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John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent


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John Singer Sargent, the eldest surviving child of American parents, Dr Fitzwilliam Sargent (1820–1889) and his wife, Mary Newbold Singer (1826–1906), was born in Florence on 12th January, 1856. His mother came from a very wealthy family in Philadelphia.

He studied painting in Italy and France and in 1884 caused a sensation at the Paris Salon with his painting of of a young socialite named Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau. Exhibited as Madame X, people complained that the painting was provocatively erotic.

His biographers, Elaine Kilmurray and Richard Ormond, have argued: "Its largely hostile reception was one factor spurring his decision to leave Paris for London. Sargent had already been asked to paint members of the Vickers family (connected with the famous armaments firm) in England" Over the next few years he established himself as the country's leading portrait painter. This included portraits of Joseph Chamberlain (1896), Frank Swettenham (1904) and Henry James (1913). Sargent made several visits to the USA where as well as portraits he worked on a series of decorative paintings for public buildings such as the Boston Public Library (1890).

In London he became friends with Henry Tonks and William Rothenstein. He possessed a huge appetite and became corpulent in middle age. Rothenstein pointed out in Men and Memories (1932) that he used to visit "the Hans Crescent Hotel, where, from the table d'hôte luncheon of several courses, he could assuage his Gargantuan appetite".

Sargent became the most important portrait painter of the period and demand very high prices for his work. He received £2,100 for The Ladies Alexandra, Mary, and Theo Acheson (1902), £3,000 for his group of medical doctors Professors Welch, Halsted, Osler and Kelly (1906)and £2,500 for his painting of the Marlborough family.

Sargent spent most of the First World War in the United States. In 1918 Sargent was commissioned to paint a large painting to symbolize the co-operation between British and American forces during the war. Sargent was sent to France with Henry Tonks. One day Sargent visited a casualty clearing station at Le Bac-de-Sud. While at the casualty station he witnessed an orderly leading a group of soldiers that had been blinded by mustard gas. He used this as a subject for a naturalist allegorical frieze depicting a line of young men with their eyes bandaged. Gassed soon became one of the most memorably haunting images of the war. While in France Sargent also painted The Interior of a Hospital Tent (1918) and A Street in Arras (1918).

It has been claimed by Elaine Kilmurray and Richard Ormond: "The impression that emerges from descriptions by his sitters is of a vigorous, decisive, and driven artist. There are stories of Sargent's rushing to and from the easel, totally absorbed, placing his brushstrokes in gestures of absolute precision, of the cries of frustration as he rubbed out, scraped down, reworked, and grappled with the problems of representation, cries punctuated by his mild expletives... Occasionally, he would dash to the piano and play as a brief respite from painting. He was single-minded about what he wanted to achieve and would brook no interference - an approach born of professional self-belief rather than personal arrogance, from which he was remarkably free. He insisted on the right to select his sitters' costumes and accessories, and took brisk exception to comments from his sitters and their families about the truth of the likenesses and characterizations he created."

Cynthia Asquith claims that he was a "curiously inarticulate man, he used to splutter and gasp, almost growl with the strain of trying to express himself; and sometimes, like Macbeth at the dagger, he would literally clutch at the air in frustrated efforts to find, with many intermediary ‘ers’ and ‘ums’, the most ordinary words." Vernon Lee, a very close friend, added: "He was very shy, having I suppose a vague sense that there were poets about… I think John is singularly unprejudiced, almost too amiably candid in his judgements… He talked art & literature, just as formerly, and then, quite unbidden, sat down to the piano and played all sorts of bits of things."

Evan Charteris, the author of John Sargent (1927), has written: "He read no newspapers; he had the sketchiest knowledge of current movements outside art; his receptive credulity made him accept fabulous items of information without question. He would have been puzzled to answer if he were asked how nine-tenths of the population lived, he would have been dumbfounded if asked how they were governed."

John Singer Sargent died in his sleep on 15th April 1925 at home in Tite Street having suffered a heart attack. He was buried in Brookwood Cemetery, Woking, on 18th April.


