Sunday, August 30, 2015

Art Eyewitness Review: The Work of Art by Anthea Callen

The Work of Art:

Plein Air Painting and Artistic Identity in Nineteenth-Century France

By Anthea Callen
Reaktion Books/336 pages/$50

Reviewed by Ed Voves

In 1841, an American painter named John Goffe Rand invented a now essential item in the artist's painting kit: the collapsible paint tube. Before Rand's pivotal creation, oil paint was chiefly sold in pigs bladders. These "vessies" were punctured and the paint squeezed out onto the artist's palette. It was a messy business, to say the least, and wasteful of paint since a pig's bladder is difficult to reseal.

Most modern-day art history books credit Rand's metallic tubes of paint with making possible the Impressionist art revolution of the 1870's. But the development of modern art cannot be simplified into an equation of new technology equals new art. A recent book, The Work of Art by Anthea Callen, brilliantly recounts a more complex - and fascinating - story.

Callen, a distinguished art scholar who taught at the Australian National University, presents the familiar story of Impressionism from a novel vantage point. Callen reaches back to the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to better appreciate the foundational precepts of Impressionism. Modern art, Callen affirms, is rooted in theories and technical developments predating Rand's paint tubes and the paintings of Monet, Degas and Renoir.

The full title of Callen's book needs to be quoted in full: The Work of Art: Plein-Air Painting and Artistic Identity in Nineteenth-Century France. It is a major addition to the literature of Impressionism, based on thorough research and a splendid narrative.

Along with insights into the origins of Impressionism, Callen plunges into the daily lives of these great painters to show how they defined themselves by virtue of their work. The Work of Art is indeed a book about the "elbow grease" needed to create great art.

Honoré Daumier, In Search of a Forest in Champagne,1847

Among its abundant illustrations, Callen's book includes cartoons by Honoré Daumier poking fun at the landscape painters of his era. Daumier lampoons les paysagistes trudging along with their backpacks loaded with paint boxes, portable easels and umbrellas. But these men - and later Berthe Morisot - did need to deal with exposure to sun, wind and rain, as well as mastering the tools of the trade.

Sable brushes or hog bristle brushes - or English steel painting knives? A fine-grained canvas, sealed with glue and chalk and primed with white lead - or perhaps a course-grained canvas, fit for a mountain scene or a storm-tossed seascape.

And what about those new-fangled tin tubes? John Goffe Rand lacked the financial resources to capitalize on his invention. Marketed by commercial firms like Winsor and Newton, the tubes provided a bewildering choice of hues in oil and liquid water color. 

Winsor and Newton Paint Tube, Victorian era

Many of the tubes were filled with new concoctions like cadmium yellow. In 1852, a single tube of Winsor and Newton's cadmium yellow was priced at an astronomical five shillings. Yet cadmium yellow retained its luster longer than the old stand-by, chrome yellow, which often turned brown with age.

Far-seeing artists wrestled with these problems over the course of the nineteenth century.                                                                                                                                                                      
Callen focuses especially on the lives and work of Gustave Courbet, Camille Pissarro and Paul Cézanne. She rounds-off her account of the Impressionists with a detailed examination of two works by Gustave Caillebotte and Berthe Morisot dealing with - of all things - the weekly laundry. 

Berthe Morisot, Hanging the Laundry out to Dry, 187

If you look closely at the horizon of Morisot's extraordinary painting, Hanging the Laundry Out to Dry, you'll notice plumes of smoke from factory furnaces. The Industrial Revolution was encroaching upon the age of Impressionism.

The artificiality of distinguishing between the Barbizon landscape painters of the 1840's and 50's and the Impressionists is one of the major insights of Callen's book. Barbizon painters like Théodore Rousseau and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot have long been known to have painted oil sketches from nature. These served as a preliminary step to works executed in the studio.

