Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 13, 2017
Bruce Redford John Singer Sargent and the Art of Allusion New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. 224 pp.; 120 color ills.; 30 b/w ills. Hardcover $65.00 (9780300219302)

Scholarly interest in the enigmatically alluring art of Sargent, galvanized by the 1998–9 retrospective and numerous exhibitions since, is still thriving. In the most recent monograph on the artist, John Singer Sargent and the Art of Allusion, Bruce Redford contends that “no portrait painter in the Anglo-American tradition is more consistently and inventively allusive than Sargent” (15). Redford suggests that Sargent’s sustained childhood exposure to the old masters, his desires to create an elite portrait practice and to craft his own artistic genealogy, and reticence about his sexuality inclined the painter to the adoption of a complex pictorial code, one rife with what are often ironic and sometimes disturbing art-historical references. These allusions, Redford argues, allowed the artist to negotiate the place of his art within modernism, to enhance his portraits’ psychological probing and “social analysis” (17), and to enact both the culmination and the dissolution of grand-manner portraiture.

Not surprisingly, Joshua Reynolds and Anthony van Dyck are primary reference points in Redford’s search for Sargent’s canonical sources, which range from the Parthenon frieze to paintings by François Boucher, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and Édouard Manet. Indeed, Redford argues that Sargent’s allusive practice emulated that of Reynolds but was considerably more daring—for while allusion (which comes from the Latin alludere, to play with or to jest) may be lighthearted, Sargent also deployed its more disruptive potential. The types of allusions Sargent makes vary: Redford refers to major adaptations, minor variations, emulations, evocations, quotations, and borrowings. The differences between these types are never fully explained, though Redford specifies that in the game of allusion that unfolds between artist, sitter, precedents, and viewer, a reference must contribute to a work’s “meaning” as well as its “making.”

In his introduction, Redford suggests the complexity of Sargent’s engagements with tradition, from acknowledgments of previous artists’ self-borrowings, and allusions to precedents, to the effects of such citations, which may include homage, glamorization or aggrandizement of the sitter (and painter), witty commentary, and psychological analysis. An enjoyable reading of a saucy quotation of Van Dyck’s James Stuart, Duke of Richmond and Lennox (1634–5) in Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes (1897) sets the tone for the book. Sargent turns the head of the duke’s worshipful greyhound—a motif used by Titian “to induce in the viewer an attitude of quasi-canine devotion”—into a boater hat, held out by the assertive Mrs. Stokes, to form “a kind of fig leaf that covers the crotch of Mr. Stokes” (9). Sargent’s layered quotation complicates traditional pictorial gender codes and refigures “the master/hound relationship in an ambiguous act of homage to a female American democrat, an exemplar of ‘The New Woman’” (9). Such ambiguities and forms of ambivalence, Redford shows, are hallmarks of Sargent’s allusive portraits.

Each subsequent chapter is devoted to a selection of portraits linked by subject matter and shared concerns; these are read in conjunction with contemporary literary texts that also exhibit a high degree of intertextuality and related social commentary. Chapter 1, “The Evanescence of Empire,” examines portraits of soldiers and proconsuls painted between 1897 and 1905, and concludes with an examination of Sargent’s World War I pictures, including the well-known Gassed (1919). Sargent’s military portraits, Redford contends, could “almost be considered anti-portraits, so completely do they reconceive the project of representing Great Britain’s warriors” (27). In terms of allusion, portraits by Franz Hals, Van Dyck, and Thomas Lawrence are key precedents. Sargent’s “reactivation” of figure types from those sources works to undermine the statements of power and prowess usually associated with grand-manner portraiture: details of these paintings often hollow out the image of masculine plenitude, suggesting impotence and lack of vitality. These works focus on the military façade as such and, through their allusions, suggest the inevitable end of grand-manner portraiture. In Gassed, a long, frieze-like painting of lines of gassed soldiers making their way to a dressing station, “the swagger portrait dissolves into the stagger portrait” (52). While Gassed is not a portrait, Redford convincingly includes it here as an “anti-portrait” that overtly erases identities.

Chapter 2, “The Ceremony of Innocence,” is the most intriguing yet inconclusive of the book. It treats Sargent’s portraits of isolated, alienated, and eroticized children, read in conjunction with Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw (1898). While neither topic is new in Sargent scholarship, Redford offers compelling close readings of the portraits he has selected. In some, Sargent reworks “canonical images of mutuality” (70)—in Beatrice Goelet (1890), for example, where Sargent references Diego Velázquez via Manet to create an isolated Infanta, and in portraits in which a mother and child invoke the Madonna and Child yet convey emotional distance, maternal marginalization, and the child’s resistance to being put on display. Other pictures in which children are overtly eroticized allude to a surprising range of precursors. Pictures of pubescent or younger boys reclining in nature evoke odalisques in pastoral idylls or quote from within Sargent’s own oeuvre—as in the portrait of Cecil Harrison (1888), which alludes to Dr. Pozzi at Home (1881), so that a ten-year-old offers “a ‘hello, sailor’ invitation” (83). Female children are equally if differently eroticized, offering challenges rather than coy invitations, and allusions that suggest the girls’ knowingness. Redford’s most disturbing example is the portrait of the three-year-old Ruth Sears Bacon (1887), which he describes as physically fragmented, emotionally disconnected, and eroticized “in a way that might almost be called pornographic” (88). He sees Manet’s Olympia (1863) and Dead Christ with Angels (1864) as the work’s primary allusions, with the child offering a prostitute’s gaze and Christ’s pose: her body is “laid out, both transparently and obliquely, for our consumption,” with the effect that “innocence is . . . defiled” (90). The chapter stops short, however, of offering any account of what this defiled rendering of a child, or other paintings of eroticized children, might mean for our understanding of Sargent and his oeuvre.

