Cover Image: The Grand Affair

The Grand Affair

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Member Reviews

This is a feast of a book for art lovers in general and John Singer Sargent fans in particular. It may be too detailed for some, and I found the ongoing questioning of Sargent's sexuality a waste of time (who cares? and if he needed any reminders of the dire consequences of being "out", he only needed to look across the street at his neighbor Oscar Wilde). The coverage of Sargent's childhood is important to understanding the man. His father was a doctor and wanted to stay in the US, but Mrs. Sargent was the financial mainstay of the family and she much preferred Europe and anyplace that was rich in art and artists. John barely went to conventional schools but, thanks to his mother, he was provided with every advantage a gifted young artist could hope for. And he was very young when his gift made itself known.
The book proceeds through Sargent's lifetime, giving the history of every significant work of art he produced. His relationships were colorful, evenly distributed among fellow painters and people of high social standing (who provided much of Sargent's living by commissioning portraits). I especially enjoyed the information throughout describing how he developed his very recognizable style, conveying a string of pearls with a few dabs of paint and the personalities of his subjects with careful posing. Not to mention, he staged (and sometimes created) the backgrounds in his portraits to further convey the interests and lifestyles of his sitters.
I very much liked the man portrayed in this biography and appreciated the author's ability to organize large amounts of information in highly readable ways.
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Author Paul Fisher has written an exhilarating and slightly exhausting modern biography of renowned painter John Singer Sargent. I say modern only to mean that Fisher looks at Sargent’s glorious and momentous body of work through the lens of Sargent’s probable sexuality. In the last few decades highly erotic drawings by Sargent of the male body has added to the speculation that Sargent was homosexual, though there isn’t a lot of concrete evidence. The male model drawings however are a window into the obvious desires and predilections of this renowned painter. This book is a must read for the millions of fans of John Singer Sargent’s thrilling work. I found this book to be a page turner. Bravo Paul Fisher. Thank you NetGalley.
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Though John Singer Sargent’s Edwardian era paintings — especially Madame X — are legendary, his personal life is little known. This book aims to rectify that and does so with rigor. With varying intimacy, Paul Fisher has written on the major events and periods in Singer Sargent’s life.

An international citizen or a rambling man, Singer Sargent often travelled with his friends throughout Europe. This lifestyle may intimate something of a travelogue or a road movie, but having taken the task of providing a broad overview of Sargent’s life, such scenes of adventure or camaraderie are limited.

But one fine scene of wanderlust takes place in the prologue. Sargent and his friend travel by train and during a lull, his friend sketches a rare image of Sargent in repose. A quiet moment before the two continue their grand adventure and one that describes the pairs bond and their lifestyles. Yet, the prologue is not the portent of things to come as it may seem. The book is less transportive than it is informative.

It is a issue that many historical biographies face and one that can be escaped through uses of epistolary methods or generous regaling of physical realities of the time; sights, sounds, locations and general atmosphere. The Grand Affair forgoes these and opts to detail its retellings with rich, historical prose but the interests of the writing are generally abstract pieces of information — “The Comstock Laws of 1873 strictly and exhaustively prohibited the circulation, as the statute reads…” — and leave the reader watching the page rather than watching the Edwardian world of the book. Yet the book is not unworthy, one comes from having read the book feeling a great understanding of Sargent and his world — the very promise of the books title — and so it should be applauded for that.

As surely as it is a book for those infatuated with his work, it can be sure that the detail and minutiae would be overwhelming or at least grating for the casual reader. A warning and a veneration in one.
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Paul Fisher brilliantly plumbs the ambiguities of the life of John Singer Sargent in an impeccably researched and intimately woven portrait of not only an artist, but of a period of artistic and human history which is as multi-textured and shaded as the artist's work itself. Highly recommended. 

My thanks to FSG and to Netgalley for the opportunity and pleasure of an early read.
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I read this ARC for an honest Review
All thoughts and opinions are mine

I absolutely love JSS work but knew very little about him personally
A fantastic and illuminating read
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In "The Grand Affair: John Singer Sargent in His World", Fisher offers a unique rendering of intimacy. Driven by the desire to unveil both the man and his art, the narrative adjusts to the tantalizing ambiguity of Sargent’s life. With his beginnings rooted in the Victorian era, Sargent’s world is one of telling omissions and riotous innuendos. In compliance with this long-forgotten code of silence, Fisher recognizes the provocation in a model’s pose, or the shade used to delineate a coveted body. In doing so, he encircles the empty space, in which affection can seek its true embodiment.

