John Singer Sargent

(Originally published in Boston Magazine, June 1999)

John Singer Sargent (1865-1925), the great American artist, was born in Italy, studied in Paris, and lived most of his life in London. Conservative in what he chose to paint, he was daring and profoundly modern in how he painted it.

The preeminent portrait painter of his day, he gave it all up at the height of his career to paint landscapes. His private life is a mystery. His brushwork is still dazzling.

This summer, Boston will have an unparalleled opportunity to experience his art during a citywide celebration that includes a major retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, related exhibitions at the Fogg Art Museum, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and the Boston Public Library, and the unveiling of a thrilling restoration of his long-neglected murals at the MFA and the Boston Public Library.

Sargent was born in Florence in 1856 to a family of cultured Americans living abroad in spas and rented villas. His mother was an amateur watercolorist who took him to museums and taught him to paint; he has an amazing facility with the brush.

In 1874, the family moved to Paris so he could study in the studio of the fashionable painter Carolus Duran, who told all his students to “search for the half-tone, put down some accents, and then the lights…Velasquez, Velasquez, Velasquez, ceaselessly study Velasquez.”

Sargent took his advice. He made his name with The Daughters of Edward Boit, 1882, a remarkable reworking of Diego Velasquez’s 1656 Las Meninas at the Prado — a masterpiece which Picasso also worked and reworked in his own art.

He also painted a  New Orleans-born beauty known as Madame X. Paris audiences were shocked by his depiction of her pale, violet-powdered skin and revealing gown, but Sargent considered it “the best thing I have done” and brought it with him when he moved to London in 1886.

In London, Henry James introduced him to the Boston collector Isabella Stewart Gardner, and when Sargent came to Boston in 1887, he painted her portrait, which James described as a “Byzantine Madonna with a halo.”

He had his first solo show here, at the Saint Botolph Club, and met the architects Stanford White and Charles McKim, who were creating neo-Renaissance palazzos as mansions and public buildings for the Gilded Age in Boston, Newport, and New York. They invited him to paint a series of murals for their then new Boston Public Library, which soon led to a commission for more murals for Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

After a triumphal visit to America, Sargent returned to London, and spent the next two decades painting portraits of wealthy clients from both sides of the Atlantic: women dreamy and delicious, draped in silk and jewels: men somber and serious in bespoke shirts, Savile Row suits, and old masterish poses.

In the studio, Sargent was a perfectionist; the result is art that seems effortless, like that of a great dancer who spends months rehearsing to create a few perfect moments onstage. Richard Ormond, his great-nephew, recalls:

“There are stories of Sargent wearing out the carpet as he dashed backward and forward from his easel; of sudden expletives as he wrestled with the problems of representation: ‘Demons, demons!’ he would cry out in frustration; of scraping-downs and rubbings-out as he abandoned what he had begun and started again,”

His studio was filled with Oriental rugs, William Morris wallpaper, a Bechstein piano, architectural fragments, fabric, and beautiful objects, may of them studio props he used over and over again. These evocative objects, often shown in shadows or in fragments, give the portraits an aura, a glow, of glamour and grace.

The portraits brought Sargent fame and fortune, but in 1907 he gave them up, except for occasional pictures of personal friends and offers he could not refuse, like a commission from John D. Rockefeller, whom he painted in Florida so he could do some watercolors of the palm trees there. He told a friend, “I have vowed to do no more portraits… it is to me a positive bliss to think that I shall soon be a free man.

Sargent had spent his idyllic first summer in England staying in country houses, carrying his easel outdoors and painting such masterpieces as Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, a soft and dreamlike twilight scene shimmering with pale, incandescent moonlight.

He had always, since childhood, loved traveling and painting outdoors. He took his portable watercolor set to Italy, Spain, the Alps, and even the American Rockies and Glacier National Park, and painted hundreds of landscapes, capturing the light and water and exhilarating air.

The late landscapes display Sargent’s painterliness, the flash and flourish of his brush, the sheer gorgeous virtuosity of his art.

He also turned his attention to the murals for the Museum of Fine Arts. Sargent spent years working on the murals, making hundreds of studies in charcoal, oil, and plaster, and traveling to Egypt, Greece, and the Holy Land to seek inspiration. In 1916, he came to Boston, rented a studio on Columbus Avenue, and made studies of local models—including three Ziegfield Follies dancers. Back in London, he painted the giant canvases, depicting themes from Greek mythology—Apollo, Athena, the Muses—and oversaw their installation in 1921. But after his death, in 1925, the murals were allowed to fall in disrepair. Now at last The Sargent Murals are being restored. Stonework and skylights are being cleaned and repaired, and all the allegorical paintings, sculptures, and sculptural surfaces that Sargent colored, painted, and glazed are being revived.

Sargent was a master of adapting the art of the past to serve the needs of the present. Too modern, at times, for his own era; not modern enough for the one that followed, he may be just right for these retro times, when everything seems to be homage, copy, or remake, “inspired by,” “based on,” or neo.

Sargent seems to have walked out of the pages of a novel by Henry James, who wrote of him:

“Yes, I have always thought of Sargent as a great painter. He would be greater still if he had done one or two little things he hasn’t—but he will do.”

by Rebecca Nemser for

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