Tuesday, 17 August 2010


I saw the Sargent And Italy exhibition soon after it opened at the Los Angeles County Museum Of Art in February 2003. Four years earlier, the Tate Gallery’s massive John Singer Sargent retrospective had infuriated London's critics, who railed against a painter of profligate skill seemingly content to utilise his talents in the service of profitable commissions rather than pursue the artistic grail of self-expression. In the TLS Richard Thomson called him ‘all surface (with) nothing underneath,’ while Elizabeth Pettejohn pointed out ‘nowadays we expect artists to be hustlers in the schmatta of the art world…(Sargent’s) misfortune was to do it (while) the art world was in revolution.’

Yet that exhibition contained a few paintings which suggested a different Sargent lurking behind the enigma of success. Sargent And Italy, which opened in 2002 at the Palazzo dei Diamani in Ferrara before heading to LACMA (and thence to Denver) brought much of this well-hidden shadow into the light.

Italy was Sargent’s spiritual home. He was born in Florence in 1856, to parents who quit America after the death of their first child, and remained expatriate, restlessly pursuing European culture. After studying in Florence and Rome, he moved to Paris at 18 for more formal training. He visited America, to establish his citizenship, in the Centennial year of 1876, but the following year was back in Paris, exhibiting at the Salon. He was only 21.

Flush with Parisian success, he returned to Italy, working in Venice, but travelling extensively. In Holland he immersed himself in Frans Hals and Vermeer, and in Spain absorbed Velazquez’s massive influence. But in Naples and Capri, in Spain and Morocco, Sargent also sought out the exotic subject matter of Mediterranean peasantry and Orientalism. The way Sargent puts those influences to work within what amount to genre painting is tantalising; his synthesis of classic and contemporary plays with light and shadow to create a shimmering sensuality.

A fine essay by Richard Ormond in the sumptuous catalogue accompanying the exhibition compares Sargent’s languid ‘Venetian Bead Stringers’ (c. 1880-82) with more energetic portraits by accomplished genre painters. His ‘Venetian Interior’ (c. 1880-82) mixes shadows and figures, as if fleeing from the bright light outside a door at the far end of the room. But his sensuality is most evident in two paintings from the same time, ‘A Street In Venice’ and ‘The Sulphur Match’. In the first, an insouciant man addresses a woman in a doorway; she is momentarily distracted, as if by the viewer. In the second, the same man lights a cigar, as a women leans back in a chair, casually satisfied, feet in the air, an empty flask of chianti on the ground. Ormond compares Sargent’s with Whistler’s contemporaneous Venetian works; he says they undoubtedly knew each other, which is interesting because the louche figure in those paintings could easily be mistaken for Whistler himself.

This brooding sensuality boiled over in Paris, when Sargent’s portrait ‘Madame X’ created a scandal at the 1884 Salon. The stunning Virginie Gautreau stands in profile, pale arms and shoulders bare, contrasting with the decolletage of her black dress. While the critics fumed, they also missed the point. Sargent’s friend Violet Paget, who, as Vernon Lee, was publishing her first work on the Renaissance, called it an ‘unpleasant’ but ‘very grand work’, ‘tending entirely toward fifteenth century ideas’.

Sargent’s reaction to critical opprobrium was not just to move to London, but to establish himself remarkably quickly as English society’s most-sought after portrait painter. A century later, his success was still infuriating the critics. Although no one paints women more beautifully, he would shock no one else, and seemed to save his deepest sensuality for representing fabrics and shadows. In 1890 the Boston Public Library offered him his first mural commission, elevating him to the top paying ranges of the art market. He was hailed as ‘The American Michelangelo’, and he was still only 34.

At the same time, in the mid 1890s he began to return to Italy, researching his commissions and vacationing virtually every summer until the Great War made travel impossible. His studies of monuments and figures have a life of their own; Arthur Symons, amazed by his painting of Benvenuto Cellini’s sculpture of Perseus, described a ‘terrorless Medusa head from which the blood drops like clotted pearls’. But the studies pale beside a stunning group of oils and watercolours, almost impressionist in their striking light effects; they shimmer and glisten with life. His Venetian paintings are all corners, edges: buildings glimpsed in part, from a gondola perhaps, whose prow nudges into the bottom of the view. Although Sargent once referred to working in watercolour as ‘making the best of an emergency’, he seems to revel in the freedom watercolours provide.