El Jaleo

El Jaleo is a large painting by John Singer Sargent, depicting a Spanish Gypsy dancer performing to the accompaniment of musicians. Painted in 1882, it currently hangs in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

El Jaleo
ArtistJohn Singer Sargent
Year1882
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions237 cm × 352 cm (93 in × 138 in)
LocationIsabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston


John Singer Sargent Visits the Front

There are many ways to win a war, and most of them require hard and relentless work–what Winston Churchill called “blood, toil, tears and sweat.” But the dream of a shortcut has always dazzled armies and their commanders. Military history is dotted with attempts at tactical masterstrokes designed to turn slow progress into sudden, convincing victory. Even more enticing, however, and equally uncertain in its effects, has been the hope for a technological breakthrough that could give one side un­questioned superiority over its opponents. The quest for a decisive invention is as old as the experiments with tactics. Whether it was Archimedes’ use of shields as mirrors to focus sunlight and burn enemy ships, or the development of the stir­rup to stabilize horsemen in battle, or the ingenuity lavished on weapons to hurl pro­jectiles– from the crossbow through the multifarious applications of gunpowder­ generals looking for an extra edge have been among history’s most inventive and persistent experimenters. And whenever a new lethal device proved effective, it was quickly imitated, countered, refined, and ultimately made standard equipment until the next invention appeared. In recent times, improvements in technology have accelerated this process, but, with the ex­ception of the atomic bomb, the impact of the inventor and the engineer on warfare has never been as spectacular as it was dur­ing World War I.

Three innovations of warfare in particu­lar made the soldier’s experience between 1914 and 1918 radically different from what it had been in previous conflicts. First was the airplane, coming from the Wright brothers’ drawing board a little more than a decade before the start of the war. It rarely takes the military long to find a way to apply a technological break through, and in this case they had been interested in aerial weaponry for some time. During a revolt against the Austrian Empire in 1849, for in stance, Venice was assaulted by an unmanned balloon carrying incendiary de­vices. Inevitably, airplanes came to serve as weapons. By the end of World War I some could carry more than a ton of bombs. And, thanks to a remarkable feat of engineer­ing–the creation of the synchronizing gear that permitted the firing of a machine gun through a whirling propeller-planes were able not only to shoot one another down more easily but also to strafe troops on the ground.

The second innovation was the tank, an armored vehicle conceived by an English­man, Ernest Swinton, as a result of the marriage of two inventions: the internal combustion engine and the caterpillar-type tractor. Their combination created the first piece of weaponry that could resist machine­ gun fire amid the rigors of trench warfare, and it was soon a common sight in France. In late 1917 the English launched the first massive tank assault–nearly four hundred smashed through enemy lines–in the Battle of Cambrai, and its initial success transformed ground combat.

But it was the third of the technological advances that caused the most profound horror and fear: poison gas. The idea of such weaponry was not new–the ancient Greeks had used sulphur fumes to disperse en­emies–but the progress of chemistry had made the danger more far-reaching, and in the nineteenth century adversaries had agreed not to use it. Those agreements fell apart, however, when the Germans, frustrated by the stalemate, launched a huge greenish-yellow cloud, filled with chlorine, toward Canadian trenches near Ypres in April 1915. The attack opened a four-mile gap in the lines, but by the next day the Al­lies had identified the gas and begun to take countermeasures. Ever more lethal vari­eties, notably mustard gas, were produced during the next three years by both sides, but for all the menace these chemicals posed, their delivery (mainly by wind, shell, and bomb) was too difficult for them to have a decisive effect on the battlefield.

No artist could have seemed more un­likely to produce the most haunting image of this war than the American painter John Singer Sargent. Born in 1856 in Florence, Italy, the son of a surgeon who had given up his Philadelphia practice to travel in Europe Sargent had a pampered but peripatetic childhood. His family was nearly always on the move, and he spent his first 18 years traveling among the principal Euro­pean cities and resorts. Cosmopolitan and fluent in four languages, Sargent began drawing at a young age, encouraged by his mother, who herself had taken up water­ colors. His talent was obvious, and in 1874 he began the serious study of art in Paris. By the 1880s he was a well-known figure in Parisian artistic and literary circles, ex­hibiting at the Salon and receiving com­ missions from the socially prominent.

In his 20s and 30s, Sargent vis­ited America a number of times, and it was there that he began to win wide renown as a portrait painter, a reputation that only grew when he settled in England in the 1890s. In London he became a fixture in high society, was elected to the Royal Academy, and cultivated friendships that ranged from aristocratic families to the novelist Henry James and the composer Percy Grainger. It was during these years that Sargent created his trademark work­ dreamy landscapes, beautifully observed city scenes, and, above all, portraits of ele­gant, ethereal females, adorable children, and keen-eyed, often languid men. In his early 50s, though, he decided to cut back on the portrait commissions and the social whirl and to devote himself primarily to larger-scale works and to depictions of the places he visited during his many travels, especially his beloved Italy.

