John Singer Sargent at SAM
By Deloris Tarzan Ament
The first major West Coast exhibition of John Singer Sargent's art takes center stage at the Seattle Art Museum December 14 through March 18, 2001. Sargent was the Mozart of painters, the genius to whom mastery came so easily that his competitors despised him for it.
Trevor Fairbrother, SAM's curator of modern art, has a special love of Sargent, who was the subject of his doctoral dissertation at Boston University. "I wanted to make his tremendous gifts as tangible as possible in this show, to explore his sensuous appetite and his delight in all his eyes landed on," he said. To accomplish that, Fairbrother assembled a broad cross section of Sargent's work, on loan from nearly 20 museums and private collections. The show includes many of Sargent's rarely seen watercolors of everyday life in Venice and Florence, and a study for his scandalous portrait of "Madame X."
The show is orchestrated from an opening gallery of drawings, through a series of informal portraits, (look especially for his painting of bemused author Robert Louis Stevenson in a big wicker chair), swelling to a crescendo with the heart of the show: a dozen portraits of the Wertheimer family, which show Sargent at the height of his powers.
From 1892 through 1907, when he stopped accepting commissions, John Singer Sargent was the most sought-after portrait artist in the world. He painted the cream of British, French and American society without ever feeling at ease in their company. Indeed, he seemed not quite at home anywhere.
Sargent was an American artist who never lived in America, nor even saw the United States until he was 17. The son of a physician and a Boston heiress with a flair for watercolors and a passion for Europe, he was born in Florence and schooled in Paris. From the beginning of his studies, he was a prodigy. Unrivaled at capturing the distinct personalities of his subjects, he brought their images to life with swift, bravura brushwork that must be seen in the original to be fully appreciated. Reproductions barely hint at Sargent's virtuoso painterliness. He incorporated swooshing, near-abstract freedom of line without yielding precision where it mattered in creating unforgettable characterizations of his sitters.
John D. Rockefeller, Jr., then the richest man in the world, asked Sargent to paint five portraits of his father. Sargent would agree to paint only two. But when London art dealer Asher Wertheimer asked him to do 12 portraits of his family, Sargent said yes. It was an extravagant commission. At that time, in 1898, Sargent charged 1,000 guineas for a portrait, about $119,000 in today's dollars. It made Wertheimer Sargent's greatest patron. More important, Sargent liked him personally. Asher's portrait captures a warmth and twinkling intelligence, as if he and Sargent regaled each other with stories throughout the course of the sittings.
Art critic Robert Ross, writing in 1911, called Sargent's portrait of Asher Wertheimer "one of the great portraits of the world, the only modern picture which challenges the Doria Velazquez (the portrait of Innocent X) at Rome." Of the Wertheimer portraits as a group, Ross said, "I know of no other collection of ancient or modern pictures in which you can realize every phase and subtlety of one artists titanic achievement; his power of delineating youth beauty, and middle age in both sexes. Few great masters have been equally successful."
Sargent's dashing style left the Victorian art world gasping at the palpable physicality he depicted, and the sense of intimacy it evoked, a world apart from the stiff, formal portraits they had come to expect from more mundane artists. The vivacious portraits of Asher's daughters show Sargent's flair for the unconventional in full flower. He costumed Almina in a Turkish-style turban and harem coat, and the lively Ena in the plumed hat and cloak of a man's military dress uniform. His portrait of Ena and Betty with red flowers in their hair initially showed Betty's red dress worn with a strap slipped off her shoulder. Regrettably, that sensual and all-too-human feature was tidied up. It was daring beyond the acceptance of polite society.
Sargent flirted with the limits of social propriety. It was that propensity which took him to London. He was living in Paris when his portrait of "Madame X" (Mme. Virginia Gautreau), a New Orleans beauty married to a wealthy Parisian, caused a scandal at the Paris Salon of 1884 because of her daring dress. Sargent was forced to add shoulder straps to it to conform with standards of decency. The painting so scandalized French society that Sargent uprooted his studio and moved.
He settled in London soon after the 1885 law that made "acts of gross indecency between men" a criminal offense. That created a potential problem for Sargent. He moved in the same circle as his friend and neighbor Oscar Wilde, until Wilde's arrest in 1895. Sargent was outwardly proper, but his sexual life was said to be "notorious in Paris," and in Venice "positively scandalous." Some hint of it is visible in his charcoal sketches of athletic Italian gondoliers included in this show from the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums.
Fairbrother contributed insights into the role played by Sargent's hidden sexual identity in his career in an essay included in the catalog for the Wertheimer portraits when they were featured last year at the Jewish Museum in New York. He points out that Sargent, a life-long bachelor, never publicly acknowledged his sexual identity. He was famous for his reticence about his personal life, refusing to give interviews, tending to blush and stutter when called upon to speak in public. He immersed himself in work, and kept his head down until he retired from public life.
The watercolors which Sargent did in his later years, after he ceased to accept portrait commissions, are brilliant evidence that his skill was not limited to portraiture. They show his technical facility at its finest. "He mixed different styles like a magpie," says Fairbrother, "and adjusted his eclecticism to appeal to audiences in France, England, and the United States."
Despite their brilliance, Sargent's paintings suffered decades of neglect. during the middle years of the 20th Century, when abstract and experimental art held sway, and commissioned portraits were disparaged as poison to the spirit of experimentation. Now, like newly unearthed treasures, they are gaining fresh appreciation. The Seattle Art Museum's exhibition is an outstanding opportunity to see the range and vitality of his work.
Don't miss Fairbrother's book which accompanies the show: John Singer Sargent: The Sensualist, published by Yale University Press.
DELORIS TARZAN AMENT, is a freelance writer about art, design, restaurants, and travel. She was Art Critic for The Seattle Times for over twenty years.
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