For half her life, Margarett Sargent struggled against the strictures and demands of her Boston Brahmin upbringing. Then for the other half, she succumbed to it – and to madness and alcoholism.
A fourth cousin of another painter, John Singer Sargent, she suddenly abandoned her promising art career at the age of 44. Instead, she turned her passionate attention to gardening. Well, also to men. And to women.
“For twenty years, I worked,” she told her granddaughter. “And then I devoted myself to horticulture.”
She was born on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston’s Back Bay in on Aug. 31, 1892 to Francis Sargent and Jane Welles Hunnewell. Her maternal grandfather, Horatio Hollis Hunnewell, was a railroad baron who spent much of his spare time importing and cultivating rhododendrons. Margarett took more pride in her paternal ancestors, who she viewed as more distinguished. The first Sargent had arrived in Massachusetts in 1689.
Margarett Sargent grew into an elegant beauty, nearly six feet tall. She had luxurious black hair, skin like marble and startling light blue eyes. And she had wit. One admirer later wrote, “Her words were swift as swallows in a gale…she was a blue brook broken to a thousand … bubbles by every conversational stone or water-soaked log of stupidity.”
She got kicked out of private school at the age of 16, so her family sent her to Miss Porter’s in Farmington, Conn. After boarding school she agreed to marry Eddie Morgan, a handsome, brilliant, rich friend of her brother’s.
Morgan was devoted to her, but also to alcohol and horses. She broke off the engagement because, she said, she wanted to go to Italy to sculpt.
Margarett Sargent never forgot Eddie Morgan, though.
She spent a year studying art in Florence, something her family wished she hadn’t done.
When she returned to Boston in 1914, she studied with a rising young sculptress named Bashka Paeff. Margarett Sargent had talent and she worked hard at her art. In 1916, she began to reap the rewards, with two works exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago. A year later, she showed two more at the National Academy of Design.
In 1917, she went to study with Gutzon Borglum in Connecticut. There she met and befriended George Luks – a barroom brawling member of the Ashcan School of art. He later painted her portrait from memory, and called it The White Blackbird – a title her granddaughter would use in a biography of her.
In 1919 she moved to New York, where she took an apartment with a friend – and probably lover – named Marjorie Davenport. She pursued avant-garde painting and sculpture and hung out with Harpo Marx and her downstairs neighbor, Fanny Brice.
Her Bohemian revel was short lived, however. The next year she married Quincy Adams Shaw McKean, another Brahmin from an old New England family. He succeeded at dog breeding and polo playing, but business, not so much. Fortunately for him, his mother gave him an allowance to help pay for their 13 servants.
While attending Harvard Law School, Shaw McKean bought a First Period saltbox house in Beverly, Mass., with his friends Bayard Warren and Cole Porter.
The house, built in 1630 had first belonged to the King’s tax collector. Later, General Burgoyne appropriated it during the American Revolution.
McKean eventually bought out his two friends. He and Margarett expanded the house and property into a 54-acre estate and Yankee palace, which included a large studio for her. Shaw encouraged her art, and they had four children in three years.
But her family and friends knew what McKean also probably knew: He felt much more strongly about Margarett Sargent than Margarett Sargent felt about him. And he didn’t help matters by raping her on her wedding night, at least according to her recollection.
Both had extramarital affairs.
The Many Loves of Margarett Sargent McKean
“Margarett was a highly sexed woman,” said one of her friends.
She would arrive in New York, check into a hotel and telephone her old beau Eddie Morgan at the New York Stock Exchange.
“Eddie, I’m here,” she’d say, and he’d rush from the stock exchange floor, ready for red-hot sex.
She was admired, and probably not from afar by the newly married Archibald MacLeish. And the ‘wonderfully handsome’ Isabel Pell, an heiress who joined the French Resistance during World War II. And the novelist Jane Bowles.
As a virginal recent Harvard graduate, John Walker was staying at Pride’s Crossing one night when Margarett, twice his age, came into his bedroom in a negligee. She seduced him, not unwillingly. He went on to serve as director of the National Gallery of Art.
All the while Margarett Sargent McKean had been collecting modern art and creating it herself. She had a one-woman show in 1926 at the prestigious Krashaar Gallery in New York. She had her last exhibit in 1932 in Boston at the Doll and Richards Gallery.
By the 1930s, her marriage had descended into bickering and shouting. Margarett crawled into the bottle. In 1936, she stopped painting. Margarett instead devoted herself to gardening, as had her Grandfather Hunnewell.
In 1944, she got committed to a sanitarium for the first time. Her husband left her in 1947 for a champion tennis player, Katherine Winthrop.
Margarett Sargent McKean went in and out of sanitariums for the rest of her life, even taking electroshock therapy.
Her minders decided she couldn’t live unsupervised, and so she went to live in a Commonwealth Avenue apartment with a nurse.
She died in a nursing home in 1978. Sixteen years later, a New York gallery held a retrospective of her work.
Her granddaughter Honor Moore asked her late in life why she had abandoned her art.
“It just got too intense,” she told her granddaughter.
With thanks to The White Blackbird: A Life of the Painter Margarett Sargent by Her Granddaughter.
Images: Samuel Corning house, By Magicpiano – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20996685. This story was updated in 2021.