This was the figure from the haut monde, the master of grace and delicacy, whom the British government implausibly asked, in the spring of 1918, to travel to the front lines to record his impressions of a ghastly war. The Memorials Committee of the Min­istry of Information offered the commission at a nominal fee, and the prime minister, David Lloyd George, personally wrote to Sargent to persuade him to accept. He agreed, left in July with his fellow artist and friend Henry Tonks, and remained in France for a few months, sketching and working extensively in the medium his mother had loved, watercolor.

The encounter with the war inspired a depth of feeling in Sargent for which there was little precedent in his earlier work. It is notable, for example, that the qualities associated with his art–soft colors and attention to architectural detail–are over­ whelmed in Street in Arras by his com­mentary on the effects of combat. Sargent was housed for a while in Arras, and this almost documentary record of a time and place contrasts the wreckage on the left with the former elegance of a fine house and the boredom of the troops who take what rest they can from the fighting. The destruction of beauty has become a matter of complete indifference to the soldiers who are its cause.

Sargent was also aware of the new weaponry, and two of his watercolors sug­gest, at least implicitly, its ultimate futility. A Wrecked Tank shows little evidence of a once formidable machine. Abandoned in the countryside are a few twisted pieces of metal, relics of an explosion, and now no more than a rusting testimony to the de­structiveness reflected in the small row of crosses, suggesting grave markers, near the pond behind the tank.

And in Crashed Aeroplane the message is hard to miss. The wreckage is in the back ground, ironically surveyed by soldiers on foot and on a horse, the one-time exemplar of speed and mobility. But in the foreground the life of the farmer goes on, un­affected by the mayhem in the adjacent field. The scene recalls the famous canvas by Pieter Bruegel, The Fall of Icarus, which hung in the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, and in which, in the words of W.H. Auden, “everything turns away/Quite leisurely from the disaster the ploughman may/Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,/But for him it was not an important failure.” For Sargent, too, life had to tri­umph over death.

Yet it was the third of the new weapons that stirred Sargent to create his masterpiece. He did not complain when he came under fire or shared the harsh conditions of the front, but he did speak of “a harrow­ing sight, a field full of gassed and blind­ folded men.” He made sketches of what he saw, and when he came back to London, he agreed with the Memorials Committee that the major work from his commission would be an enormous canvas–it turned out to be 20 feet long and nine feet high-titled Gassed.

The painting evokes the misery and an­guish of World War I, and it does so–as was so often the case with this highly cultivated artist–by drawing on historic imagery. For a start, Gassed echoes the military pro­cessions so familiar in ancient and Renaissance art. But it also resonates with the medieval theme of the dance of death and quite specifically with another poignant painting by Bruegel, The Blind leading the Blind. Henry Tonks described the scene they had encountered on the Arras road in Au­gust 1918: “The Dressing Station…consisted of a number of huts and a few tents. Gassed cases kept coming in, led by an orderly. They sat or lay down on the grass, there must have been several hundred, evidently suffering a great deal.” This was the scene, caused by a surprise mustard-gas attack, that Sargent decided to commemorate.

Under a sky whose color is reminiscent of the gas, a line of blindfolded soldiers staggers toward the tent on the right. Around them lie other victims, and a sec­ond group approaches. In the sky, above a pale sun that is also evocative of Bruegel, tiny planes remain engaged in combat, while in the distance some soldiers who es­caped the attack relax in a game of soccer, ignoring the agony that surrounds them. Yet it is the central tableau of nine sight­ less men, still carrying their gear and their guns, that rivets our attention. They are being helped along by two orderlies, one of whom warns of a small step, and in re­sponse the third soldier, in a gesture that marks this as a moment frozen in time, lifts his foot to exaggerated height to avoid tripping. The monumental scale of the procession gives it a heroic cast, and there seems little doubt that the artist is both documenting the torment caused by a gruesome form of warfare and creating a deeply moving tribute to the men who fought on amidst the suffering. The paint­ ing transforms one’s appreciation of Sar­gent no other work of art conveys more powerfully both the fury and the fortitude of World War I. MHQ

THEODORE K. RABB is a professor of history at Princeton University.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 1999 issue (Vol. 11, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: John Singer Sargent Visits the Front

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Two-Minute Art History: John Singer Sargent and the Painterly Romance of Venice

Best known for his bravura oil portraits, John Singer Sargent (American, 1856 – 1925) was equally accomplished as a watercolor painter. He often chose the medium for quick landscape studies on his travels, a practice that began when, as a child, he accompanied his parents on picturesque trips across Europe.

