The Grand Affair Paul Fisher book review

Review: ‘The Grand Affair’ by Paul Fisher

In The Grand Affair: John Singer Sargent in His World, Fisher offers a unique rendering of intimacy. Driven by the desire to unveil both the man and his art, the narrative adjusts to the tantalizing ambiguity of Sargent’s life.

With his beginnings rooted in the Victorian era, Sargent’s world is one of telling omissions and riotous innuendos. In compliance with this long-forgotten code of silence, Fisher recognizes the provocation in a model’s pose, or the shade used to delineate a coveted body. In doing so, he encircles the empty space, in which affection can seek its true embodiment.

Where others might wilt before certain assertions, especially those concerning a strictly homoerotic narrative, Fisher emerges as a steadfast and attentive student of the implicit. Without oversimplifying the man or banalizing an established enigma, he sets out to retrace Sargent’s sooty silhouette.

Left largely untouched by history, it’s slowly filled in with all that has been omitted by the fear of the unmanageable, unnameable, and unsympathetic to restrictive beliefs. In fact, The Grand Affair draws much of its appeal from the ampleness of Fisher’s research.

Weaving a narrative framed by both a distant sympathy and a fierce curiosity, he calls on others’ deductions, memories, and open-ended sentiments. From the few biographers that have cropped up over the years to the preserved ideas of the times, Fisher crafts a full-bodied composition that carries a touch of his own wit and humor.

What’s interesting to note is that Sargent’s life is never the summation of the narrative. As a mere speck in a dust storm — as is the case with any individual — Sargent is directed by the reverberation of family values, perceived impropriety, social class, views on gender and sexuality, and so forth.

Fisher makes sure to acknowledge women’s limited scope for self-expression and self-governance during the Victorian era, paying particular heed to Sargent’s mother, Mary, whose willfulness helped carve her son’s path as an artist.

And so, by unfolding the topography of the times — with all the unforgiving realities and covert pleasures they entailed — Fisher manages to suffuse his work with the air of complexity that distinguishes Sargent’s work.

With special emphasis placed on nudity and its censorship, as well as the physical form as both the product and its endless source of inspiration, the author marks a journey into — and through — eroticism. 

This is largely due to Sargent’s portrayal of self-possessed women, not to mention the countless sketches of nude males uncovered after his death. Because of the vein of passion running through his art, the book’s eroticism exceeds the aesthetic fascination that is bonded with the art world. And yet, as potent as it proves, it’s forever trapped by the ambiguity of expression.

Here, Fisher’s vibrant storytelling envelops the contorted, censorious language of desire with an elegant flair. Grasping the art of self-disguise, he presents the contrast between today’s more liberal discernment of texts and the “mutilation of pronouns” they illustrate.

Fraught relationships, romantic friendships, and collaborations obscured by the machinations of portrait painting all point to a psychological appraisal of some heady power dynamics. And so, with the “complexity of human intimacy” at the forefront of the narrative, a tale of sexual and gender nonconformity, competitiveness, alienation, passion, and even obsession begins to unfold.

At several points, Fisher all but embodies the protagonist of Death in Venice, slinking after the object of his fixation with an infectious sort of disquiet. Coincidentally, both Venice and Thomas Mann feature in the text as Sargent orbits several stars, including Claude Monet, Oscar Wilde, Henry James, and more.

In navigating the mystery shrouding him, the text oscillates between the human element and the strictly aesthetic. In fact, the deeper we delve, the more frequently Sargent’s art is placed at the helm, allowing our gaze to fix itself on the peripheral figures gliding across the horizon. 

This is understandable, as history has retained little evidence of past events and affiliations, and what does remain appears heavily biased. Fisher, in his quest to trace the parameters of the black hole, welcomes every atom of data.

Incidentally, in doing so, he establishes a largely neutral viewpoint. And so, Sargent, a man shaped by the prejudices and facades of his era, is never portrayed as an exemplary figure.

Antisemitism, the demonization of same-sex pairings, and the physical objectification of African Americans uphold the trap of safety and respectability that houses Sargent, even when his personal views differ.

And yet, the author sets such sensibilities within the context of the times, acknowledging without justifying. From this duality emerges a lifelike depiction of the artist, fortifying the bond that forms quietly between the subject and the reader.

It’s so palpable, in fact, that experiencing the birth and death of John Singer Sargent leads to an unfathomable sense of loss. And it’s this feeling, more so than the objective acuity of Fisher’s work, that serves as the highest compliment for both the artist and the man responsible for reviving him.


Publication date: November 1, 2022 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Rating: 4

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