Perhaps it is the manner in which she distances you, with sensuous indifference, her head cast to her left side in a haughty dismissal of would-be suitors. Or perhaps it is the vision of her partially revealed bosom, exposed by a low-cut velvet evening dress. It may be the bluish tone of her skin and her upturned arm that suggests something cool and pleasurable amid the fiery sensations of nascent lust. Then there is her hand, pressed lightly against her abdomen, which conjures up certain desires that remain unspoken in public. Without saying anything, she combines the most passionate aspects of beauty and the most beautiful aspects of passion. Yes, there is something altogether different about this woman. She is known as Madame X. And it is only a painting.
But it is this same painting of 23-year-old Virginie Avegno Gautreau, a New Orleans socialite, which sent murmurs of disapproval through the 1884 Paris Salon. The results forced budding artist John Singer Sargent into the arms of a more receptive public in London two years later.
Boston novelist Henry James, a friend of Sargent’s and another subject of his many portraits, once wrote, “If we pretend to respect the artist at all, we must allow him his freedom of choice… Art derives a considerable part of its beneficial exercise from flying in the face of presumptions.” The Parisian crowd, despite their archetypal willing acceptance of the avant-garde or downright libidinous (though Sargent did not fall into either classification), reacted harshly to his choice. The scandal thrust him into temporary self-exile and, more notably, a life of artistic fame.
John Singer Sargent was born on July 12, 1856 to expatriate American parents in Florence, Italy. His father was a New England doctor; his mother was a neurotic, dismissive of American culture. In the 1870s, during his early training in the Paris studio of Emile Carolus-Duran, he exhibited a propensity for flair and brilliance. Sargent was able to imitate the meticulous styles of the Old Masters, such as Velázquez, Titian and Goya, and fell into the company of the Impressionists while still in his twenties. Degas scorned him, of course, but Pissarro and Monet jointly admired his work. Sargent developed a positive relationship with the latter, resulting in paintings like Claude Monet in his Bateau-Atelier(1887) and Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of a Wood (1885).
With the detail of Velázquez contrasted by the hazy imagery of his contemporaries, Sargent toyed with white-on-white shadow and the subdued reverence of his subject in Fumée d’ambre Gris (c. 1880). Rehearsal of the Pasdeloup Orchestra at the Cirque d’Hiver, painted around the same time, is nearly as monochrome yet startlingly cacophonic; the performers are depicted as mere notes on a billowing sheet of music.
It was portraits, however, that won Sargent his international esteem, and it is a rare review that does not mention Auguste Rodin’s ironic flattery: “He is the Van Dyck of our times.” Rodin’s intention was to compare their egregious courting of classed and moneyed patrons. But Sargent, like Van Dyck, was extremely talented and delightfully ignorant of social standing. He soon became the favourite son of England’s high society. His second visit to America in 1887-the first one too brief and inconsequential to mention-brought forty more commissions, thereby making him the leading portraitist on both sides of the Atlantic. Sitters included two American Presidents (Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt), businessmen (John D. Rockefeller), literary greats (Robert Louis Stevenson and the aforementioned Henry James) and gentry (art lover Isabella Stewart Gardener). His work in this category defined his style: the usage of light, profundity of gesture and conveyance of personality amid artistic reticence.
Take, for instance, his 1892 production of Lady Angew of Lochnaw. She is every bit as sensual as Madame X, but less dignified. Set before an Oriental curtain, she reclines in a floral-print chair, light dancing off her purple dress. Sargent trapped her pale vulnerability, paradoxical confidence and raised-eyebrow bemusement with fluid brushstrokes. Discounting the ageing James Whistler, not since Benjamin West could America claim such a gifted portraitist as her own. The rapidity of the demands inevitably took their toll.
Walter Tittle accounted for Sargent’s dissatisfaction in a 1925 edition of Illustrated London News, where he quoted him as saying, “I hate to paint portraits! I hope to never paint another portrait in my life… I have had enough of it.” For Sargent, aesthetics clashed with success, and he continually referred to his work as ‘paughtraights’ or ‘mugs.’ He has also been attributed with the remark, “Every time I paint a portrait I lose a friend.” Though his expertise earned him an offer of British citizenship from King Edward VII-which he refused-he abandoned the genre to focus on landscapes and murals in 1907, making exceptions for clients like Rockefeller in 1917. Thus began another phase in Sargent’s career.
Now that one can view Sargent’s lifetime from the vantage of the present, he is generally recognized as a landscape painter of considerable talent; and was adept at watercolours and murals as well. London’s Tate Gallery holds pictures of his Venetian canals and passageways, the bounties of the Mediterranean soil and Alpine panoramas. Nature, not modernity, was his Muse and mistress. It was a fantastic escape from the bustle of Paris and London and fin-de-siécle America, back to the grassroots simplicity of the rural setting.
His later years were spent in the employ of the Boston Public Library and Museum of Fine Arts. He painted giant, sweeping mythological murals for the ceiling of the upper rotunda and the stairwell of the MFA, in addition to religious murals for the library. Following WWI, Sargent collaborated with Henry Tonks, a Briton, in 1918 to carry out a War Memorials Committee commission. The result, among other works, was Gassed, a twenty-foot frieze based on a first-hand experience at the casualty station in Le Bac-de-Sud, France. Littered with symbolism and despair, it shows the effects of mustard gas on a line of Tommies and the atrocities of the First World War.
The path of Sargent’s artistic evolution can be traced from the dim rapture of El Jaleo, which debuted at the Paris Salon in 1882; to his Impressionist influences in Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885-6), where two young girls light garden lanterns at dusk; to the post-1900 watercolour Cashmere, which features a shawl-clad girl in various sequences of motion across a field, a predecessor of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. Volumes could be written on each aspect of his prolific career.
Until his death in 1925, it was Sargent’s opportunism and superficiality that allowed him to cross these boundaries between portraiture and landscape, oils and watercolours, sketches and murals. He simply recorded what he saw, and in doing so, simultaneously revealed essential characteristics about his era and its zeitgeist; but never probing too deeply, never intentionally engaging in polemics. There is a perplexing beauty in that, a beauty sans irony that pervades Sargent’s abundant collection of work. By no means did Sargent seek to change art. He merely aimed to perfect that which existed.
Note: Readers in New England have the chance to see a comprehensive collection of Sargent´s art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston until September 26, 1999. There are several web-based displays of his work available at Artcyclopedia.