Where others might wilt before certain assertions, especially those concerning a strictly homoerotic narrative, Fisher emerges as a steadfast and attentive student of the implicit. Without oversimplifying the man or banalizing an established enigma, he sets out to retrace Sargent’s sooty silhouette. Left largely untouched by history, it’s slowly filled in with all that has been omitted by the fear of the unmanageable, unnameable, and unsympathetic to restrictive beliefs. In fact, "The Grand Affair" draws much of its appeal from the ampleness of Fisher’s research.

Weaving a narrative framed by both a distant sympathy and a fierce curiosity, he calls on others’ deductions, memories, and open-ended sentiments. From the few biographers that have cropped up over the years to the preserved ideas of the times, Fisher crafts a full-bodied composition that carries a touch of his own wit and humor. What’s interesting to note is that Sargent’s life is never the summation of the narrative. As a mere speck in a dust storm — as is the case with any individual — Sargent is directed by the reverberation of family values, perceived impropriety, social class, views on gender and sexuality, and so forth.

Fisher makes sure to acknowledge women’s limited scope for self-expression and self-governance during the Victorian era, paying particular heed to Sargent’s mother, Mary, whose willfulness helped carve her son’s path as an artist. And so, by unfolding the topography of the times — with all the unforgiving realities and covert pleasures they entailed — Fisher manages to suffuse his work with the air of complexity that distinguishes Sargent’s work. With special emphasis placed on nudity and its censorship, as well as the physical form as both the product and its endless source of inspiration, the author marks a journey into — and through — eroticism. 

This is largely due to Sargent’s portrayal of self-possessed women, not to mention the countless sketches of nude males uncovered after his death. Because of the vein of passion running through his art, the book’s eroticism exceeds the aesthetic fascination that is bonded with the art world. And yet, as potent as it proves, it’s forever trapped by the ambiguity of expression. Here, Fisher’s vibrant storytelling envelops the contorted, censorious language of desire with an elegant flair. Grasping the art of self-disguise, he presents the contrast between today’s more liberal discernment of texts and the “mutilation of pronouns” they illustrate.

Fraught relationships, romantic friendships, and collaborations obscured by the machinations of portrait painting all point to a psychological appraisal of some heady power dynamics. And so, with the “complexity of human intimacy” at the forefront of the narrative, a tale of sexual and gender nonconformity, competitiveness, alienation, passion, and even obsession begins to unfold. At several points, Fisher all but embodies the protagonist of "Death in Venice", slinking after the object of his fixation with an infectious sort of disquiet. Coincidentally, both Venice and Thomas Mann feature in the text as Sargent orbits several stars, including Claude Monet, Oscar Wilde, Henry James, and more.

In navigating the mystery shrouding him, the text oscillates between the human element and the strictly aesthetic. In fact, the deeper we delve, the more frequently Sargent’s art is placed at the helm, allowing our gaze to fix itself on the peripheral figures gliding across the horizon. This is understandable, as history has retained little evidence of past events and affiliations, and what does remain appears heavily biased. Fisher, in his quest to trace the parameters of the black hole, welcomes every atom of data.

Incidentally, in doing so, he establishes a largely neutral viewpoint. And so, Sargent, a man shaped by the prejudices and facades of his era, is never portrayed as an exemplary figure. Antisemitism, the demonization of same-sex pairings, and the physical objectification of African Americans uphold the trap of safety and respectability that houses Sargent, even when his personal views differ. And yet, the author sets such sensibilities within the context of the times, acknowledging without justifying. From this duality emerges a lifelike depiction of the artist, fortifying the bond that forms quietly between the subject and the reader.

It’s so palpable, in fact, that experiencing the birth and death of John Singer Sargent leads to an unfathomable sense of loss. And it’s this feeling, more so than the objective acuity of Fisher’s work, that serves as the highest compliment for both the artist and the man responsible for reviving him.
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