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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Sargent's Portraits

Self-portrait, 1906, John Singer Sargent,
his own "mugshot"
Even though you're good at it, even though you're famous for it, even though you earn big bucks doing it, can an artist do so much of a particular type of painting that he grows sick of them, even though their popularity demands he continue? That was the predicament in which John Singer Sargent found himself shortly after the turn of the century as wealthy European dowagers and their debutante daughters practically lined up outside his London front door in an effort to join the elite group of rich and famous society ladies to be portrayed by perhaps the most successful portrait painter in history. He came to despise the "paughtraits" for which they heaped obscene amounts of money upon him to paint, referring to many of them from the latter part of his career as "mug shots."

Ceiling Mural, 1921, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, John Singer Sargent
This was not the only difficulty Sargent faced. Coupled with the fact that his portraits had ceased, even in his own eyes, to be great art; was the uprising known as "modern art." His style and subject matter came to appear dated as compared to the work of Picasso, Matisse, even as compared to a painter from his own generation--Monet. Critics declared him passe`. His work was that of another century. During his later years, Sargent sought refuge painting murals. Today, even though they were painted in England, his mural work can be found in numerous public buildings in the Boston area. He often journeyed to Boston to supervise their installation. So great was his reputation, he was even known to demand changes in the architecture to accommodate them.

Madame X, 1884,
John Singer Sargent
Sargent died suddenly in 1925 as he once more prepared to depart London for America,  this time to supervise the installation of a series of murals in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. Sargent's most famous (or infamous) portrait was of the American-born Paris socialite, Judith (Virginie) Gautreau. It was this daring depiction of a pasty-white dilettante in a sleek black dress with it's scandalous cleavage and slipped shoulder-strap (later altered) that drove Sargent from Paris to London in 1884. Ironically, dispite his distate for it, Sargent eventually sold this painting to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, insisting upon the title Madame X. He described his subject as having a complexion of "...uniform lavender or blotting paper color all over." (She is said to have regularly ingested small amounts of arsenic to keep it this way.) Her mother told Sargent, "My daughter is lost--everyone in Paris is making fun of her. My son-in-law will have to challenge you to a duel." Sargent is said to have joked in response, "Every time I paint a portrait I make at least one enemy."

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