Often derided as staidly traditional, John Singer Sargent in fact provided a glimpse of the modern world. Ahead of a major new exhibition, Sarah Chuchwell surveys the sensational portraits that caught the imagination of painters and authors alike
Friday 30 January 2015
In 1893, Henry James wrote an essay praising his friend, the painter John Singer Sargent, in which he declared: “There is no greater work of art than a great portrait,” because of the empathetic vision it required. Sargent was remarkable, said James, for the “extraordinarily immediate” translation of his perception into a picture, “as if painting were pure tact of vision, a simple manner of feeling”. In particular, he admired Sargent’s “faculty of taking a fresh, direct, independent, unborrowed impression”. This admiration was widely shared: after seeing The Misses Hunter in 1902, Rodin called Sargent “the Van Dyck of our times”. But after Sargent’s death, his realism was viewed increasingly as anachronistic and facile, the work of a society painter, a careerist happy to pander to aristocratic privilege. One of the most successful and esteemed painters of his day was rapidly dismissed as virtuosic but lightweight, a slick craftsman rather than an innovative creator, superseded by Matisse and Picasso. He was a Gilded Age flatterer, “not an enthusiast,” sniffed Pissarro, “but rather an adroit performer”.
The Misses Hunter (1902)
The forthcoming exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery aims to end that assessment for good by crediting the texture and inventiveness of Sargent’s realism. It is not a full retrospective, focusing instead on Sargent’s interactions in artistic and intellectual circles, but it certainly makes the case for a show that would reveal all of Sargent’s range – not only the many magnificent portraits on display in this exhibition, but also his landscapes, watercolours, sketches and murals, as well as the extraordinary Gassed, the colossal late painting of soldiers blinded on the western front that anticipates “proletarian realism”.
Modernism – in the evolving forms of impressionism, fauvism, cubism –increasingly directed the energies of the art world during Sargent’s life, but while defiantly sticking to realism, Sargent redefined it by putting Van Dyck, Velázquez, Reynolds and Gainsborough into dialogue with moderns including Manet and Monet, using visual echoes and quotations to create a new fusion of classic and modern technique (portraits painted, following Monet, en plein air and sur le motif) with contemporary subjects and perspectives. James understood this, praising Sargent’s portraiture for “the quality in light of which the artist sees deep into his subject, undergoes it, absorbs it, becomes patient with it, and almost reverent, and, in short, enlarges and humanises the technical problem” of creating a realistic portrait.
This notion of art as perfect empathy is also the novelist’s art; it is no coincidence that James and Sargent have so often been paired. They had much in common, not least as Americans raised across the European continent by affluent parents on a kind of permanent grand tour. Sargent was born in Florence in 1856, and spent his formative years travelling around France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Spain. This “Baedeker education” made Sargent multilingual, “civilised to his fingertips”, in James’s words. But their affinities ran much deeper than being well-travelled cosmopolitans who focused largely on high-society subjects. Both brought to an apparently conventional realism an experimental sensibility, exploring psychology, narrative and identity. Sargent is the novelist’s painter, his portraits intimating entire worlds, dramas or what James always called “scenes”. Like James, Sargent had an instinctive appreciation for what it meant to “make a scene”. Sargent’s first biographer, his friend Evan Charteris, wrote in 1927 that Sargent’s best portraits reveal “Jamesian perplexities, the play of social type against personality, of the sitter’s inner nature against fashion’s constantly shifting ideals”.
A celebrity in his day, Sargent was notoriously publicity-shy, avoiding interviews and ferociously guarding his privacy. The artist William Rothenstein recalled: “I think of his huge frame, of his superb appetite, his constant consumption of cigars; of his odd shyness too, and his self-consciousness, of his decided opinions expressed with a Jamesian defensiveness.” Just over 6ft tall, he was affable, urbane and social, and devoted to the creation of beauty. Sargent told his cousin that his earliest memory was of a deep red cobblestone in a gutter in Florence that obsessed him. Drawing from a young age, he studied painting in Paris with Carolus-Duran, who became the subject of his first major portrait in 1879. His paintings elicited praise from the start and began to win prizes, his virtuosity of technique recognised almost immediately. At just 26, he painted both El Jaleoand The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, as well as the beautiful Lady with the Rose. James called El Jaleo “astonishing” for “the sense it gives of assimilated secrets and instinct and knowledge”. The famous Daughters of Edward Darley Boit offers a salute to Velázquez’s Las Meninas, but daringly composes its apparently conventional Edwardian subject around empty space, giving the painting a dark, enigmatic edge.
