Painting the Light by Sally Cabot Gunning
BY ELISABETH LENCKOS
“Your job is to paint the light, but you need the dark to put it on.”
Whereas most of us, when we are asked, will be able to name at least a few historical novels dealing with the lives and travails of male artists—whether real or imagined—we might struggle when trying to come up with an equally long list of books featuring women who aimed to fulfil their artistic ambition. In part, this has to do with the facts of history. Contrary to men, who were able to exercise their genius largely unhindered, to apprentice with masters and study at academies, to exhibit in galleries and earn a living with their work, women were denied access to the art world for almost two millennia. This only changed at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, which witnessed a flowering of female creativity, producing such painters as Mary Cassat, Berthe Morrisot, Helene Schjerfback, Annie Hopf, to name but a few. Paris remains famous for the role it played in inspiring and promoting female masters, but it was not the only city that nourished the talents of women. Aided by the Arts and Crafts Movement and its greater openness to gender diversity, Boston, Massachusetts rose to prominence as another metropolitan centre where women could make their mark. The result was a vibrant female art scene, presided over by such greats as Lilian Westcott Hale, Elizabeth Paxton, Gretchen Rogers, and Katharine Lane, which remained vibrant well into the 1940s.
Sally Cabot Gunning, whose comments indicate that in addition to being a bestselling novelist, she is also a painter, pays tribute to the famous Boston School—featured in the seminal exhibition, A Studio of Their Own, at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston in 2001—in her novel Painting the Light (William Morrow, 2021). As she explains, her teacher once told her that it was “[my] job to paint the light, but [I needed] the dark to put it on.” She continues: “this is perfectly thematic to the novel—Ida Pease has experienced much darkness in her life; now she needs to discover—and paint, literally and figuratively—the light. She has been displaced from Boston’s fine art community to a sheep farm on Martha’s Vineyard, and for a time that luminous vineyard light escapes her, both in her painting and in her life.”
As Sally Cabot Gunning intimates, Ida seems a lost soul when the reader encounters her at the start of Painting the Light. Once a proud member of the city’s artistic elite, whose portraits evoke comparisons with John Singer Sargent, she has allowed Ezra Pease, a handsome, charming suitor purporting to be a farmer, to propose to her and lure her away from Boston to remote Martha’s Vineyard and to install her on his homestead as his wife. Since Ezra spends most of his time away, engaged in secret, possibly criminal pursuits, and ultimately goes missing, Ida is forced to expend her energy on farming, rather than on her art. But eventually, her exposure to the special, illuminating quality of the atmosphere pervading the island works its magic and allows her to reinvent herself.
Sally Cabot Gunning elucidates just how difficult and challenging the change from portraitist to nature painter is for Ida: “I consulted with several artists on this particular point. One artist told me that a portraitist and a landscape artist would use completely different colour palettes… I am most comfortable painting landscape and am frozen with terror at the thought of doing a portrait; they seem so vastly different… And as technically perfect as so much of the art coming out of the Boston School was, it was also described as ‘absent either a laugh or a tear.’ I saw this in Ida’s portraits and still lifes [sic]. Such paintings…were a means to financial independence, which was important to Ida, but on Martha’s Vineyard her life was no longer still. She couldn’t find the honesty anymore in painting still lifes [sic] or the stilted, posed portraits she was attempting to create. But as she saw the world around her better, she began to master painting what she saw, and her art came to life, as did Ida.”
Fortunately, Ida is not alone in her artistic and personal struggles. Henry Barstow, a patron of the arts, who appreciates her talent so much he entrusts her with a commission near and dear to his heart, turns out to have a business connection to her husband, which necessitates his commuting to Martha’s Vineyard. A gentleman, he supports Ida in the legal and financial aspects of the running of the farm. He also purchases one of the first women’s bicycles for Ida and sympathizes with her on the issue of votes for women. He has just one flaw. He is married in an era where divorce is rarely granted. Therefore, Ida’s happiness hangs in the balance as she attempts to find her place on the island and in the world at large. As the relationship with Henry see-saws, Ida takes comfort in settling into her new home and in her ability to depict it with growing expertise.
When asked how important Martha’s Vineyard is to her novel, Sally Cabot Gunning has this to say: “Throughout my writing career, sense of place has been extremely important to me… I wanted a reluctant Ida to finally let the island under her skin, to succeed at something new, to accept that her worth was not solely defined by another person or a lost talent. She had to learn to connect to the place and the people… At the close of Painting the Light Ida has already successfully captured some of the new world she sees around her. I think as the island comes to mean more and more to Ida her art will reflect that, but I suspect as she begins to see the people around her as more than one-dimensional, she will deliver some portraits that contain both tears and laughter. And, of course, light.”
It feels very apt that Sally Cabot Gunning should mention the light in her concluding remarks, since Ida Pease remains in the memory as the luminous portrait of a rebel outcast in the tradition of Thomas Hardy’s Bathsheba Everdine in Far from the Madding Crowd and Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. She might also remind readers of the heroine of Sally Cabot Gunning’s own The Widow’s War, her first historical novel, a woman who deeply loves her husband, but must forge a life and world for herself after he is lost at sea. Unlike the protagonist of The Widow’s War, Ida is faced with the terrible paradox of being forced to grieve for a man she no longer loves and of pretending not to care for another man who has captured her heart. But although life looks bleak for a while, Ida’s growing intimacy with Martha’s Vineyard, and her growing ability to capture its light-filled essence help her come to terms with the loss of her innocence and trust. Ultimately, she harvests both personal fulfilment and artistic sustenance from her new existence. In the process, she discovers infinite possibilities for her creative growth, which is immensely important not only for her development as an artist, but as an independent and creative woman in the modern age.
About the contributor: Elisabeth Lenckos holds a PhD in Comparative Literature and has published books on Jane Austen and Barbara Pym. She serves as an Editor of the Palgrave-Macmillan Encyclopaedia of Romantic-Era Women Writers and on the Social Media Team for the Historical Novel Society. She is writing a novel about a family in 20th-century West Berlin.