Today, we welcome author Ingrid Thoft for her thoughts on John Singer Sargent and the mystery and suspense hidden in the shadows of his work:
Anticipation. Suspense. Anxiety. These elements are essential to a good thriller or a good mystery novel, and the same can be said of movies, TV shows and also, fine arts. That’s right—paintings by dead guys that have nothing to do with murder or mayhem offer their own brand of intrigue.
Growing up and during my college years, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston was the local museum for field trips, family outings and class assignments. Full disclosure: I wasn’t an art history major, and I’ve been known to warm the benches in galleries while waiting for my companions. However, I like to think that I am a poster child for art appreciation: I get something out of it even if I don’t read all the placards.
It was at the MFA that I first viewed the work of John Singer Sargent. A successful portrait painter and darling of Boston’s upper class, Sargent also worked in watercolors and did landscapes in far flung locations like Venice, the Isle of Capri and Corfu. Complex and often pleasing to the eye, it’s the drama and suspense that he injected into his work that I find so captivating.
Some paintings present a scene or snapshot in time, but Sargent’s paintings—whether portraits or landscapes, oils or watercolors—prompt questions and elicit anticipation, just like the best mysteries. The desire to know how things end, the peeling back of layers, is what snares and enthralls mystery readers. But you needn’t pick up the latest hardback to engage in the singular pleasure of trying to solve a puzzle. Browse through the masterpieces of John Singer Sargent, or any other fine artist who piques your interest, and a whole new world of mysteries will be revealed.
Still not convinced? Take a look at a few of his creations:
Perhaps Sargent’s most famous work, “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” has always been one of my favorites, in part because I’m the youngest in a family of four girls. But what I find most compelling about the painting is the questions that this seemingly placid portrait poses: Why do three girls face the artist, but one does not? What is lurking in the dark background? What is the context in which the eldest daughter is allowed to lounge against an exquisite antique? Did the girls choose their positions or were they posed that way? Art historians have spent their careers investigating the story behind the painting, and some answers can be found, but in the moment that the viewer studies the painting—without any expertise or historical knowledge—a world of mystery unfolds. There is no movement in that moment, but an enormous sense of life and interaction.
The intrigue in this painting is more obvious: Whose suitcase is splayed open on the floor? Whose clothes are in a heap? Where is this room into which the sun peeks through the slatted blinds, and what happened in that bed? The viewer can concoct any number of stories to narrate the picture, and isn’t that what art is supposed to do? Create a bridge between the creator and the participant? Reading, watching and viewing may be categorized as physically passive activities, but the mental engagement required, the invitation by the artist to engage, is anything but.
Many people look at this painting and see not only light and shadow, but also color and nature. To me, it is a visual depiction of anticipation. What, exactly, is around that corner? Is it a spectacular view of the sea? A table laid for an afternoon lunch? Two lovers napping in the grass? The picture is dominated by the cottage, but it’s the slice of scenery on the right to which my eye is drawn—large enough to pique my curiosity, but small enough to remain mysterious.
Is the woman going inside the building? Will the man follow her? And perhaps more compelling—what would the viewer find if he or she were to continue down the alleyway into the bright light? I wonder if the woman’s hand is on her hip or if she’s concealing something under her layers. And do you notice how she seems to be looking directly back at you? It’s as if she sees you, too, but how is that possible?
What happens next? That’s the question that keeps readers glued to the page and viewers frozen in front of a screen. Though perhaps in a less obvious way, that same question draws art lovers to canvases and sculptures and installations. Excitement and anticipation are the ties that bind the observer and the artist together and create genuine engagement. Just think, 132 years have passed, and I still want to know the story of the Boit sisters.
Ingrid Thoft worked as a tech, entertainment and education writer before making the transition to fiction. Her interest in the PI life and her desire to create a believable PI character led her to the certificate program in private investigation at the University of Washington, where she learned about investigation and surveillance, accident reconstruction, cyber and domestic investigations, and interviewing techniques. She is an avid traveler, scuba diver, and pop-culture connoisseur.
And be sure to pick up her latest Fina Ludlow novel Identity available now from G.P. Putnam - “A quirky and empathetic heroine, a fast-moving plot, and a surprise ending make this a winner.” —Publishers Weekly