Essays / Features / Nonfiction

On Finding Myself at a Writing Residency in Southern France

By Martha Anne Toll

In an era when we could still travel, I attended a writing residency in the picture-perfect town of Auvillar, France. I brought with me a postcard of The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, painted by John Singer Sargent, which I had been carrying around for ten years. The painting hangs in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. I saw it for the first time shortly before I left for France.

The Daughters depicts four American sisters from a wealthy Boston family who were raised in Paris so their father could fulfill his painting ambitions. Sargent completed the seven feet square painting, a masterpiece, in 1882 at the youthful age of 26. Conversely, Père Boit, a more-than-decent watercolorist, ended up a footnote in art history.

Why the postcard?

I am the third of four daughters, but that does not answer the question.

Antecedents (I)

One spring weekend when my girls were five and one, my parents drove from Philadelphia to Washington, DC to visit. One of our daughters must have been having a birthday party.

My mother walked through our kitchen and out the back door as soon as she arrived. She plopped down at the head of the stairs leading to our postage stamp garden, replete with a swing set that had been a gift from my parents. She slumped, her back to the kitchen, head in hand.

It was an injury, her ignoring not so much me, but my children; and right off the bat. I decided she must have been upset after a fight with my father. That realization failed to dampen my hurt.

Over the weekend, Mom made it clear she wanted to see the John Singer Sargent retrospective at the National Gallery of Art. Mom was like that—a tourist—when she visited her grandchildren.

We went to the exhibit. I am not an art connoisseur. I felt resentful about the whole enterprise—the pressure to go to the museum, and the fact that we went by ourselves, without the children.

We ambled through rooms of giant canvases depicting obscenely privileged New England matriarchs and patriarchs, American expats in Paris, and exceptionally wealthy Continentals. (Sargent was American but lived and worked much of his life in Europe.)

To my surprise—and consternation—I was blown away. Not by the subject matter, which was opulence in excess, but by the technique. How did Sargent create such rich, complex textures, the shimmering pearls and silky dresses, the sumptuous lace and velvet and satin? I approached the canvases to study this sparkle or that shadow. You could see individual brushstrokes, but you had to step back to take in the marvel of the whole painting. I was in the presence of a master and I knew it.

I loved the exhibit. And unlike so many others, it stayed with me.

Whence the postcard?

In 2010, our older daughter was an exchange student in Madrid. We visited her over spring break and traveled to Andalucía. On returning to Madrid, we had a narrow window to visit the Prado, so we went for the highlights, including Diego Velázquez’s 1656 masterpiece, Las Meninas, which inspired The Daughters.Las Meninas

Las Meninas, translated as “Ladies in Waiting,” is revolutionary. Set in the palace of King Philip IV, it is a portrait of the young princess Margaret Teresa. The people who are truly at the center of the painting, however, are not royalty. Rather than giving the king and queen prominence, Velázquez painted their heads reflected in a small mirror, belittling them by placing them outside the painting alongside the viewer.

Velázquez painted himself standing before a giant canvas to the left of the princess. Palette in hand, he looks out, as if he were painting the viewer. He, not any royalty, is the painting’s visionary.

At the back of the canvas where a bright light draws us in, a man exits the painting. He stands on a set of steps before an open door, looking around as if to say good-bye. The perspective is breathtaking, but no one in the painting can see him because they all face front.

We ended the day in the museum shop. There, more than 3,000 miles from where The Daughters hangs, I found my postcard. When I picked it up, I felt I was looking in a mirror. It wasn’t that I am one of four daughters, it was the specific third daughter in Sargent’s painting. Everything about her said me to me.

Antecedents (II)

My father was a Francophile. For a Jewish boy who grew up in a crowded West Philly neighborhood, you could say he was an anomalous, compulsive Francophile.

His first trip to France came via the Army. Daddy landed in Normandy shortly after the invasion, where he bivouacked before deploying to Luxembourg. He was wounded in the strafing preceding the Battle of the Bulge, which, in my family, counts as the blessing that saved his life. We would not be otherwise.

Normandy farmers threw open their doors and orchards in gratitude to American GIs, offering apples and plying them with the region’s famous brandy, Calvados. Daddy had never tasted Calvados before. The experience made an indelible impression. It was an adored memory.

