Sena Jeter Naslund’s THE FOUNTAIN OF ST. JAMES COURT; OR,
PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS AN OLD WOMAN (on sale today) is a
novel-within-a-novel. We meet Kathryn Callaghan as she completes her latest
novel and her masterpiece, Portrait of
the Artist as an Old Woman, which features famed artist Élisabeth Vigée-Le
Brun (1755-1842). In alternating chapters, we see life in Louisville with
Kathryn as she ponders her life at seventy, and the entire life of Élisabeth as
she advances from child prodigy to Marie Antoinette’s portrait artist to an
eighty-year-old looking back at her own life. Naslund presents these two
aging artists as living emotional parallels, especially as the two begin to consider
their grand, incredible lives and despite any failures and heartbreaks, are
proud to be the artists they have become.
did you decide to write your ninth book as a novel-inside-a-novel?
SJN: Two different
subjects—one about what it’s like to be a writer, and the other, what it’s
like to be a painter—kept calling to me. So I decided to write about both. The
story of the fictional writer is set in the here and now, while the painter is
an historical figure who lived long ago and far away. Yet they have faced many
of the same challenges. The double structure serves to show how the writer’s
art is influenced by the artist’s life. With
The Fountain of St. James Court; or,
Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman, I want to celebrate the interrelatedness.
How are your two main characters related to
SJN: My character
Kathryn, the fictional author in the novel, is attracted by Élisabeth Vigée-Le
Brun first of all because both she and Élisabeth are successful artists in a
culture where it’s difficult for women to be recognized for their creative gifts.
Élisabeth, who lived during the French Revolution and painted Marie-Antoinette,
the queen of France, faced almost insurmountable odds against her artistic
success. She barely escaped France with her life. Both Kathryn and Élisabeth
are passionate about their art. Both have come from loving families but have
lost their fathers at an early age. Both are devoted to their own children
(Kathryn to her son Humphrey; Élisabeth to her daughter Julie). And both draw
strength from beauty, whether it be found in nature or created by people.
What piqued Kathryn’s interest in Élisabeth?
SJN: Kathryn is an
experienced author and she had written an earlier novel that included Élisabeth
as a secondary character.
wrote about Élisabeth in your novel ABUNDANCE. Did you know you would make her
a main character in a later novel?
only knew that I was fascinated by her, and that I identified with her in a
strong way. So strongly in fact, that I stopped
my research on Antoinette to read everything I could get my hands on about Élisabeth.
And I liked her portrait paintings, Antoinette holding a pink
rose, for example. I could see why
Antoinette considered her the best of the many painters who had painted her.
But I liked Élisabeth’s self-portraits
even more. I use the self-portraits within the novel to show how Élisabeth
grows and changes; at a certain point she realizes who she is and claims her
identity as a painter when she finally paints herself holding her palette and
brushes, free and outdoors, with the blue sky as background.
the queen and the commoner really good friends?
were, but Élisabeth was an uncommon commoner by virtue of her immense gifts as
a painter. After
of the queen’s death by guillotine, in 1793, reached her, Élisabeth and her daughter
Julie were living at the court of Vienna, having fled France. Élisabeth was
It gives you an idea of Élisabeth’s
international reputation to know that she traveled on to the court of Catherine
the Great of Russia and was in the process of painting her, when the Empress died.
Friendship is an important element in a
number of your novels, isn’t it?
SJN: I feel not enough
has been written about the importance of friendship. In Fountain/Portrait, Kathryn the writer is very happy that her old
friend, also a writer, Leslie has recently moved into a home across from her on
St. James Court; in times of distress in the past, Kathryn has turned to her
married friends, who live close by on Belgravia, Daniel and Daisy. During the
day after completing her novel, Kathryn remembers her college friends, one of
whom committed suicide and one of whom died in an accident. She’s friends with
her upstairs tenant, Janie, and Janie’s guide dog, Tide. Friends are definitely
a sustaining force in Kathryn’s life, and her afternoon conversation with
Leslie is a high point of her day. In Élisabeth’s career as a painter, having
had a girlfriend who studied painting with her at the Louvre was an important
and how much is fictionalized?
SJN: When she was an
old woman, Élisabeth dictated a memoir titled Souvenirs to her nephew. She had been in the public’s eye, and
wanted the public to know about her early childhood, her life as a celebrated
painter both before and after the French Revolution, her relationship to her
daughter, and her travels all over Europe and to Russia and to England. With meticulous
adherence to the truth as she presented it in Souvenirs, I include all this in Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman.
I also researched her life and am indebted
to scholarly biographies including Gita May’s Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun: The Odyssey of an Artist in an Age of
Revolution and Mary D. Sheriff’s The
Exceptional Woman: Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, as well as Olivier Bernier’s The Eighteenth-Century Woman.
Élisabeth’s uncertainty about whether to
marry M. Le Brun is recorded in her memoir, as well as his subsequent gambling
and womanizing. However, the scene of Élisabeth’s wedding night comes entirely
from my imagination.
are there aspects of Kathryn’s story that are autobiographical?
SJN: I lost my father
when I was fifteen, but I believe Kathryn was younger than that. I felt younger than that, so in a way I
was telling the truth to fictionalize that correspondence. The main connection
between Kathryn and me is that we’re both writers who live in an historic part
of Louisville, Kentucky, in Old Louisville, on St. James Court. And there really
is a marvelous public fountain here featuring a bronze Venus, rising from the sea
and standing on a clam shell, with Neptune’s boys riding dolphins and blowing
jets of water up around her. And the fountain is wonderfully and beautifully
illumined at night.
I love my home in Old Louisville, and I
wanted to honor it by making it a fictive place.
The friend is partly sheer
imagination—really a wish, as I’d like to have such a friend close at hand—and
partly a composite of all the women friends who have encouraged my writing over
the years and supported me personally. She’s named Leslie in honor of my
high-school English teacher in Birmingham, now deceased, Leslie Moss Ainsworth,
who greatly encouraged my reading and my imaginative writing.
What does the fountain mean to you?
SJN: It’s a
celebration of and embodiment of the beautiful. The rushing waters of the
fountain remind us of the vital relationship between life and art. A portrait
makes life stand still; a fountain makes art move.
did you choose to reference James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?
more accurately, a humanist—one who counts and values all types of humans as
equal beings. Joyce’s novel naturally
pictures the artist as a rebellious, young, Irish man, as he himself once was.
His book has provided a kind of cultural icon, echoed throughout the
twentieth-century as the icon of an
artist. I feel there should be an alternate iconic figure. I’m insisting that
women are artists, and also that an alternate icon should include the old as
well as the young. My two old women are people of accomplishment, not merely of
ambition. And they love their homes and their homeland and want to celebrate
how it has nurtured them as well as critique it for its oppressiveness and
ARTIST AS AN OLD WOMAN By Sena Jeter