Fashioned by Sargent is Visually Stunning


Fashioned by Sargent

Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Through January 16, 2024


Many New Englanders think of John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) as one of their own, but that’s wishful thinking. His father was from Gloucester, but John was born in Florence, Italy and was an expatriate for most of his life. He did spend time in Boston, where he painted society figures, but is best known here for his mural work, including the MFA dome ceiling. Mostly he studied, lived, and worked in London, Paris, and Venice. He had a complicated relationship with opulence and his bachelor life is up for dispute. He had brief affairs with women, but he was probably either gay or bisexual.


What is not up for dispute is that Sargent is among the greatest portrait painters in the history of Western art. Perhaps only Franz Hals painted white on white or black on black as well as he.


The MFA’s Fashioned by Sargent (in conjunction with Tate Britain) shows people in haute couture and also displays some of the clothing we see on the walls. It’s a large show marred only by harsh lighting that does not show Sargent’s oils in their best light. You will see how the light reflects off the canvases, which is why I shot some from the side to reduce the “bounce.” (Don’t even ask how long they took to edit!)


Suffice it say that those of means in the Gilded Age and Edwardian era wore their wealth. We see this in one of the show’s first portraits, “Madame Ramon Subercaseaux.” (Please note that it was the custom of the day to identify women by their marital status, a rule Sargent sometimes broke.) What do you see first, the gown or her face? Notice how the blacks bleed seamlessly into one another.


Madame Ramon Subercaseaux


The goal of Fashioned by Sargent is to show how carefully Sargent dressed and rendered his models. It was often not the subject who chose what to wear. He often kept clothing in his ateliers and insisted that sitters don them. When Mrs. Fiske Warren and her daughter Rachel came to his studio, Rachel wanted to wear green velvet; Sargent insisted she don the pink gown we see below. Note the dry brush work in the detail.


Mrs. Fiske Warren




He did the same with young W. Graham Robertson and told him he “must” wear the long coat Sargent handed him. He likely did the same in his famed portrait “Dr. Pozzi at Home.” Samuel John Pozzi (1846-1918) was a French gynecologist and apparently a bit of a rake, but it’s unlikely he wore such a red robe around his parlor. 


Dr Pozzi at Home

And then there’s the matter of “Madame X,” Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautreau,  perhaps Sargent’s most famous portrait because it scandalized viewers and critics. He painted two versions in 1883-84, the first one deemed obscene because her decolletage was even deeper and one strap suggestively fell from her shoulder. To top it off, she was the wife of a friend but rumors swirled she had a fling with the artist!


Madame X

 One of the favorite paintings at MFA is Sargent’s portrait of the daughters of Mrs. Edward Darling Boit. We get a portrait of her in the show wearing a flamboyant hat made of bird of paradise feathers. We also see the hat, which is even more imposing than it appears on canvas. It is indirectly linked to the 1895 founding of the Audubon Society, in part an attempt to save the fowl from an estimated 100,000 wearers of its plumage. 


Mrs. Edward Darling Boit


Bird of Paradise hat


Sargent also broke a few conventions. He dressed Ena Wertheimer (1904) in theatrical male garb in “A Vele Gonfire” (“In Full Sail”) and championed the New Woman ready for sporting action in “Mrs. Charles Thursby.” Her maiden name was Alice Brisbane, a socialist and Free Thinker. There are several portraits of his niece, Rose-Marie Ormond: “The Black Brook” (1908) and “Repose” (1911). As curatorial commentary notes, in each case “cloth” was the real main subject. There’s certainly a lot of it in the latter. 


Ena Wertheimer


Mrs. Charles Thursby




If I had to pick my favorite images, two, spring to mind, the first of which was of actress Ellen Terry portraying Lady Macbeth. Her costume is spectacular, the iridescent green coming from sewing beetle wings into her pseudo-Celtic gown. The entire was draped with a scarlet velvet cape. 


Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth


Beetle Wing Dress


Cloak Detail

Another favorite–and an unusually “modern-looking” one despite its Tudor background paneling–is of Elsie Palmer (1890) that’s sometimes called “Lady in White,” though there’s a subtle lavender scarf on her lap. Like the previous one, it evokes the Pre-Raphaelites.



"Lady in White" (Elsie Palmer)


I can’t emphasize enough the importance of viewing this show in person. Below are a few images of detail you need to see to appreciate fully. 




Rob Weir




The Last Devil to Die: The Thursday Murder Club Returns



The Last Devil to Die (2023)

By Richard Osman

Viking, 349 pages.





The Last Devil to Die is the fourth book in the Thursday Murder Club series. Author Richard Osman has pulled a page from successful television shows that develop  characters that audiences adopt as surrogate family members. Each novel stands alone, but somehow the crew at the Cooper’s Chase retirement home seem like quirky British relatives. In brief, the geriatric core four–Elizabeth, Joyce, Ron, and Ibrahim–bond to solve murders that stump the police. Of course, it helps immensely that Elizabeth was once an important agent in MI6, the U.K. equivalent of the CIA, and has contacts in high places that local police friends Chris and Donna do not have.


The Last Devil to Die begins with a diary entry from the mousy, but sneakily ironic Joyce in which she records her wish that the TMC group can take a break from investigating current murders. After all, in a rest home death already occurs with distressing frequency. She pines for her deceased husband Gerry, Elizabeth’s husband Stephen is slowly fading from dementia, Ron and his ex-wife Pauline have an on/off relationship, and nobody quite knows why Ibrahim is alone. Loneliness has lured a new resident into a money-bilking scam that he insists involves true love. Will this be the only nut the Club has to crack? Of course not! One of Stephen’s friends, 80-year-old Brighton antiques dealer Kuldesh Sharma is the premature corpse. Who would wish to harm a man who is already in the twilight of his life? Who indeed? And why would Jill Regan, a high-up muckety-muck with the National Crime Agency assume command of the investigation and order Chris and Donna off the case?


Maybe Connie Johnson, who the TMC helped send to prison can shed light. Ibrahim, a psychologist, has been counseling her, if that is the right word. Connie, like “Ib,” is brilliant and the two like to play cat-and-mouse psych-out games. Plus, Connie still operates the East Sussex cocaine trade from her prison cell. The TMC just wants to solve Kuldesh’s murder and she knows the underworld ropes. The quirks of the seasoned protagonists is a constant source of humor and a nice counterpoint to themes of bloodshed and skullduggery. Plus, not everyone at Cooper’s Chase was entirely on the up and up before they arrived. Ron was a bust-a-few-heads union activist and you certainly don’t want to ask too many questions about the doings of their younger Polish friend Bogan, including Joyce’s nosey queries about his relationship with Donna. 


Osman spins a tale that involves a conflict between rival heroin kingpins Mitch Maxwell and Luca Buttaci over a recent shipment that has gone missing. This is baffling as the street value of £100,000 is chump change for guys such as they. There’s no rational reason for them to bother with an octogenarian antiques shopkeeper. As Connie observes, even crooks have a code of honor and they don’t eliminate those who are not in “the trade.” Solving the case hinges on questions involving the location of Kuldesh’s phone, who he might have called and, of course, the location of the smack. It will also involve “Computer Bob” Whittaker from Cooper’s Chase, an art forger, her burly Canadian husband, a grifter, a Canterbury professor, transnational intrigue, an escalating body count, a mysterious woman who happens to be in the area where blood is spilled, lots of misdirection, some which-side-are-you-on thugs, and more. Even the title is wrapped in mystery in that it means what you think and what you don’t!


