reviewer's Choice Award, the Bookseller's Best, The National Reader's Choice Award, and the Holt Medallion. She lives in Oklahoma with a menagerie of cats, a pug, and a bossy miniature poodle, and loves dance classes, collecting cheesy travel souvenirs, and watching the Food Network - even though she doesn't cook. Visit her at http://ammandamccabe.com and the riskyregencies.blogspot.com.

I’m so excited to be a guest here at one of my favorite blogs, Scandalous Women! When I was in first grade, I found a book about the adventures of various Greek goddesses, and I’ve been hooked on stories about strong, independent (and sometimes naughty!) women ever since. I’m very lucky to get to create my own scandalous women of history in writing fiction.

The three heroines of The Diamonds of Welbourne Manor are fictional, of course, but they are based on tales of eccentric, individualistic families in history. See, here’s the story: Diane Gaston, Deb Marlowe, and I have been friends for a long time (we even went on a Regency-theme tour of England a few years ago! Very appropriate…). We always have fun when we get together, so when our publisher Harlequin came to us at the RWA conference a couple years ago and asked if we would like to do a Regency anthology together, we were very excited. Even better, we got to choose out own plot. But what would we come up with???

Luckily, Diane and I had already planned to meet the next month and tour Williamsburg and Jamestown, and we persuaded Deb to join us. In between shopping and touring, we could brainstorm. We knew we wanted stories that were connected in some way, but open enough that we could have a variety of characters. (In the end, we had a strong, responsible hero, an artist heroine, and a wild-child in love with a Proper Hero, among many others!)

In the Barnes and Noble at Williamsburg, I found a book with the irresistible title Sex in Elizabethan England. Of course I had to buy it! In the end, the book itself was not as alluring as the title, but there was a chapter about one of my very favorite Scandalous Women in history (and one Elizabeth just featured here on the blog!), Penelope Rich. One of the great beauties of the day, she also had charm, intelligence, grace, ambition—and one of the wildest families around (and that is saying a lot in Elizabethan England!). Her mother, Lettice Knollys, was another famous beauty, the Queen’s cousin, married three times (once to the Earl of Leicester, stolen right from under the Queen’s nose!). Her brother was the Earl of Essex—‘nuff said. Her sister Dorothy had a scandalous marriage, and Penelope herself was divorced from Lord Rich and married (illegally) her longtime lover and father of four of her children, Charles Blount.

A thought sparked—the Georgian and Regency eras were also full of such scandalous families! What if we created one of our own? Thus were born the Fitzmannings, a miscellaneous collection of “hers, his, and theirs” resulting from the elopement of a duke and a married countess. One of the prime inspirations for them was the famous Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, her husband, her BFF (and hubby’s mistress) Bess Foster, her sister Harriet, Countess of Bessborough, and all their various lovers and offspring. (Caroline Lamb, Harriet’s daughter, called their collection “the children of the mist”). I adore Georgiana and Harriet and their wild life stories! As well as scandal, they had enormous affection for each other and their children, and we wanted that for the Fitzmannings as well. (Though I have to admit the Fitzmannings are not quite as wild as the Devonshire House Set or the EsseEssex bunch—they’re lucky enough to find their true loves and marry them). But people who follow their own hearts, who live their lives with passion and conviction, are fabulous no matter what the era…

I hope you enjoy the Scandalous Fitzmannings

A few sources I really like:
Penelope Rich
--Katherine Duncan-Jones: “Sidney, Stella, and Lady Rich” in Sir Philip Sidney: 1586 and the Creation of a Legend
--Sylvia Freedman: Poor Penelope (out-of-print, but well-worth seeking out)
--Sally Varlow: The Lady Penelope
Georgiana and Harriet
--Amanda Foreman, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire
--Marjorie Villiers, In Whig Society--

Janet Gleeson: Privilege and Scandal (a new bio of Harriet)

Thanks, Amanda for sharing the backstory behind The Diamonds of Welbourne Manor. And for a special treat, anyone who leaves a comment will be eligible to win a copy of The Diamonds of Welbourne Manor.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Scandalous Women in Fiction: Irene Forsyte

I recently watched 2002 Granada Television production of John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga again to immerse myself in the world of the Victorians. I was struck again by the character of Irene Heron Forsyte, the mysterious, and aloof beauty that is at the heart of the first series. During the course of the first six episodes she manages to enchant not one but three of the Forsyte men as well as stealing the heart of Philip Bosinney, the fiance of her good friend June Forsyte.