RAM Stevenson, a cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson who studied with Sargent in Paris, wrote of his classmate’s remarkable talent: “Sargent’s painting is strict painting, as Bach’s fugues are strict music.” An accomplished musician himself, Sargent was known for talking constantly while he painted, and would walk around the room (he once estimated that he walked four miles every day going back and forth around his model and the easel) and interrupt his work to play the piano. Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, painted in the late summer of 1885 and 1886, was named for a popular song; its style “is poised”, the exhibition catalogue notes, “between several aesthetics: French impressionism, English pre-Raphaelitism and aestheticism”. Sargent’s chief aim in this portrait, all who watched him create it agreed, was to capture en plein air the transient quality of “fugitive evening light”. It took him two years to achieve, for he could only paint for 25 minutes each night in late summer: every evening at 6:45 Sargent “would drop his tennis racquet”, remembered a friend, and “lug out the big canvas” from his 70ft-long studio into the garden, where he would paint for as long as “the effect lasted”. He had almost certainly been to Giverny by then, and had watched Monet paint out of doors. He came to share Monet’s preoccupation with the play of natural light, but he never fully embraced impressionism’s subordination of subject to technique, its willingness to dissolve representation into paint, colour and light.
Although Sargent’s subjects were often posed, his oeuvre suggests the painter as flaneur, strolling through metropolitan cities and capturing the personalities he encountered, the scenes he saw. His own coterie was stylish, knowing, chic: he portrayed other painters, sculptors, musicians, actors, dancers, including WB Yeats, Eleonora Duse, Edwin Booth, Edmund Gosse, George Meredith, Antonio Mancini (whom Sargent once described as “the best living painter”), the collector and hostess Isabella Stewart Gardner. There is the famous portrait of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, raising the crown on to her head, and the 1885 picture of Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife, Fanny, who said their portrait was “like an open box of jewels”. He painted a Chilean mining heiress, formidable and stylishly dressed, who became a lay nun and had her habit designed by Coco Chanel. There is An Interior of Venice, depicting the Palazzo Barbaro on the Grand Canal, where James wrote The Wings of the Dove, and which some have speculated may have helped inspire The Aspern Papers. Sargent presented the painting as a gift to his hostess, but, offended by her appearance and her son’s informal pose, she rejected it, to the dismay of James, who wrote to her that he “absolutely and unreservedly adored” the painting. She did not change her mind. There is Sargent’s first double portrait, from 1881, of the Pailleron children. They are in a claustrophobic, dark but richly furnished space, and seem to have a knowing gaze; viewers have since been reminded of the doubtful children in James’s Turn of the Screw, written more than 15 years after the picture was first shown. There is the scarlet Dr Pozzi, painted as a handsome, louche aesthete, whose dressing gown slyly evokes cardinals: contemporary British reviewers found it objectionably Parisian, too insolent, too en vogue. Sargent’s paintings may look staidly traditional now, but they were seen as modern when he painted them.
Celebrity and theatricality were central to Sargent’s style, and his success. It is the portrait of Amélie Gautreau, titled Madame X, for which he remains best known. Working on the painting, he told his friend the writer Vernon Lee that he was “struggling with the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness” of his sitter, but eventually, fusing techniques from Velázquez, Titian and Manet, as well as Sargent’s then fashionable interest in Japanese art, he produced a painting now seen as a masterpiece, but which first inspired outrage, creating a succes de scandale when it was exhibited at the 1884 Paris Salon. Reviews either objected to Madame Gautreau’s appearance (some complaining at the powder-blue pallor of her skin, others at the depth of her decolletage or the shockingly wanton shoulder strap allowed to fall suggestively loose) or hailed the modernity of Sargent’s technique.