The legend of the Impressionists maintains that their works were created "au premier coup" in a single session straight from nature. Callen takes a closer look at the Impressionists' work and finds the reality a bit different:

Despite the apparent immediacy of Impressionist landscapes, scientific evidence as well as visual scrutiny of the paintings themselves confirm that studio reworking of plein-air 'impressions' into tableaux was as commonplace as among the Barbizon painters; the heyday of the quickly painted Impressionist oil-study-as finished-painting was essentially limited to the 1870's.

Callen further notes that Corot formally exhibited landscape studies during the 1840's just as the Impressionists did three decades later. In an amazing example of time-bending continuity, a plein-air landscape by Corot, painted around 1830, is juxtaposed in a two-page display with an unfinished work by Cézanne shortly before he died in 1906.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Houses near Orléans, c.1830 

Paul Cézanne, The Bend in the Road, 1900/1906

Even with the different treatment of sky and horizon in Cezanne's The Bend in the Road, we might well be looking at two works created side-by-side. Both Corot and Cézanne assert the ideals of Modernism. Parallel emphasis on geometric masses, similar sun-drenched color schemes and direct, unblinking appraisals of the vision field are manifest in both works.

The Barbizon painters and the Impressionists were called "Independents" before their respective nicknames gained universal acclaim. "Independent" signified more than a different approach to art from polished history paintings favored by the Academy of France. It was a political stance as well.

Courbet, a staunch left-wing militant, joined the Paris Commune in 1871, living in exile after it was suppressed by the Third Republic. Cézanne, less of a syndicalist than his painting partner, Pissarro, went into self-imposed exile when he returned home to Provence in 1885 to escape politicians and art critics alike.

One of the many remarkable features of Callen's book is the way she traces the politicized atmosphere of the French art scene back into the early eighteenth century. She shows that there was a surprising degree of interest in landscape painting and plein-air expeditions among French painters during the 1700's and the first decades of the 1800's.

Jules Coignet, View of Bozen with a Painter,1837

As early as 1708, a French art theorist, Roger De Piles urged French artists to paint preliminary works and studies directly from nature. One of the most successful painters of the 1700's, Claude-Joseph Vernet openly defied the Academy's tradition-bound teaching which opposed working en plein-air. Vernet proclaimed:

You must absolutely paint what you see in nature... If an object merges with another in its form or colour, you must paint what you see: because, if it looks good in nature it will look good in painting.

Vernet enjoyed the patronage of the French government which funded a series of depictions of France's seaports. The Academy, however, remained resolutely committed to art in the classical, Italian style.

Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, Study of Clouds over the Roman Campagna, c.1782

Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750-1819) painted sky and cloud studies that rivaled those of John Constable in brilliance. Yet, significantly, these were created as preliminaries for views of Italy. Valenciennes, an influential teacher at the Academy, actually created a special scholarship in 1816 to send students to Italy in order to counter the "Dutch-style" naturalism exemplified in works like Constable's.

To shake the strangling grip of the Academy on French art required an artist with transcendent talent and matching arrogance. Gustave Courbet had plenty of both. Like Diego Rivera, Courbet was a man of insatiable appetites and a headstrong political warrior. He launched the assault on the Academy that the Impressionists carried to victory.

Gustave Courbet, Self-Portrait, ca. 1866 

Courbet projected himself as an artist/artisan. Callen's analysis of Courbet's work methods is brilliant, especially of his extraordinary facility with the painting knife. Courbet often preferred painting knifes to brushes.  He used painting knives, including one shaped like a mason's trowel, to create images of everything from foaming waves to dappled leaves.

Pissarro and Cézanne both experimented with knife painting, especially during their joint expeditions in Pontoise during the 1870's. In some ways, this was a gesture of support for the exiled Courbet, down on his luck after the collapse of the Commune. Neither painter, however, tried to match Courbet's knife wielding panache. 

Camille Pissarro,The Banks of the Marne in Winter, 1866

Pissarro deftly used the painting knife, for instance, to create the gloomy, menacing sky in an earlier work, The Banks of the Marne in Winter. But he relied on brushwork to evoke the somber, barren ground.

