American Art · Spotlight on Artists

John Singer Sargent

Mrs. Edward Darley Boit by John Singer Sargent
John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Edward Darley Boit, 1888. Boston, The Museum of Fine Arts. Photo via the-athenaeum.org.

I recently wrote about portraits by John Singer Sargent for DailyArt Magazine. I really enjoyed writing this article, and not just because I got to spend a lot of time looking at his beautiful works. (If you want to know which is my absolute favorite, you have to read the article.)

I know that many others enjoy his art as much as I do. There’s something unique about it that makes it almost always recognizable at first glance. His paintings are light and pretty without being too fluffy and insubstantial. Similarly, his subjects are both aesthetically pleasing and psychologically compelling. There’s the sense of a real person behind the portrait. I think that Mrs. Boit, shown above, is a very good example of that. She seems like someone I might enjoy having a conversation with.

Madame X by John Singer Sargent
John Singer Sargent, Madame X, 1884. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As part of my research, I read Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X by Deborah Davis. The book tells the stories – both equally intriguing – of Sargent and Madame X herself, whose name was Virginie Gautreau. I think that many admirers of this painting would be surprised (and quite possibly dismayed) to read Davis’s characterization of Gautreau. She comes across as vain and snobby, which doesn’t fit so much with what modern viewers imagine her to be when they make her out to be their style icon.

The book also addresses the scandal that Madame X caused during the Salon of 1884. Much has been made about the fact that certain aspects of the painting – most notably the fallen dress strap (later repainted) – inspired so much controversy. Generally, this has been made out to show how unreasonably prudish the era was, but I’m not sure I agree. A missing strap (or even two) certainly wouldn’t attract any attention today, but equally small things are still every bit as capable of causing outrage. In my opinion, the more relevant takeaway is how quickly public opinion can turn from love to hate for seemingly-trivial reasons.

Corfu: Cypresses by John Singer Sargent
John Singer Sargent, Corfu: Cypresses, c. 1909, watercolor. Boston: The Museum of Fine Arts. Photo via the-athenaeum.org

Since I focused my article on Sargent’s portraits, I didn’t get to include something else he was great at – watercolors. In addition to painting the rich and famous, Sargent travelled all over the world and recorded his experiences in gorgeous and colorful watercolor sketches. Many of them are now in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and the Brooklyn Museum. I wrote about them a few years ago. Enjoy them here. Also see two more of his paintings that I’ve previously featured here and here.

What do you like about Sargent? And if you don’t like anything about him, why?

3 thoughts on “John Singer Sargent

  1. I like your comment about the hullaballou over the strap — I agree, in any given era people get worked up over unusual things. Look at how controversial it was nine or ten years ago when Michelle Obama went sleeveless for her official portrait.

    There is something about Sargent’s paintings that is comfortable and inviting. Amazing that an artist can convey that sort of thing with his or her work.

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