John Singer Sargent’s biography sifts through the artist’s life and explores the core of his genius
When you walk into the Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Gallery at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, something remarkable happens. After browsing through a number of posed and well-executed portraits in the rooms of the American wing, you suddenly find yourself in the presence of what appear to be real people, vividly rendered, their faces lit up with humor, passion and personality… Mrs. Edward Darley Boit, with her pink polka-dot dress and her daughters with their sullen, searching expressions; The captivating side eye of Louise Pomeroy and elegantly dressed Charles Paine. When you look at these paintings, you have the impression that they are looking back.
As a portrait painter, John Singer Sargent not only captured the appearances of his subjects, he also captured who they really were under the image they sought to portray to the world. He did so with an acumen that both captivated and unsettled audiences in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and at times disconcerted his patrons and patrons. This talent, says Professor Wellesely Paul Fisher, was shaped not only by his unique upbringing, but also by his own experiences with the ambiguities of identity as he moved among the bohemian circles of the Belle Époque.
In “The Grand Affair: John Singer Sargent in His World”, Fisher provides a comprehensive and engaging biography of the artist, from his itinerant youth traveling across Europe to his later years working on major projects for the MFA and the Boston Public Library. A precise and erudite writer with a strong, authoritative voice, Fisher combines biography, history and art criticism to give readers an immersive view of Sargent’s extraordinary life and times. In particular, Fisher attempts to sift through the evidence regarding Sargent’s uncertain sexuality while detailing the complex and convoluted attitudes toward homosexuality that were emerging during the period.
With the growing acceptance of LGBTQ identities in contemporary culture, there is an effort to look back in search of historical figures whose sexuality has been suppressed or removed from historical records. Indeed, many of Sargent’s contemporaries clandestinely engaged in what would today be considered same-sex relationships and left documentary evidence to that effect. In Sargent’s case, there is no hard evidence, but plenty of compelling, circumstantial evidence that he may have had same-sex relationships. Although he had relationships with women, they were unequal and short-lived; on the other hand, he maintained very personal and long-lasting relationships with several men, including the artist Albert de Belleroche and the models Nicola d’Inverno and Thomas McKeller (whose striking nude is exhibited at the MFA). It is quite possible that these men were her lovers.
In the late 1800s, however, it could be difficult to distinguish between what Fisher calls “Victorian male romantic friendship”, in which men could cultivate a deeply felt intimate, non-sexual attachment to one another. , and homosexuality, which was just becoming thought of as something separate. Fisher describes how what was once a set of proscribed actions began to morph, through pseudoscientific clinical psychology, into pathology and eventually into a stigmatized identity – think of the condemned “inverts” of “Sodom and Gomorrah” by Marcel Proust. Sargent’s emphasis on male nudes and aversion to female nudes is evident, but Fisher notes that the École des Beaux-Arts, where the painter learned his trade, discouraged him because the contemporary artistic perspective was that women’s bodies were “insufficiently uplifting”. ”
Fisher is quick to admit that we can never truly know if Sargent was gay, and that many things we perceive as indicative were, at the time, probably trivial. That said, you never know where his conviction lies, sometimes to the detriment of his argument. For example, he is assured of the latent homoeroticism present in Sargent’s “Peter Harrison Resting”, but is quick to dismiss the sexual suggestiveness in paintings with female subjects, such as “El Jaleo” or “A Capriote”, as “either unconscious, or… satirical.” Having been personally captivated by Sargent’s unusually flat Virgin Mary at the BPL, I think we as viewers need to be careful about how much of our own perspective we bring to the work.
What is certain, however, is that Sargent’s portrayals of women, from the outrageous “Madame X” to her portrayal of Isabella Stewart Gardner, were vastly different from those of her peers. They neither objectify nor minimize their subjects, nor engage in base stereotypes. As his career blossomed, Fisher says that “Sargent increasingly identified with women and allied himself with their views.” His appreciation for these bold and powerful women is felt throughout his work, and his ability to bring out the best in them is one of the main reasons why his work remains so striking today. . Likewise, Paul Fisher’s ability to penetrate to the heart of Sargent’s genius makes “The Grand Affair” a truly seminal work, one worth revisiting to savor every detail.