By using the painting knife more sparingly, Pissarro and Cezanne saved themselves from some of the abuse hurled at Courbet. They certainly were subjected to many a critical barrage as it was.

Callen perceptively notes criticism from an unexpected quarter. It came not from a sarcastic right-wing journalist but from Charles Morice (1860-1919). A sensitive proponent of the Symbolist movement, Morice was a friend of Paul Gauguin and Paul Verlaine. Surveying the works of Pissarro and Cézanne, Morice objected to the lack of a higher moral content.

Morice, Callen notes, dismissed the realism of Pissarro, in which “the human figures, quite precisely have the same import as the vegetables beside them.” Cézanne, Morice likewise propounded “takes no more interest in a human face than an apple.”

Morice was a man of culture, much like Marcel Proust. He aimed to create a synthesis of metaphysics, human expression and the techniques of the modern novel. But he overshot his mark with Impressionism. He failed to grasp that the Impressionists were deeply committed to human values, especially the working lives of the people whom Pissarro had portrayed with "the same import as the vegetables beside them.”

Edgar Degas, Woman Ironing, completed c. 1887 

The importance to the Impressionists of work as an ideal cannot be overestimated. Degas' Woman Ironing, begun around 1876, but completed a decade later, shows the degree of emphasis which the Impressionists attached to this theme.

By emphasizing this identification of the human work ethic with the work entailed in art, Callen has made a vital contribution to the study of Impressionism. The question of artistic identity, achieved through dedicated labor, was an all-important aspect of the struggle to redefine French social identity - and art - during the age of Impressionism.

"Don't be an art critic," Cézanne declared. "Paint. There lies salvation."

Cézanne took his own advice. He worked. He painted. And in so doing, Cézanne launched the epic investigation of the nature of perception that is Modern Art.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved

Images courtesy of the  National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., the Metropolitan Museum of Art,  the Art Institute of Chicago, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, and Winsor and Newton.

Introductory Image:   
Jules Coignet (French, 1798-1860) View of Bozen with a Painter, 1837, National Gallery of Art (Detail)

Honoré Daumier (French, 1808-1879) A la recherche d'une forêt en Champagne (In Search of a Forest in Champagne),1847 lithograph on wove paper sheet: 32.8 x 23.6 cm (12 15/16 x 9 5/16 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washingon, D.C. Gift of David E. Rust 1998.118.5

Winsor and Newton Paint Tube, Victorian era, #winsorandnewton

Berthe Morisot (French, 1841-1895) Hanging the Laundry out to Dry, 1875 oil on canvas overall: 33 x 40.6 cm (13 x 16 in.) framed: 52.4 x 60 x 5.7 cm (20 5/8 x 23 5/8 x 2 1/4 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washingon, D.C. Paul Mellon Collection 1985.64.28

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (French, 1796-1875) Houses near Orléans (Maisons aux Environs d'Orléans), about 1830, Oil on paper mounted on millboard 28.6 x 38.6 cm (11 1/4 x 15 3/16 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Paul Cézanne (French, 1839-1906) The Bend in the Road, 1900/1906 oil on canvas overall: 82.1 x 66 cm (32 5/16 x 26 in.) framed: 106 x 90.1 x 8.8 cm (41 3/4 x 35 1/2 x 3 7/16 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washingon, D.C. . Paul Mellon Collection 1985.64.8

Jules Coignet (French, 1798-1860) View of Bozen with a Painter, 1837 oil on paper on canvas overall: 31 x 39 cm (12 3/16 x 15 3/8 in.) framed: 43.8 x 51.4 x 5.1 cm (17 1/4 x 20 1/4 x 2 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washingon, D.C. Gift of Mrs. John Jay Ide in memory of Mr. and Mrs. William Henry Donner 1994.52.1

Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (French,1750-1819) Study of Clouds over the Roman Campagna, c. 1782/1785 oil on paper on cardboardoverall (paper support): 19 x 32.1 cm (7 1/2 x 12 5/8 in.) overall (paperboard support): 19.6 x 33 cm (7 11/16 x 13 in.) framed: 30.5 x 43.2 x 2.1 cm (12 x 17 x 13/16 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washingon, D.C. Given in honor of Gaillard F. Ravenel II by his friends 1997.23.1

Gustave Courbet (French,1819–1877) Self-Portrait, ca. 1866 Medium: Conté crayon Dimensions: sheet: 10 1/2 x 8 1/4 in. (26.7 x 21 cm) Classification: Drawings  Purchase, Walter and Leonore Annenberg Acquisitions Endowment Fund and Guy Wildenstein Gift, 2010 Accession Number: 2010.232 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 

Camille Pissarro (French,1830-1903) The Banks of the Marne in Winter, 1866 Oil on Canvas  91.8 x 150.2 cm (36 1/8 x 59 1/8 in) Mr. and Mr.s Lewis Larned Coburn Memorial Collection Art Institute of Chicago 1957.306

Edgar Degas (French,1834-1917) Woman Ironing, begun c. 1876, completed c. 1887 oil on canvas overall: 81.3 x 66 cm (32 x 26 in.) framed: 99 x 82.5 cm (39 x 32 1/2 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washingon, D.C. Paul Mellon Collection 1972.74.1

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Art Eyewitness Close-up: Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth by John Singer Sargent

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth by John Singer Sargent


Sargent: Portrait of Artists & Friends

Metropolitan Museum of Art, June 30 to October 4, 2015

By Ed Voves

During the early winter of 1889, Oscar Wilde witnessed a scene so extraordinary that otherwise only he could have imagined it. A striking red-haired woman, dressed in a shimmering green dress, travelled in a carriage down Tite Street in the Chelsea neighborhood of London.

A queen, Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth, had come to Victorian London. She was clad in a dress decorated with the iridescent wings of over one thousand beetles. Her gown glistened as if covered by links of emerald green armor.

"Lady Macbeth" was in reality Ellen Terry, the queen of the London stage. Terry was appearing as Lady Macbeth at the Lyceum. She was approaching the studio of John Singer Sargent on Tite Street to have her portrait painted when Wilde glimpsed her. 

Wilde immortalized the moment as only he could have done:

The street that on a wet and dreary morning has vouchsafed the vision of Lady Macbeth in full regalia magnificently seated in a four-wheeler can never again be as other streets: it must always be full of wonderful possibilities. 

The galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art are always "full of wonderful possibilities." However, the presence of Sargent's Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in the Met's Sargent: Portrait of Artists & Friends exhibit imparts a special power to an already spectacular array of paintings.

Hayman Seleg Mendelssohn, Ellen Terry, 1883

Ellen Terry (1847–1928) was born into an English theatrical family and literally grew-up on the stage. The adolescent Terry served as a muse for leading English artists during the 1860's, the height of the "Angel around the House" era with its depictions of demure girls and young women. Terry figured in two of the most celebrated mid-Victorian portraits, Julia Margaret Cameron's Ellen Terry at Age Sixteen and Choosing by George Frederic Watts.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Ellen Terry, at the Age of Sixteen, 1864

In 1864, Terry, aged seventeen, married Watts, thirty years her senior. According to Michael Holroyd's 2008 biography of Terry, the young actress was disenchanted by the backstabbing rivalries of theatrical life. She saw marriage to Watts, "England's Michelangelo," as a means to enter a brilliant world of culture and refinement.

George Frederic Watts, Choosing, 1864

Watts was a bit too cultured and too refined. Terry nearly withered in the artificial "sweetness and light" atmosphere of the Holland House group which counted Watts as a leading member. How Terry managed to make good her escape and retain the approval of Victorian society can best be followed in Holroyd's wonderful book, A Strange Eventful History.