Art historian Barbara Dayer Gallati succinctly explained Sargent’s talent: “In essence, the secret of Sargent’s success as a watercolorist was his ability to achieve a rare and exquisite balance between painterly freedom and discipline, both of which could come only from years of looking and painting.”

Venetian Canal by John Singer Sargent (1913 watercolor and graphite on paper, 15¾x21)

Painting Serenissima

Sargent’s watercolor studies found their most brilliant expression in Venice, a city that by the late 19th century had become an immensely popular destination for artists. Sargent first visited Venice in the early 1880s, and made it a regular stop on his itinerary between 1898 and 1913.

He turned out watercolors like Venetian Canal with what appears to be customary effortlessness, delighting in the proximity of architecture and water seen under a limpid blue sky.

These visual travelogues were an escape from commissioned portraiture. People, when included at all, are distant presences denoted by a few flicks of the brush. Throughout Venetian Canal, one finds evidence of Sargent’s “exquisite balance between painterly freedom and discipline.”

The 6 Exceptional Parts of the Painting

#1 The viewpoint suggests that Sargent was seated in a gondola. He did, in fact, paint many of his Venetian watercolors from this unique vantage point.

#2 The artist laid in the sky with a blue wash, slightly lighter at the horizon. Its unadorned expanse is a clean counterpoint to the jumble of Venetian architecture and reflections.

#3 Sargent’s watercolors may seem improvised, but he often began them with a light pencil notation. One can see traces of the initial drawing of architectural elements, as in the contours of the distant church tower.

#4 For the buildings on the left, Sargent painted architectural details wet-on-dry for greater control and to create sharp edges where light and shadow interact. In the buildings on the right, Sargent painted the windows wet-into-wet, so the shapes bleed and read less distinctly within the shadows.

#5 In a passage just right of center, a series of crisp horizontal strokes indicate a slight disturbance of the water’s surface. Despite the apparent freedom of their application, the reflections correspond closely to the shapes and colors they reflect.

#6 Sargent understood linear perspective. The powerful diagonals on each side of the painting lead the eye to a stopping point: the church tower. In the middle distance, a bridge spans the canal and serves as an important compositional device.

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About the Fashion

Seventeen years old at the time the portrait was painted, Elsie’s wardrobe and the fashionabilty of it fall into somewhat of a grey area. Not quite a woman, yet not quite a child, Sargent portrays Elsie trapped on the edge of adolescence. Her hair is worn down with short blunt fringe, or bangs, in a style that was only acceptable for children at the time, yet her tea gown is long and full, a silhouette that would have been much too drowning for a child. On this very juxtaposition, Barbara Dayer Gallati writes in Great Expectations: John Singer Sargent Painting Children:

“Elsie’s sibylline countenance corresponds with the mysterious emotional and physical transformations that were associated with [adolescence]. The idea of adolescence achieved remarkable force in cultural and scientific arenas about 1890, when studies (both literary and scientific) focused on the years bridging childhood and adulthood and offered interpretation of it not only as a physical awakening of sexuality but also as an evolutionary stage” (126).

With this in mind, the style of Elsie’s clothing must be assessed with both women’s wear and children’s wear trends in mind. During the late 1880s and early 1890s the most fashionable women’s silhouette was one of volume and excess. One of the biggest fashions was the bustle, which consisted of some sort of structure underneath the skirt to provide volume at the rear. Most fashion plates and fashion press (fig. 5) represented the concept of “more is more,” i.e. more volume, bows, sashes, rosettes, frills, pleats and lace (Calahan). While Elsie’s dress may have some of these details, like the satin sash and pleated skirt, her costume certainly does not live up to the fullness and grandeur that was published in fashion journals of the time. In children’s wear, however, less fitted, more playful silhouettes were popular. Perhaps the fashion plate of 1890 that Elsie’s dress is most similar too is that of a child’s dress, complete with high neck, satin sash, gathered bodice, and loose pleated skirt (fig. 6). However, Elsie’s costume presents itself with much more length and maturity than the outfit of a little girl.

