Back to life: Donna Lucey unearths the stories of history’s forgotten women

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Donna Lucey, who never expected to settle in the South, moved to Charlottesville with her husband in 1992. She says she was pleasantly surprised by the community of writers and artists she found here.
Photo: Jackson Smith Donna Lucey, who never expected to settle in the South, moved to Charlottesville with her husband in 1992. She says she was pleasantly surprised by the community of writers and artists she found here. Photo: Jackson Smith

Local author Donna Lucey has made it her life’s work to research and write about “badass women.” Her stories often focus on spirited women born into conventional families, who defied expectations and social norms. But even in 2018, such stories can be a hard sell. Publishers tend to want to publish biographies about famous people, Lucey says, which leaves out women who may have done remarkable things but were ignored in their own times. “It’s really frustrating because there are endless men who are famous, but women have been lost to history,” she says.

With her latest book, Sargent’s Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas, Lucey says the fame of American portrait painter John Singer Sargent provided the hook she needed to sell the story of four fascinating women, three of whom he painted, one of whom he mentored. This month the book, which was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, will be awarded the Mary Lynn Kotz Award for Art in Literature.

Given annually by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Library of Virginia since 2013, the award, which comes with a $2,500 cash prize, recognizes an outstanding creative or scholarly book that is written primarily in response to a work (or works) of art.

Lucey’s book beat out well-known biographer Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci, a number one New York Times bestseller, as well as Laurie Lico Albanese’s novel Stolen Beauty, about painter Gustav Klimt, and Christina Baker Kline’s novel A Piece of the World, about the woman in Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World.”

The Gilded Age

Sargent’s Women takes an intimate look at the lives of four women in a singular age.

“I’ve always loved the 19th century and the Gilded Age,” says Lucey, whose five books touch on the epoch in some form or other. “I love that era because of the sheer exuberance and the over-the-top, eccentric characters. In some ways it was grotesque.” She gives the example of one of the male characters in Sargent’s Women, who thrusts his arm into a fire after beating a man in a jealous rage. “You can’t make this stuff up,” Lucey says. “If I were to write this as fiction people would say, ‘This is a little bit over-the-top.’ And, in fact, every inch of it is true.”

But it was Elizabeth Chanler, an orphaned Astor heiress, who first drew Lucey to the project. Lucey’s previous book, Archie and Amélie: Love and Madness in the Gilded Age, focused on Chanler’s brother, committed to an insane asylum for losing the family money. In a family that suffered the loss of both parents when the children were young, Chanler was the one, Lucey says, “who had to take care of everyone, and the one everyone adored in a family that was really unmoored.”   

Her other subjects are Elsie Palmer, who grew up among intellectuals and artists and, after years as a spinster and the family caregiver, ran away to get married; Lucia Fairchild, who gave up her family’s money to paint miniatures and live in an artists’ colony; and Isabella Stewart Gardner, the New York City transplant who never fit into her husband’s puritanical Boston society but would end up contributing her significant art collection to the city.

Lucey winnowed down her selections from the over 900 portraits Sargent painted. In a way, one woman led her to another: “All of these women knew each other,” says Lucey. “It was a very rarefied world. When I was up at the Astor house in the Hudson Valley talking to the owner of the house, right next to me was a miniature by Lucia.”

The final four subjects “seemed very personal in a way that many of Sargent’s portraits don’t,” she says. That’s in part because Sargent knew these women and their families well. “He had this uncanny way of seeing into their souls,” she says, “capturing their personalities and characters…through his choice of clothing and his choice of composition.”

Take, for instance, Sargent’s portrait of Palmer, her wide eyes and blank stare set off by her blunt bangs. “It freaked out everybody in London when they first saw it,” Lucey says. “They thought she was insane. …It has this weird aura to it, and in a way her life played out in that way, ending with her marrying this crazy spiritualist.” Likewise, Sargent’s portrait of Gardner captures her plain features but bold style, attired as she is in a long black dress with a dramatic neckline. Lucey laughs, recalling that while on her book tour at Chanler’s summer home in Newport, Rhode Island, just as she began talking about Gardner, out of nowhere a black balloon floated into the crowd. “It was like she was making her grand entrance. …It was almost uncanny. Typical of Isabella that she would want to be there.”

As for Lucia Fairchild, you won’t find a Sargent portrait of her as her story is really about how, watching Sargent paint her sister Sally, Fairchild was inspired to learn to paint. “I love doing that kind of bait and switch,” Lucey says. “Sally was the golden child, the one that Sargent painted over and over again… She was the one who was going to be a star, but she ended up doing nothing with her life.” Her sister, on the other hand, befriended Sargent and became an artist in her own right. While doing research for the book, Lucey found an uncatalogued scrapbook at the Boston Athenaeum, and in it, she says, is “this incredible Kodak portrait of Sargent lying in the foreground, and in the middle ground was Lucia, the ugly duckling sister, taking notes.”

While Lucey say she has a special spot in her heart for Fairchild because her story is “just so poignant, and she was so courageous,” there was an added benefit to including her in the narrative: “She was one of the few people who actually recorded [Sargent’s] personal thoughts, his impressions and opinions about art and music and literature…She was one of the people who kind of caught his personality.” As in the moment when Fairchild fell in love with Henry Brown Fuller, her future husband, and Sargent warned her that “terrific love” could lead to “terrific hate.” (He turned out to be right.)

For Lucey, Sargent would prove more difficult to delineate than the women he painted. “He burned all of his papers. He was gay and had to hide that,” Lucey says. “He lived right across the street from Oscar Wilde,”—the Irish playwright who was convicted of “gross indecency” in 1895—“and so he knew what happened to people who expressed their sexuality openly.” But though Sargent destroyed his personal papers, he left behind “incredibly erotic male portraits,” Lucey says, some of which were found only recently in a storage unit housing Gardner’s furniture.

