Mates “I was worried that no one would see me; that they would only see a Wife”: On a John Singer Sargent Painting and Marrying Young
I see two people who are entwined, but never completely, and not at the expense of their separate selves.
Every time I visit the Met, I reserve a few minutes at the end of the day for the museum’s John Singer Sargent collection, tucked away in a small salon in the middle of the American Wing. His paintings soothe me with their precision and wit, invariably giving me the final boost of energy I need to make it back through the crowded coat check and out onto the subway. Most people in the Sargent room gravitate toward “Madame X,” whose dress strap was originally painted slipping down her shoulder with an erotic insouciance, until public outcry forced Sargent to revise the work and tidy her up. There’s something exciting about a painting with an understory.
But personally, I prefer Sargent’s “Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes.” I can’t remember exactly when I first encountered the painting, but it must have been on one of my earliest visits to New York. Maybe it was the trip I took in March the year that my first novel was published, when everything felt magical and it snowed while I sat in the Met’s cafeteria drinking overpriced Earl Grey. Or maybe it was earlier still, when I was a freshman in college and walked all the way to the museum from the West Village, even though the woman I asked for directions frowned and told me not to. (Knowing how bad I am with New York geography, I just tried to verify that this walk is possible, and indeed the one and a half hours Google Maps estimates sounds right, given how tired I was at the end of the day.) Regardless, I know that I was immediately struck by Mrs. Phelps Stokes, from the irrepressibly jaunty way her hand sits cocked on her hip to her expression of endless, poorly suppressed amusement. She made me smile, but the painting’s allure was bigger than that for me.
A placard by the painting in the Met explains that it was commissioned as a wedding present for the “Mrs.” of the title, who was born Edith Minturn and married Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes in 1895. Evidently, it was meant to be a picture of Edith “in sporty daywear” with a Great Dane accompanying—but at the last moment, the Great Dane dropped out, and her husband offered to fill the dog’s role for the sitting. (I love imagining a dog so busy he has a booking agent, and I love even more picturing the face of a person who has just received that dog’s regrets.)
In the painting, Mr. Phelps Stokes feels like a bit of an afterthought, though I don’t mean that as an insult to either him or to Sargent—it’s just that, despite being named in the title, he doesn’t give the impression of being the picture’s true subject, so much as an illustration of that subject. Edith stands in the foreground, effervescent and indeed quite sporty, a person who looks like she might go punting or head off to play tennis once she leaves the frame; meanwhile, Isaac is layered in shadow behind her, arms crossed and brow lightly furrowed. It’s in the color scheme as well: The two appear to have been dressed to match, but Isaac’s white suit blends into the cream-gray background, whereas Edith’s skirt is crisp as snow. Although there aren’t many accouterments in the painting, Edith’s personality leaks out of every one of them: her hat; her shoe, peeking out from beneath her skirt; the puff of her sleeves. And, of course, her husband.
When I got married, I was twenty-five and living in Chicago, where my now-husband Dave and I had moved two years before so he could pursue a PhD at Northwestern. The move, which took us away from a pretty garden apartment in Northern California, had been a difficult decision for me—not because I had doubts about our relationship, but because I’d been raised to see my primary responsibility as being to myself. You can’t plan for other people, is what I mean: They’re fickle and they change their minds, so you have to look out for your own interests. I learned this from my mom, and also from watching the world with the eyes of an impassioned young feminist. Upending my whole life for a boyfriend at twenty-three had been a big leap of faith.
My parents divorced when I was fourteen, and though their split didn’t turn my world upside down at the time, it definitely colored my view of holy matrimony. The concept seemed old-fashioned to me: quaint, even, like a piece of clothing designed to hold in a part of the body that no longer existed. A corset for a vestigial tail. A brassiere for your sense of women as property. I figured I’d date widely in my youth, traveling and having adventures.
But I met Dave in college—before any of that globe-trotting could happen—and, annoyingly, I really loved him. He supported me in my goals as a writer, and understood my anxieties about everything from money to change to killing spiders. (Though that last one might be more of a phobia, which he would be quick to point out, since we are both pedants.) He was a top-notch companion for picking apart movies we’d just seen and sarcastically putting them back together again in a better form. He cooked as much as I did. He cleaned better than I did. And it just so happened that he’d been raised in a very different family than mine, one held together not only by happily married parents but also by Mormonism—he’d left the church before we met, but the Mormon emphasis on family life had clearly seeped into his bones.