Thus, without conforming entirely to one set of style guidelines, Elsie finds herself on the outs of mainstream fashion and one must look to trends that were not yet being advertised in major publications. Aesthetic dress was one of these outcast trends that was rejected by the mainstream fashion movement and fashion press for decades. In Fashion Plates: 150 Years of Style, April Calahan describes the trend:

“In terms of clothing, the members of the Aesthetic movement were proponents of dress reform and advocates for “artistic dress,” which, for women, was characterized by a relaxation of the corset, the lack of a bustle, and a looser, draped fit that was often inspired by historical attire” (274).

Fig. 5 - Artist unknown (French). Journal des Demoiselles, January 1, 1889. New York: Special Collections, Library at The Fashion Institute of Technology. Source: Author

Fig. 6 - Artist unknown (French). Journal des Demoiselles, May 1, 1889. New York: Special Collections, Library at The Fashion Institute of Technology. Source: Author

Fig. 7 - James Jebusa Shannon (Irish, 1862-1923). Violet, Duchess of Rutland, 1889. Oil on canvas. Leicestershire: Belvoir Castle. Source: Pinterest

Fig. 8 - Liberty & Co. (British, 1875-). Tea gown, ca. 1885. Silk. Private Collection. Source: Pinterest

Fig. 9 - Liberty & Co. (British, 1875-). Dress, 1891. Silk. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, C.I.68.53.9. Gift of Mrs. James G. Flockhart, 1968. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“The Rational Dress Society protests against the introduction of any fashion in dress that either deforms the figure, impedes the movements of the body, or in any way tends to injure the health. It protests against the wearing of tightly-fitting corsets, of high-heeled or narrow-toed boots and shoes: of heavily weighted skirts, as rendering healthy exercise almost impossible and of all tie down cloaks or other garments impeding the movement of the arms. It protests against crinolines or crinolettes of any kind as ugly and deforming.” (1)

Surviving garments of the aesthetic dress movement of the 19th century highlight the simpler and less restricted silhouette that mirrors the dress of the figure in Miss Elsie Palmer. With waists that are cinched by satin sashes rather than restrictive corsets, these dresses (fig. 8-9) demonstrate that while Elsie’s costume may not have aligned with the mainstream trends of her day, Sargent still painted a fashionable look (though it may have only been fashionable in the eyes of like-minded liberal women).

With her long straight locks of hair that fell to her shoulders like a child and her white satin dress that rejected the standards of mainstream fashion, Elsie finds herself on the border of two raging battles: woman or child and mainstream fashion or dress reform. Nonetheless, Sargent’s Miss Elsie Palmer is an enthralling painting full of dichotomy and fashion history.


John Singer Sargent’s Secret Muse

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston explores the relationship between the famous artist and his now-famous model.

This article is part of our latest Museums special section, which focuses on the intersection of art and politics.

Thomas McKeller worked as an elevator operator in an elite Boston hotel. His life, which spanned the first half of the 20th century, was largely unheralded.

But the countenance of McKeller, who was African-American, is everywhere in Boston, in the work of one of the most prominent painters of the Gilded Age, John Singer Sargent. McKeller appears as classical gods and goddesses in a mural in the rotunda of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston as a World War I soldier in a stairwell of Harvard University’s Widener Library and as the body in a portrait of A. Lawrence Lowell, an early-20th-century Harvard president.

But McKeller never appears as a black man. Rather, in all these significant works, his body becomes that of a white man, a god, even a Native American leader.

“Boston’s Apollo: Thomas McKeller and John Singer Sargent,” an exhibition at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, strips away that mask. The exhibition centers on Sargent’s preparatory drawings for the M.F.A. — all various sketches of McKeller — along with other paintings and photos of works that used his likeness.

“John Singer Sargent is one of the beloved painters of early American art — he’s canonical,” said Nikki A. Greene, an assistant professor of art at Wellesley College. Sargent treats McKeller’s “body with a lot of care, but we also know there’s no trace of him — it’s a whitewashing of this man and his history and his body and his face.”

The willingness to take a new look at long-established artists and works of art — especially in terms of race — “is one of the trends we’re seeing in museums all over the country,” Professor Greene said.

And the fact that the Gardner, a traditionally conservative museum, chose to mount the exhibition indicates a new openness and perhaps appeal to a new audience, she added.

The show, which runs through May 17, came about by accident. Its curator, Nathaniel Silver, was asked to pull some work from storage about another artist, “and I came across something totally different that I knew nothing about,” he said.

