December 2015


Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends
Metropolitan Museum of Art
June 30 - October 4, 2015

John Singer Sargent

Previously Unplumbed Depths

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

In art there is no substitute for talent. That the American painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1825) possessed it in spades was evident in the splendid recent exhibition Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (June 30 - October 4, 2015).

Sargent's prodigious talent, augmented by ceaseless application, was clear to all at an early age. By thirteen, his mother (herself an amateur artist) observed that he sketched "quite nicely" and had "a remarkably quick and correct eye." At eighteen, a fellow art student, J. Alden Weir, noted: "I met this last week a young Mr Sargent . . . one of the most talented fellows I have ever come across; his drawings are like old masters." Five years later, the striking portrait Sargent affectionately inscribed to his principal teacher, Carolus-Duran (1879), prompted the judgment that the student had surpassed his teacher.

Sargent has been best known for his extravagantly fashionable commissioned portraits of the rich and famous. But they are rarely the most telling gauge of his artistry, for they often lack the psychological penetration he was capable of. An early work that transcends fashionable conventions was his double portrait of Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron, the children of a successful Parisian playwright. In later years, Marie-Louise--who had gone on to have her own literary career--reported how she had hated the ordeal of sitting for this portrait. It shows. Sargent captured the resistance of this strong-minded ten-year-old in her stonily defiant expression. And her left hand is awkwardly arched at the edge of her seat, as if she might spring up and away at any moment. In stark contrast, her more accommodating older brother seems quite relaxed and remarkably poised for a fifteen-year-old.

Not surprisingly, Sargent's best work tended to be inspired, like that of all great portraitists, by people he felt a personal connection to. Such works were the welcome focus of the Met exhibition. One superb example is the dashing full-length portrait, Dr. Samuel Jean Pazzi at Home (1881). That eminent gynecologist, depicted informally here in a scarlet dressing gown, was greatly admired by Sargent--as he no doubt was by his female patients, not least for his remarkably handsome features.

Since many of Sargent's chosen subjects were individuals noted for their achievements in the arts and science, his insightful depictions afford viewers the sense of a vicariously intimate meeting with those eminent figures--among others, novelist Henry James, poets old and young (Coventry Patmore and William Butler Yeats), and the actresses Ruth Draper and Ellen Terry (as Lady Macbeth). An especially moving full-length commissioned portrait was that of Edwin Booth, the great Shakespearean actor who had the tragic misfortune to be the brother of President Lincoln's assassin.

Prominently situated in the show was the Met's own Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), the notorious portrait that had scandalized the Paris Salon in 1884--an event that eventually led to Sargent's departure from Paris for London, where he set up residence. Sargent is said to have regarded it as his best work. But we find it far less appealing than his later portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner (1888)--perhaps because, as clearly emerges from the two images, the subject was of a more admirable character. In emphasizing the forthrightness of Mrs. Gardner's pose and expression and framing her beautifully against a halo-like tapestry, Sargent did full justice to the bold American collector who became both a friend and one of his most enthusiastic patrons.

It is interesting to note that although Sargent was born in Florence to expatriate American parents and lived abroad for his entire life (apart from occasional trips to the United States), he chose to retain his American citizenship. And thanks to a close relationship that both he and his family maintained with the Met, it owns one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of his work in the world. Recent acquisitions that were included in the exhibition are pencil studies of Dorothy and Polly Barnard, who served as models for the two girls in Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, the captivating work featured on our July 2015 home page.

For Further Reading and Viewing
Compiled by Louis Torres

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The Met's page on Sargent: Portraits of Artists & Friends is a trove of information, critical analysis, and images--of interest not only to readers fortunate enough to have attended the exhibition but also to the many who will visit it only vicariously online. Ordinary art lovers, students, critics, and scholars alike will find much of value. "About the Exhibition" features four main sections: Exhibition Galleries, Exhibition Objects, Sargent Exhibition Blog, and the Audio Guide (click on the section title to reach the respective page.)

Exhibition Galleries. This section provides an overview of the show's six galleries (and accompanying texts), each devoted to a period or locus of Sargent's career, with a relevant selection of works--from his years in Paris (1874-1885) to time spent throughout Europe (1899-1914). References to individual works in the accompanying textual narratives include links to large images and further information. If you click on the links, you might want to pause to enjoy the painting before scrolling down the page to the text that follows. (Do not click on the "Back to Exhibition Objects" link, which goes to the complete list, rather than to the previous page visited.)

Exhibition Objects. A welcome feature is this complete listing of the works in the exhibition--all 113 of them!--with thumbnail images. Click on thumbnails to access large images with descriptive text.

Exhibition Blog. This section offers lots of substantive posts on a variety of topics--most of them by Stephanie L. Herdrich, the Assistant Research Curator of the American Wing. Reader comments following the posts (and occasional replies by Herdrich) are often worth reading as well. Herdrich's first post is dated June 30, 2015, and the last, "'No More Paughtraits': Final Thoughts. . . ," October 6, 2015. Of particular interest is her discussion "John Singer Sargent's Portrayal of Hands"--on which I posted two comments.