And so, when he proposed to me one night a few weeks before Christmas, I accepted, even though I hadn’t imagined getting married until much later in my life, if at all. Marriage was important to him, and he was important to me: It was that simple. And if that sounds like the setup for a story about a mistake, I think I’m still a little surprised that it wasn’t. If anything, it was a happy accident: that someone with my particular fears could meet the right person to soothe them.
Maybe I was confident in Dave’s proposal because our move to Chicago had turned out so well. We were happy there: It wasn’t expensive, and there was always a lot to do. My job was good, and for the first time in ages I went to the dentist and was declared cavity-free. And, although Dave left his PhD program after the first year, we stayed close with a number of friends from his cohort, frequently taking snowy bus rides together to sit in coffee shops and read or write. They were the kind of friends who would invite you in and give you dinner if you showed up on their porch unannounced; everyone was always making up nicknames for each other, smoking cigarettes together, and drinking wine on the wooden rear stairs that are de rigueur on Chicago walkups. Starting in June or July we’d take the train a few stops to a restaurant with a perfect summer patio, by which I mean a patio where they served excellent French fries and cheap sangria. A lot of times, Dave went home early, because that’s his style; sometimes I didn’t go on the study dates, because at that point I wasn’t in school. But we were all together, in one permutation or another, far more than we were apart.
I mention this to explain that, by the time we got engaged, our friends knew us very well both as individuals and as a couple, and their excitement was natural, a lot like our own. I showed off my engagement ring to everyone at a late-night bowling alley; later, one of those friends threw our wedding party in their backyard. Even as a bride, and then a wife—two roles I’d never really imagined for myself—I still felt like the important people in my universe saw me for who I was.
the author and her husband on their wedding day
But like so much in this world, relationships are cyclical. About a month after our wedding, it was my turn to upend our lives for the sake of higher education. With the help of our friends, we rented a truck and packed up our spacious two-bedroom apartment, promising to send emails and texts, to keep in touch. We drove across the country to Arizona so I could start an MFA in fiction, and suddenly everything was new. The local fauna had changed from squirrels and pigeons to lizards and mourning doves, and in the summer, I couldn’t ride my bike without feeling like the sun was peeling the skin off of my bones.
The bigger change was, of course, that we didn’t know anyone—certainly no one who’d met us before we got married—which meant I faced a seemingly endless string of introductions in which I had to refer to my “husband” without any sort of knowing smile about how weird it was to have a husband at all. There was no one in Arizona who’d known Dave as my boyfriend, no one whose heart had swelled with joy upon hearing that we’d decided to stay together forever, or who laughed when I called myself a wife. Just a line of polite and sweaty people asking to see pictures of my dress. In Chicago, our wedding had altered our friends’ understanding of us in a special and celebratory way: It made us look like artists or explorers, willing to perform the absurd concept of eternity together just to see if it could be done. But in Phoenix, that same wedding was just a fact of life. A fact that furnished us with prefab cultural roles that we neither wanted nor needed—or at least, that’s how it felt to me.
We did make friends. It’s hard not to, in the social pressure-cooker of a graduate program, and my fellow writers were just as witty, adventurous, and caring as our friends in Chicago had been. But I still wasn’t sure where I fit in with them. My single friends wanted to bond over bad Tinder dates, to discuss which of the poets would be good in bed; some of the older writers were married, but their relationships seemed to come from a different time and place. I had never dated online. But I had only been married one month. So who was I? Increasingly, even I wasn’t sure.
We all went to bars on the weekend, or weeknights after evening workshops. I remember overcompensating one night when I felt like everyone was flirting and free, by declaring—in response to an accusation that no one had made—that unlike them, I would be going home to guaranteed sex. (In fact, I almost certainly went home and fell immediately asleep, but it felt important to tell everyone that I was also young and vital; that I hadn’t aged out of their affection.) Sometimes I felt like a kind of reverse spinster: an object of pity or curiosity by virtue of being apart from the group.
