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It’s In The Eyes: The Portraits Of John Singer Sargent

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Miss Elsie Palmer - 1890

Like many people, I have a bunch of ‘art’ stored on my computer, which I use for wallpaper; I have a program which cycles through selections from the over 320 paintings twice a day, so I never get bored of what I’m looking at. For some, dipping into the art-world in this way is enough — they are happy to enjoy these works as mere images, perfectly suited for the purpose of desktop decoration.

Others, of course, are more discerning and will make an effort to see the real thing. I had been ambivalent until I saw a Modigiliani exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario last year and I realized how vital it was to see these works in person in order to fully appreciate and understand them. There are so many things about a painting that you just can’t get from a flat computer screen — its size, its true colouration, and, most obviously (especially with oil paintings) its texture. There’s no substitute for being able to get inches away from a canvas and follow each brushstroke left by the artist as he/she toiled away in the studio, striving for perfection. It is a direct connection between you and that painter.

It is for this reason I made absolutely sure to go to the Americans In Paris: 1860 – 1900 exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (MFA) when I was in that city recently. While many artists were featured — including Mary Cassatt, James Whistler, John White Alexander, Frederick Childe Hassam, Winslow Homer, Ellen Day Hale and Charles Sprague Pearce — the one I most wanted to see, and the one I hold in the highest regard, is John Singer Sargent.

Self Portrait

Sargent is the best portrait artist I have ever seen. It’s ironic that he lived and worked during the ascendancy of the photograph, when cameras were, in effect, putting many portraitists out of business. There were a few like him, however, whom, through talent and reputation, were able to make a living in this way; it was still considered a symbol of class and status to have your portrait painted, especially by a famous artist. He painted portraits of, among others, Frederick Law Olmstead, John D. Rockefeller and Robert Louis Stevenson over the course of his career.

So, the important question: what makes him (in my mind, anyway) the best? I think it all goes back to photography and his reaction to it. Before cameras, it was considered proper form in art to paint as ‘realistically’ as possible — i.e. landscapes should be highly detailed and scaled properly (but still always pleasant looking, with warm, even lighting), and portraits should of course be flattering (with warm, even lighting), and everything should extol the virtues of God (well, maybe not everything, but you know what I mean). With photography, you had a medium which more perfectly recreated and represented reality better than any painter could; suddenly, it became unimportant for a painter to have to concern him/herself with what something ‘really’ looked like. If someone wanted an exact representation of a bowl of fruit, they could simply take a picture (of course, it would still only be in black-and-white), and it wasn’t overly expensive either.

Artists, now freed from their former constraints of ‘realism,’ began to freely experiment with form and colour and representation and lighting; this is what lead to the Impressionist style, and from that begat Post-Impressionism etc. But what to do if you’re a portraitist? You can’t paint a portait of someone and have them looking like a fuzzy haystack, and you need to have some way to distinguish yourself from the staid and boring posed photographic portraits of the time.

This is where Sargent excelled. His portraits are more than just representations of the figure — they tell stories. While there are many of his works that I really like and could talk about, I’ll try to stick to the ones on display at the MFA.

That show was dominated by these two works: the Portrait of Pauline Astor, 1898 (left) and Madame X, 1884 (right).

Portrait of Pauline Astor Madame X

Sargent had originally meant for these two to be exhibited together like this at one of his shows — as a kind of yin/yang, purity/decadence thing — but he wasn’t able to complete them in time and they were exhibited separately; the MFA has taken the initiative for its exhibit. Madame X is notorious for the scandal it invoked at the Paris Salon of 1884; the subject, a 23 year-old Louisiana native named Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautreau, was one of the more well-known socialites around town — the Paris Hilton of the day, so to speak. Originally, the right strap of her dress was painted as dangling from her shoulder; the patrons were shocked by this blatant display of sexuality and the outcry forced Sargent to repaint it into its current position. Gautreau retired from public life, apparently destroying all the mirrors in her home. After this Sargent was unable to get enough commissions to sustain himself, so he began to change his focus to other subjects and moved to London. Ironically, though not surprisingly, Madame X is now considered one of his best works.

The Portrait of Pauline Astor is, obviously, of Pauline Astor, member of the famous Astor family. She is gussied up in all the fancy accoutrements of the age — the gown, shawl, fur muff, pearls etc. — everything very dignified and befitting of her position. Then, to completely subvert all that, Sargent has her cute little Cavalier King Charles spaniel tugging at her shawl. It’s a way to work within the bounds of official portraiture (as the Astors would of course demand), but to take some of the stuffiness out of it.

A lot of his stuff is like that; whether posing them in a very dignified way while dressing them up in Shakesperean costumes, or having them smile (which is usually a no-no in portraits), or giving them a sour expression if they have been particularly difficult subjects, he manages to infuse an air of humanity into his work that is often missing in this field.

Then there are those which are striking by their sheer uniqueness.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit

This is called The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882. I have always been very taken with this painting, but to see it in person at the MFA was amazing. Open it as a larger image and contemplate it for a while — see how strange it is. The first thing that strikes you is that this is obviously not how you would pose four kids for a group portrait. Secondly, the painting is purposely unbalanced with all that empty space on the right. The two in the foreground look normal enough, despite they’re being alone, but then there are the two in the back. The one on the right looks almost like a ghost with that deathly pale skin and haunting expression, and the other one isn’t even facing the viewer — she looks just as much like an apparition, disconnected, seemingly staring at nothing. All I can ever think to call this painting is strange — but endearingly so. (A note of interest: they had the actual two vases that appear in the painting, which belonged to the Boit family, on display at the MFA alongside — that really helps to connect the viewer to the painting as well.)

My favourite feature of all his works, though, are the eyes. Some painters just cannot do eyes (I really didn’t like any of the Cassatt stuff at the MFA — the faces were horrible — and of course there’s Modigliani who just blacked-out the eyes altogether). The reason Sargent is able to take so many playful liberities in his work is because he is so good technically; he is able to render such precision and detail into his faces that he can give them a quirky smile or a pout or a wild, disturbing stare. It is why he was so sought after in his day, and why his seemingly simple work is still lauded for its brilliance today.

I’m going to leave you with Cashmere, which isn’t a portrait and wasn’t at the exhibit, but it’s my overall favourite of his. 03971semaj


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Monday, December 29, 2008 11:25 am

    The daughters is up there alongside Death of Marat by David in preceeding contemporary painting! Thanks for posting this, it made me find my way back to Sargent.

  2. Anonymous permalink
    Monday, June 24, 2013 9:17 pm

    Lovely and astute article.

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