are we to make of the resurgence of John Singer Sargeant? The foundations
of so many of Modernisms lofty claims are built over the graves
of the reputations of artists like Sargeant. No one in the 19th
century painted quite like Sargeant. Needless to say, no one in the
20th century dared even to try. Now, at the dawn of the 21st, there
is renewed and serious interest in the art of portraiture. The credit
or blame is often given to the overwhelming popularity of the recent
Sargeant retrospective seen at Londons Tate Gallery, Bostons
Museum of Fine Arts, and Washingtons National Gallery of Art.
WETAs high definition television program, John Singer
Sargeant: Outside the Frame is sure to add more fuel to this
in 1856 to expatriate American parents living in Italy, young John
and his family moved often and with ease about Europe. Their precocious
son excelled in languages, music and painting. As his homeland reeled
from the aftermath of civil war, John Singer Sargeant was being drilled
in the virtues of direct observation and bravura painting, in the
manner of Velazquez, by his mentor and Pariss leading portraitist,
Emile Carolus- Duran.
great early triumph of this 26 year old Americans meteoric rise
in the art world came in the 1882 Paris Salon where he exhibited his
life-sized Spanish themed painting El Jaleo, (Ruckus or
Uproar,) to much critical acclaim. This darkly lit dramatization of
a gypsy flamenco dancer and her entourage has a life force all its
own. The viewer is transported to Andalusia. One can almost smell
the dust kicked up by the senoritas flashing heels, hear the
guitars bold chords, and the staccato rhythms of the castenets.
The crowds went wild.
This Parisian love fest with Sargeant would soon, come to an abrupt
end thanks in part to another American, the New Orleans born beauty
and social fixture, Virginie Gautreau. Sargeant could not have foreseen
the jaleo that was to greet his painting of her pale white
skin and revealing gown with shoulder strap slightly askew. Portrait
of Madame X brought the full fury of French xenophobia, as petulant
then as now, down on the both of them when it was exhibited in the
shy and reticent Sargeant withdrew from public life. The stream of
portrait commissions dried up. As for Mrs. Gautreau, we do not know.
But Sargeant soon decamped for London where he was to make his name
and fortune in the target rich environment of Edwardian Englands
parlors and country houses.
the next several decades, a Sargeant portrait became a rite of passage
in upper class British and American society. One tour de force after
another flowed from his brush. Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose,
Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson, Lady Agnew of
Lochnau, Miss Carl Meyer and her Children, Lord
Dalhousie, and numerous paintings of Asher Westheimer family
members come to mind.
portrait in particular, that of a high ranking colonial administrator,
Sir Frank Swettenham,, seems particularly compelling and open to current
interpretation. Lushly painted in crimson, white and gold, this work,
in the collection of the Singapore History Museum succeeds on several
levels. Its dazzingly likeness not only captures Swettenham, but says
a great deal about the the character and bearing of the kind of men
who made Britains many foreign enterprises possible. All around
the casually posed martial figure, Sargeants incomparable hand
dashes in the pomp and paraphenalia of empire. The quickness of his
brushstrokes suggests both the pride and temporal nature of the great
English commonwealth, on which the sun has forever set.
formidable facility has won him few friends among modern critics.
He invented nothing - changed nothing, is their mantra.
He flirted with the avante garde - painting plein air pictures such
as Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of the Wood. On any
given day he could knock out state of the art Impressionist works
like The Old Chair, and A Boating Party, as
if to say, Whats all the fuss about?
one century ended and another began, Sargeants life among the
grandees seemed to satisfy less and less. Around 1907, financially
secure and more than a little bored, he gave up portraiture for weightier
themes, like the Boston Public Librarys mural Triumph
of Religion. He also masterfully embraced the difficult medium
continued to travel, here and abroad, but the gilded age of Belle
Epoque Europe was about to change forever. The Great War came, and
toward its end took Sargeant with it. He spent months at the front
in preparation for his 1918 Imperial War Museum commission. His largest
and most ambitious work, Gassed, is ironically surpassed
by the brilliance of the projects working drawings.
the artists job is to tell what it was like to be alive, then
John Singer Sargeant has certainly earned a place in the pantheon.
But then, there is a self portrait from 1906 in Florences Uffizi
Gallery that is notorious for how little it tells us. Sargeants
greatest act of artistry may in fact be how well he camouflaged his
personal life, -- and bravo for that. His art has given us quite enough.
2003 William Dunlap. All rights reserved.
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