Lucey in Montana in 1979. In a farmhouse basement, she uncovered a trove of diaries and photo negatives from the forgotten photographer Evelyn Cameron, who became her next subject. Photo courtesy of Lucey.

The writing life

It is this sort of psychological detective work that attracts Lucey to biographical research. Growing up in suburban Connecticut, she dreamed of moving to New York City and becoming a writer. After graduating from Georgetown University, she got a job at Time Life as a photo editor. While working on a series of books about women in the 19th century, she pitched a volume on women in the American West and ended up in Montana. There, in the basement of a wheat farmer, she stumbled upon several thousand photo negatives and 35 years’ worth of diaries, all belonging to a woman named Evelyn Cameron. The discovery led Lucey to write Photographing Montana, 1894-1928: The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron.

“That was the Gilded Age on its head,” Lucey says of her story of the pioneer artist who taught herself glass plate photography. “She was a very wealthy woman from England who, instead of embracing the Gilded Age life, renounced it and reinvented herself out West.”

It was research, too, that brought Lucey to Charlottesville in 1992, only then it was the research of a different writer: her husband, Henry Wiencek. At the time he was working on his book The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, about a plantation-owning family, the people they enslaved, and the descendants of both. The research was only supposed to take a year, but eight years passed by and they set down roots. Lucey, who never expected to settle in the South, says she was pleasantly surprised by the community of writers and artists she found here.

In her second book, I Dwell in Possibility: Women Build a Nation, 1600-1920, Lucey expanded her scope in order to explore the ways in which American women helped shape the country even before winning the right to vote. But she got such a kick out of writing the chapter on the Gilded Age, she says, that it led her to write Archie and Amélie. Throughout her writing career she has followed her research wherever it takes her, and “one thing has led to the next.”

Recalling her days at Time Life, she says, “I always had this visual sense. So I feel [Sargent’s Women], in a way, is a culmination of making use of imagery and diaries and letters, and plumbing, trying to figure out the psychology of these people.”   

‘How women get buried’

In the case of Sargent’s Women, she says,  “None of these women had been written about before except for Isabella Stewart Gardner, so there wouldn’t have been any interest except [for] Sargent. He was the key.”

“[All these] women did such amazing things,” she adds, “and yet nobody knows about it.”

She cites the true story regarding the fate of Sargent’s portrait of Elizabeth Chanler. After her death, Chanler’s son took the portrait with the intention to sell it to the highest bidder. His family advised him to donate it instead for the tax break. But when he approached the National Portrait Gallery, the museum didn’t want it, Lucey says. Chanler was not considered important enough. (The portrait now hangs in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where it is a major feature of its Gilded Age collection.)

Likewise, says Lucey, the Houghton Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts—Harvard’s rare books and manuscripts library—rejected the donation of Chanler’s papers while accepting those of her husband, John Jay Chapman. Again, Chanler was not seen as sufficiently important.

It’s a vicious cycle in which women and their contributions are not recognized as important, therefore they aren’t written about and don’t develop any prominence or lasting impact on the historical record. “This is how women get buried,” Lucey says. In some of her research, as was the case with Elsie Palmer, Lucey says she was the first person to read all of her subject’s papers. Yet she was drawn to these women because, “They lived in a very conventional world and they all managed to shock in some way… These were the great museum builders, the people who helped create American culture.” It’s the discovery of them that has helped shape the trajectory of her writing career, she says. “The fun of my life is to uncover hidden stories of women who have been forgotten.”

Even when women are remembered and written about, Lucey says, they aren’t always given their due. In the case of Gardner, she says, too often it is the art student she sponsored, Bernhard Berenson, who is given credit for her art collection. He did conduct art purchases for her, Lucey says, but everything was her decision. “She was the one who bought a Vermeer, before he was even famous, on her own.” And besides, she says, pointing out a double standard, J.P. Morgan and Henry Frick had art buyers, too, but are still given credit for being great collectors. “[Because Gardner] was so unconventional, and such a character, she’s portrayed in a kind of cartoonish way and never given the credit as the serious art student that she was.”

“The fun of my life is to uncover hidden stories of women who have been forgotten,” says Lucey, who has written four books.

 

Recognition

Sargent’s Women has brought Lucey the most attention of all her books to date. In addition to the Kotz award, it is a nonfiction finalist for a Library of Virginia Literary Award, which will be announced October 20. Lucey says she was especially thrilled to win the Kotz award. “It’s so wonderful that they honor people who write about art,” she says. “This is a unique kind of award.”

Indeed, Amy Bridge, the executive director of the Library of Virginia, says, “There is no prize like this in the country.”

The award is named for Virginian Mary Lynn Kotz, a contributing editor at ARTNews and author of an award-winning biography of artist Robert Rauschenberg. It honors Kotz’s ability to write about art and artists in an accessible way, says Lee Bagby Ceperich, director of library, archives, and special collections at the VMFA.

Lucey will be recognized at a special event at the VMFA on October 19, and give a brief talk about her work. It’s a particularly apt setting, Lucey says: “They have a fantastic collection of Sargents in their new McGlothlin Galleries.”

The near decade’s worth of research Lucey did in archives, libraries, and private homes to complete Sargent’s Women “is not for the faint of heart,” she warns. But in the same way that Sargent was captivated by these extraordinary women and compelled to record their expressions in paint, so Lucey was compelled to record their lives in ink. Through this undertaking, she helps to ensure that their stories won’t be buried any longer.     

Editor’s note: The author and subject are colleagues at Virginia Humanities. 

  

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