“Group With Parasols” by John Singer Sargent
That mustachioed, opened-shirt guy with an umbrella? That’s my great-grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Wild; who’d preferred to be called Frank. (Did anyone ever joke, “Can you B. Frank, Frank?” I sure hope so.) The shyly smiling woman seated in front of him, who may be holding Frank’s boater, is my great-grandmother, Amy Prescott Faulkner Wild. Because I have seen other photographs of those people in those same clothes, I happen to know that they, like Sargent’s four snoozers, had actually been enjoying the out-of-doors the day this stiff, posed [studio?] photograph had been taken. Which means that Frank’s umbrella is actually a parasol! And, as his open shirt indicates, that day had been as indolent, as lovely, as deliciously warm as the snoring moment Sargent has so magnificently captured.
Sargent, who also sported a mustache, was born in 1856; Frank in 1853, Amy in 1858. Knowing a little about how their respective timelines overlapped, I’d walked through the current Museum of Fine Arts’ “Fashioned by Sargent” exhibit yesterday adding historical context to what I ogled. And the same questions.
I knew, for example, how The Gilded Age, a time of enormous wealth and equally enormous exploitation, had overlapped a fierce, post-Civil War battle: the suffrage movement. Who was to get the vote first? Women? Or African-American men? So when I looked into the eyes of one of Sargent’s exquisite women, for example, I could ask her the same questions I’d already asked Amy Prescott Faulkner Wild: Had you been a secret or even an open suffragette? Did you, like my great-grandmother, ever consider the workers who produced your wealth? For my great-grandmother, it would have been miners whose harsh, dangerous labor produced the coal her jaunty husband sold all over Greater Boston. Did she understand how those faceless miners made possible her mansion on Somerville’s Highland Avenue, her gorgeous summer home on Cape Cod’s Bass River, the family plot in Mount Auburn Cemetery?
I’d like to think my shy ancestor did. But, knowing a little something about White people, I doubt it.
Sargent’s “Group with Parasols” is displayed with several other white-featured paintings; towards the end of his career, the great portrait painter became fascinated with white. And therein lies a profound difference between his subjects and my family: My ancestors may have been wealthy—but they hadn’t been rich enough to wear white to a picnic!
Such a vast scale of difference! It echoes the difference between a millionaire and a billionaire.(The magnitude of difference between billion and million can be illustrated with this example of the time scale: A million seconds is 12 days. A billion seconds is 31 years.)