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I’ve been neglecting this blog for awhile for a number of important reasons involving such mundane things as earning a living or getting actual, productive work done. These things can interfere with a creative life in ways we can’t control. My last post here was on April 7th. I haven’t picked up my camera all month.

None of this implies a lack of ideas and I now have a backlog of things I’ve wanted to write about that will take me a while to work through. I don’t stay quiet for long, a fact that those who know me will cheerfully verify for you.

One topic on my mind for awhile has been the work of American artist John Singer Sargent. Sargent was a world-class portraitist at the close of the 19th Century and I’m using the term “American” in the most generous way possible. Born of American parents in Italy, he trained in Paris and died in London. He traveled extensively in the US and was active in the New York art scene in his later years but much of his reputation was built and his fortune earned on the work he did in Europe.

I questioned the American-ness of Sargent in this brief post on his work over a year ago, where I professed my adoration for one of his paintings, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit. And that wasn’t the only time I’ve raised the essential question of what actually makes an artist American. I’ll set that aside now and talk only about his portraits because American or not, he was a damn good portrait painter and every one one of us who captures the human image would do well to study his images.

Perhaps his most famous painting is the infamous Portrait of Madame X, a painting of Paris socialite Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, a very sexy (for the time) picture that caused such a scandal that it ruined the subject’s reputation and sent Sargent packing for London. The original had revealed that one strap of X’s dress had slipped seductively off her shoulder, something that would scarcely be noticed these days but sent waves of shock and revulsion through polite Paris society in 1884. The pose itself was aloof and aristocratic, with the pale X standing out sharply from a dark background.  Although Sargent revised the painting to put the offending strap in a more appropriate place, the damage was done.

Portrait of Madame X (John Singer Sargent, 1883 - 84)

Another gripping portrait is that of  legendary Boston art patron Isabella Stewart Gardner. Painted in 1888, when “Mrs. Jack” was nearing 50, it portrays the depth and quiet confidence of the brilliant, intellectually inquisitive, and eccentric Gardner in a way that allows the strength of the subject to radiate through her physical presence. It did not flatter, as many portraits do, so much as focus on the power of the sitter.

Isabella Stewart Gardner (John Singer Sargent, 1888)

For me, one of the most powerful of Sargent’s portraits was Lady Agnew of Lochnaw. I may be the only one to see it this way, but there’s just something seductive about this 27-year-old’s direct and riveting gaze and the relaxed informality of the pose and the setting. As a photographer, you work hard forjust one image like this, where every single essential element fits so carefully together. This work draws a wide, bright line between portraiture and mere likeness. It’s a standard we should all strive for but few of us can achieve with any consistency.

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (John Singer Sargent, 1892)

Sargent’s peak came at the time when the art world was being swept up in successive waves on modernism and his work was casually pushed  aside by art hipsters even before his death in 1925. His genteel Edwardian realism was designated decidedly uncool for awhile but the brilliance and insight of the best of his portrait work assures his place in the American Art Hall of Fame, even if is American credentials are, in my view, suspect. There are only a handful of portrait artists who  can capture the human face with the depth and sensitivity of John Singer Sargent. He has things to teach us.


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Singer Sargent, the American painter who was born on this day in 1856, a couple of times before (here and here). Both times, I used the word “depth” in the title of the post and I think […]

  2. […] always had some difficulty getting my head around this (and have written so in posts before, here and here and maybe a few other places, too) – her art experience, her style, her influences, […]

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