I was worried that no one would see me; that they would only see a Wife. That I couldn’t be original or artistic or sublime if I was already neatly categorized as a Married Person. This was all in my head, of course—my friend Lyndsey later told me that she was actually excited to have married friends, and that it made her feel mature—but that was little comfort given that I live in my head 100 percent of the time.
In art, women are often called upon to project something that a man wants to see, whether he’s the artist who took her for his muse, or the audience a painting was made for. In a marriage, too, women are meant to be subsumed to male needs—maybe not in the contemporary cultural consciousness, but historically, and even legally. In my first year of marriage, this idea leaked into my thinking—not so much (thank god) in how I viewed my husband, but in how I imagined the rest of the world viewed to me. As a tint in his color scheme, a notch on his belt. Never mind that we’d just moved across the country for my career, or that most of our new friends were also my professional colleagues; never mind that my husband had plenty of insecurities about the kind of work he was doing and what it meant: Paranoia knows no logic. Or perhaps it does, but that logic is a closed system, unable to accept new or contradictory information without shattering apart.
From the title of Sargent’s “Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes,” you might get the idea that Edith—or, that is, Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes—will be subject to these same woes. Both sets, in fact: in art, as in life. But one look at the picture tells you that Edith exists, in this work, for herself. She is all personality and rakish charm. And better yet, her husband exists for her too: as a happy accessory, and no less a man for it. Who knows what their marriage was like in reality—living at the end of the nineteenth century, I’m sure Edith tolerated all kinds of expectations that my modern, feminist self would balk at. (Just for one thing, her “sporty outfit” includes an enormous, cumbersome skirt.) But if this is a portrait of her marriage, it feels like there’s a good chance it was a happy one, as both figures in the picture and in the story behind it convey a willingness to be playful with each other, and with their most serious commitments. Why else would Isaac stand in for a dog?
Playfulness is, in fact, what eventually helped me calm down and gain perspective on my own situation—and remember why I agreed to marry Dave in the first place. About a year into my graduate program, some Arizona friends asked us how we’d decided that I’d keep my name when we got married, and I gasped out loud, suddenly remembering a story I’d buried beneath all my coursework and angst. The decision itself had been simple: I made clear that dropping “Celt” was non-negotiable the second we got engaged. But as we were waiting in line to file our paperwork at the courthouse, we were talking idly about our names, and Dave offered to take mine—but my whole name, so he’d be “Mr. Adrienne Celt, Dave to friends.” It was an unusual idea, and my new friends laughed as I told them about it, but sometimes I still wish I’d taken him up on the offer. Because it’s funny, and because of what it points out about our marriage customs: Who ever decided that, in uniting, we must overwrite one another, or that we could?
Most marriages, I think, begin as existential challenges, because they change how we’re categorized in society and in our own daily rituals. We have to wrap our heads around a new set of rights and responsibilities, a new checkbox on the forms that govern our place in the world. Of course you’re not obligated to take society so seriously, but you can’t stop it from taking you: The questions and expectations that guide our thinking about who to love, how to mate, who we are in relation to one another are so ingrained that even if you’re ignoring them, they’re affecting you. Living in conscious contradiction to something is not the same as being free of it.
But: Can you slide between the lines? Can you accept that your marriage has a place in history, and still make it your own from day to day? After having been married for almost nine years, I think so. God, I certainly hope so. My life isn’t perfect, but it’s mine. Our life isn’t always absolutely ideal, but it’s ours.
When I return to the portrait of Edith and Isaac Phelps Stokes, it isn’t only as an artistic admirer: Without meaning to, I’ve adopted them as a kind of spiritual kin. Friends, you might say, if that wasn’t a ridiculous thing to claim of paint on canvas. I’m sure my marriage is very different from Edith’s, not least because the realities we had to adjust to as newlyweds were different: Hers probably involved taking up a mantle she’d always expected to bear, whereas mine had more to do with accepting that my identity and choices were more malleable than I’d previously assumed. But nonetheless, Edith and Isaac seem to reflect the relationship I want to have, the person that I want to be. When I look at them together, I see two people who are entwined, but never completely, and not at the expense of their separate selves. Which is how I think of my own marriage, now: as a project undertaken by two willing individuals, a project that lives alongside our other work. A limning and not a limit to our lives.