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Davida: Model and Mistress of Augustus Saint-Gaudens

Davida: Model and Mistress of Augustus Saint-Gaudens
Augustus Saint-Gaudens was the premier American sculptor from 1880-1920. Though married he fell in love with his model, Davida Johnson Clark and their love affair lasted more than twenty-five years. This fictionalized account will introduce the reader to some of the great art, historical facts, and the moral values of that era.

The author is the great-granddaughter from this union and her purpose in writing the book is to bring recognition to Davida and remove any negative stigma to her. Her grandfather suffered his whole life from being labeled a bastard while growing up and this story is intended to remove that label.

How can a love affair last for such a long period of time? What affect did it have on his career? How did his wife and son cope with their being a second family?
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I was drawn to this book, expecting the best of fictional scandals given the title. The story begins with a young Albertina Hultgren traversing the seas from Sweden to America with her mother, aunt, and uncle. Immediately the themes of “family is a blessing” and “love trumps all” are apparent. Albertina mourns the recent loss of her father, a death that catapulted her and her family into the foreign environment of New Jersey. Albertina’s first few years as a Swedish immigrant are composed of nostalgia for her homeland and the magical tales that were told to her by her father. However, the introduction to the famous married sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens serves as the catalyst for a completely new and exciting, yet untraditional life as the model Davida Johnson Clark.

Although the book is not written as an epistolary, the story reads as an intimate look into the heart and mind of Karen Ingalls’ protagonist. As I read I could sense her developing maturity, yet the innocence that characterized her from the beginning was never lost. What made this story enjoyable was the fact that I felt a connection to Davida Johnson Clark. She was a woman led by love, not just for Augustus Saint-Gaudens, but also by the love for her family. Her patience was immeasurable, her soul sincere, and her dedication to the passionate Augustus remarkable.

As a novel categorized as historical fiction, I did feel like there could have been more context to supply the story with authenticity. There were plenty of facts about the art exhibitions and Augustus Gaudens’ artistic process; however, there was no real cultural details that illustrated how alarming a relationship of this nature was at the time. I would like to have been given the tools with which to build a more vivid picture of Ingalls’ world in my head, because I truly loved the characters that lived in it.

I loved her characters so much that I cried as I empathized with their tragedies. Moreover, I had come to rely on the company of the innkeeper Maria and the New York neighbor Helen much like Davida herself. The kinship between the women in the book comforted me, and the course of events these women went through left me teary-eyed. While I wish that the book ended happily, the reality of the lives of Davida Johnson Clark and Augustus Saint-Gaudens was bittersweet and riddled with complications. What began as an affair of the body inevitably ended as an affair of the heart.

This fascinating non-fiction account of the lifelong love affair between artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens and his young model Davida Johnson Clark is beautifully told by Davida’s great-granddaughter Karen Ingalls in this book. While the characters were real people most of the story is fiction based on what little is known of their relationship. Ingalls notes in her preface that she performed extensive research when writing this beautifully written story.

Beginning with the arrival of Swedish Albertina Hultgren and her mother in the United States in 1876, Ingalls sets the tone for the life of immigrants in the late nineteenth century. Leaving behind a simple farm life in Sweden after the accidental death of her father, Albertina brings the myths and traditions of her homeland with her to a new land. As Albertina and her mother Alma are greeted by Alma’s sister Ingrid and Ingrid’s husband Nels, the excitement and concerns of the new arrivals is described in vivid terms. It is easy to imagine the crowds of immigrants arriving in a new land, the many languages being spoken, and the confusion of a young girl thrust into the situation.

Although the family lived in New Jersey, Aunt Ingrid was the housekeeper for “an up-and-coming sculptor in New York City by the name of Augustus Saint Gaudens”. Albertina’s mother finds work as a cook at a local Hoboken inn and the young girl attends school in the town. Ingalls delicately handles the emerging feelings of the teenaged Albertina through conversations with an older woman she befriends. While the girl is becoming a woman she still believes in the elves and gnomes of her childhood in Sweden. This combination of innocence and sensuality is the core of Albertina’s personality throughout the book.

It is at a Christmas party in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Augustus Saint-Gaudens that the die is cast beginning the lifelong love affair between the married sculptor and the young girl who would become his model. Although Albertina was nineteen years old her mother still tried to control her out of concern for the girl’s innocence and naiveté.

Despite mother Alma’s early objections, Albertina does in fact become the model for many of Saint-Gaudens most famous sculptures. Eventually Albertina becomes the artist’s mistress and in time he renames her Davida Johnson Clark feeling the name suited her better. The story of the ensuing years and the great love between the two is sprinkled with characters both famous and unknown, descriptions of cities around the world, and images of the hard work of artist and model in the creation of sculptures.

This is a lovely account of life and illicit love between an older married man and a young immigrant girl in late nineteenth century America. While the conversations and actual daily events are the imaginings of the author, it is easy to believe they could have occurred as written. Touching and often painful Ingalls paints a picture of an artist torn between his two families and the women who loved him. Faced with the strict morality of the time period, the characters struggle with their emotions.

Most impressive is the way Ingalls deals with the pain and embarrassment of the son of Davida and Gus, Ingalls own grandfather Louis. As the illegitimate child of the lovers grows older his awareness of the awkward circumstances of his life become more apparent to the boy. It is heart-breaking to imagine how difficult life must have been for the boy as he reaches maturity.

Ingalls offers this fiction based on fact story with love and grace giving the reader a rare insight into the lives of her great grandparents. Well written and compelling, I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a real life romance in the late nineteenth century.”
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