Born in 1892 with a silver spoon in her mouth, she was so well-known that, as a child living in the patrician splendor of turn-of-the-century Boston, the post office once delivered a letter to her family's Back Bay mansion addressed simply "Margarett Sargent, Boston." Nearly 20 years after her death in 1978, however, only a few people recognize her name, while more confuse her with her illustrious fourth cousin, John Singer Sargent, the high-society portraitist whose lush paintings of the landed gentry formed the very standard against which this avant-garde painter and sculptor was rebelling.
In "The White Blackbird," her granddaughter, Honor Moore, attempts to rehabilitate Sargent's reputation and clarify the mystery that lies at the heart of her troubled career: Why in 1936, at the height of her reputation, did this renegade socialite, as flamboyant as another Bostonian enfant terrible, Isabella Stewart Gardner, stop dead in her tracks, abandon painting, fend off the importunate gallery directors eager to exhibit her work and turn instead to the relaxing pastime of horticulture, pottering around the tulip beds and the topiary gardens of her immense North Shore estate?
Rejecting the conservative expectations of her Boston Brahmin family, Sargent studied with some of America's most famous artists, including Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mt. Rushmore, and George Luks, an iconoclastic painter who, in conjunction with a band of artistic revolutionaries known as "the Eight," broke the academic stranglehold of New York's National Academy of Design on American art. Sargent was soon enlisted in the modernist cause as both a working artist and an unfailingly astute collector who--buying art by such luminaries as Picasso, Gauguin, Lachaise, and Calder--became one of the major conduits through which Americans were introduced to the work of the European avant-garde. During the 1920s she played an instrumental role in turning the Boston Art Club into a vibrant outpost of modernism. This bastion of experimental work regularly held its own Salon des Refuses in the middle of a culturally reactionary town that many progressive critics dismissed as a provincial backwater all but closed to the influences of the painters with whom Sargent often exhibited: Matisse, Rouault, Modigliani, Picasso and Braque.