She leaves her husband Soames, which causes a scandal, that reverberates throughout the second series. Soames is never really able to get over losing Irene. Irene is certainly a Scandalous Woman but it is less about what she does than how the men in her life perceive her that makes her so Scandalous.

When we first meet Irene in both the television series she is living in Bournemouth with her stepmother. Her father who was a Professor (we are not told of what) has died, leaving Irene with only 50 pounds a year to live on. Irene is a middle-class provincial girl who has very little prospects in terms of marriage. She has no impressive dowry to offer and no real skills in terms of employment. She can play the piano very well and she is amazingly beautiful. Galsworthy describes her as "The gods had give Irene dark brown eyes and golden hair, that strange combination, provocative of men's glances. The full soft pallor of her neck and shoulders, above a gold-colored frock, gave to her personality an alluring strangeness."

Irene's stepmother is desperate to get rid of her. She has the desire to get married again herself and can't do that with an alluring step-daughter living in her house. When Soames Forsyte arrives in Bournemouth, Mrs. Heron is ecstatic that this rich man is willing to take her step-daughter without a dowry. Irene, however, is not intersted in marrying Soames. She realizes from the beginning that they are tempermentally unsuited to each other. Irene has a natural intelligence, sensitivity and wit while Soames is the typical button-upped Englishmen, completely shut off from his emotions. He feels passion, certainly for Irene, but he doesn't know how to express it. His love becomes smothering and possessive after they are married.

After asking her to marry him about six times, Irene finally agrees to marry him but demands that Soames agree to release her if the marriage doesn't work out. Soames agrees, and then promptly forgets his promise. After all what woman would want to leave a man who can offer so many material possessions as Soames? After all he is a Man of Property (the title of the first Forstye novel). The minute they are married, Soames treats her less as a wife and more as a possession, something beautiful that he has bought to grace his house, he sees her as the perfect woman to be the mother of his children.

It all goes downhill after that. Irene and Soames are introduced to Philip Bosinney, an up and coming young architect (think Frank Lloyd Wright or Charles Rennie Mackintosh) with new ideas of how houses and buildings should be designed. He and Irene are more tempermentally suited to each other, and soon they have fallen in love and begin an affair, despite his engagement to June Forsyte. Soames realizes that he is losing Irene which in turn makes him more possessive of her.

Galsworthy describes Irene has not even trying to make her marriage work. She barely speaks when they are in company, and at home she decided that they need to sleep in seperate rooms. Of course the gossip gets back to his family which Soames finds intolerable. For Soames appearance is everything. He resolves to move Irene out of London into the country where he can isolate her even further. He hires Bosinney to build a house for them called Robin's Hill. One night, not being able to take her indifference to him any longer, Soames rapes Irene. When she tells Bosinney what happens, tragedy strikes. Irene resolves that no matter what, she can no longer live with Soames and leaves him, leaving all the clothes and jewelry that he had bought her behind.

Years past and we learn that Irene has been living in a small flat in Chelsea, teaching music, and helping fallen women. Old Jolyon Forsyte who has bought Robin's Hill finds her there one day. They become great friends which leads to gossip amongst the family about what is really going on between the two of them. This is compounded when Old Jolyon dies and his will is read. He left Irene 15,000 pounds, a considerable sum in the 19th century. Old Jolyon's son, Young Jolyon is the administrator of the will, and he and Irene also forge a friendship that eventually turns to love. Soames meanwhile lurks in the background ready to strike at any opportunity. He wants to move forward with his life, remarry and have the son he's always longed for, but he also can't get over his obsession with Irene. It is her elusiveness that makes her so attractive to him. He can't possess her the way that he can a painting or a building.