In 1878, Terry entered into a professional "marriage" that was as successful as her domestic relationship with Watts was a disaster. Terry's partner was Henry Irving, the first actor who would be knighted in recognition for his services to the British stage. These were many and far-reaching, including his support for Terry's career. But the opportunity Irving extended to Terry to work on equal terms with him was not only generous. It was a smart move.

Jules Bastien-Lepage, Sir Henry Irving, 1880

Irving's acting specialty was to give richly nuanced interpretations to protagonists customarily regarded as villains. In 1879, he and Terry forever redefined The Merchant of Venice with a version of the play that stressed humanity in the personality of Shylock. Irving naturally portrayed Shylock, with Terry as Portia. The British stage was transformed.

In 1888, Irving and Terry did the same for Lady Macbeth. In Terry's astute handling of the role, it is Lady Macbeth's misguided love and belief in her husband, rather than innate evil, that leads her to encourage him to seize the throne of Scotland.  

Window & Grove, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in 'Macbeth', 1888

If Lady Macbeth is not evil incarnate, the extraordinary dress she wears is a testament to the effect of wickedness. The shimmering gown exemplifies the disguises that people use to throw a cloak of glamour over sordid and murderous deeds.  

Oscar Wilde, who saw Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, grasped the significance of her dress. Where all the others in the play wear the rough homespun and furs of a Dark Age kingdom, her attire makes for a vivid contrast. 

"Lady Macbeth seems to be an economical housekeeper and evidently patronizes local industries for her husband's clothes and servant's liveries," Wilde archly commented, "but she takes care to do all her own shopping in Byzantium."

Anne Lloyd, gallery view of  Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

The radiant, alluring gown was created by the noted designer, Alice Comyns Carr. It still exists, recently restored, and can be seen at Ellen Terry's home, Smallhythe, a National Trust site in Kent. For all its exotic, indeed sinister, beauty, the dress is a stage prop. It was Ellen Terry who made it come alive.

Sitting in the audience on the opening night of Macbeth on December 29, 1888, John Singer Sargent was entranced. He decided to paint Terry so as to evoke this magical effect.

Window & Grove, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in 'Macbeth', 1888

Terry, after some initial hesitation, agreed to pose for her portrait as Lady Macbeth. Sargent began doing preparatory sketches. He was undecided upon which moment in the play to focus. Then in a stroke of true genius, Sargent made one of the boldest decisions of his career. He imagined an original scene not in Shakespeare’s text. 

After King Duncan is murdered, Lady Macbeth takes hold of a diadem to crown herself queen. In this one, astonishingly powerful scene, Sargent evoked the emotional transformation of Lady Macbeth from a loving, if ambitious, wife to a power-maddened, then guilt-stricken, wretch.


Anne Lloyd, close-up of  Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

We look into the eyes of Sargent’s Lady Macbeth and watch her soul dissolve.

Sargent's triumph with Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth matched that of the actress herself on the stage. An art critic for the Magazine of Art exclaimed that no contemporary portrait "excels this in grandeur of pose, fineness of modelling, and magnificence of colour.”

Indeed, Sargent succeeded in conveying the actual, electrifying feel of the play, even though what he depicts is an imagined moment in Macbeth. Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth truly has the impact of a live stage performance. Sargent captured the sense of physical movement and character development taking place on stage.

Even now, the effect is dazzling when you walk into the gallery of Sargent: Portrait of Artists & Friends and confront Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth. Nothing really prepares you for the impact of this truly stunning work of art. And very few of the other works in the Metropolitan Museum's Sargent exhibition, for all their undeniable quality, can match its power

There is an urge to call Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth the "show stopper" of Sargent: Portrait of Artists & Friends. It is that - but this incredible painting is so much more besides.
Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth stops us in our tracks as moral beings, not just art lovers. We are compelled to look into her deranged, conflicted eyes and think on the subject of good and evil.  We've seen such looks in other eyes on other faces.  Most likely, we will see that look again - hopefully not in the mirror.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, the National Portrait Gallery, London, the Getty Collection, Los Angeles, the Google Art Project and Anne Lloyd.

