Today is the birthday (1856) of John Singer Sargent, called an “American” artist because his parents were U.S. citizens, but he actually spent almost none of his life in North America. In his day he was considered by many to be the leading portrait painter of his generation, but subsequently his work tended to be overlooked because the portraiture he is best known for was, for a long time, considered rather old fashioned for the period, and place, he worked in, which was known more for Impressionism. Interest in his work increased in the late 20th century as his oeuvre was explored more fully, and it became evident that it is much more varied than is known by the general public (or at least those who care at all).
Before Sargent’s birth, his father, FitzWilliam, was an eye surgeon at the Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia from 1844 to 1854. After John’s older sister died at the age of two, his mother, Mary, suffered a mental breakdown, and the couple decided to go abroad to help her recover. They remained nomadic expatriates for the rest of their lives. Although based in Paris, Sargent’s parents moved regularly with the seasons to the sea and the mountain resorts in France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. While Mary was pregnant with John, they stopped in Florence to avoid a cholera epidemic, and Sargent was born there in 1856. A year later, his sister Mary was born. After her birth, FitzWilliam reluctantly resigned his post in Philadelphia and accepted his wife’s preference for them to remain abroad. They lived modestly on a small inheritance and savings, living a quiet life with their children. They generally avoided society and other U.S. citizens except for friends in the art world. The couple had 4 more children, two of whom died in childhood.
Sargent’s mother was convinced that traveling around Europe, and visiting museums and churches, would give young Sargent a satisfactory education. Several attempts to have him formally schooled failed, owing mostly to their itinerant life. Sargent’s mother was a fine amateur artist and his father was a skilled medical illustrator. Early on, she gave him sketchbooks and encouraged drawing excursions. Young Sargent worked with care on his drawings, and he enthusiastically copied images from The Illustrated London News of ships and made detailed sketches of landscapes. FitzWilliam had hoped that his son’s interest in ships and the sea might lead him toward a naval career.
At 13, his mother reported that, “John sketches quite nicely, & has a remarkably quick and correct eye. If we could afford to give him really good lessons, he would soon be quite a little artist.” Around that time, he received some watercolor lessons from Carl Welsch, a German landscape painter. His formal schooling was rather erratic, but Sargent turned into a well-educated young man, accomplished in art, music, and literature. He was fluent in French, Italian, and German. At 17, Sargent was described as “willful, curious, determined and strong, yet shy, generous, and modest.” He was well-acquainted with many of the great masters from first hand observation, and wrote in 1874, “I have learned in Venice to admire Tintoretto immensely and to consider him perhaps second only to Michelangelo and Titian.”
An attempt to study at the Academy of Florence failed because the school was re-organizing at the time, so, after returning to Paris from Florence, Sargent began his art studies with Carolus-Duran, who was on a meteoric rise at the time, and studied with him from 1874 to 1878. In 1874, on his first attempt, Sargent passed the rigorous exam required to gain admission to the École des Beaux-Arts, the premier art school in France. He took drawing classes, which included anatomy and perspective. Sargent also took some lessons from Léon Bonnat.
Carolus-Duran’s atelier was progressive, dispensing with the traditional academic approach, which required careful drawing and underpainting, in favor of the alla prima method of working directly on the canvas with a loaded brush, derived from Diego Velázquez. It was an approach that relied on the proper placement of tones of paint. This approach also permitted spontaneous flourishes of color not bound to an under-drawing. Sargent’s early enthusiasm was for landscapes, not portraiture, as evidenced by his voluminous sketches full of mountains, seascapes, and buildings. Carolus-Duran’s expertise in portraiture finally influenced Sargent in that direction. Commissions for history paintings were still considered more prestigious, but were much harder to get. Portrait painting, on the other hand, was the best way of promoting an art career, getting exhibited in the Salon, and gaining commissions to earn a livelihood.
Sargent’s first major portrait was of his friend Fanny Watts in 1877, and was also his first Salon admission. Its particularly well-executed pose drew attention. His second salon entry was the Oyster Gatherers of Cançale, an impressionistic painting of which he made two copies. In 1879, at the age of 23, Sargent painted a portrait of teacher Carolus-Duran; the virtuoso effort met with public approval, and announced the direction his mature work would take. Its showing at the Paris Salon was both a tribute to his teacher and an advertisement for portrait commissions. Of Sargent’s early work, Henry James wrote that the artist offered “the slightly ‘uncanny’ spectacle of a talent which on the very threshold of its career has nothing more to learn.”
After leaving Carolus-Duran’s atelier, Sargent visited Spain. There he studied the paintings of Velázquez, absorbing his technique, and in his travels gathered ideas for future works. He was entranced with Spanish music and dance. The trip also re-awakened his own talent for music, and which found visual expression in his early masterpiece El Jaleo (1882). Music would continue to play a major part in his social life as well, as he was a skillful accompanist of both amateur and professional musicians. Sargent became a strong advocate for modern composers, especially Gabriel Fauré. Trips to Italy provided sketches and ideas for several Venetian street scenes genre paintings, which effectively captured gestures and postures he would find useful in later portraiture.
