Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends

From summer into fall, throngs of visitors have found their way through the front doors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, drawn in part by the arrival ofthe sumptuous exhibition:  Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends.  Consisting of approximately 90 works on paper and canvas, the exhibition was primarily a joint venture between the Met and the National Portrait Gallery of London, with other works drawn from smaller museums and private collections. Of course, for anyone like myself, desperately seeking Paris, the question arises: Wasn’t John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) an American artist? You could say so, but it’s complicated.

Sargent was born to expatriate American parents living in Florence where they remained until they moved to Paris when he was eighteen years old. Recognizing his native talent, his parents wanted to find an appropriate instructor to train him as an artist.

Their choice was the talented and handsome Carolus-Duran, a painter-teacher widely regarded as the pre-eminent society portrait painter of his day. Until,  that is, the student would surpass the master!  Here Sargent has him looking quite the dandy. Note the elegant tapered fingers, the ruffled cuffs and that floppy silk square in his breast pocket.

Perhaps it was due to this mutually satisfying association, thatthe Uffizi Gallery in Florence honored Sargent,  requesting that he paint a self-portrait to be added to their collection. In doing so, Sargent would blur his nationality by portraying himself wearing the French Légion d’honneur ribbon, France’s highest honor. The same ribbon recently awarded the three young Americans who thwarted a terrorist attack on a train heading for Paris, thereby averting what could have been a massacre.

Clearly, Sargent identified with his French connections, more so than with his Anglo-American ties. Moreover, he spoke Italian, Spanish, French and English equally well, and moved in the upper echelons of society, no matter where he found himself living.  His constellation of friends and patrons –Claude Monet, William Merritt Chase, James McNeill Whistler, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, and Robert Louis Stevenson—was as dazzling as a summer day is long. We get to meet a number of them in the exhibition at  the Met. Take a look.

A Dinner Table at Night 1884
A Dinner Table at Night 1884
The Birthday Party 1885
The Birthday Party 1885
Madame X 1883-1884
Madame X 1883-1884

In“The Birthday Party,”  Sargent depicts the French Artist Albert Besnard and his wife, the sculptor Charlotte Dubray, celebrating their son’s birthday. Here the crimson walls and elegant chandelier suggest the couple’s refinement and sophistication.

When one gets close up to the canvas, Sargent’s use of broad strokes of paint on the walls and costumes and finer stokes on the woman’s face and décolletage are easily recognized.

And what Singer Sargent exhibition would be complete without Madame X (1883-84) , the painting that caused such a scandal when displayed at the Paris Salon of 1884. So much so, Sargent packed up his paints and brushes and left Paris for London. The haughtiness of the subject in this painting is so off-putting that I've never warmed to it. Nor did her family who ended up disavowing it.

A similar fate awaited the strange portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner (1888)  which allegedly was banished to a storeroom. The exhibition contains so many gems, but at least you've had a chance to seen a number of them,  n'est pas?

My favorite painting by Sargent, which was not in the show, is "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit."  Endlessly enigmatic, painted in their Paris apartment, that treasure, alas,  stayed at home in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.