Hey painters: Can you do this? If so, then you deserve to be called a painter. This is your competition.
I’m not saying you should be interested in painting fancy ladies in fancy gowns, but show us that you can capture simple phenomenon: the surface and folds of a material, the glow of living human skin viewed beneath a sleeve. Show us reflections and glints of light and shadow, or atmosphere, or any of those things. If you can capture an intelligent-looking person’s mildly sardonic expression, that’s great; but for starters, just render the simple visual minutiae of our world in liquid colored pigment.
It’s a weird translation, world to paint — it’s not a necessary one anymore — but it’s glorious when done with such skill. Can you do it?
Somehow, John Singer Sargent could put the mark right where it needed to be. The reflection of light, the highlight, next to the depth that indicated the shadow adjacent to it: he knew right where to put it, just how to put it, and not too much. Which meant that the man could paint clothes. And hands. And male nudes. And seascapes. And rocks. And alligators. And make anyone look beautiful. He died in 1925 without ever having boarded the Modernist train, and thus was sniffed at in his day by some as a mere “illustrator.” But because he lived through that highly transitional time of seeing the world and rendering it differently — because he knew the Monets and Manets — he had the leeway to be fluid and joyous. Sargent is a dance. Across the canvas and up and down: he puts it right there, and it’s right. No do-overs. And he doesn’t need them. You put your nose up against his stuff and it holds up. He’s good, right up to six inches.
After his career was almost permanently derailed with the Madame X brouhaha in the 1880s, he kept on fighting and ultimately he cried all the way to the bank, unable to keep up with demand for his gorgeous, flattering, profoundly humanist portraits. Decades later, after a big retrospective in the 1980s and lavish praise from both Robert Hughes and Andy Warhol, Sargent achieved the household name status he enjoys today. While his most famous works are elsewhere, several of our Texas museums own pieces by the beloved painter. Here they are; I’m pretty sure these are all the Sargents in Texas. Go see them in person, and let us know if I’ve missed one.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston owns four artworks by Sargent, three of which are works on paper, including this charming watercolor, The Model. To my knowledge, I have never seen it on view at the MFAH. You can tell an artist’s hand not so much from tight, finished works like Madame X, but from sketches, where you see the fluidity and ease:
In addition, the MFAH owns this larger portrait of Boston patron and artist Sarah Choate Sears, which is typically hanging in the Beck Building galleries. It’s not my favorite Sargent, but it’s hard to argue with the weight of that chair, and of course, all that satin:
The San Antonio Museum of Art owns this striking portrait of Margaret Louisa Vanderbilt, a granddaughter of Commodore Vanderbilt. Interestingly, she was booked to sail on the Titanic, but changed her plans and sailed a week earlier on another ship, missing that adventure. This painting is currently on view in SAMA’s American painting gallery. This may be my favorite Sargent in Texas. Sometimes the painter revealed the humanity and warmth of his sitters (presumably when he liked them), allowing the beauty of a person’s soul to radiate and sometimes supersede whatever physical beauty they possessed. This is the case with Margaret: it’s Sargent at his Velasquez-y best. With the notable exception of Dr. Pozzi at Home, it’s easily the best Sargent of a person wearing red. And the mirrored surface of the marble tabletop shows he could do more than just fabrics:
The sitter of the SAMA portrait, Margaret Vanderbilt, was married to one Elliot Fitch Shepard, who apparently was an unpleasant fellow. One of their daughters, Alice, was injured falling from a tree which her father had forbid her to climb. He refused to permit her to see a doctor, and she suffered a fractured vertebrae and her spine was disfigured for the rest of her life. That child is the subject of another Sargent portrait, curiously also in Texas, at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth:
It must be said that the portrait of poor Alice, commissioned when she was 13 years old, is not particularly special. (It’s intimately scaled and in person, its rather silly frame is not as noticeable as in this image, which I took.) Hanging nearby in the gallery is a huge Sargent, one of his biggest: his portrait of celebrated 19th-century actor (and brother of presidential assassin) Edwin Booth. The painting stands well over seven feet tall. The Amon Carter acquired this work for the relatively modest sum of somewhere between $4 and $6 million in 2013, as reported at the time by KERA. It wasn’t terribly well-known as part of Sargent’s oeuvre, as it was commissioned by The Players Club in New York, and stayed there until the club of actors was forced to sell it to a private collector to pay debts in 2002. Again, it’s not the greatest Sargent in the world, and certainly not one of my favorite paintings in the Amon Carter’s collection, but even Sargent phoning it in is still pretty great. (Like the wonderful Fumée d’Ambre Gris at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, this is one where the painter throws in an architectural detail for scale and perspective, but also just to show us how well he can do it):
Lastly, the Dallas Museum of Art owns a couple of small Sargents, including this very loose portrait of a young child:
The DMA also has a study for one of Sargent’s most celebrated paintings, El Jaleo at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The actual painting is huge and memorably installed in an open-air nook off the museum’s famous garden. It’s stunning, particularly the dancer’s hands, which you can see Sargent whisk out in this watercolor study:
There it is. As of writing, it’s summertime in an election year. Go see some art. It will do your soul good.