Upon his return to Paris, Sargent quickly received several portrait commissions, and his career was launched. He immediately demonstrated the concentration and stamina that enabled him to paint with workman-like steadiness for the next 25 years. He filled in the gaps between commissions with many non-commissioned portraits of friends and colleagues.
I won’t belabor the history of Sargent’s career more. Instead, I will look at 3 significant works.
Portrait of Madame X
This portrait of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau caused a major scandal when it was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1884. Mme Gautreau was well known in Parisian social circles for using her beauty to advantage, and engaging in “infelicities.” She was sought after by numerous portraitists, because of the notoriety a painting of her would secure the artist. Sargent went beyond the bounds of polite society, however, by deliberately painting her in a seductive pose wearing a provocative dress. The plunging neckline, oceans of bare skin, and come-hither stance were scandalous enough for late-19th-century Parisians, but in the original Sargent also painted the right strap of her dress hanging down over her arm, which was considered to be outrageously salacious. For a time Mme Gautreau had to retire from public, even though Sargent did not name her on the portrait. She was well known without being identified. In addition, Sargent’s commissions in France dried up completely, and so he moved to London where he flourished.
Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of a Wood
On a visit to Monet at Giverny in 1885, Sargent painted one of his most Impressionistic portraits: Monet at work painting outdoors with his new wife nearby. Sargent is usually not thought of as an Impressionist painter, but he sometimes used Impressionist techniques. This is his own version of the Impressionist style which he continued using into the late 1880s, after his visit to Monet. Monet later wrote on Sargent’s style: “He is not an Impressionist in the sense that we use the word, he is too much under the influence of Carolus-Duran.”
In May 1918, Sargent was one of several painters commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee of the British Ministry of Information to create a large painting for a planned Hall of Remembrance. The plan for a Hall of Remembrance decorated by large paintings was abandoned when the project was incorporated with that for Imperial War Museum. Although he was 62 years old, he travelled to the Western Front in July 1918, accompanied by Henry Tonks. He spent time with the Guards Division near Arras, and then with the American Expeditionary Forces near Ypres. He was determined to paint an epic work with many human figures, but struggled to find a situation with American and British figures in the same scene. On 11 September 1918, Sargent wrote to Evan Charteris:
The Ministry of Information expects an epic – and how can one do an epic without masses of men? Excepting at night I have only seen three fine subjects with masses of men – one a harrowing sight, a field full of gassed and blindfolded men – another a train of trucks packed with “chair à cannon” – and another frequent sight a big road encumbered with troops and traffic, I daresay the latter, combining English and Americans, is the best thing to do, if it can be prevented from looking like going to the Derby.
The “harrowing sight” referred to the aftermath of a German barrage that Sargent witnessed on 21 August 1918, at Le Bac-du-Sud, between Arras and Doullens, in which mustard gas had been used against the advancing 99th Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division and 8th Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division of the British Army, during the Second Battle of Arras of 1918. You can see his deliberate homage to Breughel (The Blind Leading the Blind):
Sargent’s painting is huge, and, for me, is haunting, and captivates the horrors of the Great War. Curiously, in its day it had a remarkably mixed reception. Virginia Woolf, for example, described it as annoyingly patriotic, and E.M. Forster called it “too heroic.” I don’t see that at all. What was in their heads?
Sargent’s Birthday Party, is perhaps not as well known as his portraiture. It shows his mix of Realism and Impressionism, and also his characteristic use of color – especially the contrast of red and white, which you find in numerous portraits. So I thought that a characteristic (American) red and white cake would be appropriate for celebrating his birthday: the classic red velvet cake.
Red Velvet Cake
½ cup shortening
1 ½ cups white sugar
2 tbsp cocoa
4 tbsp red food coloring
1 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk
2 ½ cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsp baking soda
1 tbsp distilled white vinegar
5 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
1 cup white sugar
1 cup butter, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350˚F/175˚C.
Grease two 9-inch round pans.
For the cake: Beat the shortening and 1 ½ cups sugar together until they are very light and fluffy. Add the eggs slowly and beat well. Make a paste of the cocoa and red food coloring and beat into the creamed mixture.
In a separate bowl, mix the salt, 1 teaspoon vanilla, and buttermilk together. Add the flour to the batter, alternating with the buttermilk mixture, mixing just until incorporated. Mix the baking soda and vinegar in a cup and gently fold into the cake batter. Don’t beat or stir the batter after this point.
Pour the batter into the prepared pans. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Cool the cakes completely on a wire rack.
For the icing: Put 5 tablespoons flour and milk into a saucepan, whisk, and then cook over low heat until thick, stirring constantly. Let cool completely. While the mixture is cooling, beat 1 cup of sugar, butter, and 1 teaspoon vanilla until light and fluffy. Add the cooled flour and milk mixture and beat until the icing is a good spreading consistency.
Split the cakes into layers, spreading the icing thickly between each layer, and then over the top and sides of the cake.