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|Sargent in the Spotlight
by N. F. Karlins
"John Singer Sargent," Feb. 21-May 31, 1999, at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, June 23-Sept. 26, 1999.
"Sketch Everything and Keep Your Curiosity Fresh," Feb. 13-May 9, 1999, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
It's time to acclaim John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) as one of America's greatest painters. Not even Washington, D.C.'s famous cherry blossoms are more impressive than the National Gallery of Art's major retrospective of the artist, the first since his death. "John Singer Sargent," is an impressive gathering of more than 100 works, mostly oils and a handful of highly finished watercolors. It is complemented by a show of more than 60 drawings at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, ranging from early topographical renderings to studies for Sargent's Boston Public Library murals.
Sargent's fame as a society portraitist during the Edwardian Era was eclipsed by the rise of modernism in the 20th century. Looking back, it is hard not to admire his portraits. Many of the best are dazzlingly inventive, like the early Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882), as are many of his subject paintings, including The Sulphur Match (1882), one of his many pictures of the private life of Venetians. Like many of his works, the latter seems completely spontaneous, but was in fact carefully constructed with the help of two professional models.
Sargent was a prolific watercolorist, whose works in this medium are not nearly as well known as his oils. Many bear comparison with Winslow Homer's watercolors. Sargent's Palmettos (1917), executed in Florida, might have been done by either artist. Sargent's murals, on which he lavished much of his energy and staked his reputation at the end of his life, are more mundane, though better than most from the period.
Sargent's works as a whole share an inherent sensuality. His love of paint -- its colors, textures and variety of light effects -- and the erotic charge given off by his subjects attest to Sargent's own intensely sensual nature. Although obviously attracted to women, Sargent never married. He remained energetic, somewhat naďve, poorly educated beyond the arts and devoted to his family and friends, who traveled around Europe with him. In contrast to current practice, he was unfailingly discreet about his private life.
Always proud of his American heritage, Sargent was born to peripatetic Americans in Florence and studied briefly as they traveled, principally in France at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He did not arrive on these shores until he was 20, when he visited Philadelphia, his parent's hometown, to see the Centennial Exhibition. Sargent was already fluent in four languages and moving in a variety of social spheres.
In 1879, his portrait of Carolus-Duran, in whose studio he had worked for five years, was awarded an Honorable Mention at the Salon. Sargent had painted his teacher while assisting him with a mural for the Luxembourg Palace, one reason why he admired and esteemed mural painting all his life. From Carolus-Duran, he also learned to admire Velasquez and employed that master's balance of black versus white with flair through out his life. With his Salon triumph at age 23, Sargent's career was off and running.
The Corcoran's show of drawings is titled with the artist's own words "Sketch Everything and Keep Your Curiosity Fresh." Sargent honed his talent razor sharp by drawing throughout his constant travels and by sharing his love of art and music (he was an accomplished pianist) with a close circle of friends. Artists, of course, were included in his coterie, and some of his best pieces capture them at work. The Fountain, Villa Tolonia, Frascati, Italy from 1907, for instance, shows Jane de Glehn painting. What makes the painting pop is the combination of a picturesque setting with a serious portrait study activated by the effects of sunlight. Although he knew Monet, collected his paintings and lightened his palette under his influence, Sargent was no Impressionist. He was part of an international movement at the turn of the century that combined realism with powerful, often slashing, brushwork and high-keyed color.
In Sargent's case, psychological truths seeped in, too. Just ponder The Misses Vickers, (1884) his first adult group portrait. One young lady is clearly bored, while two others are content with their elegant social roles. Their dresses underscore their different attitudes as much as the ambiguous space that surrounds them. Sargent was quite specific in what he allowed his subjects to wear and in what poses he permitted them to take.
A later group portrait of flamboyant London culturata, Mrs Carl Meyer and her Children (1896), is as over-the-top as its patron. The gorgeous fabrics and intensity of this famous hostess is as celebrated in this painting as her lack of concern about her offspring, whose tenuous hold on her is graphically illustrated by Sargent's outrageous composition. Warmly lambasted by some of the English press and praised by others, it won a Medal of Honor at the Exposition universelle in Paris in 1900. It has to be one of the most eccentric yet telling of any portraits, anywhere, at any time.
Sargent executed several paintings for the famed London art dealer Asher Wertheimer, but the best was of Wertheimer himself. Some have viewed the portrait as anti-Semitic, but Sargent was a genuine friend of the family and not the type to caricature anyone. He does, however, rhyme Wertheimer's sensual full, red lips with the hanging tongue of his French poodle in the lower right. Is it any wonder that later one of his would-be sitters remarked, "It is positively dangerous to sit for Sargent. It's putting your face in his hands."
By 1907, Sargent was at the height of his success, although he was much the same person as before, according to friends. Overworked and tired of the aristocracy, with whom he was never truly at ease, he suddenly gave up doing society portraits, offering quick charcoal portraits to his clamoring clients instead. Ever the American, he called them "mug shots." He did make a few exceptions -- John D. Rockefeller, for example, and various friends, including fellow expatriate Henry James.
Sargent was, in fact, too successful. Not all of his portraits are as original as they might be. In some, he reverts to the formula of elongating a standing figure against a plain or patterned backdrop. At times even this works, as in his painting of the dashing Lord Ribbesdale (1902), which is as much a portrayal of a social class as an individual.
With more time to devote to murals, Sargent also indulged in subject pictures, townscapes and landscapes, often in watercolor. His bravura brushwork produced the dramatic oils Two Girls in White Dresses (c.1909-11), which is actually his niece painted twice lying on an Alpine hillside, and The Corner of the Church of San Stae, Venice (c.1913), in which light is as invigorating a presence as any figure. With watercolors like these and Carrara: Monsieur Derville's Quarry (1911), can there be any doubt that Sargent was one of the masters in depicting the effects of bright sunlight, Impressionist or not?
Sargent worked hard and seemed to have enjoyed painting, no matter whether he was in or out of favor. When his "outré" portrait of a society woman, the renowned Madame X (1883-4), upset the French by showing a bit too much flesh and disdain (it seems pretty tame today), he went to England. He struggled to find clients, luckily becoming popular with his portrait of Lady Agnew of Locknaw (1892). After seeing the Sargents at the National Gallery, courtesy of co-curators Elaine Kilmurray and Richard Ormond (the artist's great nephew), John Singer Sargent shouldn't be out of favor ever again.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York writer and art historian.
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