Walking into John Singer Sargent
Updated: Apr 8, 2022
When I used to think of John Singer Sargent (1856 - 1925), I thought "American portrait artist, turn of the twentieth century, lots of paintings of rich people. They were probably vapid but Sargent found something interesting in them." In other words, I thought of this portrait of Lady Agnew:
This particular portrait is distinctive because of Lady Agnew's gaze, but otherwise it seemed to me just another picture of an overdressed, bored rich woman, a typical personage of the late Victorian era, stuffy and probably indolent. Upon closer examination, however, I see that I was terribly wrong. This is a frankly erotic portrayal of a woman, despite—partially because of—all of the clothes she's wearing. The dress is gauzy and sheer; you can see her upper arms through the sleeves. It suggests a negligee. Her sash makes her look as if she is a gift ready to be unwrapped. She is lying back with her arm dangling, as if she is languidly watching her lover approach. You can see the contour of one shapely thigh.
And that gaze! By her posture one may infer that she is willing to give herself to someone, but those deep brown eyes say that that person had better have strength enough to match her own. Maybe she's spoiled, but she knows what she wants, and that's you. Apparently, the reputation the Victorians have for sexual repression is not entirely accurate. I know I was fooled by that reputation, but I plead desensitization produced by overexposure to all things sexual (but usually not erotic) in our modern era.
Seeing Lady Agnew in this way unlocked something about how I see Sargent's portraits so that I could discern the individuals behind the social roles. And there's much more to Sargent than pictures of rich people, erotic or not. It turns out that in my vast ignorance of art history, I had seriously underestimated the scope of his output. In an attempt to partially rectify the situation I've decided to sample several of his works that have had an effect on me, from different times of his life, of a number of different subjects, and in various media, and offer them up in this essay, with a smidgen of historical context and a bit of analysis.. I don't believe in ars gratia artis (art for art's sake). Rather, I believe that art plays an essential role in the evolution of the spirit, and so I will offer up some of my personal responses to these works. I hope that even readers who know a lot more about Sargent than I do will find my brief odyssey not only edifying but also fun.
After awhile Sargent stopped making the kind of pictures his fame was based on. According to the Met's website:
In 1907, Sargent declared that he would no longer paint portraits on commission. "No more paughtraits," he wrote to his longtime friend Ralph Curtis, using his personal and satiric spelling of the genre that had made him famous. "I abhor and abjure them and hope never to do another especially of the Upper Classes."
Sargent's disenchantment with creating commissioned portraits arose, in part, from the difficulty of satisfying his discriminating patrons. Due to the litany of minor complaints from his sitters, Sargent once defined a portrait as "a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth." The need to engage his sitter's attention while he painted his or her likeness further challenged the reticent Sargent. He explained to his friend, painter Jacques-Emil Blanche: "Painting a portrait would be quite amusing if one were not forced to talk while working."
But Sargent did not stop making portraits. He mostly just switched to charcoal as his medium and mostly to acquaintances and other artists as his subjects. He could execute a charcoal in two to three hours instead of the eight to ten weeks an oil would require. Some of his charcoals are just as perceptive as his best oils. This charcoal from 1910 is of fellow artist Sir William Blake Richmond. Based on Richmond's critical-looking inspection of his portraitist, one has to wonder who is trying to capture whom.
One of the many misconceptions I had of Sargent was that he was an American. Actually, he was a cosmopolitan. True, his parents were American, and so he was an American citizen, but they were nomadic expats in Europe, and he was born in Florence. He didn't set foot in the US until he was 20, and he lived much of his life overseas, although he did do some important work stateside, notably large murals for the Boston Library. He was trained in Paris, and did some of his early work in Venice, painting street life. Take this remarkable painting, for example. It may not seem that impressive to the reader at first, but it has profound significance for me, despite its quotidian subject.
I suppose you could call it Impressionism because it offers us an impression of the scene rather than painting in all the detail. We can't even see the whites of the woman's eyes. If you look at it as just a two-dimensional object, like wallpaper, its colors are quite dreary. Owing to Sargent's skill, however, the seemingly dreary surface becomes an appealing volume of space and shade.
It's not gloomy. Enough sunlight penetrates the alley to cast faint shadows around the feet of the figures and to glint off of the bricks and the man's boot. The bright light at the opposite end of the alley contrasts with the more nearly ambient light in the alley, useful for creating an illusion of shade. The brain unconsciously corrects hues and tones to take into account environmental lighting, thus eliminating the perception of dreariness. The reason you can't see the details of the woman's eyes is that they are in shadow, but you can tell from the way her head is turned and the shadows of her eye-sockets that she is looking out at you. It's a bit scary, but it works. The one-point perspective of the walls, although a trifle obvious, helps with the illusion of depth, as does the blurriness of the background. One element I find especially effective is the sharp line of the back of the man's cloak, which pushes his figure forward from the less detailed background.
