Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 17, 2016
Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends Exh. cat. New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2015. 256 pp.; 200+ color ills. Cloth $60.00 (9780847845279)
Exhibition schedule: National Portrait Gallery, London, February 12–May 25, 2015; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, June 29–October 4, 2015
John Singer Sargent. Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) (1883–84). Oil on canvas. 82–1/8 x 43–1/4 in. (208.6 x 109.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1916. (16.53). Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Curated by the prominent John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) scholar Richard Ormond, the exhibition Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends at the Metropolitan Museum of Art presents ninety-two works that depict members of the artist’s vast social circle. Spread across five rooms and organized chronologically by Sargent’s location, these images chart the ways in which the artist’s personal relationships and growing prestige afforded him substantial access to creative personalities who would influence his understanding of the arts. The Met’s display included a further gallery of immensely candid watercolors and drawings from their collections. These additional images productively served to highlight both the sheer virtuosity of Sargent’s brushwork throughout the exhibition and the interpersonal gaps that complicate interpretations of the exhibition’s theme.

The obvious benefit of composing an exhibition from images of Sargent’s friends is that the subjects often prove as captivating as the artist himself. Indeed, prior scholarship on the painter has frequently built compelling arguments from tracing these connections between Sargent and his famous friends and carefully documenting the relationships he leveraged to build so substantial and distinguished a clientele. This focus, however, has allowed for the emergence of a negative view of the artist as a painter-for-hire to the British social elite. Those who remain unfamiliar with the depth and expanse of Sargent’s knowledge and practice may denigrate the artist as one who elected to use his exceptional formal talents for his financial gain as opposed to the creation of great art.

In the exhibition’s catalogue, Ormond, who co-authored the multi-volume Sargent catalogue raisonné, shrewdly articulates a desire to challenge that “conventional view” of Sargent as an artistic mercenary. Ormond instead insists: “The more one studies Sargent’s art, the deeper and more complex it becomes; this work needs to be seen in the context of the artist’s own superior intellect and his broad appreciation of culture as a whole” (9). The exhibition’s introductory wall text reiterated this position, claiming to “reveal” the range of influences that shaped Sargent’s creative vision and artistic practice. In these efforts, Ormond is joined by Elaine Kilmurray, his partner in producing the Sargent catalogue raisonné, and a roster of distinguished contributors—Trevor Fairbrother, Barbara Dayer Gallati, Erica E. Hirshler, Marc Simpson, and H. Barbara Weinberg—who draw deeply from their prior scholarship on Sargent to illuminate the exhibition’s primary themes. These scholars characterize Sargent’s interactions with his subjects primarily in terms of networks of influence, and they demonstrate how he mobilized these networks to gain access to prominent subjects and enrich his understanding of art’s purpose. The exhibition and its catalogue also usefully revisit questions of who introduced Sargent to whom, the details of their interactions, and how those encounters progressed to results, be they new paintings or institutional support structures.

Beginning in 1874 with Sargent’s early period in Paris, the first gallery provided an excellent visual entrée to Sargent’s career. After five years of instruction with Carolus-Duran, Sargent had outstripped his master, as demonstrated in the tour-de-force portrait of Carolus-Duran (1879) that anchored the room, and acquired his first array of highly positioned social allies. These successes gave him the confidence to produce new work as audacious as his Dr. Pozzi at Home (1881) and, a special addition to the Met’s display, the infamous Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) (1883–84), whose supposedly excessive sensuality provoked a scandal among critics and audiences at the Salon of 1884 and soon chased the young artist from Paris.

The next room presented mostly intimate and atmospheric works from Sargent’s time in Broadway, an artist’s colony in the English countryside where he recovered from the insecurity wrought by the public’s response to Madame X. His two portraits of the author Robert Louis Stevenson from 1885 and 1887, subtle gems of the exhibition, demonstrate Sargent’s ability to instill affective meaning in the body, with the writer’s lanky, sickly form emphasizing his inquisitive face. The rest of the gallery communicated this period’s experimental mood and the comfort Sargent sought in his friends in Broadway, choosing to paint both intensely rendered portraits, like Mrs. Frank Millet (probably 1885–86) and the nearly Pre-Raphaelite genre scene Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885–86; replaced in New York with Garden Study of the Vickers Children, ca. 1884).