Introductory Image:      
John Singer Sargent (1856-,1925, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, 1889
Oil on canvas 87 × 45 in. (221 × 114.3 cm) Tate: Presented by Sir Joseph Duveen 1906
Photo: Tate, London, 2015

Hayman Seleg Mendelssohn (1848-1908), Ellen Terry, albumen cabinet card, 1883, 5 5/8 in. x 4 in. (142 mm x 102 mm) image size. Given by Algernon Graves, 1916. Photographs Collection, the National Portrait Gallery, London, England, NPG Ax5571

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879), Ellen Terry, at the Age of Sixteen, carbon print about 1875 from photo negative 1864. Height: 243 mm (9.57 in). Width: 243 mm (9.57 in). Collection The J. Paul Getty Museum, Image used via Google Art Project .jpeg

George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), Ellen Terry ('Choosing'), oil on strawboard mounted on Gatorfoam, 1864, 18 1/2 in. x 13 7/8 in. (472 mm x 352 mm). Accepted in lieu of tax by H.M. Government and allocated to the Gallery, 1975.  Primary Collection, the National Portrait Gallery, London, England, NPG 5048

Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884), Sir Henry Irving, oil on canvas, 1880, 18 1/8 in. x 18 3/4 in. (460 mm x 475 mm) overall.Given by Dame Ellen Alice Terry, 1910. Primary Collection, the National Portrait Gallery, London, England, NPG 1560

Window & Grove Photographers (Published by J. Beagles & Co), Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in 'Macbeth'. bromide postcard print, 1900s, from photo negative 1888. 4 7/8 in. x 3 1/8 in. (124 mm x 80 mm). Purchased, 1982, Photographs Collection, the National Portrait Gallery, London, England, NPG x16991

Anne Lloyd, Gallery View at Metropolitan Museum of Art of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, 2015.  Copyright of Anne lloyd, all rights reserved

Window & Grove Photographers, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in 'Macbeth'. albumen cabinet card, 1888. 5 3/4 in. x 4 1/8 in. (146 mm x 105 mm). Purchased, 1982. Photographs Collection,  the National Portrait Gallery, London, England, NPG x16980

Anne Lloyd, Close-up of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth at the Metropolitan Museum of Art2015.  Copyright of Anne lloyd, all rights reserved

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

June 30–October 4, 2015

Reviewed by Ed Voves

In 1889, the members of the Players Club in New York decided to commission a portrait of the club's founder, the great actor, Edwin Booth. The Players Club members wanted a painter whose skill would match the world-renown of their "leading man."

The gentlemen of the Players Club certainly chose the right artist: John Singer Sargent.

The portrait of Edwin Booth which Sargent painted is on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibit, Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends (June 30–October 4, 2015). Sargent's Edwin Booth is a tour de force in scale and skill. It captures Booth's strength of character but also his inner torment. Booth, a staunch Union supporter during the Civil War, was the brother of the man who murdered President Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth.

John Singer Sargent, Edwin Booth, 1890

Edwin Booth, finished in 1890 and installed in the New York City club for actors, has an important distinction from the other paintings in the impressive exhibition at the Metropolitan. It was a commissioned work as we just saw. It is a portrait of the kind that made Sargent a wealthy man.

Most of the other works on view at the Met were created because Sargent wanted to do so. He painted or drew these works of art for reasons that were creatively and personally satisfying. 

Sargent's Edwin Booth is a "swagger portrait." The term refers  to the full-length portraits of the English aristocracy painted by Anthony van Dyke during the 1600's and by Thomas Gainsborough in the 1700's. Edwin Booth had little "swagger" left in him by the time Sargent painted him, but Madame Pierre Gautreau possessed it in abundance. Fascinated by the haughty beauty from Louisiana, Sargent painted her, without commission, in Paris in 1883–84.