Ironically his obsession pushes her into the arms of Young Jolyon. Soames and Irene are finally divorced and she achieves happiness with Young Jolyon. They marry and have a son called Jon. Soames, meanwhile, marries a young French girl named Annette who is more practical when it comes to marriage than Irene. She doesn't love Soames but she is willing to marry him because he is rich. Annette too becomes pregnant, but instead of the longed for son, she has girl called Fleur.

While watching the series and then reading the book, I was struck by how passive Irene seems for the most part. Things happen to her, rather than her initiating them, the way most Scandalous Women do. Even her relationship with Bosinney, she succumbs to his passion, rather than giving into her own. Irene also has tendency to sulk. She wants true love, and when she realizes that she will never achieve that with Soames, she acts like a small child who takes her toys back and refuses to play anymore. In the mini-series, knowing how much Soames wants a child, she douches to make sure that she never gets pregnant. Having a child would tie her to Soames forever. Not once does she think about what she is doing to June by falling in love with Bosinney. Irene lacks the courage to break out on her own until Bosinney's death. Before that she is content to fall in line with his vision of their life together as Bohemians living without money, just love and each other. She's a victim, but to a certain extent she's responsible for her own problems.

In the miniseries, Irene breaks out in small ways. Dancing at a ball at the Forsytes, although she is still in mourning. Wearing the red dress that so resembles the dress worn by Madame X in the famous portrait to a ball and dancing with Bosinney in such a way that there can be no doubt to all that is present that the two are lovers. It is this scene, both in the book and the novel, where June Forsyte finally realizes what is going on and is heartbroken, betrayed by both her friend and her fiance.

In a certain way, each man projects his own version of Irene onto her. To Soames, she is the perfect woman, the ideal Victorian wife and mother, a possession, like the art he collects. To Bosinney, she is a romantic heroine, a pre-Raphaelite beauty, a damsel in distress that he must rescue, to Old Jolyon, she represents youth, vitality, a 'second chance' at life. Only Young Jolyon sees her for who she really is, perhaps because they were friends first before they fell in love. She and Young Jolyon are also more tempermentally suited to each other. Young Jolyon was the Forsyte family rebel, who left his wife and young child and ran off with the governess. He has also made his living somewhat as an artist.

Galsworthy in a foreword to the complete edition writes that he deliberately had Irene present only through the eyes of the other characters. He calls her a 'concretion of disturbing beauty impinging on a possessive world.' This makes her something of an enigma, the reader never once knows what Irene is thinking or how she views the world. She's like a beautiful painting behind glass in a museum, that one can look at but not touch. Soames represents the old order of Victorian England that is slowly dying towards the end of the century. While he sees that things are changing, he still holds tight to the things that he has been taught.

Galsworthy based the story of Irene, Soames and Bosinney partly from life. His cousin Arthur married a woman named Ada Nemesis Pearson Cooper in 1891. Within a few years, Ada and Galsworthy were lovers, and in 1902, Ada finally left her husband for Galsworthy. They lived happily together until his death in 1933, apart from a slight hiccup when Galsworthy became enthralled with a young actress, who pursued him relentlessly. When Ada found out, it almost wrecked their marriage. Galsworthy quickly ended the relationship when he saw the pain it was causing her. Apparently the Galsworthys believed in free love in principle but not in practice.

In the end, Irene finally achieves the happiness and the love, that she had always sought, but it comes at a great price. She loses the first great love of her life, but she must grow up and learn to be truly independent and stop being a victim before she can find what she seeks.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

May at Scandalous Women

This May we are celebrating women in the Arts. Women who were either the muses of famous artists (Elizabeth Siddal), patrons of the arts (Isabella Stewart Gardner), subjects of famous paintings (Virginie Guitreau, Sargent's infamous Madame X), as well as artists themselves (Romaine Brooks).

Along with guest blogger Amanda McCabe, one of the authors of the new Harlequin Historicals anthology The Diamonds of Welbourne Manor, and a review of Karen Essex's Stealing Athena.