The Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman

by Sena Jeter Naslund

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach Tomlinson

The extended title of The Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman reflects its structure: a novel within a novel that depicts a day in the life of a present-day writer and the text of the novel she has just finished, narrated by the eighteenth-century French painter Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun. Chapters alternate between the writer's and the painter's stories.

Élizabeth Vigée-Le Brun became a highly successful portrait painter during the years before the French Revolution. She painted Marie Antoinette so many times that the public viewed as her as the queen's official portraitist, and she had to flee France during the Revolution, though she returned after Napoleon became emperor. Her paintings may appear conventional to us today, but some of them, such as a portrait of Marie Antoinette in a loose, flowing white gown, were considered scandalous innovations in her own time. Naslund suggests that she prefigured the Impressionists. That may be going too far, but her paintings do show a love of light and the interplay between light and shadow.

Naslund's writing has been compared to Virginia Woolf's, and Woolf and James Joyce are strong influences on this novel: both are directly mentioned as inspirations for the fictional novelist, Kathryn Callaghan. Her portrait of Vigée-Le Brun as an old woman reflecting on her memories is meant to contrast with Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, echoing Kathryn's preoccupations as a woman on the brink of seventy: a series of failed marriages, a new physical frailty, and concern for her son. Like Woolf, Naslund focuses primarily on her characters' interior lives, except for a thriller-like ending to Kathryn's story that picks up the pace but feels inconsistent with the novel's overall style. Lovers of historical novels may not be the only readers who prefer Vigée-Le Brun's more expansive story, with the rich descriptions of her many paintings. (2013, 431 pages)

More about The Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman at Powell's Books or

Novels referenced in The Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman:

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (1916), a coming-of-age novel about an Irish writer. More info

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925), about a day in the life of a woman planning to give a party in the evening. See review or more info at Powell's Books

Nonfiction about Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun:

Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun: The Odyssey of an Artist in an Age of Revolution by Gita May (2005). More info

The Sweetness of Life: A Biography of Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun by Angelica Goodden (1997). More info

Memoirs of Madame Vigée-Lebrun by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Lebrun (1835 and 1837). More info


The Art of Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, an extensive website with galleries of many of her paintings

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