“It was a huge portfolio — about the size of a desk — and inside it were 10 large-format works on paper, nine charcoal drawings and one lithograph by John Singer Sargent. The majority of them depicted one man.”

As he looked more closely, he realized the man was black, which was unusual for Sargent’s work, “and as I realized most of them were of the same person, I wanted to find out more,” he added. Dr. Silver is the museum’s head curator.

He learned the man was McKeller, who had modeled for Sargent between 1916 and 1921 for a series of commissions for the Museum of Fine Arts. In all, McKeller was Sargent’s paid model for about a decade.

“This immediately struck me because the model I had in the drawings was clearly black, and not a single figure in the mural paintings was black,” Dr. Silver said. “The poses were the same, but Sargent had completely transformed his race — and in some cases his gender as well.”

Further digging revealed a longtime relationship between Sargent and McKeller as artist and model although it is not definitively known, it is thought possible that the relationship was also romantic.

In any case, Dr. Silver said, “we believe Thomas McKeller unlocked for Sargent a degree of creativity that he couldn’t find with other models.”

The show also features Sargent’s only monumental male nude and his only portrait of McKeller as himself — a striking painting that usually hangs in the M.F.A. The work was not commissioned but something the artist chose to do for himself, Dr. Silver said.

Visitors will also see a photo of a statue by the sculptor Cyrus Dallin, of Massasoit, a Native American leader the statue overlooks Plymouth Rock. McKeller was the body model for that statute.

Uncovering and updating information about well-known works of art is a longstanding practice. It was famously done in “The West as America,” a 1991 exhibition at what is now the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Through its wall labels and catalogs, it reinterpreted famous works of the Western landscape and Manifest Destiny — the belief that Americans were destined by God to govern the North American continent — through the lens of the impact on Native Americans and the environment.

“There was a very strong backlash, especially by members of Congress — the labels were seen as being revisionist and very strident in their historical content,” said Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, an associate professor of history of art at the University of Pennsylvania. “After that, many museums, especially federally funded ones, did not venture into that kind of exhibition practice for a long time. There was a real chilling effect.”

More recently, she said, “curators and art historians have been interested in trying to reveal more — in part because there’s more interest in having a robust understanding of the past,” she said. It is also a way to draw in more diverse audiences.

“I don’t want to overstate how much this is happening,” she said. “It’s wonderful, but it’s not pervasive.” Professor Shaw is also the senior historian and director of research, publications and scholarship at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

One prominent exhibition to highlight models who were largely invisible because of their race was “Posing Modernity: The Black Model From Manet and Matisse to Today” in 2018 at the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University. It examined the significance of black female models in the early years of European modernism.

“Boston’s Apollo” celebrates McKeller’s role in Sargent’s work but does not hide the artist’s racism. In her essay for the exhibition’s catalog, Professor Greene cites racial slurs Sargent used. “He’s an amazing painter — that doesn’t go away,” she said. “But we need to pause and rethink how he approached Thomas McKeller as a subject.”

The Gardner was careful to consult African-American art historians, community leaders and others to ensure the exhibition was done sensitively. Steven Locke, an artist and professor of fine arts at the Pratt Institute in New York, thinks it worked.

This could have been a show simply about Sargent, said Professor Locke, a consultant to the show. “That would have been very easy to do. But instead, it was a show about a man who was a mystery to all of us,” and it succeeded in “making him three-dimensional.”

“Just think about — there’s a whole suite of drawings Sargent saves at the end of his life and gives to Mrs. Gardner,” he said. “He signed them — he wanted people to know that he had done this. The museum is already finished, so he’s not giving them to her to put on the walls. But he knows at some point the story is going to come out. And who gets to tell it?”


List of works by John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent was an American artist, considered the "leading portrait painter of his generation" for his evocations of Edwardian era luxury. [1] During his career, he created roughly 900 oil paintings and more than 2,000 watercolors, as well as countless sketches and charcoal drawings. His oeuvre documents worldwide travel, from Venice to the Tyrol, Corfu, the Middle East, Montana, Maine, and Florida.

From the beginning his work was characterized by remarkable technical facility, particularly in his ability to draw with a brush, which in later years inspired admiration as well as criticism for a supposed superficiality. His commissioned works were consistent with the grand manner of portraiture, while his informal studies and landscape paintings displayed a familiarity with Impressionism.