From Broadway, the exhibition progressed to London and addressed Sargent’s social climb, a tonal shift communicated by the dramatic placement of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (1889) directly across from the room’s entrance. The gallery’s dark gray walls held a greater number of large-scale portraits and an even more varied roster of subjects. On one wall, posed, commissioned portraits like Mrs. Hugh Hammersley (1892) represented Sargent’s increasingly aristocratic base of patrons while, on the opposite wall, paintings of the Spanish dancer La Carmencita (both 1890) and a Javanese dancer (1889) suggested Sargent’s intensive engagement with London’s artistic scene. This juxtaposition vividly conveys the majesty of Sargent’s works of the era, but raises further questions about the exhibition’s composition that will be detailed below.

The penultimate room of the main exhibition showed the products of Sargent’s late-in-life return to the United States. It highlighted the strange, haloed portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner (1888) and surrounded it with portraits of Sargent’s cultural and social connections in New York and Boston, including Edwin Booth (1890), the famous actor and assassin’s brother, and Mrs. Edward Darley Boit (1887–88), the mother of Sargent’s subjects for the Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882). Generally more austere than his British portraits, these American images serve to draw institutional patronage more firmly into the equation, outlining how Sargent’s network provided him with public projects that spread his influence to the United States.

The main exhibition’s final room assembled loosely painted images of Sargent’s artistic friends at work as they traveled throughout continental Europe between 1899 and 1914. The wall text presented these paintings as an honorable conclusion, noting that they “might be construed as a form of self-portraiture, with the artist musing on his own role in depicting the natural world by showing others at work.” Experimental and deeply informal, these small paintings demonstrate the flipside of his commissioned portraits and his late-career mural work—Sargent the man carefully guarding his personal, private relationships against his increasingly outsized reputation as an artist.

Prior scholarship has likewise often divided Sargent’s long career by his location, media, subject category, or style. In attempting to address the broad theme of “portraits of artists and friends” over the full length of the artist’s career, both the exhibition and its catalogue insist on the importance of probing these relationships throughout the entire course of Sargent’s oeuvre. This structure, however, can also prove limiting due to the disparateness of the formal elements and external motivations of each era’s images. Occasionally, the paintings were moved from their proper temporal framework to one where they would have a more substantial visual impact on the museum’s walls. For example, though the portraits of La Carmencita date to New York in 1890 and are discussed accordingly in the catalogue, they were included in the dramatic London room of the exhibition.

It is also possible that joining portraits of friends with portraits of artists, excepting the moments of very substantial overlap in those categories, dilutes this exhibition’s ability to forge new territory in revealing how Sargent’s own subjectivity affected his artistic practice. There is little differentiation made between images of friends he knew for years and artists he depicted only as they toured through his orbit. For example, roughly the same amount of space and text in both the catalogue and the exhibition is devoted to Henry James, a longtime friend with whom he shared a deep bond, as to people he may have known for only hours. Though this provides consistency in how the exhibition presents its content, it levels out the emotional highs and lows of the show, negating the ability of arguments regarding Sargent’s most substantial relationships to affect how the lesser interactions are perceived.

As mentioned above, the Met’s presentation appended a selection of works on paper from their collections to emphasize the strength of their Sargent holdings, primarily the result of a direct relationship to the artist and subsequent bequests from his family. Many of these watercolors are exquisitely rendered male nudes, and most of them were never exhibited during Sargent’s lifetime. Compared to his portraits within the framework of friendship, these images usefully interrogate how art historians define intimacy, candidness, or vulnerability in drawing out the affective substance of historical relationships. The small moments these watercolors portray, in deliberate contrast to the bombast of his most well-known portraits, suggest a form of desirous looking outside the scope of the main exhibition—one that likely cannot be separated from the form of sensual looking that allowed for the creation of Sargent’s more formal portraits.

One primary challenge in writing about Sargent is how inscrutable he remained throughout his life. In many cases, it has simply been more rewarding to focus on the sheer formal virtuosity of his greatest paintings instead of the paradoxically private life of society’s great portraitist. The effort made by Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends to disrupt the patterns of conventional wisdom that art historians have long held about the artist proves commendable. Indeed, Sargent’s work can only reward those subjecting it to further inquiry, and seeking a complex definition of intimacy in his varying levels of friendship should be a key component of Sargent studies moving forward.

Mary Manning
independent scholar