New Novel Explores the Life of John Singer Sargent

The Secret History of Art was pleased to interview Mary Burns, author of a new novel about the life of John Singer Sargent, Portrait of an Artist.  We discussed Ms Burns’ interest in Sargent, what about the masters life suggested it would make great fiction, and which of his paintings readers should check out before cracking the novel’s pages.

What is the first Sargent painting that you saw, that made you fall for his work?

When my husband took a business trip to Washington, D.C. in November, 1999, 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. The oldest daughter, Florence—I was to learn all their names in time—is more in shadow than light, her face not even visible. What kind of portrait was that? In fact, it isn’t even clear that the two girls standing in the back (next to Florence is Jane) are “daughters”—they’re dressed more like servants, with the younger two girls—Mary Louisa standing with her arms “at ease” and baby Julia on the floor—looking like stiff, dressed-up dolls. I kept thinking, there’s a story here, there’s some dark, uncanny, psychological tale hidden—and exposed—by all this paint. Who was this artist, and why did he paint a portrait like this?

It took two years and many drafts of the book to get to the end of this story. 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.

At what point did you decide that you wanted to write a novel about Sargent?  What was it about his biography that intrigued you?

Immediately! I wanted to write a novel that told the story behind the portrait of the Boit girls, 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 different 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, which had been inspired by Harold Bloom’s audacious critique of the Hebrew Bible, The Book of J. 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! (At least twice, for me: Hemingway’s lost manuscript in a suitcase, and the Unicorn Tapestries.) 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 Becket 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. And then it turned into more of a story about who Sargent was. His biographies all said he was a very private person; his letters didn’t reveal much. He never married, but there were hints of a possible marriage at one point; hints of possible homosexuality at other points. This was still the Victorian era, and even in Paris—a city that allowed just about any kind of errant behavior as long as you were discreet—certain kinds of behavior could still devastate one’s reputation. Who was the real John Singer Sargent? I began to think of a way to “see” who he was by having his portraits speak for him. I found that wonderful quote by Oscar Wilde (who was acquainted with JSS): “Every portrait painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not the sitter” and I knew I was on the right track. I finally had to put all the books and papers and websites aside and just start writing.

Will a reader unfamiliar with Sargent’s work and life be equally engaged with your book, or do you recommend readers to do some Sargent homework?

I think the story stands on its own without prior knowledge of Sargent or his work, although I’ve rarely found anyone who isn’t familiar with “Madame X” at the very least. Luckily, my publisher agreed with me that we needed to include illustrations of the “portrait/characters” in the book (though in black and white), so that’s helpful for both identifying the speakers and becoming familiar with Sargent’s work. I include brief biographical information about the major characters at the end of the book, and suggest to the curious that they visit the very complete online catalog of Sargent’s paintings— —which provides a chronological viewing of nearly all of his immense oeuvre.

Describe your writing process, particularly any habits or unusual traits of the process.

I always choose a piece of instrumental music to play in the background when I’m working on a novel. For Portraits, it was Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9, No. 1 in B-flat Minor – I even used it as the background music for my book trailer (see it at (Sargent was a very talented pianist and loved Chopin and Wagner in particular. He could easily have made a living as a concert pianist.) Using the same piece of music helps me get back into that writing space every time I sit down at my desk to write, usually in the late afternoon, when it’s less likely that the phone will ring or I’ll be interrupted. For Portraits, I also added a glass of champagne, which I would often sip once and then entirely forget! I don’t use outlines when writing a novel, and often I’m not exactly sure how it will end. I’ve written mystery stories, which do require an outline, even a cursory one, as there’s a great deal more planning and careful consideration of clues and the like when revealing a mystery. But with a character-driven, literary novel, as many authors will attest, at some point the characters take over and drive the story according to their own lights, and the author becomes a mere amanuensis at times, just typing away while the characters reveal what they want told. I became so involved in the lives of my characters in this book that I would often wake up in the night with their voices in my head, and have to get up and write down the conversations that were going on without me! Marvelous, the powers of our unconscious and subconscious!

What is your next book?

I’ve written a first draft of a modern version of Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, one of the most influential books in my life; I’ve read it numerous times. Michael Gorra’s recent, brilliant critique/discussion of it, called Portrait of a Novel, is overwhelming and intimidating, but I hope it will ultimately help me ‘translate’ Isabel Archer into modern times—that is, the late 1960’s and early 70’s—modern enough but still “historical” enough to allow me to stay within my chosen genre of historical fiction. As a child of the 60’s, it’s poignant and humbling to realize that those years are now considered “historical” for the present generation. But there’s a lot of work to be done before this new novel will see the light of day. I have a completed novel “on the shelf” set in Mendocino, California in the late 1950’s, which I’m just not sure is ready for prime time, and I have (of course) several ideas for novels that I hope I’ll be able to get to in the coming years—as disparate as pre-history Druids and medieval illuminated manuscripts. I find I don’t want to get tied down to one era or time period, so as I read everything under the sun, I wait for that little spark to incite the writer in me to imagine more and deeper. Where’s the wonder, and the pain, the glory and the sacrifice? If an idea shows me that, that’s where I’ll start digging.

Mary Burns lives in San Francisco with her husband Stu. She is a member of and reviewer for the Historical Novel Society, and she is on the planning board for the North American HNS Conference to be held in St. Petersburg, Florida in mid-June. Her novel Portraits of an Artist will be available February 1, 2013 from Sand Hill Review Press. Please visit her blog about all things Sargent at

Views expressed on this blog, which is hosted on but produced independently of it, do not necessarily reflect the views of