In later life Sargent expressed ambivalence about the restrictions of formal portrait work, and devoted much of his energy to mural painting and working en plein air.


John Singer Sargent, El Jaleo

El Jaleo is housed within the quirky Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a Gilded Age art collection that serves as a window into the eponymous collector’s life and unique aesthetic taste. In order to view the painting, you must pass by the sunlit faux-Venetian courtyard and into the shadows of the first floor’s Spanish Cloister. Here El Jaleo hangs at the end of a long hallway, its immense size (over 7 by 11½ feet) almost fully covering the far wall of a dark niche. Its mildly claustrophobic and somewhat out-of-the-way physical location lends the striking oil on canvas one of the most intimate settings for a work of art on display in an American museum.

John Singer Sargent, El Jaleo, 1882, oil on canvas, 232 x 348 cm (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston)

The raw passion of the dance

The scene portrayed is a dynamic one: a group of musicians provides the rhythm for a lone flamenco dancer who performs for an audience of clapping listeners. It is a snapshot of a specific point in time: the apex of the dance, a moment rife with energy and sensual drama. The footlights cast haunting silhouettes on the rear wall the raw passion of the dance is palpable. The stark contrasts between murky shadow and dazzling illumination allow the painting to visually pop – a phrase that is often used in describing art but rarely so aptly. Due to the loose, frothy brushstrokes, there isn’t the sense of a true illusionary space, yet the light (and hence the vitality) of the scene seems to emanate outward from within the work, as though El Jaleo commands a life of its own.

American, but born and studied abroad

El Jaleo’s precocious artist, John Singer Sargent, painted the artwork in 1882 at the young age of 26. Both the painting and its creator are evocative of the times, reflective of the nineteenth-century American fascination with, and inherent dependence upon, foreign cultures for both technical training and artistic inspiration.

John Singer Sargent, La Carmencita, 1890, oil on canvas, 229 x 14 cm. (Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

Though labeled an American artist, Sargent was actually born in Florence to a Philadelphia family and traveled throughout his youth and career. In the late 1800s this type of background became the rule rather than the exception, with expatriate Americans taking advantage of the more accessible education opportunities abroad. Beyond the official state écoles (schools), private Parisian ateliers (studios) led by renowned artists offered instruction to admitted American students Sargent studied under one such teacher, Charles Émile Auguste Durand, aka Carolus-Duran. The competitive annual salons (exhibitions) were another draw for foreign-born artists and these venues could win a painting great critical acclaim, as did the Paris Salon of 1882 for El Jaleo.

It was not uncommon for works at the salons to depict exotic subject matter, and Sargent’s admiration for Spanish music and culture was a continuing theme throughout his career, notably resurrected for this 1890 portrait La Carmencita (Musée d’Orsay, Paris).


John Singer Sargent

". John Singer Sargent (January 12, 1856 – April 14, 1925) was an American artist, considered the "leading portrait painter of his generation" for his evocations of Edwardian era luxury. During his career, he created roughly 900 oil paintings and more than 2,000 watercolors, as well as countless sketches and charcoal drawings. His oeuvre documents worldwide travel, from Venice to the Tyrol, Corfu, the Middle East, Montana, Maine, and Florida. "

". Before Sargent's birth, his father FitzWilliam (b. 1820 Gloucester, Massachusetts) was an eye surgeon at the Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia 1844-1854. After John's older sister died at the age of two, his mother Mary (nພ Singer) suffered a breakdown, and the couple decided to go abroad to recover. They remained nomadic expatriates for the rest of their lives. Though based in Paris, Sargent's parents moved regularly with the seasons to the sea and the mountain resorts in France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. While Mary was pregnant, they stopped in Florence, Italy because of a cholera epidemic. Sargent was born there in 1856. A year later, his sister Mary was born. After her birth, FitzWilliam reluctantly resigned his post in Philadelphia and accepted his wife's entreaties to remain abroad. They lived modestly on a small inheritance and savings, living a quiet life with their children. They generally avoided society and other Americans except for friends in the art world. Four more children were born abroad, of whom only two lived past childhood. "

". In 1874, on the first attempt, Sargent passed the rigorous exam required to gain admission to the ಜole des Beaux-Arts, the premier art school in France. "

". Sargent's first major portrait was of his friend Fanny Watts in 1877, and was also his first Salon admission. "

". In the early 1880s Sargent regularly exhibited portraits at the Salon, and these were mostly full-length portrayals of women. "

