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.
I’d go to museums to see Sargent, but I thought last week you said museums were dead. I’m still “getting over it”.
many painters today are moving on, way on, from representation, from anything that happened in the late 1800s, if the answer to your question of doing it is yes the odds of anyone giving a shit about that being done (except for die hard GT style art lovers of course) is zero, the problems artists face today, painters, is so many light years from Sargents. the past is never boring, but what do artists do now that has relevance? or so they can even think about survival? or so they can honor what the 1950s was about? the truth is these days you can just say you are a painter and you are one, you don’t have to be good, you just have to say it, good or bad thats how it is, well you have to have a IG account too of course, its kinda crazy. fortunately the past is what museums do better than anything else, i often hate it when they try to do anything else. its kinda all they are good at imo , but anyway this article is rad, i love old paintings, but the last thing a painter should do now, except for in research and recreation purposes, is paint an old lady in a red dress imo
I agree that San Antonio’s Vanderbilt may be the most gorgeous Sargent in Texas, but your particular fascination with painterly technique and effects overlooks something else Sargent could convey with remarkable complexity: the psychological dimensions of his subjects (or at least his interpretation of them). In light of this, I’d like to offer a strong defense of the two Amon Carter Sargents as perhaps the most remarkable pair in the state.
As you note, the Alice Vanderbilt Shepard painting is a portrait of lovely young woman with a horrendous medical history. Sargent manages to flatter her with all his best techniques (those rosy, youthful cheeks, putting her in a military-style jacket that emphasizes her posture and gives her a wanting-to-be-all-grown-up air). Yet, if you know Alice’s life, you can’t help notice the redness in her eyes, the sadness there, and now, her posture makes the viewer wonder just how stiff it is, how forced, even what an ordeal it might have been to sit for the painter. And you sense a brave young woman sitting up straight, shoulders back, hiding her sorrow – but one who Sargent has NOT looking directly at the viewer, but down and off to the side (an entire study could be made of where Sargent’s subjects cast their eyes – the way Madame X, for instance, boldly looks straight to the side as if – the controversy at the time suggested – she was just then greeting a lover). Yes, the Amon Carter frame is entirely too elaborate and fussy for Alice, for what is such an intimate and touching portrait.
In contrast, the Booth portrait is meant to be a public icon. It’s an image of an internationally celebrated man and artist at the end of his life and career (Booth retired the next year and died three years later). Because it’s something of ‘a study in brown,’ with Booth standing next to the fireplace in what had been his home but had become the Players Club in NYC, the portrait doesn’t have the bright colors and contrasts of a typical Sargent. It makes for a much more somber portrait than his usual ‘titans of industry’ paintings. Rightfully so, considering – as with Alice – the sorrow in his life, with Booth’s brother, John Wilkes Booth, bringing anger and ostracism to the entire family and to Edwin’s reputation as our greatest Shakespearean actor. As my KERA Art & Seek article noted – the one you linked to – the painting IS a tricky bit of foreshortening (it originally hung over a fireplace, so Sargent painted Booth much grander, slimmer and taller than he actually was – we now encounter the painting straight on instead of looking UP at it). And it’s no accident that the fire in the fireplace is dying out, giving the portrait that huge, shadowy darkness on the left with just the last embers glowing – a perfect metaphor for Booth’s own life and talent. Booth’s posture is meant to seem casual, hands in pocket, jacket open but he’s in a traditional, contrapposto stance, appropriate for a classical actor, and he’s also staring off to the side but with something of a faraway gaze – and with red-rimmed eyes, matching the dying embers.
There’s certainly more marvelous, dramatic flair in the DMA watercolor, more splendor in the San Antonio Vanderbilt or the Houston Sears portrait, but none of them have the psychological acuity, the subtle but powerful emotional signs in the Amon Carter Sargents.
I’m always suspicious when anyone doubts the merit of one achieving the ability to paint a figure well. And I’ll say it again, learning to draw the figure and paint it well, will ALWAYS be the best route to take when you are a young artist. To learn the classical way to render, will always get you further down the road than to deny yourself this experience. Everyone is a critic when it comes to drawing the figure and it’s a proving ground for every artist. Drawing and painting the figure develops the eye and sharpens the ability for one to view the world in a more sensitive way. This experience aids the creative person to view their work later in life with a more developed eye and trains the brain in the various pathways of problem solving.
This type of painting is hard work. Figure drawing, if taught correctly in college, is extremely taxing physically as well as mentally. And it provides a huge dividends in one’s future. Don’t listen to the naysayers, learn to draw well and it will provide you with the foundation you will need many years down the road.
Beautifully written Jerome, well said. As you so eloquently wrote, with the knowledge of these sitters past, paint and rendering can relay in the figure, life’s trials and tribulations. It’s visual poetry, really.
This is about a Sargeant that used to be in Texas. When my wife and I lived in Washington, D.C., we had a neighbor in our apartment building named Moira Byrne. Moira was the stepdaughter of an old Austin friend, Creekmore Fath. Moira’s mother, born Adele Hay, was the granddaughter of John Hay, who was secretary of state in William McKinley’s cabinet.
The first time that Dedie and I were in Moira’s apartment I noticed a very large pencil sketch portrait of a woman in a hat from the 1890s. I thought it was quite wonderful and I asked Moira who it was. She replied that it was her great-grandmother, Mrs. John Hay. “Who was the artist?” I asked. “John Singer Sargeant,” she replied.
Fort Davis, Texas
Sargent’s “The Model” at MFAH was last on view in 2010 for the exhibition “Houston’s Sargents” and previously in a number of exhibitions including a 2005 exhibition focusing on works donated by Miss Ima Hogg. It’s a wonderful work on paper.
Regarding Sargent, here’s a nice essay by Michael Lobel on the painter’s late masterpiece “Gassed,” a WWI memorial that Lobel links to the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic:
New Sargent in a public collection in TX! Seen last week at the McNay in San Antonio, this Portrait of Arthur Daintry from c. 1882. It was acquired in 2018. It’s signed in the upper left “To my friend Daintry/John S Sargent”
Good painting. Not as red in person as in this image: https://collection.mcnayart.org/objects/24300/portrait-of-arthur-daintrey
They also have a bunch of prints and drawings by Sargent, which I missed before: https://collection.mcnayart.org/objects?query=sargent
There’s also a really nice Sargent, a portrait of a drowsy/sexy young man, on view in the MFAH American galleries (which are fantastic since their recent re-installation, go see them, Thursday is free day!). This one is listed as being owned by a prominent local collector. Hopefully it will make it into the permanent MFAH collection.
(Also, I have to think Sargent was looking at Fragonard’s fantasy figures when he was doing these things.)
(Also also, it’s weird how Fragonard is either amazing — fantasy figures, The Lock — or insipid and unattractive — the swing, those brownish panels at the Frick.)