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 of the 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 18 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 well-tailored jacket, the elgant silk tie and the floppy silk square in the breast pocket.

Perhaps it was due to this mutually satisfying association, that the 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. 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.

In “The Birthday Party,” Sargent depicts the French artist Albert Besnard and his wife, the sculptor Charlotte Dubray, celebrating their son’s birthday. The crimson walls and elegant chandelier suggest the couple’s refinement and sophistication. And 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: Will you look at those bare shoulders, the plunging neckline! So much so that Sargent packed up his paints and brushes and hurriedly left Paris for London.

The haughtiness of the subject in this painting is so off-putting that it's never been a favorite. Nor was it appreciated by her family who ended up disavowing it.

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

That's all for this week, mes amis. J'espère vous voir la semaine prochaine. Until then, may the road rise up to meet you...