When he sold Madame X to the New York Metropolitan Museum years later, Sargent admitted to feeling it might have been the best work he had ever done, but at the time he was unnerved by the malice it elicited. He beat a retreat to London, where James had promised him a more sympathetic reception. British critics did not, in fact, instantly embrace Sargent: The Misses Vickers was voted the worst painting of 1886 by the Royal Academy, for example, while the Spectator demanded: “Could we fancy anyone a hundred years hence caring to possess such a picture as this?” Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose might strike some viewers as prettily pre-Raphaelite (although they would have to ignore its spectacular luminescence), but it provoked controversy when it was purchased through the Chantrey Bequest, one journal reporting that “artists [had] almost come to blows over this picture”. Modern, too, are the expressionist portrait of Lee, who appears to be chattering away, and a lovely impressionist evocation of one of Sargent’s touchstones, Monet, characteristically painting outside, sur le motif. There is the famous 1913 portrait of James for his 70th birthday, which, as the catalogue notes, delighted the Master: “Sargent at his very best and poor old HJ not at his worst; in short a living breathing likeness and a masterpiece of painting.”
Of Sargent’s private life, little is known. He never married; although twice he was suspected of being on the verge of an engagement, nothing came of it. Many have come to believe that his extreme privacy was a sign on the closet door, signalling a life kept carefully secret to hide desires deemed unacceptable (and illegal). Certainly Sargent executed many – very beautiful – drawings of male nudes, which he did not exhibit during his life. It is also true that a number of men with similarly suppressed or hidden desires, including James, were among his close circle of friends. But so were married couples, and heterosexual philanderers. The painter Jacques-Émile Blanche, who once sat for Sargent, claimed after his death that Sargent was “notorious in Paris, and in Venice, positively scandalous. He was a frenzied bugger.” But no other affirmation of this claim has come to light, and Sargent’s private papers were destroyed. Many scholars believe he had an affair with Louise Burckhardt, who sat for Lady with the Rose, while some of his female nudes have struck viewers as being as erotic as his males.
But in the end this is all conjecture. For better or worse – again like James – Sargent had married his art. Lee wrote after his death that the only useful biographical summation would be two words: “he painted”. Late in life, Sargent declined the honour of a knighthood, because he was American. He died at 69, in his sleep, a volume of Voltaire beside him. It was 14 April 1925, four days afterThe Great Gatsby was published; the modern era was at hand, and it was Sargent, whether we know it or not, who helped show us what it would look like.
• Sargent: Portrait of Artists and Friends opens at the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2H, on 12 February.
The Scandal of Madame X
In an exclusive excerpt from David McCullough’s new book, the story of how John Singer Sargent’s obsession with a woman led to the famous painting Madame X—and the scandal it caused in Paris.
Sargent was by nature, as Vernon Lee wrote, always “especially attracted by the bizarre and outlandish,” the very essence of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, who, contrary to the impression most people had, was an American.
Born in New Orleans, she had been brought to Paris as a child of eight by her widowed, socially ambitious mother. Her father, a major in the Confederate army, had been killed at the battle of Shiloh. She was, by 1883, twenty-four years old, two years younger than Sargent.
To her mother’s great approval, she had married a wealthy French banker, Pierre Gautreau, and became what was called a “professional beauty,” the perfect “parisienne,” someone known for her remarkable looks and social stage presence, and who, in her appearances in society, was expected to fill that role with all due attention to wardrobe and the artful use of cosmetics, no less than a great actress. In her particular case a heavy use of a chalky lavender powder on face and body gave her a pallor distinctive enough in itself to draw attention. To her critics she was all too plainly an arriviste.
Her beauty was distinctly different, almost eccentric, her nose too long by accepted standards, her forehead too high. Yet the total effect, and particularly given her hourglass figure and her way of moving, was striking in the extreme, her appeal unmistakably seductive, as she well knew.
An American art student named Edward Simmons wrote of being “thrilled by every movement of her body.”
She walked as Virgil speaks of a goddess—sliding—and seemed to take no steps. Her head and neck undulated like that of a young doe, and something about her gave you the impression of infinite proportion, infinite grace, and infinite balance. Every artist wanted to make her in marble or paint.
After meeting her socially, Sargent, some said, had become obsessed by her. He let it be known that he wanted to do “homage to her beauty” in a portrait to be shown at the Salon, the implication being it could bring each of them notoriety in the way Manet’s sensational Olympia had, albeit she need not pose in the nude.
