Among American artists working prior to World War II, few rose to the level of technical proficiency and commercial popularity of John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). His portraits of the beautiful, the powerful, and the wealthy of his day can, at times, seem reminiscent of the Kardashianization of American society: a malignant flowering of narcissism and ostentation, currently in our republic’s most putrid form of bloom.
Those who have eyes to see, however, ought to take the time to get to know the work of this artist, which offers us a marvelous opportunity to learn how to look at art, but also how to look at ourselves.
The small but insightful exhibition, “Yours Sincerely, John S. Sargent,” currently at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston, marks the donation of a major archive of letters, drawings, photographs, and other materials by and about Sargent. The MFA has put together a sampling of fascinating materials relating to the working methods, relationships, and lifestyle Sargent enjoyed during his long career. The picture that emerges is of an introspective man who, while confident in his own abilities, is always trying to better understand exactly what he is seeing below the surface.
Who Was John Singer Sargent?
Born in Florence to well-to-do American parents, Sargent did not set foot in America until he was about 20 years old, having been brought up in cities and resort towns all over Europe. While his upbringing may have been unconventional for a member of the American bourgeoisie, even then it was not unusual for an American artist to fulfill his need for both art instruction and patronage by heading to the other side of the Atlantic. Americans such as John Singleton Copley, Mary Cassatt, and James McNeill Whistler all made their names in the art world by becoming expatriates.
The world Sargent typically evokes in his portraits is filled with silks, jewels, and fine furnishings. Yet when we look behind the glamour and wealth, we all know instinctively that the people he painted experienced the same joys and sufferings we all do. In most cases, they simply did so inwardly, rather than turning their private struggles into opportunities for public display and commentary. (Would that more of us in the present age would choose to follow their example.)
The sketches, notes, and photographs in the MFA exhibition give us a glimpse into the mind and working methods of the man who painted these people, and who in the process made everything he did look easy. As the show makes clear, that seeming effortlessness was actually the result of many years of patient, careful study, combined with Sargent’s own inherent genius. The samples of correspondence demonstrating his many years of friendship with Impressionist Claude Monet, for example, may surprise those who think of Sargent as someone out of touch with the innovative artistic trends of his time. And the observations of contemporaries quoted in the exhibition demonstrate that, far from being a shallow flatterer, Sargent was often shy and thoughtful, belying the idea that he was little more than a showman.
Then, the Masterpiece
After viewing the exhibition, visitors who take the elevator upstairs to the second floor find a reward. Upon emerging and entering through the glass doors on the right, one is immediately confronted by a prime example of both the beauty and the depth of Sargent’s art. Everything one has learned about Sargent the man, the working artist, and the observer of human relationships in the lower-floor exhibition comes to fruition in one of the single greatest masterpieces of American art.
Sargent’s portrait of “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” (1882) dominates the far wall in Gallery 232. It is difficult not to be floored by this painting as soon as one enters the room. Conveniently, the MFA has placed a comfortable double sofa in front of it, should one feel the need to sit down. The work is absolutely massive, a fact which, like Diego Velazquez’ masterpiece in the Prado, “Las Meninas”—a work that clearly informed Sargent’s painting—one does not fully appreciate when looking at a photograph of the painting online or in a book.
The four young girls in the painting, the daughters of wealthy American friends of Sargent’s, are scattered seemingly at random in a shadowy, but elegantly decorated, room. The youngest sits in the foreground on an oriental rug, playing with her doll; the next youngest stands off to the viewer’s left in the middle ground, while the two eldest girls stand in the shadow of a doorway in the background. The viewer feels as though he has suddenly walked into a home where he has interrupted these young ladies at their play. In effect, Sargent is cleverly inverting “Las Meninas,” where the little princess dashes in and interrupts her parents at their play, i.e., having their portrait painted.
In this work, Sargent demonstrates not only his familiarity with the great artists of the past, but also with the trends of his own time. In places, the painting reminds us of Dutch Old Master painters like Johannes Vermeer, not only in brushwork but in the use of expensive props—in this case, two massive Japanese export vases that appear in the image, and now flank the painting itself at the MFA. In other passages, we can see the influence of Sargent’s contemporaries among the radical French Impressionists in the looseness with which he treats stray curls, or the flash of sunlight on a starched white pinafore.
Money Can’t Buy Happiness
The painting has puzzled and fascinated art historians and the public from the beginning. We struggle to interpret it. Certainly it can be read most easily as a society portrait, or as a rendering of the passage from childhood to young adulthood, with each of the four daughters representing a different stage of development. What the viewer cannot know simply by looking at the picture, however, is the sadness that looms over the future of the beautiful girls in the portrait. None of them would ever marry, and two would suffer emotional breakdowns later in life.
Armed with this knowledge, how do we now look at the picture? Does Sargent somehow sense that unhappiness lies ahead for them, or are we simply projecting our own contemporary reactions onto the painting since we possess the knowledge of what happened to these daughters of Boston high society? Or are we so different today, more than a century after this work was painted, that we cannot possibly hope to figure out what is going on here? Is human nature so changed?
Perhaps the greatest difference between Sargent’s day and ours—apart from the obvious one of taste, or rather the present widespread lack thereof—comes down to the point of his art. In Sargent, those who are willing to look past the polished surfaces and languid poses can appreciate his perception that something far deeper is at work in the lives of all people, rich and poor, young and old alike, than what we might at first perceive.
In a time when even neophytes can quickly learn how to post the best possible images of themselves on social media using filters and image-correcting software to make everything appear to be perfect, we are more apt to erase those marks of uncertainty which, in art such as this, the careful observer can still appreciate.
Sargent expects us to enjoy youth, beauty, and wealth for as long as we have it, yet he also knows, and we cannot deny, that these things are all temporary. We will not last forever in this life, no matter how many shares of stock or how many botox injections we employ to try to obscure that fact. Sargent may have made his name and his fortune by painting the cream of American and European society in attractive ways, but, like the best of the Old Masters, he was also able to create images that reveal the truth about ourselves—at least for those who are willing to look beyond what appears on the surface.
“Yours Sincerely, John S. Sargent” is on view in the Roberts Family Gallery of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston until November 15.