Even though it is "only" a representation, I get a heightened sense of reality from this painting, far more than I do from works in the photorealist style, probably because they do not seem to me to respect how vision actually operates. In this depiction I see that special quality which I revere above all others in painting. Call it immersion. I am able to "walk into the picture" and experience the three-dimensional space and light of the scene. I think that immersion is especially important to me because the experience of it is difficult for me to attain in real life, due to the quirks of my eyesight and my tendency to withdraw from reality. I have worked very hard to live in the world instead of in my own head, and I'll take any help I can get. For me A Street in Venice is art therapy.
From what I've read, few artists work from pure imagination. Most need a live model or at least a photograph of someone or something real. Artists often use the same model over and over. Picasso took his to bed, and Dali married his. Things were not so simple in Sargent's case.
When working in Boston in his later years, Sargent employed a young elevator operator as his body model for various murals and paintings. The man, Thomas McKeller, was black, but Sargent turned his body white. The New York Times recently ran a story referring to McKeller as Sargent's "secret muse." I see no reason to think that McKeller did anything inspirational for Sargent, as a muse would. Their relationship might have been perfectly instrumental. We have to wonder how much Sargent actually respected McKeller as a human being rather than just as a hireling.
And yet.... Sargent did one painting of McKeller as himself. It seems to me to go far beyond a simple nude study of the male physique. McKeller is half-kneeling with his legs spread, genitals front and center. His arms are behind him as if he is tied up and his face is turned heavenward as if in serene submission to a higher power. He is surrounded by a galaxy of swirls. If this does not qualify as yielding to another's erotic gaze, I do not know what would.
So is the "higher power" Sargent and if so was the relationship sexual? We have no way of knowing. Sargent never married, but that doesn't prove that he was gay or bisexual, and although he was friends with gay men like Oscar Wilde, he didn't speak or write about them or they about him in any but a platonic way. We only have the evidence of the McKeller painting and some male nude studies in charcoal of McKeller and other men that perhaps go beyond the merely anatomical. Regardless, what is clear is that Sargent was moved by McKeller's body.
In addition to his figurative work, Sargent also painted architecture, fountains, Venetian gondolas and the like. I love architectural painting, so I will include one such work here, A Study in Architecture, from 1910. It has a high degree of immersion for me, although not as much as A Street in Venice, despite its more complex perspective and greater variety of tints and shades. One aspect of the painting that is quite immersive for me is the white sky in the background. Although probably not "realistic" in a meteorological sense, it, along with the orange shadows, create the illusion of a volume of late-day sun that justifies the hues of the columns, which the mind would likely assume to be "really" white, not golden.
Again displaying his versatility, Sargent did hundreds of watercolors. These were not, as far as I have seen, formal portraits, but rather pictures of Venice, landscapes, picnickers, and occasional "exotic" people like Bedouins. Sargent liked to paint watercolors when he traveled, since it was easy to take paper and paint cakes with him wherever he went.
I confess that I do not care for most of Sargent's watercolors. The shapes seem too undefined, the colors too bright, the details too vague. They are everything I don't like about most Impressionism.
There are exceptions of course. I include this work because it is such an exception and because it is the only landscape in my tiny collection of Sargent's works. Interestingly, although at first glance it is obviously rocks in a shallow stream, if you look closely it verges on being an abstract.
Notice that the rocks are not sharply rendered. If you get right up on them they seem like little blobs of variegated paint. Then you might notice that the upper part of each blob is lighter than the lower part, suggesting light and shadow, while the variegations suggest molded forms. Back off and like magic you see rocks in water again! Now it's not abstract.
In fact, it's immersive, again without being photorealism. The eye naturally assumes that the rocks are more-or-less evenly, though randomly, distributed. But you can see more of the water under the "near" rocks than under or between the "far" rocks, creating the illusion of depth. The blurry foliage in the far background bothered me at first. But I realized that if one focusses on the foreground, that's what the background would look like. I suppose that's impressionism but it works for me here.
The really powerful element for me, though, is the light. Somehow, and I do not pretend to be able to describe the process, Sargent has caused us to believe we're are seeing bright sunlight. I can step into the picture, although I wouldn't want to stumble on the rocks or get my feet wet! When you first see this painting from a distance, you might mistake it for a photograph, although a good look reveals that its realism is achieved by non-photographic means and is in its own way more satisfying than a photo could be.
Given the thousands of treasures that Sargent created, I could easily go on. I feel a little bad not including any of his murals or one of his few sculptures. But space does not permit me to give Sargent his full due. It would in fact require many volumes to do so. What have I have tried to accomplish is to show what I have gotten—and by extension what anybody who pays attention might get—out of a selective encounter with a great artist. After all, art isn't eye candy; rather, it should help you change your life.