Do you object to people who are fardées [made up] to the extent of being uniform lavender or blotting paper color all over [he wrote to Vernon Lee]. If so you would not care for my sitter. But she has the most beautiful lines and if the lavender or chlorate-of-potash lozenge color be pretty in itself I shall be more than pleased.
He did one line drawing after another of her head in profile, made studies in pencil and watercolor of her relaxing on a settee in a low-cut evening dress, painted her in oil drinking a toast, and here again in profile. In the summer of 1883, from the Gautreaus’ country estate in Brittany, he wrote to tell Vernon Lee he was “still struggling with the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness” of his subject.
That he and Amélie Gautreau were both Americans was by no means immaterial to their ambitions. The same year they met, a society journal noted that “Yankees” in Paris were gaining ever-greater prominence. “They have painters who carry off our medals, like Mr. Sargent, beautiful women who eclipse ours, Mme. Gautreau. . . .” If they were to be known always as Americans, then all the more reason to be at the forefront.
Finished with his preliminary studies, Sargent left Brittany for Nice to pay his annual visit to his parents, before moving on for an autumn stay in Florence.
“His life is a pleasant life,” FitzWilliam Sargent wrote to a brother in Philadelphia.
Her sole purpose in life is to demonstrate by her skills in contriving incredible outfits which shape her and exhibit her and which she can carry off with bravado. . . .
He seems to be respected, even admired and beloved (according to all accounts) for his talent and success as an artist, for his conduct and character as a man. His work is a pleasurable occupation to him and brings him a very handsome income. He travels about in countries which provide him with materials for his pictures as well as with bread and butter and elements of health and enjoyment. He is well received everywhere for his manners are good and agreeable. He is good looking, plays the piano well and dances well, converses well, etc., etc. In short, he has given us, his parents great satisfaction so far. . . .
In the winter of 1883–84, Sargent moved from the Left Bank to a new studio across the Seine at 41 boulevard Berthier, in the then fashionable neighborhood near the Parc Monceau. It was there in a workplace elegantly furnished with comfortably upholstered chairs, Persian rugs, and drapery befitting his new professional standing, and an upright piano against one wall, that he painted his full-length portrait of Madame Gautreau, the whole time suffering what he called “a horrid state of anxiety.”
She was dressed in a long black satin skirt and low-cut black velvet bodice, her shoulders bare except for two slim jeweled straps. She held both shoulders back and her head cocked sharply to the left, giving full cameo emphasis to the remarkable profile.
Her left arm on her hip, she held her skirt with the left hand, while the right arm was oddly turned back on itself, her right hand gripping the top of the side table. She wore her hair up, with a tiny diamond tiara on top.
It was a flagrantly stagy pose, which could only have been difficult to hold for any length of time, even for one who was a poser by nature.
Against the deep black of the dress, the deathly blue-white of her powdered skin was even more strange and striking. When, during one sitting her right shoulder strap dropped suggestively over her arm, Sargent requested she leave it that way.
In contrast to his usual approach, he worked and reworked the canvas, simplifying and redefining edges.
One day I was dissatisfied with it and dashed a tone of light rose over the former gloomy background [he reported to a friend]. I turned the picture upside down, retired to another end of the studio and looked at it under my arm. Vast improvement. The élancée figure of the model shows to much greater advantage.
No doubt Madame Gautreau saw how the portrait was emerging under his brush from one sitting to another. Possibly her mother, too, may have been present occasionally. If they found anything about it disturbing at the time, there is no evidence that a word was said. When Carolus-Duran came by for a look, he told Sargent he could submit the painting to the Salon with perfect confidence. Sargent was not so sure.
Another who dropped in was Henry James. In Paris briefly, James had met and quite liked the young artist, calling him “the only Franco-American product of importance” in France. But, as James confided to a friend, he only “half-liked” the portrait of Madame Gautreau.
The 1884 Paris Salon, an exhibition filling thirty-one of the grandes salles in the Palais de l’Industrie, opened on a beautiful May morning with much excitement among the customary well-dressed crowds in attendance. So great had the number of American painters in Paris become, and so important to their careers was representation at the Salon, that they were now second only to the number of French artists included. For Sargent it marked the sixth consecutive year he had exhibited at the Salon, always with increasing acclaim.