Another twist is that we see Joyce assert herself in ways that go beyond what we’ve come to expect of a woman who’d rather bake than be unpleasant. Her acerbic wit is on display, but also planning skills usually left to Elizabeth, who is preoccupied. There’s also a touching revelation about Ibrahim. What is truly unexpected is the late-in-the-book switch to a touching and bittersweet tone that twangs the old heartstrings and invokes the writings of Fredrik Backman. It, as the expression goes, puts a lot of things in perspective, especially the lust for money at the expense of true accounting. Osman’s mix of humor, tragedy, and introspection is a winning formula. Rest assured, he has plans to take us back to Cooper’s Chase in the near future.


Rob Weir






EO A Deeply Moving Film


EO (2022)

Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski

Skopia Films/Alien Films, 88 minutes, Not-rated.

In Polish, Italian, French, and English with subtitles.





Proverbs 12:10 holds that, “A righteous man cares for the life of his beast, but the compassion of the wicked is cruel.” Based upon the movie EO, there are apparently more wicked people in the world than compassionate ones. EO is, by turns, heartwarming and heartbreaking.


EO was the first Polish film nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar. Director Jerzy Skolimowski  based EO on Robert Bresson’s 1966 film Au Hasard Balthazar. It's not every day you see a movie from the point of view of a donkey, but you will certainly root for one named EO.


We meet EO in a circus in which he is in an act with a woman named Kassandra (Sandra Drzmalska) who loves her donkey. In recent years circuses have come under great pressure to eliminate animal acts, but EO is a warning that one-size-fits-all decision-making is not always the wisest course of action. EO is taken from a tearful Kassandra when the Polish state abruptly outlaws animal acts and seizes all circus livestock. Self-congratulatory officials hold a brief ceremony to read a press release and retire to the beer tent. They are smug in their assurance that they have ended animal exploitation, but they have given little thought to what comes next.


EO is loaded into a trailer from which he observes horses running free in a field, but he is destined to become a beast of burden. He toils for a farmer but won't eat because he is depressed. EO hears Kassandra's voice in his head and replays her embrace and kisses on his snout. His only happy moment is when Kassandra pays a visit, carrot muffin in hand and tears in her eyes. No wonder EO escapes from the farm and sets off in hope of finding her.


The film follows EO’s trials and travails as he traverses the countryside. At each stage he encounters humanity at its cruelest–a wolf left to by hunters to bleed out in the woods, soccer hooligans, drunken louts, a factory farm where caged foxes are killed for their fur, a greasy headbanger truck driver who snorts drugs and plays loud music, a desperate woman being solicited for sex. EO will even encounter a n’er do well named Mateo (Mateusz Kosciukiewicz) who stashes him in the back of his car and takes him to a posh villa somewhere in Italy. EO roams an elaborate formal garden and perhaps overhears as Mateo is berated for his gambling debts by the Countess (Isabel Hubert). She is his mother-in-law and maybe something more. Naturally, EO doesn't wish to stay there either.


Forget that Skolimowski is an animal rights activist. Whether or not we agree with his implication that humankind enslaves animals, he's certainly endows EO with more decency than any person in the film other than Kassandra. Putting us inside the mind of a donkey is not an easy task but he and cinematographer Michal Dymek use clever camera angles to make us perceive that their lenses are the gateway into EO’s psyche. Pawel Mykietyn’s score adds immeasurably in suggesting what EO thinks in each situation he encounters. It is to his credit that he makes us feel peril, yearning, sadness, and resignation without resorting to melodramatic or maudlin tones.


EO features four different languages, but at times it feels as if the human words are just background noise. This is also to say that although EO isn't a silent film, the dialogue is quite sparse. After all, EO is the film's focus and Skolimowski wants to make a point about the one-sided power dynamic between animals and humans. Given the nominations and awards the film has garnered, one would have to say that he succeeded in his objective. Moreover, you would have to hunt far and wide to find a crank who did not like this film.


In an Anthropocene world, the odds are stacked against a lowly donkey. EO is such a deeply moving film that you wish to keep the tissue box by your side. It will certainly make you ponder the hollowness of phrases such as “dumb beast.” On a scale of nobility we can score this movie EO one, humankind zero.


Rob Weir