A Panorama of the Gilded Age, Seen Through Sargent’s Art

John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Elsie Palmer, 1889–1890. SARGENT’S WOMEN Four Lives Behind the Canvas By Donna M. Lucey Illustrated. 311 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $29.95. The Gilded Age (of white Americans), from the 1870s to about 1900, is a joy to research and write about. Crazy rich people doing, building and saying mad, impulsive, sometimes beautiful and often ridiculous things: traveling cross-country for séances; wearing leather pajamas while breakfasting next to a corpse; creating fantastical gardens and grand interpretive dance or poetry entertainments at lavish or ramshackle country homes. Mark Twain and his co-author Charles Dudley Warner are thought to have come up with the phrase for their novel of the same name , taking it from Shakespeare’s “King John”: “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily … is wasteful and ridiculous excess.” This period of rampant industrialization produced an enormously wealthy, largely oblivious 1 percent, of which Donna M. Lucey is a most sympathetic and intelligent chronicler. In “Archie and Amé lie,” her 2006 book about a Gilded Age couple’s childhoods, disastrous marriage and lives post-divorce, she introduced us to Amélie Rives, goddaughter of Robert E. Lee and author of the once-sizzling “The Quick or […]

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