Amazing Grace

Grace Kelly was the girl who got the fairy tale: an actress who married a prince and lived a charmed life. Decades after her death, we’re still captivated by her style: a major new exhibition (Grace Kelly: Style Icon) just opened at the V&A Museum in London. There’s also a new book (A Touch of Grace: How To Be A Princess, the Grace Kelly Way), by Cindy de la Hoz, who takes readers through the steps to princess poise. Here’s a honed-down hit-list ladies:

1. Follow your dreams: Grace pursued a career in the arts, in spite of disapproving parents.

2. Be prepared to change: Grace ditched her Philly accent to develop her perfect diction.

3. Stand on your own two feet, and get recognition for your achievements.

4. Be realistic: Grace was honest about the transient nature of fame.

5. Don’t be a diva: one of Grace’s wardrobe women said “she’s undemanding.”

6. Find a signature look and stick to it: she had an instinct for what looked good on her.

7. Don’t try too hard: a sophisticated yet unpretentious style works best.

8. Be a smart shopper: Grace was famously frugal and wore clothes for years.

9. Cherish friendships: she kept up correspondence with those she cared about.

10. Make him do the running: she said ‘those who love me, follow me.’

11. Know how to choose the right man for you: “I have never wanted to marry a man who would have allowed himself to become Mr Kelly.”

12. Don’t be afraid to love: Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco had spent fewer than 24 hours in each other’s company before deciding to marry. She said “it seemed right and it felt right, and that was the way I wanted it.”

For me at the NGA, it’s only Sargent’s society portraits that perfectly exude the sense of glamour, sophistication and finesse that we still find so alluring in Grace Kelly. John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925) was one of the most sought-after and financially successful artists of his era and made his most indelible marks as a painter of portraits. An American who lived in Europe (he was born in Florence) he was much in demand on both sides of the Atlantic.

I’m doing something a little different today (please let me know whether you like it or not), and bringing you a few different pictures by the artist. Collectively, they convey Sargent’s unique ability to capture the essence of his sitters and their lifestyles.

Miss Beatrice Townsend (1882):

Miss Grace Woodhouse (1890):

Mary Crowninshield Endicott Chamberlain (1902):

Miss Mathilde Townsend (1907):

In each case the loosely bluffed-in background allows full-on focus on the sitter. There’s an Impressionistic quality to Sargent’s brush (he was a supporter of the avant-garde and admired Monet, Manet and other contemporaries), that lends freshness and vitality to the subjects. See the opulent, dancing surface of Mathilde Townsend’s shawl or the slicked, glossy coat of Beatrice Townsend’s pup. The pale, pastel tones of the shimmering dresses (in all but one of our pictures) allows the luminous skin tones to shine.

Just sometimes, Sargent was criticized for superficial characterization, but for me, based on these, he was capable of projecting real personality and punch. See particularly Beatrice Townsend, whose youthful vim and vigor come across in her confident stance and steady gaze. Sargent was popular among women sitters, since he made them look modern and self-possessed at a time when they were asserting their independence. Do you think we could say that style and strength are two of the most enduring aspirational female attributes?