John Singer Sargent, Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), 1883–84 

When first exhibited, Madame X shocked Parisian society. Sargent showed the right-hand strap of her gown slipping down to reveal a glistening bare shoulder. This was a step too far for a society that made discretion the first of the "rules of the game." The resulting notoriety and criticism verged on hysteria, forcing Sargent to relocate his studio from Paris to London.

Although not portrait of a friend, Madame X became a talisman for Sargent. He kept it in his studio for prospective clients to study - with shoulder strap properly readjusted. He eventually sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1916. 

The art critics in London proved hardly more enlightened  than their counterparts in Paris. When Sargent exhibited an innovative group portrait of three sisters, The Misses Vickers, it met with mixed reviews.  The Times regarded The Misses Vickers as "at once very bold and very subtle..." The Pall Mall Gazette, however, took a poll in 1885 which voted it the worst picture of the year.

Sargent's success in the "damn'd face business," as his predecessor Thomas Gainsborough peevishly called portrait painting, made him into a man of paradox. No artist of his time was better at portraying people as they wished to be seen. Sargent was also motivated by a sense of personal vision – and inner need – to depict the world as he saw it.

John Singer Sargent, Self-Portrait, 1906

Sargent mastered every technique of painting: brilliant characterization in portraiture, Impressionism when painting landscapes and Renaissance-style symbolism for the murals he created, late in life, for the Boston Public Library. There was nothing that Sargent could not do. But a palpable sense of yearning pervades the Metropolitan exhibit. Looking at these magnificent works of art, it seems beyond doubt that Sargent was fixated on what was just beyond the reach of his paint brush.

Sargent spent a considerable part of each year touring scenic locations in Europe and North America with a band of kindred spirits. The signature illustration of Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends shows two of Sargent's artist friends, Wilfred de Glehn  (1870-1951) and his wife, Jane de Glehn (1873–1961). They are painting and relaxing at the Villa Torlonia in Frascati, Italy. It was during such happy, rewarding intervals that Sargent searched for his artistic muse.

The cast of Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends is a veritable Who's Who of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. On the walls of Sargent exhibit are such worthies as Henry James, Auguste Rodin, Isabella Stewart Gardiner, Claude Monet and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Sargent also painted a magnificent portrait of the leading lady of the stage in the Anglo-American world, Ellen Terry. Sargent's Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth is such an astonishing portrait that I will be writing about it in an upcoming focus essay.

John Singer Sargent, Paul Helleu, early 1880s

Less famous today than these "eminent Victorians” was Paul César Helleu (1859–1927). Helleu, a gifted artist especially noted for his pastel and drypoint portraits, was Sargent's boon companion. Sargent insisted on paying a thousand francs for a sketch that the hard-up Helleu had offered as a gift. Helleu never forgot this generous act. He went on to design the glittering starry sky mural for the ceiling of Grand Central Station in New York City.

Sargent painted Helleu at work en plein air in the English country-side in 1889. This is a particularly bold picture. Helleu's face is obscured, deliberately creating the image of an artist so absorbed in his work that his identity is at one with the landscape he is painting. The red canoe points to the greater world beyond the scene that Helleu paints on his easel, propped-up with a fishing pole.

John Singer Sargent, An Out-of-Doors Study, 1889

The face of Helleu's wife, Alice, is not obscured. She looks lost-in-thought, as well an artist's wife might be. The frank naturalism of her expression is absolutely key to understanding Sargent's work beyond the walls of his studio. He was not only relaxing from the supercharged atmosphere of commissioned portraits. He also relaxed his professional artifice, recording people in real life situations rather than carefully-orchestrated poses.

Sargent never relaxed his gaze. This was especially true in his portraits of children. Sargent's first great critical success, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose showed the idyllic side of childhood, as does Garden Study of the Vickers Children. This is the world of children as viewed by adults. 

