Yet that exhibition contained a few paintings which suggested a different Sargent lurking behind the enigma of success. Sargent And Italy, which opened in 2002 at the Palazzo dei Diamani in Ferrara before heading to LACMA (and thence to Denver) brought much of this well-hidden shadow into the light.
Italy was Sargent’s spiritual home. He was born in Florence in 1856, to parents who quit America after the death of their first child, and remained expatriate, restlessly pursuing European culture. After studying in Florence and Rome, he moved to Paris at 18 for more formal training. He visited America, to establish his citizenship, in the Centennial year of 1876, but the following year was back in Paris, exhibiting at the Salon. He was only 21.
Flush with Parisian success, he returned to Italy, working in Venice, but travelling extensively. In Holland he immersed himself in Frans Hals and Vermeer, and in Spain absorbed Velazquez’s massive influence. But in Naples and Capri, in Spain and Morocco, Sargent also sought out the exotic subject matter of Mediterranean peasantry and Orientalism. The way Sargent puts those influences to work within what amount to genre painting is tantalising; his synthesis of classic and contemporary plays with light and shadow to create a shimmering sensuality.
A fine essay by Richard Ormond in the sumptuous catalogue accompanying the exhibition compares Sargent’s languid ‘Venetian Bead Stringers’ (c. 1880-82) with more energetic portraits by accomplished genre painters. His ‘Venetian Interior’ (c. 1880-82) mixes shadows and figures, as if fleeing from the bright light outside a door at the far end of the room. But his sensuality is most evident in two paintings from the same time, ‘A Street In Venice’ and ‘The Sulphur Match’. In the first, an insouciant man addresses a woman in a doorway; she is momentarily distracted, as if by the viewer. In the second, the same man lights a cigar, as a women leans back in a chair, casually satisfied, feet in the air, an empty flask of chianti on the ground. Ormond compares Sargent’s with Whistler’s contemporaneous Venetian works; he says they undoubtedly knew each other, which is interesting because the louche figure in those paintings could easily be mistaken for Whistler himself.
This brooding sensuality boiled over in Paris, when Sargent’s portrait ‘Madame X’ created a scandal at the 1884 Salon. The stunning Virginie Gautreau stands in profile, pale arms and shoulders bare, contrasting with the decolletage of her black dress. While the critics fumed, they also missed the point. Sargent’s friend Violet Paget, who, as Vernon Lee, was publishing her first work on the Renaissance, called it an ‘unpleasant’ but ‘very grand work’, ‘tending entirely toward fifteenth century ideas’.
Sargent’s reaction to critical opprobrium was not just to move to London, but to establish himself remarkably quickly as English society’s most-sought after portrait painter. A century later, his success was still infuriating the critics. Although no one paints women more beautifully, he would shock no one else, and seemed to save his deepest sensuality for representing fabrics and shadows. In 1890 the Boston Public Library offered him his first mural commission, elevating him to the top paying ranges of the art market. He was hailed as ‘The American Michelangelo’, and he was still only 34.
At the same time, in the mid 1890s he began to return to Italy, researching his commissions and vacationing virtually every summer until the Great War made travel impossible. His studies of monuments and figures have a life of their own; Arthur Symons, amazed by his painting of Benvenuto Cellini’s sculpture of Perseus, described a ‘terrorless Medusa head from which the blood drops like clotted pearls’. But the studies pale beside a stunning group of oils and watercolours, almost impressionist in their striking light effects; they shimmer and glisten with life. His Venetian paintings are all corners, edges: buildings glimpsed in part, from a gondola perhaps, whose prow nudges into the bottom of the view. Although Sargent once referred to working in watercolour as ‘making the best of an emergency’, he seems to revel in the freedom watercolours provide.
It is not the thesis of the exhibition, but it is nevertheless tempting to see these later Italian works as Sargent’s vacation of sorts from the prestigious murals and high-toned portraits that marked his successful life in Boston. Walking through the Italianate layout of the Los Angeles show, there is a palpable sense of release, of freedom, in these paintings of gardens, quarries, cypresses, and of his family and friends on holiday. It is as if his career turned on the fulcrum of ‘Madame X’, and now, unimpeachably successful, he could return to his earlier pursuits.
Sargent never married; his sexuality has always intrigued art historians. He never travelled alone, and he brought with him exotic costumes in which he posed relatives, servants, and friends. If, as Ilene Susan Fort suggests, his emotions were reserved for art, the sensuality of his early works manifests itself again in the way he positions figures lounging by rivers, in the shadows of mountains, or simply on grass. Their limbs are entwined, their shawls take on a serpentine life. In ‘Group With Parasols’ (c. 1905) the ‘Whistler’ figure from Venetian streets seems to reappear. Perhaps it is a fantasy self Sargent is painting into those scenes.
His beautiful views of the Palazzo Barbaro, where he was a guest along with Henry James, remind us of the affinity between Sargent and writers, the subject of a thorough essay by the late R. W. B. Lewis. When Lewis refers to The Wings Of The Dove as being James’ statement about ‘the dark interior workings of the human spirit’, one senses a vivid contrast with Sargent. Perhaps, as the critics insisted, he withdrew from digging deeper into those dark interiors, to concentrate on exteriors. But the effect of this exhibition, the essays in this catalogue, is to restore our sense of artistic spark to Sargent, to look behind the portraits and see the evidence of the man in a wider, more intriguing, body of work.
Sargent And Italy, Bruce Robertson, editor
Princeton University Press/Los Angeles County Museum of Art
208pp, $35.00, ISBN 0691113289
A slightly different version of this essay originally appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, and the current version appears also at Untitled Perspectives