Decades later, my father became obsessed with the American expatriates in Paris during the 1920s—Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alexander Calder, Gerald and Sarah Murphy, and many others. Daddy was a trial lawyer, but he wrote a book about this period, traveling to Paris multiple times—1920s Baedeker in hand—to research and eat his way through Paris with Mom. He was never able to publish the book, but large chunks of it made it into distinguished journals and a series of slide lectures he delivered.

Why?

Despite vast differences in wealth, status, ancestry, time, and setting, the eight-year-old girl in The Daughters haunts me. Her name was Mary Louisa Boit. She had the same first names as her mother. They shared the nickname “Isa.”

Sargent dressed the Boit sisters in matching pinafores, but there ends their similarities. They are separated from one another on canvas, facing different directions. Early critics noticed this dissociation and found the painting more like four individual portraits.

Facing sideways, Florie leans against one of two colossal Japanese vases. Second sister Jane faces the viewer. Baby Julia sits on the floor in the foreground, holding a doll with complete disinterest. She looks to her left at something beyond the canvas. Florie and Jane wear black under their white pinafores, Julia wears white, and Isa brick red. Isa stands aside to the left, lit so that her black-stockinged legs are clearly visible. She looks out—but not really. She appears pensive and removed.

The second colossal Japanese vase is sliced in half by the right side of the frame. Those Japanese vases survived multiple ocean voyages and are now displayed alongside the painting in Boston. In a fascinating twist, they arrived at the museum filled with Boit family detritus, presumably tossed in like trash.

Like the painted girls in their matching pinafores, my sisters and I wore matching outfits. Our grandmother gave us a set of sky-blue sleeveless dresses with embroidered white waist bands; matching play outfits—powder blue shorts with seersucker sleeveless tops striped in pastels; and lavender party dresses that had a thin, purple velvet ribbon at the waistline. I wore these outfits for many years, new and as hand-me-downs. My younger sister wore them for longer.

Our mother was critical of women who dressed their children alike. She praised my aunt, the mother of twins, for dressing her sons differently.

My mother’s criticism was notable for its rarity. Mom was kind, generous, and ashamed of her negative judgments. I believe she feared the rage she would encounter if she acknowledged them. She had them—we all do—but she worked to suppress them. In my case, her negative opinions leached out, often becoming more burdensome than if she had expressed them outright.

A more serious fallout, however, was that Mom lacked (or suppressed) certain protective instincts that parents have toward their children. She was missing that link. Her lack of protective instinct played out in various ways. Other than the routine and somewhat abstract “don’t talk to strangers,” I don’t recall her providing advice on how to confront a bully, or the need to avoid harmful people, or how to recognize people who intend to hurt you. On the contrary, if you complained about a bully or someone else being mean to you, she encouraged you to befriend them.

Mom had a similar blind spot for physical danger. Despite crippling anxiety, she experienced little to no concern about potential physical harm to herself or her daughters. As a result, she prohibited us from having novocaine at the dentist when getting cavities filled; denied the existence of any kind of sickness or menstrual cramps; opposed medication, including what might relieve (in my case) asthma; and avoided the subject of birth control. She started me commuting into Philadelphia on my own at age nine and pushed all of us to travel abroad at very young ages. It fell upon me to protect myself, or at least worry a lot about my safety.

I see this kind of worry in Isa’s expression—too much responsibility too young. At eight, she has stepped to the side to observe her family dynamics.

My mother had an odd but oft-repeated expression: I raised you all to be only children. It felt like she doth protest too much, especially as we were dressed in quadruplicate and pressured to engage in identical, high-minded activities such as classical music lessons and French instruction. The fixation with France never made sense either.

Antecedents (III)

My parents were Julia Child’s target audience—upwardly mobile young marrieds, whose world had opened in the aftermath of World War II. They were not TV watchers, but they watched Julia religiously.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgThey hosted dinner parties inspired by French food. Mom was our family cook—and a fabulous one—but Daddy was the gourmet in the house, serving dinner guests his homemade gougėre, bȗche de Noël, and paté à la campagne. He brought Brie and Roquefort home. Novembers meant sampling Beaujolais Nouveau. He regaled dinner guests with learned discussions about which Burgundy he’d selected for that particular meal and why. He studied French cookbooks and read and read about France.

