Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Portraits from a Gilded Age

“You might tell her that I am a man of prodigious talent.
John Singer Sargent

The expatriate American artist John Singer Sargent has the dubious honor of scandalizing both French and American audiences with works that book end his career as an illustrious portraitist.

At the beginning of his career, as an advertisement of his talents, he hung his now recognized masterpiece The portrait of Madame X in the 1884 Paris Salon. A portrait of the American expatriate Paris socialite Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau it was too sexy for the French. In the city that invented the Can Can, the populace were “shocked and scandalized” and Sargent prudently moved to London to establish his career as the one percent’s favored portrait painter.

Thirty five years later Sargent found himself entangled in another furor, this time for his depiction of Judaism in a mural he painted for the Boston Library. Depicted as an old hag in contrast to the beautiful Christian maiden it attracted fierce criticism from the Jewish community. As Jenna Weissman Joselit wrote in her essay Restoring the ‘American Sistine Chapel,’ “It simmered for five long years, embroiling politicians, journalists, art critics and poets as it ran its course.”

Between these events Sargent became the renowned portrait painter of his day on both sides of the Atlantic with client’s paying up to $5,000 per portrait, or about $130,000 in current dollars.

Whilst Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism developed and expanded out from avant-garde art circles Sargent maintained a realist style that caused the French sculptor Auguste Rodin to describe him as “the Van Dyck of our times.”

But Sargent was not unmindful of the modernist styles. As the novelist Henry James, a close confident of the artist, remarked about Sargent’s work “the quality in light of which the artist sees deep into his subject, undergoes it, absorbs it, becomes patient with it, and almost reverent, and, in short, enlarges and humanizes the technical problem.”

As well as his portraiture, Sargent was a gifted watercolorist painting a wide variety of subjects ranging from the English countryside to the canals of Venice. As his friend and biographer Evan Charteris wrote in 1927 “To live with Sargent's watercolors is to live with sunshine captured and held, with the luster of a bright and legible world, 'the refluent shade' and 'the ambient ardors of the noon.

Sargent was also commissioned by the British Ministry of Information as a war artist during the First World War. His painting Gassed which he completed in March of 1919 was voted best picture of the year by the Royal Academy of Arts. A work that Britain’s WWII Prime Minister, an amateur painter himself, praised for its "brilliant genius and painful significance."

Although lauded for his portraits by the rich and famous of his day in artistic terms he was consider a relic of a gilded age. As the French artist Camille Pissarro wrote "he is not an enthusiast but rather an adroit performer."

That has changed in recent years with the re-awakening of interest in things Victorian in general and Sargent’s almost impressionist paintings in particular. With New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art hosting the exhibition Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends until the 4th of October.

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