Part Nine in a series celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Edith Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country.
During her New York years, Undine Spragg—now Mrs. Ralph Marvell—hires Claud Walsingham Popple to paint her portrait. In society’s view, it’s one of Popple’s “merits that he always subordinated art to elegance, in life as well as in his portraits. The ‘messy’ element of production was no more visible in his expensively screened and tapestried studio than its results were perceptible in his painting; and it was often said, in praise of his work, that he was the only artist who kept his studio tidy enough for a lady to sit to him in a new dress” (Chapter 14).
When several guests are invited to tea to see the portrait for the first time, they’re greeted by the “full-length portrait of Mrs. Ralph Marvell, who, from her lofty easel and her heavily garlanded frame, faced the doorway with the air of having been invited to ‘receive’ for Mr. Popple.” As Emily J. Orlando writes in Edith Wharton in Context, “Undine Spragg typifies the women of Wharton’s later fiction who manage to draw pleasure and power from a culture of display by overseeing their own representation and making
compromises that ensure their survival.” Suggesting that Popple is “a veiled John Singer Sargent,” Orlando says “Wharton may have had in mind Sargent’s ‘Mrs. Ralph Curtis’ when she unveiled Undine’s full-length portrait.” Both Undine and Lisa Colt Curtis have “rosy gold” hair and “shimmering” dresses. Orlando writes that “Both portraits suggest the subject’s self-possession as well as her confidence in the power her beauty might purchase.”
Undine is beginning to feel that she made a mistake in marrying into the Marvell family—“that she had given herself to the exclusive and the dowdy when the future belonged to the showy and the promiscuous; that she was in the case of those who have cast in their lot with a fallen cause, or—to use an analogy more within her range—who have hired an opera box on the wrong night.”
But when the portrait is revealed, “the success of the picture obscured all other impressions. She saw herself throning in a central panel at the spring exhibition, with the crowd pushing about the picture, repeating her name; and she decided to stop on the way home and telephone her press-agent to do a paragraph about Popple’s tea.” Seeing the portrait of herself enhances her sense of her own beauty and importance, and gives her further confidence about the successes she’ll enjoy in the future.
For further reading:
“Visual Arts,” by Emily J. Orlando, in Edith Wharton in Context, ed. Laura Rattray (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
My other posts on The Custom of the Country:
That moment when you’re revising obsessively and it feels like “an attack of scrupulosis”…: On revising The Custom of the Country
Happy 100th Anniversary to Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country! The first installment of the novel was published in Scribner’s Magazine in January 1913.
Writing with “dogged obstinacy”: In the summer of 1911, Edith Wharton was “digging away” at her “Big Novel,” The Custom of the Country, wondering if “dogged obstinacy” could “replace freedom & inspiration.”
“The books were too valuable to be taken down”: On Undine Spragg’s treatment of her son Paul in the last chapter of The Custom of the Country, and Paul’s experience of nightmarish library in which the books can never be read, and no one ever writes.
French Fact and American Fiction: Wharton’s use of place names in The Custom of the Country.