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.
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 each other?
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.You wrote about Élisabeth in your novel ABUNDANCE. Did you know you would make her a main character in a later novel?
SJN: I 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.
Were the queen and the commoner really good friends?
SJN: They were, but Élisabeth was an uncommon commoner by virtue of her immense gifts as a painter. After a painting session, they often sang duets together. When word 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 heartbroken.
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 factor.
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.
And 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.
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.
Why did you choose to reference James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?
SJN: I am a feminist, or 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 injustices.
THE FOUNTAIN OF ST. JAMES COURT; OR, PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS AN OLD WOMAN By Sena Jeter Naslund