Monday, January 14, 2008

Great Expectations

Every year I purchase two calendars for Annie’s office featuring work by the same two artists—Alphonse Mucha and John Singer Sargent. Annie fell in love with Sargent’s Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (above, from 1885-1886) years ago and now shares my great affection for his work. Born January 12, 1856, Sargent is considered American, but was born in Europe to American parents who continually moved from country, providing their children with an amazing, eclectic education in different languages and cultures. Sargent drank all that in, ending up with a mental catalogue of the great works of Western world art. From that catalogue, Sargent took a little bit from every age, from the portraiture of Velazquez to the Impressionism in Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, yet always made it uniquely his own.

Now that we have Alex, we appreciate even more Sargent’s depictions of children. In fact, a 2005 exhibition titled Great Expectations: John Singer Sargent Painting Children concentrated solely on Sargent and children. In The Daughters of Edward D. Boit (above, from 1882) Sargent created an unusual group portrait of the four daughters of his wealthy patron. Some look directly at the viewer, while others lurk almost entirely in the shadows. Each child is given a distinct interior life. Aside from this psychological astuteness, Sargent’s handling of the paint is incredible. When I saw this painting in person, I first couldn’t believe how large it was. After I got over that shock, I was then amazed at how loosely the figures are painted when seen up close. The “details” become apparent only at a distance. Reproductions truly don’t do this painting justice. To be able to create such realistic effects with such free gestures truly requires a magic touch.

One of my other favorite paintings by Sargent is his Spanish-flavored El Jaleo (above, from 1882), one of his depictions of a distinct culture similar to his masterful watercolors of Venice. This painting also has a personal association for Annie and me. We ate at a great tapas restaurant in Washington, DC, called Jaleo that featured an enlarged reproduction of Sargent’s painting on the back wall. I recognized it immediately after we sat down. It was like unexpectedly seeing an old friend across the room in a strange city.

No discussion of Sargent would be complete without mentioning the infamous Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) (above, from 1884). Deborah Davis’ Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X entertainingly tells the whole sordid story of the socialite who grew to regret posing for Sargent. It’s always fun to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and look closely to try and see where Sargent repainted Madame X’s shoulder to raise the once daringly dangling strap of her dress back onto her shoulder and to respectability.
Sargent always seems to me to be the one painter you’d want to spend an agreeable day with. Portraits of his teacher Carolus-Duran and of his friend Claude Monet attest both to his talent and to his affection for those artists. Sargent’s admiration for and promotion of his friend, the troubled Italian painter Antonio Mancini, appear in his remarkable portrait of Mancini, painted in the style of Mancini (in about an hour, too) and given to him as a gift. The vibrant community surrounding The John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery attests to the continuing audience Sargent’s works have and the power of his warm personality to continue to radiate even today.

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