Redford’s third chapter, “The Anxiety of Affluence,” reads portraits of plutocrats anxious about legitimacy, and aristocrats worried about continuity, alongside Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country (1913). Sargent adopted different styles for these groups—luxurious, frothy fantasies derived from Rococo sources for the former, and a “Stuart template” (101) for the latter. Both types are hypertheatrical, make reference to the past to negotiate the present, and exhibit a similar performance anxiety. Allusions in these portraits, moreover, are infused with irony that sometimes sits uneasily with the sitters’ splendor. The portrait of Mrs. Waldorf Astor (1909), for example, “a zealous suffragette, teetotaler, and Christian scientist” (111), subtly alludes to George Romney’s A Bacchante (1785), which depicts the commissioner’s mistress as a pagan devotee. By contrast, Lord Ribblesdale (1902) quotes Van Dyck’s James Stuart, Duke of Richmond and Lennox to emphasize the sitter’s hunting accomplishments but also provocatively alludes to Sargent’s homoerotic portrait of the aesthete W. Graham Robertson. Not all of the allusions identified in this chapter are convincingly argued, but Redford’s analysis highlights Sargent’s tendency to find and exploit cracks in his sitters’ façades.

Chapter 4, “The Anatomy of Neurasthenia,” reads Sargent’s portraits of listless or high-strung women in light of Silas Weir Mitchell’s Fat and Blood: An Essay on the Treatment of Certain Forms of Neurasthenia and Hysteria (1877) and in conjunction with Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1895). Redford argues that Sargent’s female portraits “both reflected and contributed to a cultural discourse of neurasthenia” (132), though the most complex of the portraits suggest resistance to sexual, matrimonial, and maternal expectations. Renaissance Madonnas and portraits by Ingres, Thomas Gainsborough, Lawrence, and Reynolds are quoted and skewed to “speak the emotionally fraught language of modernity” (133), emphasizing lack, anxiety, and instability. The end of the chapter moves away from formal portraits to offer an astute reading of Sargent’s depictions of reclining women wrapped in cashmere shawls as commentaries on the enforced Rest Cure. While these works, which Redford suggests allude to Ingres’s odalisques, have been read as romantic, he contends that some of the figures can be seen as “immobilized, and even stupefied” (159) The shawl in Nonchaloir (1911), he observes, reads as “swaddling clothes or a straight-jacket” (161). As with chapter 2, Redford does not explore the significance of what verges on sadism in Sargent’s approach to some of his subjects here; the connections between the two chapters deserve further consideration.

The last chapter, “The Code of Dandyism,” examines the vestimentary investments of Max Beerbohm’s 1911 novel Zuleika Dobson and Sargent’s portraits of dandies. Because most of the works in this chapter are well known and already extensively treated in existing scholarship on Sargent, it offers fewer new and interesting angles than Redford’s other chapters. By way of conclusion, Redford’s “Afterword: The Sense of an Ending” outlines the demise of grand-manner portraiture by charting the difference between Sargent’s allusions and the practices of Philip de László and William Orpen.

Many of the sources that Redford discusses are identified in the invaluable Sargent catalogue raisonné project. His focused and often more in-depth analyses, however, allow the book to achieve two of its stated goals effectively: it convincingly demonstrates how Sargent’s oeuvre represents the grand-manner portrait’s culmination and dissolution, and how allusion enabled the social and psychological analysis Sargent’s portraits perform. Redford is somewhat less successful in showing that “allusion allowed Sargent to negotiate the divide between the academy and the avant-garde” (17) and to make modern art on his own terms. While he does suggest how Sargent’s portraits engage with contemporary concerns, Redford, unsurprisingly given his emphasis on old–master references, does not really attempt to situate Sargent fully in the artistic or visual-cultural landscape of the 1890s, 1900s, and 1910s. Analysis of the interplay between old-master and contemporary allusions in at least one or two of Sargent’s portraits may have opened up interesting avenues of future exploration. Overall, however, Redford offers an engaging, focused account of a vital aspect of Sargent’s work. 

Alison Syme
Associate Professor, Department of Visual Studies and Graduate Department of Art, University of Toronto