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Tag Archives: John Singer Sargent

Today is Tammy’s birthday.

Birthdays are a common event, happening in everyone’s life every year, so I figured that a quick review of art history would yield a plethora of birthday-themed images from important painters from history. Boy, was I really wrong.

Such an image search gives you page after page of stuff like this:

Superhero Birthday Party

Superhero Birthday Party

I really like that one, from a blog called Welcome to Sillyville. It would be perfectly appropriate if Tammy were a 9-year old boy, which she isn’t.

Serious painters have rarely tackled the birthday scene, and most of what I’ve found leans toward reverent celebrations in the lives of 19th Century nuclear families, like this one from John Singer Sargent:

The Birthday Party (John Singer Sargent, 1885)

The Birthday Party (John Singer Sargent, 1885)

It’s a quaint and heartwarming scene, and that could actually BE Tammy sitting there if she weighed 200 pounds more than she does now, had much darker hair,  and lived 150 years ago.

And then there’s this celebration from Marc Chagall:

Birthday (Marc Chagall, 1915)

Birthday (Marc Chagall, 1915)

I’m not sure what to make of that one and I’m too old to float around the room now, if indeed I ever could.

For whatever it’s worth, I give you these images in celebration of Tammy’s birthday today. Not sure what I was really hoping for, but these will have to do.


I’ve mentioned John 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 this word describes his portrait work very well. At his very best, he painted people’s essence rather than their likeness. This isn’t easy.

Largely known as a realist portrait painter, he frequently produced paintings involving numerous other subjects and styles. His landscape At Calcot, below,  clearly shows the influence of Impressionism. This isn’t surprising since he counted Claude Monet among his friends.

At Calcot (John Singer Sargent, 1888)

At Calcot (John Singer Sargent, 1888)

He was also fond of the genteel genre scenes popular during his creative prime, many of which he rendered in watercolor. The Garden Wall below is a good example.

The Garden Wall (John Singer Sargent, 1910)

The Garden Wall (John Singer Sargent, 1910)

Sargent was a prolific artist, producing nearly 3,000 paintings (mostly watercolor) and a large number of charcoal sketches before dying in 1925. His work covers a wide range of subjects and, like many artists, attracted both praise and scorn. Love his or hate him, his skill is undeniable.

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.


I note that American painter John Singer Sargent died on this day in 1925. I say “American” with a little bit of reluctance, since he spent a lot of time in Europe and was highly regarded on both sides of the Atlantic.

I count one of his images among my favorites, specifically, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, reproduced below.

I never get tired of looking at this painting because I can never quite figure it out. Ordinarily, you’d expect to paint four sisters sitting on their mother’s fainting couch, one with a puppy in her lap, maybe a kitten. This painting has none of that homey, intimate quality. It’s composed in a way that you might question the relationship among these four young women if the physical resemblances weren’t so strong. Even so, there is no real connection between any two sisters; they simply appear together in a space suggesting both wealth (I mean, how many people have GIANT vases in their homes) and a kind of dark isolation. The oldest is barely present at all, partially hidden in the shadows and turned away from the viewer. I can’t find anything in the painting that explains why, so I fill in the blanks as best I can, which is both the pleasure and the frustration of spending time with this picture.

I like images like this because I like making images like this, although I don’t do it enough.


The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (John Singer Sargent, 1882)