Thursday, June 10, 2010

John Singer Sargent

Self-portrait, 1886

This is John Singer Sargent. Born January 12, 1856, in Florence, Italy, to American parents, an eye-surgeon father, and a hypochondriac mother. So bad was her "condition", that the Sargents had to move to Europe to live in more pleasant climes, where young Sargent was born. Even in Europe, they shifted according to the seasons, preferring cool mountain locations in the summer, and balmy seaside ones during winter.

No, they weren't well-off at all. Young Sargent, aged 17, who by then had recognisable artistic talent, would leave the family at their seaside residence for then, and head off to Paris to live and apprentice with Carolus-Duran, one of the most influential artists at the time.
Fanny Watts, 1877
Fanny Watts was a friend of Sargent, and this was his first Salon appearance. The Salon is an annual art exhibition in Paris that showcased artworks by new and established artists alike. So highly esteemed was the event, that the Salon was known to make and break careers.

Carolus-Duran, 1879
This painting was shown at that year's Salon, and somewhat upstaged the teacher himself.

The Sargent family now included 2 sisters, and their moving soon became a huge financial strain. Thankfully, young Sargent was super-talented at art, and was soon earning some to keep the family afloat.

Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood, 1885

The rest of Sargent's life is not the kind you would find terribly interesting. Especially for an artist. No torrid affairs, no illegitimate children, no drunken and/or opiate habits. Sargent was just an artisitic phenom and workaholic.
As he became more established, he travelled extensively around Europe and the Middle East, and was exposed to cultures, art forms and other great masters. Sargent showed every year at the Salon, an annual highly-anticipated art exhibition graced by celebrities and socialites, showcasing the year's newbies, as well as attesting the accomplished and recognised.

Fumee d'Ambre Gris, 1880

There were rumours that Sargent could have been gay, coz he only hung out with a few close male buddies. But many art historians have argued that these remain rumours, as would inevitably arise if you're in the public eye, and not seem to be dating anyone. So you must be gay, right? Not. Maybe. But who cares, right?

Poppies, 1886

Anyway, the point is that John Singer Sargent is an undeniable genius when it comes to canvas, paints and brush. Perhaps the only juicy bits of his life are from those who sat for him to have their portraits done. And these were reports on Sargent's little eccentricities while he worked.

A few patrons claimed he liked to keep pieces of bread in his jacket pocket, and every now and then pick little piece off them inside his pocket and nibble on the tiny bits. Some others also said that he was a painful perfectionist, odd to an extent, with his sizing up his subject from afar, and then sprinting to the canvas to replicate that exact same perspective on the canvas. Can. You. Imagine??

By the River (I), 1888

A gorgeous rendition of peace and solitude - his sister, Violet, reading on a boat in the summer.

Parisian Beggar Girl, 1880

Sargent became a celebrity of sorts, for his outstanding portrait work. He was continuously at work, receiving commission after commission, from first the social elite in Europe, and later when he went back to America, where the South's nouveau riche were literally throwing money at him to snag a sitting and a portrait.

Beatrice Townsend, 1882

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1893

Madame Ramon Subercaseaux, 1881

And the reason for his return to America is this little lady right here - Madame Virginie Amelie Pierre Gautreau. Like Sargent, she was also an American in Paris. Born in New Orleans, Lousiana, of French descent, with a silver spoon in her mouth, Virginie and her family escaped the civil war in America, and fled straight into high society in Paris.

A black-and-white photopgraph of "Madame X" as it hung at the Salon in 1884

Now, this wasn't a commission. This was a request from the artist, and the very generous and kind granting of permission from the It girl of Parisian high society. Sargent had all the say in composition, content and colour. Right down to the pose. Apparently, the pair spent many weeks trying to figure out a good pose. Many weeks, only because of Madame Gautreau's very tight social schedule, and somewhat laziness and impatience when it came to sitting still for a sketch.

A close-up of the painting. It was interesting how Sargent gave quite some attention to her red ear, as if saying she wore too much face powder, forgetting to apply the white to her ears.

In any case, the portrait, entitled "Madame X", showed at 1884's Salon. The Salon is an annual grand exhibition of art, a show that makes and breaks artists' careers. And just like how Sargent's career boomed with Fanny Watts in 1877, it came tumbling down with Madame X in 1884. Madame Gautreau's reputation also took a severe turn for the worse, and she never quite recovered, living the rest of her life in relative solitude.

It was a mix of socio-political climates, and vicious gossip, that led to the downfall of both the artist and his subject. The French were particularly contradictory, that Salon year of Madame X. France had just come out of the Franco-Prussian War, and were re-examining themselves. As a society, they found weaknesses everywhere, from rampant materialism to nonchalant adultery, the decline of public health to the growing disdain for fortunate heiresses, just like Madame Virginie Amelie Gautreau.

The reviews, needless to say, were scathing. From the horrible "brazen" pose to the sickly complexion, the tasteless "slut" dress to the boring colour tone, critics and Salon judges didn't spare Madame X. Sargent was reeling in shock, as he had been showing for so many years at the Salon, and had always garnered praises and awards.
"Madame X", after Sargent "fixed" it
Sargent was so hurt by the whole drama, that he took the painting back, and altered the dress, on the painting. The original that showed at the Salon in 1884 had one strap off her shoulder. Today, if you go down to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, you will see her with both straps up.

From then, Sargent kept the painting away from society's cruel eyes, in his studio, by his side. Many of his close friends said that Sargent found that piece of work cathartic in every sense, from the beginning to the end, and even after. He always saw it as a reminder of how art can be so subjective, to a point of a prisoner of society's whims and wills.

A few years later, Madame Gautreau commissioned a portrait of herself with another artist, Gustave Courtois, that featured her in a similar profile pose, in a chiffon gown, with one fallen strap. This time, there was hardly anything bad to say.
I am bowled over by Sargent's portraits, and even more so by "Madame X" and the drama that ensued at the Salon. How social climate had so much to do, yet nothing at all, with Sargent's art. Amazing.
I love how "Madame X" looks so simple, yet had such a big story. What struck me most, was how void of jewels she was, considering it was the French Belle Epoque era, and ladies (especially those of Madame Gautreau's status) were completely decked out most of the time.

A photograph of Sargent in his studio, with "Madame X"
Anyway, back to our story.
Sargent retreated to close friends after the "Madame X" drama, living in an artists' commune in England. Here he recuperated, under the care of Frank Millet and his wife, and friends including the writer, Henry James. His painting, "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose" completed in 1886 saw him make full recovery as an artist, both in his mind, and society's eyes.

"Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose", 1886
Sargent then travelled a bit, and decided to move back to America, where he quickly built a reputation for himself. Before he knew it, he was commanding higher and higher for each portrait he painted.

By 1889, Sargent was invited back to the Salon, to serve as judge. After which, Sargent spent the rest of his years between London and Boston. He continued to work - maintaining his own studio, carrying his own crates, and helping the workmen load and transport his pieces - the way he liked to.

In April 1925, against the advice of his friends, he began preparations for a mural for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. And on April 15, Sargent passed away from heart failure. Good thing was, he wasn't carting something or the other at work on the mural. He was reading Voltaire in bed.

Self-portrait, 1906

Sargent's memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey, attended by royalty, celebrities and fellow respected and influential artists. It was said to be a grand affair, and the first of its kind for a farewell to a modern artist.

To view John Singer Sargent's stunning breadth of work, click here.

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