Neither of my parents really spoke French—my mother had studied in high school and could make herself haltingly understood. Nevertheless, they insisted we four daughters learn it, beginning with a before-school tutor when I was in kindergarten. The tutor’s name must have been Mrs. Little, as I called her Madame Petite.  

French had no connection with growing up in suburban Philadelphia, our ancestry, or our Jewish heritage. Yet we four daughters learned to speak it fluently. Our public high school had excellent French instruction, but mostly I learned because my three sisters traveled frequently to France in their teens.

For a number of reasons, I resisted traveling. Nevertheless, France came to me. A host of non-English-speaking French students sent by one or another sister showed up at our doorstep, often staying for extended periods. Or, my mother recruited them in service to our French education.

Take Marie José, who spoke not a word of English except to say with a heavy French accent that she was “sick for her home.” She was the daughter of a village postmaster, which in those days meant free use of a long-distance telephone. Her father called daily to listen to her cry. My two older sisters were abroad, my little sister had no interest, and so it fell to me to entertain her.

In the tropical heat of a Philadelphia summer, Marie José’s failure to shower became a health emergency. After several fruitless attempts, I convinced Mom to tell her to bathe.

It may have been Marie José’s malodorous visit that allowed me to beat back my mother when she urged me to host an exchange student for a year. The fact that the most recent such student had been arrested for drug dealing when he returned home did not deter her.

As I got older, I found the family Franco-worship ridiculous and pretentious and deracinating, if one can be deracinated while being grounded at home, as well. I’d rather have studied Spanish, which would be useful in America. Or Hebrew, so I could better understand my heritage. It embarrasses me—my French, my fluency in a language to which I have no connection, spoken in a place I’ve never lived.

And yet.

I found myself at a desk in southern France, speaking French with the neighbors and ruminating on John Singer Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, a masterpiece he created in Paris.Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

I have spent the better part of a year learning about the Boit sisters.[1] In correspondence between John Singer Sargent and Henry James (Mrs. Isa Boit introduced those two greats), the girls are referred to as crazy, and their mother, as childlike and mad.

Far from dissociated, the Boit girls were said to play mostly with one another. None of them married. The only sister who appears to have sustained a long-term relationship was Florie, who fell in love with her American cousin (also named Jane). Maman died of some kind of “female disease,” exacerbated by daughter Jane’s seeming anorexia and perhaps other mental illness. The family traveled Europe in search of a cure for Jane, who landed on obsessive piano playing as key to her therapy. Père Boit fell in love with a friend of young Isa’s and in a scandal, was remarried to a woman half his age. Numerous other things in their family history captivate, but spoilers prevent disclosure. Consider the literary implications of the trove of family knickknacks discovered in those oversized Japanese vases! The Boit family does indeed feel like the stuff of novels.

I can’t explain my family’s fixation with France or quite a few other aspects of my upbringing. And I’m still trying to plumb Sargent’s The Daughters.

I wonder whether we are destined to tell our parents’ stories, because those are what we heard growing up. Maybe someday I’ll write an essay about that. In the meantime, I’m certain of one thing: my sisters and I are as different as only children. 

 

 

[1] Much of this information comes from Erica Hirschler’s Sargent’s Daughter: The Biography of a Painting.

Bloom Post End

 

Martha Anne Toll is working on a novel about The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit. Her essays and reviews appear regularly on NPR Books and in The Millions; as well as in Washington Post’s The LilyWords Without Borders [forthcoming] Scoundrel Time, After the Art, Rumpus, Bloom, Narrative Magazine[PANK] Magazine, Tin House blog, The Nervous Breakdown, Washington Independent Review of Books, and others. Her fiction has appeared in CatapultVol. 1 BrooklynSlush Pile Magazine, Yale’s Letters Journal, and Poetica E Magazine, among others. Martha was the founding Executive Director of the Butler Family Fund, a path-breaking social justice philanthropy focused on criminal justice reform and housing and homelessness. Martha tweets at @marthaannetoll.

Image of The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, http://www.mfa.org. Image of Las Meninas courtesy of Museo Nacional del Prado.

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