My new novel, The Sculptress, begins in the early 1900s and ends in 1919. Its heroine, Emma Lewis Swan, spends much of the novel in the elegant city of Boston as World War I rages in Europe. Her innate artistic talent carries her through the Edwardian Era into a world coming to grips with the clash of the old and the new: the horse-drawn carriage versus the automobile; the birth of flight, from the Wright Brothers to the biplane.
It is a time of burgeoning technology in war and at home, the world also rocked by the advance of modernism in art and music. These are the times of the New York City “Armory Show” of 1913, which shocked the viewing public with paintings such as Marcel Duchamp’s cubist masterpiece, Nude Descending a Staircase. That same year, the music of composers like Gustav Mahler, a late-Romantic, was overshadowed by modernist compositions, including Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which is a staple of concert orchestras today but was considered by many critics of the time as an assault upon the ears.
However, formalist art had by no means been abandoned, and it is to that milieu that my heroine is drawn. She meets the great sculptor Daniel Chester French and the equally famous painter John Singer Sargent.
French, best known for his monumental statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., guides the young Emma in her journey. This was not a fancy of my fictive imagination. French-taught students, one of them being Edith Howland, who also studied with Saint-Gaudens. In French’s Chesterwood studio in western Massachusetts, Emma learns the basics of drawing and sculpture and meets her artistic nemesis head on—the ability to sculpt realistic faces. From there, she travels to the Boston School, where she meets sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt.
A bit later in the novel, before she leaves for France, Emma meets painter John Singer Sargent at a party hosted by Boston socialite Frances Livingston. It’s a grand affair with music, wine, and good food, but Sargent tells Emma to be wary of a war that has decimated Europe. That particular scene is a defining moment in her decision to leave the city and travel to Paris to make facial masks for injured soldiers.
Sargent, of course, was one of the most influential and successful painters of his time. Depending on the work, his painting retains all the tradition of formal portraiture or, as is evident in many of his landscapes, a flirtation with Impressionism. He produced large-scale works such as The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, a richly detailed and moving painting of four society girls captured and frozen in time by the artist. The work is by no means static, however, with its impressive use of color and form. His Portrait of Madame X portrayed a woman clad in an elegant black dress with plunging neckline and shoulder straps, showing the powdered white skin of its subject. Its Paris unveiling created a scandal and sent Sargent scurrying off to England to continue his work. The painter, who later rejected society portraiture, was friends with Isabella Stewart Gardner of Boston, who plays a minor role in the book.
As a writer of historical fiction, I love placing my characters with real people. As a final note, I will advise the reader that my heroine is modeled upon the eponymous character of Gustave Flaubert’s seminal work of realist fiction, Madame Bovary. That novel, published serially approximately a half-century before the setting of my book, also created a scandal, but has withstood the test of time to become a staple of classic literature.
About The Sculptress
From acclaimed author V. S. Alexander comes an immersive novel set during World War I, as a talented and ambitious artist finds an unusual calling.
May 1917: The elegant streets of Boston are thousands of miles away from the dangers of the Western Front. Yet even here, amid the clatter of horse-drawn carriages and automobiles, it is impossible to ignore the war raging across Europe. Emma Lewis Swan’s husband, Tom, has gone to France, eager to do his duty as a surgeon. Emma, a sculptress, has stayed behind, pursuing her art despite being dismissed by male critics. On the bustling sidewalk she spies a returned soldier. His brutally scarred face inspires first pity, and then something more—a determination to use her skill to make masks for disfigured soldiers.
Leaving Boston for France also means leaving behind Linton Bower, a fiery, gifted artist determined to win her. Emma’s union with Tom has been steady yet passionless, marred by guilt over a choice she made long ago. In Paris, she crafts intricate, lifelike masks to restore these wounded men to the world. But in the course of her new career, she will encounter one man who compels her to confront the secret she’s never revealed, not even to Tom. Only by casting off the façade she has worn for so long can she pursue a path through heartbreak and turmoil toward her own unexpected future.
V.S. Alexander is the acclaimed author of The Sculptress, The Traitor, The Irishman’s Daughter, The Magdalen Girls, and The Taster. An ardent student of history with a strong interest in music and the visual arts, some of his writing influences include Shirley Jackson, Oscar Wilde, Daphne du Maurier, or any work by the exquisite Brontë sisters. V. S. Alexander lives in Florida. Learn more at VSAlexander.com.