Paintings filled every wall. The portrait of Amélie Gautreau, ideally placed at eye level, was hung in Salle 31, and the doors had been open scarcely an hour when it became the talk of the exhibition.
For all that would be written and said, no eyewitness account of the event and of its effect on Sargent compared to what his friend Ralph Curtis wrote to his parents the next day. Whether the opening marked Sargent’s birthday as an artist or his funeral, Curtis could not say.
Walked up the Champs-Élysées, chestnuts in full flower and a dense mob of “tout Paris” in pretty clothes, gesticulating and laughing, slowly going into the Ark of Art. In 15 minutes I saw no end of acquaintances and strangers and heard everybody say, “Où est le portrait Gautreau?” “Oh, allez voir ça.”
Curtis had seen Sargent the night before. “He was very nervous about what he feared,” he wrote, “but his fears were far exceeded by the facts of yesterday. There was a grande tapage [great fuss] before it [the portrait] all day.”
In a few minutes I found him dodging behind doors to avoid friends who looked grave. By the corridors he took me to see it. I was disappointed by the color. She looks decomposed. All the men jeer. “Ah voilà ‘la belle!’ ” “Oh, que le horreur!” Etc. Then a painter exclaims, “superbe de style, magnifique d’audace!” [Magnificent audacity!] “Quel dessin!” [What drawing!].
In an exhibition wherein paintings of nudes were commonplace, that of Madame Gautreau in her black evening dress was considered scandalously erotic.
But what was unacceptable to “tout Paris” was the blatant, self-centered impropriety of it all—the heavy powder, the odd, arrogant pose, the décolletage. Such vulgar flaunting was simply not done by women of social standing.
“All the A.M. it was one series of bons mots, mauvaises plaisanteries and fierce discussions,” Curtis continued in his letter. “John, poor boy, was navré [full of sorrow]. The tumult of talk lasted through the day, but by evening the tone of opinion about the picture had changed. It was discovered to be the knowing thing to say ‘étrangement épatant.’ [shocking, amazing!]”
“I went home with him,” Curtis continued, “and remained there while he went to see the Boits.” Madame Gautreau and her mother came to the studio “bathed in tears.” Curtis “stayed them off,” but Madame Avegno came back again, after Sargent had returned, and made “a fearful scene.”
“All Paris mocks my daughter,” she said. If the painting were to stay on exhibit, she would “die of chagrin.”
Sargent, obviously put out, told her there was nothing he could do, that it was against the rules of the Salon to retire a picture and that he had painted Amélie exactly as she was dressed.
“Defending his cause made Sargent feel much better,” wrote Curtis. “Still we talked it over until 1 o’clock here last night and I fear he has never had such a blow.”
The reviews were essentially of three kinds, those that objected to Madame Gautreau’s décolletage, those repulsed by the color of her skin, and those that, seeing “modernity” in the approach, applauded Sargent’s courage.
The New York Times dismissed the painting out of hand as a “caricature,” far below Sargent’s usual standard. “The pose of the figure is absurd, and the bluish coloring atrocious.” The Times of London conceded only that the portrait was “most interesting.” But the French critic Louis de Fourcaud, writing in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, called it a masterpiece of characterization. It should be kept in mind, he wrote, that “in a person of this type everything relates to the cult of self and the increasing concern to captivate those around her.
Her sole purpose in life is to demonstrate by her skills in contriving incredible outfits which shape her and exhibit her and which she can carry off with bravado. . . .
Sargent had been living and working in Paris for a full decade and in that time had received only expressions of admiration and praise. He had never known an adverse review or even mild criticism, let alone public mockery. His portrait of Madame Gautreau was in fact a masterpiece and in time would be so recognized. He hung on to it, renaming it Madame X. He also repainted the fallen shoulder strap, restoring it to its proper place. Years later, when he sold the painting to the Metropolitan Museum in New York for $1,000, he would remark that it was perhaps the best thing he had done.
He and Amélie Gautreau seem to have had no further contact, though she, too, eventually changed her opinion about the painting and expressed pride in it.
Yet hard hit as he was and angry over what had happened, Sargent appears to have had no doubts about his ability or his ambition to keep painting. Feeling an immediate need for a change of scene, he followed up on an earlier plan to go to London. He left Paris in late May 1884, not to return until December.