". Sargent was a life-long bachelor who surrounded himself with family and friends. "

". In December 2004, Group with Parasols (A Siesta) (1905) sold for $US 23.5 million, nearly double the Sotheby's estimate of $12 million. The previous highest price for a Sargent painting was $US 11 million. "

SOURCE: Wikipedia contributors, 'John Singer Sargent', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 11 July 2011, 15:30 UTC, <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=John_Singer_Sargent&oldid. > [accessed 22 August 2011]


Lisa's History Room

"Madame X" by American portrait painter John Singer Sargent, 1884

In the Metropolitan Museum of New York hangs a seven-foot tall portrait of a rather pale woman in a black velvet evening dress held up by sparkly straps. “Madame X” was painted by the American society painter John Singer Sargent. The subject of the painting is Madame Virginie Gautreau, a professional beauty, who moved in the top tiers of Paris society and was often mentioned in the scandal sheets for her numerous dangerous indiscretions and passion for self-display. It was 1884 and Madame Gautreau was the Talk of Paris.

It was only a year earlier that John Singer Sargent had met her at a party. Once he laid eyes on her, he knew at once he must paint a portrait of her as an homage to her beauty – and a boost to his lagging career. He felt that if he painted her, all Parisian society women would flock to his studio demanding that he paint their portraits. Sargent sent word to Madame Gautreau that she must sit for a portrait she consented, realizing that a rising tide lifts all boats. She, too, needed the publicity to maintain her social superiority. Once they agreed, Sargent began to paint, devoting himself to capture the “strange, weird, fantastic, curious beauty of that peacock-woman, Mme. Gautreau,” noted one observer.

Madame Gautreau was rumored to take great pains to be beautiful:

Gautreau achieved her affected, highly artificial look with hennaed hair, heavily penciled brows, rouged ears and powdered skin. She was rumored to mix her powder with mauve tint and to ingest arsenic wafers to make her skin more translucent, giving it even more of a bluish-purple tint.

Not all thought she was lovely to look at. She had her detractors. Some said her white pallor and icy charm made her resemble a cadaver.

"Madame X" is shown as it must have originally appeared

The painting that hangs in the Met today, “Madame X,” however, is not the same Madame X as the one that Sargent painted in 1884 and exhibited in Paris. That image no longer exists. We can only speculate what it looked like. The painting shown to the right here is what it may have looked like. That original, the one exhibited in Paris in 1884, showed Madame Gautreau’s dress with the right strap suggestively falling off her shoulder. (Compare to the painting at the top, the one at the Met. Her right strap, you’ll notice, sits firmly in place.)

When exhibited in Paris, the painting “with the falling strap” created an instant sensation but not in the way Sargent and Gautreau had hoped:


No sooner had the doors of the Palais de l’Industrie in the Champs-Élysées opened on May 1, 1884, than a crowd gathered in front of ”Madame X.” People hooted and pointed the tips of their umbrellas and canes at the painting. ”Look! She forgot her chemise!* ” was heard over and over again. The critics were no kinder. ”Of all the undressed women at the Salon this year, the most interesting is Madame Gautreau . . . because of the indecency of her dress that looks like it is about to fall off,” wrote a critic for L’Artist. (*A chemise is a woman’s undergarment, a smock, that is worn under clothing and next to the skin. In that day, a French lady always wore a chemise under a dress.)

The painting was considered too provocative sex pervaded it. Not even an actress, it was remarked, would wear a dress that shockingly low-cut and snug! And that strap! A little imagination conjured up a scene in which a slight struggle with a lover might knock Madame X’s right strap completely off her shoulder leading to… ! Paris was abuzz with the scandal. Madame Gautreau’s mother demanded that Sargent withdraw the painting from the exhibit. He refused.

John Singer Sargent in Paris studio 1885 with the revised painting of Madame X

The painting, considered a beloved masterpiece today but pornographic by 1884 Parisian standards of decency, was trashed by the Paris critics so badly that Sargent, having lived in Paris for a decade then, was eventually forced to move to London to continue his profession. Sargent revised the painting to show the gown’s right strap securely in place. It is this retouched painting that hangs in the New York Metropolitan today.

Zip ahead to 1938 and the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Dorothy Hale was wearing her Madame X dress when she jumped to her death from her penthouse apartment. To learn more, read “Frida Kahlo: The Suicide of Dorothy Hale.”


Watch the video: Quick Tip 92 - Color Like Sargent (May 2022).