It is not the thesis of the exhibition, but it is nevertheless tempting to see these later Italian works as Sargent’s vacation of sorts from the prestigious murals and high-toned portraits that marked his successful life in Boston. Walking through the Italianate layout of the Los Angeles show, there is a palpable sense of release, of freedom, in these paintings of gardens, quarries, cypresses, and of his family and friends on holiday. It is as if his career turned on the fulcrum of ‘Madame X’, and now, unimpeachably successful, he could return to his earlier pursuits.

Sargent never married; his sexuality has always intrigued art historians. He never travelled alone, and he brought with him exotic costumes in which he posed relatives, servants, and friends. If, as Ilene Susan Fort suggests, his emotions were reserved for art, the sensuality of his early works manifests itself again in the way he positions figures lounging by rivers, in the shadows of mountains, or simply on grass. Their limbs are entwined, their shawls take on a serpentine life. In ‘Group With Parasols’ (c. 1905) the ‘Whistler’ figure from Venetian streets seems to reappear. Perhaps it is a fantasy self Sargent is painting into those scenes.

His beautiful views of the Palazzo Barbaro, where he was a guest along with Henry James, remind us of the affinity between Sargent and writers, the subject of a thorough essay by the late R. W. B. Lewis. When Lewis refers to The Wings Of The Dove as being James’ statement about ‘the dark interior workings of the human spirit’, one senses a vivid contrast with Sargent. Perhaps, as the critics insisted, he withdrew from digging deeper into those dark interiors, to concentrate on exteriors. But the effect of this exhibition, the essays in this catalogue, is to restore our sense of artistic spark to Sargent, to look behind the portraits and see the evidence of the man in a wider, more intriguing, body of work.

Sargent And Italy, Bruce Robertson, editor Princeton University Press/Los Angeles County Museum of Art 208pp, $35.00, ISBN 0691113289

A slightly different version of this essay originally appeared in the Times Literary Supplement

Wednesday, 3 February 2010


There was a sale of Impressionist Art at Sothebys today. Yesterday my friend Michael Goldfarb and I skipped our usual weekly dim sum or pho or ramen lunch to check it out, and to see what was briefly one of best art museums in the world. The big publicity was for a wonderful Klimt, 'Church in Carcassone', looted by Austrian Nazis from the collection of the Jewish industrialist Viktor Zukerkandl, and it is a magnificent work whose shimmering quality suggests the sunlight on the landscape and river, and gives it a more romantic cast than much Impressionist work, which had obviusly influenced Klimt when he painted it in 1913. The picture was actually taken down while we were there, whether for publicity shots or for private viewing by a high-roller, I don't know. The guide price was £18 million, which seems a bit out of my reach, at least, but I was struck by the thought that there were works on display I could have afforded to buy, especially if I hadn't just bought a house.

It was a hugely impressive display. Pissarro, my favourite of the Impressionists, had a lovely 1901 painting of the church at Dieppe in the morning sun, probably better value at a mere £2 mill. I recognised the landscape in Seurat's Hospice et Phare de Honfleur (1886) whose beauty comes from unusual understatement, both of the pointillism and especially the way the lighthouse is relegated to the fringes of the image. There was a 1907, very impressionist, Bonnard, of a field in front of a church, whose use of blocks of colour suggests things the Abstract Expressionists wouldn't be getting to for another forty years. There was an ink and brush drawing by Picasso of Arlequin, dating from about the same time, 1909, which breathed a new and shadowy life into that familiar image.

A Klee watercolour, Country House Near Fribourg (1915) is an almost perfect small work, and I found it and Max Liebermann's Flower Shrubs Near Wannsee (1919) somehow refreshing from the thought of the Great War. I was also impressed again by Natalia Goncharova, a painting called Haymaking, done sometime between 1905-10, but like much of her work seems to have been under-valued, perhaps because of its melding of Impressionism with hints of Cubism.

But it was as we were leaving, and I was hurrying to make sure there were no further crannies I'd overlooked, that I saw a painting that stopped me in my tracks, and made me re-consider yet again what it is that makes it special to be alive. It's a modest Vuillard, one of numerous portraits he did of Lucy Hessel, wife of his art dealer. Madame Hessel a Son Cabinet de Toilette dates from 1917, and is primarily done in a rich, peaceful green, into which Mme. seems to almost blend. all that sets her apart, apart from her bowed head, is the brilliant orange scarf around her neck. She is spotlighted by a white petalled lamp aimed directly at her, and another, red scarf, hangs on the wall. Those brilliant colours provide hints, perhaps, of the person ready to step out of the shadows, or perhaps back into them; she is lost in her own thoughts, just a small step away from becoming one with her surroundings. It was profoundly moving, transcending its setting, and transporting me, for a while, with it, despite the efforts of London to intrude.

This piece appears also at Irresistible Targets