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Tag Archives: American Painters

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.


Ah, sometimes you wish you felt inspired, sometime you have too much on your plate for the time you have. Feast or famine. When it rains, is pours. Blah Blah Blah

Today, I am thinking of Edward Steichen, who was born on March 27th, 1883, and of Hilton Kramer, who died yesterday at the age of 84. Steichen was one of the most influential figures in 20th Century art and photography. Kramer was an influential art critic from the early 1950s up to the time of his passing. Both of these guys played a huge role in shaping the visual arts we enjoy or loathe today. Each would be a great subject for an entire essay here and they will be, when I have a little more time.

With the few minutes I have this morning I will note the work of Albert Pinkham Ryder, an American painter who was most productive in the late 1800s. By all accounts he was a decidedly strange individual, about as far from the meticulous and fussy artist stereotype as you can imagine. He died on this day in 1917, but his creative output had all but ceased long before that.

Ryder’s late work has a strange darkness that draws me in. It’s the kind of stuff that makes you crave the sunshine and the company of nice, cheerful people. It’s the kind of stuff that makes you wonder what kind of personal hell Ryder may have created for himself and why.

Seacoast in Moonlight (Albert Pinkham Ryder, 1890)

You’re not going to hang these things in your dining room.

The Racetrack (Death on a Pale Horse), (Albert Pinkham Ryder, 1895 - 1910)


Georgia O’Keeffe died 26 years ago today. I’ve long been fascinated with O’Keeffe and her place in the history of 20th Century American art, first as a member of the circle of Alfred Stieglitz (whom she married in 1924) and later as a cultural icon in her own right. Starting out as a member of a group of men in an era when women weren’t taken very seriously as artists, she went on to eclipse them all. It’s a fascinating story and one that’s particularly well-documented.

Summer Days (Georgia O’Keeffe, 1936)

O’Keeffe lived for well over 90 years and painted long enough to have several distinct periods evident in her work. She’s probably best known for the floating cow skulls and other images of New Mexico, where she eventually relocated to spend the last 40 years of her life. She did revolutionary work with large close-ups of flowers early in her career and gave it up because too many observers saw sexual connotations in the paintings that she vehemently denied. I am particularly enchanted with her cityscapes. She was a prolific painter with varied interests and left an indelible impression on American culture for most of the 20th Century.

Two Calla Lillies on Pink (Georgia O’Keeffe, 1928)

She was an integral part of a group of American Modernist painters like John Marin, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, and Charles Demuth and she endured long after they became art historical footnotes. She crashed the art world’s essentially all-male party in the 1920s and 30s, paving the way for succeeding generations of women artists,  then soundly rejected the adoration of feminists in the 1970s. She was reclusive, secretive, and a little weird.

The Radiator Building at Night (Georgia O’Keeffe, 1927)

It’s interesting to speculate about how O’Keeffe’s career trajectory would have been different had Stieglitz, a huge mover and shaker on the American art scene in the early part of the 20th Century, not married her and devoted so much time and energy to advancing her career (She was the last artist shown at Stieglitz’s monumentally influential New York gallery 291). At least one biographer, Stieglitz niece Sue Davidson Lowe, insists that O’Keeffe’s talent would have propelled her to the fore regardless. I’m not so sure. She was a talented painter but her standoffish and disagreeable personality may not have served her well without Stieglitz’s relentless promotion. If the last 40 years of art history have taught us anything, it’s that PR trumps talent every time.

The other day, I posted about artist Ben Shahn, who was as American an artist as I can imagine even though he was born in Lithuania. Today, I’m going to talk about James Abbott McNeil Whistler, who was born on this day in 1834. Whistler’s trajectory was exactly the opposite of Shahn’s; he was born in Massachusetts but acquired most of his training and lived most of his life in France and England, even going to the extreme of denying his American birth, preferring instead to claim that he was born in Russia. His influences were European, his patrons were European, nevertheless, we claim Whistler as an American artist and count his most famous painting, Whistler’s Mother (more accurately known as Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother), among America’s iconic paintings.

Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist's Mother (James Abbot McNeil Whistler - 1871)

The painting is seen by many as stirring and timeless representation of motherhood. I’m not seeing it. Were it not for the title, I would challenge anyone to point out what, if anything, is motherly about this image. It’s an old women sitting in a chair, painted in profile. She could as easily be a spinster or the mother of 10. Nothing about this image sorts this out for us. That didn’t stop anyone from assigning whatever meaning they wanted, and Motherhood was the meaning they liked best. When the US Postal Service (then known as the Post Office Department) went looking for an image to commemorate Motherhood in 1934, this is the one they chose.

Motherhood Commemorative Stamp of 1934

The bigger question, in my mind, is why have we been so quick to to embrace Whistler as an AMERICAN painter. It’s true that in Whistler’s day there was arguably no truly American art. Just about every notable American artist of the period, and well up into the 20th Century, went overseas for training, most often to Paris, and returned home afterwards. Even the most “American” art of the 19th Century, like the Hudson River School, was a hybrid of American and European influences, with the visual part decidedly European. The American art of the early 20th century, like the Ashcan School and the constellation of painters that coalesced around Alfred Stieglitz, maintained those strong ties to Europe, with Georgia O’Keeffe being a notable exception to the rule.

Conventions of Art History aside, Whistler was no American artist. The same can be said of Mary Cassatt, who’s path was remarkably similar to Whistler’s but who is also frequently cited as an “American”. This is not to denigrate the work of either artist or minimize our debt to our European cousins, but the very best things about American art are borne of the American Experience. I mean only to suggest that our art heritage might be better served if we spent more time celebrating people like Shahn, or photographers Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis, or painters like O’Keeffe, John Sloan, and Edward Hopper. They are among those truly American artists who, regardless of where the came from or where they were trained, brought the quintessence of America into our visual consciousness.