这幅油画的照片为本人自己在 SAAM 拍摄。
油画信息：John Singer Sargent, Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler (Mrs. John Jay Chapman), 1893, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Chanler A. Chapman, 1980.71
The epilogue of this novel is the saddest thing I’ve ever read. At first I thought it is all going to lead to a very happy ending, that Archer’s oldest son who belongs to the new generation and no longer need to endure the absurdities that Archer has lived through could be the one who leads Achar back with his lifelong longings, could make Archer’s inner fantasies that have been built over years come true. Yet Archer chooses to stay downstairs and watches her window and feels that it is more real to him here than to go upstairs and meet her. And the whole story ends at this very moment.
It makes me wonder what does Archer really feels since both the author and her characters are so good at concealing their real emotions. Is he scared because after 30 years apart he worries that he no longer knows her? Is it because of he feels that she is only real in his imagination? Or does he finally realize that it is not her person that he loves, but the part of himself which Madame Olenska has brought out of him that he has been clinging to? And when we dwell on that question, another fact strucks me --- has the figure of Madame Olenska ever been 100 percent real? After all, we see her only from Archer’s eyes. So all those years even when they were still on the same continent, were her qualities real or were them exaggerated by Archer's imagination due to his own unhappiness with the indifference society of New York? Because he needs to bring out his truthfulness and defend his self-consciousness?
However, even if the Madame Olenska that we see has indeed been filtered by Newland Archer, “Madame Olenski” is still, without doubt, an utterly advanced female figure in her own time. But considering that the author built the social backgrounds of the novel based on her own childhood memory, and the year of publishing was already 1920, a female figure that is somehow independent and self-conscious seemed more expected and natural than shocking. But still, Madame Olenska is a very alluring character. She is exotic and extremely sophisticated. She has the sort of aloofness when dealing with the old crumbling society and that makes it inevitable for Archer to fall in love with her. Because they could see each other in each other.
Although it seemed that she has tempted him into this romance at first, she became the one to forsake it. That is another interesting detail that worth thinking through. Why indeed, did Madame Olenska bend her knees to the moldy society that she despises(or at least I presume that deep down she never cares about those nonsense)? Only because she couldn’t bear to betray her loving family and leave them to disgrace? Or was she also dreading the budding romance that was happening between her and Archer was only a vision, a fascinating bubble which would pop as soon as they actually get together? And that she would only stay as her true self when he is at a reachable distance yet unreachable? Like she once said to Archer, “We are only near each other if we stay far from each other” . That could be both a painful compromise and the simple truth.
These questions that I have raised may just be complete nonsense, but I do hope they can lift up a corner of their relationship.
The fun part through reading is that when the storyline precedes, we don’t really know if their relationship has been discovered by May or the other relatives at all. And we could feel our own doubts being raised as the perfect ambiguous descriptions are being made.
As for the very innocent “May Welland”, whom I always pictured with a face of Grace Kelly for no reason. She is described as “transparent with her thoughts and feelings” and has absolutely no self-consciousness according to Archer. Yet she managed to successfully force Ellen to give Archer up, by proclaiming her pregnancy. From that, we can certainly presume that Archer does not know his wife at all, and all the narratives he gave about her are extremely unreliable. She obviously makes observations and understands human emotions eminently. Considering that, May Welland is, even more, a mystery than Ellen Olenska.
Other thoughts that I had through reading this novel is that nowadays we are so used to freedom and self-independence that I almost feel shocked to see how different things used to be. How people used to live their lives, and what was considered as a “good life” back in those days. Looking back through the novel is like taking a glimpse into a parallel universe, it is thrilling to walk through pages and then suddenly realize that history moves forward constantly, and how much human minds and social conventions have utterly evolved in the past two centuries. Yet we have always been and always will be deeply affected by our time periods and social backgrounds, even with everything evolving around us. And in that sense, we would never be truly free.
According to Sargent, twenty-six-year-old Elizabeth Chanler had "the face of the Madonna and the eyes of a child." This portrait shows a beautiful, well-bred woman who has learned to be strong. When Elizabeth was still a girl, her mother died, leaving her to help care for seven younger brothers and sisters. Sargent painted her while she was in London for a brother's wedding, and the artist composed the portrait as if to suggest a turmoil of emotions in his sitter.
The top half of the portrait is ordered and still. Elizabeth's gaze is direct, her face centered between two paintings: a Madonna and Child and a figure of an old woman copied from Frans Hals. But the lower half is full of tension. Her arms, leg-of-mutton sleeves, and the pillows seem to wrestle with one another; only her clasped fingers and elbows keep everything under control. Perhaps the artist wished to show Elizabeth as a woman who, despite early hardships, was neither maiden nor matron. Sargent was often dismissed by his contemporaries as a "society portraitist," but his paintings always convey the human story behind the image.
Exhibition Label, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2006
John Singer Sargent painted twenty-six-year-old Elizabeth Chanler while she was in London for her brother's wedding. "Bessie" Chanler's determination and strength of character emerge forcefully in Sargent's remarkable portrait. The top half of the portrait is ordered and still. Chanler's gaze is direct, her face centered between two painting: a Madonna and Child and a figure of an old woman copied from Frans Hals. The lower half, however, is full of tension. Chanler's arms, leg-of-mutton sleeves, and the pillows seem to wrestle with one another; only her clasped fingers and elbows keep everything under control.
Smithsonian American Art Museum: Commemorative Guide. Nashville, TN: Beckon Books, 2015.