John Singer Sargent, Garden Study of the Vickers Children, 1884

With The Pailleron Children or Portrait of Édouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron, Sargent peered directly into the realm of children with the eyes of an artist.

Sentimentality is seldom a factor in the lives of children. There is not a hint of it in the way that Sargent presents the son and daughter of playwright, Édouard Pailleron. There is an invisible barrier separating them in Sargent's painting that existed in life.

Marie-Louise Pailleron became a celebrated novelist. She wrote a vivid (perhaps partly-fictionalized) account of the stormy painting sessions with Sargent. More significantly, she ignored her brother, Édouard, in her 1947 memoir, Le Paradis perdu, except to say that he was their grandmother's favorite. One look at the cold, self-possessed cast of Marie-Louise's eyes explains why.

Yet, I could not stop looking at Portrait of Édouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron and I returned several times during my visit to look at it.

John Singer Sargent, Pailleron Children, 1880

Portrait of Édouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron is displayed in the first gallery of the exhibit. It is hung on the gallery wall in such a way that it is the first picture that you really see.  This work casts a strange magnetic force attracting viewers and repelling the other, nearby, paintings by Sargent, including portraits of the Pailleron parents. These seemed like intruders. I did not come back a second and third time to this opening gallery to look at any one but young Édouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron.

As you study Sargent's double portrait, Marie-Louise Pailleron's personality becomes patently obvious. She is a self-centered and iron-willed person. She is also utterly devoid of pretense. You know it just looking at her and you can't but admire her, young as she was when Sargent painted her. Marie-Louise insists on being herself.

Sargent's brilliant characterization of Édouard Pailleron is less obvious due to the stage-stealing presence of Marie-Louise. But seldom have the conflicting elements of adolescence been handled with greater perception and empathy than in Édouard's portrait. The conflict of youthful attributes with burgeoning maturity, the presence of feminine elements in the male personality are very skillfully treated by Sargent.

Looking out from Sargent's canvas, the Pailleron children seem aware of the unresolved tensions and self-indulgent traits in us, the exhibition visitors.

Anne Lloyd, View of the Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends galleries

When I go to art exhibits, I am frequently aware of a dialog between the protagonists, the people in the pictures, and the spectators. We who come to observe, end up being "observed" ourselves. There certainly was an ineffable presence, a real resonance of Sargent and his friends, in the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art during my visit.

That feeling is especially present in Sargent's portrait of Vernon Lee.

John Singer Sargent, Vernon Lee, 1881

Vernon Lee was the pen name of Violet Paget, Sargent's childhood friend. The striking 1881 portrait, created in the revolutionary style of the Impressionists, was inscribed with her birth name. Violet Paget (1856-1935) was the child of English expatriate parents living in Italy who befriended Sargent's family, American "expats."

Perhaps the experience of a nomadic youth created a bond between Sargent and Lee which enabled them to appreciate the way that both challenged the norms of society in their work. Lee recorded her approval of this portrait, “mere dabs and blurs,” executed in a three-hour session. Along with essays on art, Lee wrote works of fantasy and supernatural stories, still widely read today. 

Sargent and Lee evidently debated the existence of "otherworldly" elements, an unseen spirituality, that underpins great art. In an October 1897 letter, Sargent wrote to Lee that he agreed that under art “secretly is something else and something better – but this something else cannot be aimed at directly…”

Sargent was “at bottom a puritan” according to Lee and he refused to join in her ventures into psychology and spirituality. Instead, he poured much time, talent and dedication into the religion-themed Boston Library murals, an effort marked by criticism and controversy.

I don’t imagine that Sargent would agree, but I think that the works on view in the Metropolitan Museum exhibit succeed to a degree which his Boston murals failed to reach. 

On display in Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends are likenesses of people long dead, yet still exuding the vibrant life force that propelled them to great heights of achievement. Sargent captured a real sense of the numinous, of the touch of God’s grace bestowed on these “artists and friends.” 

Perhaps without realizing it, Sargent dipped his paint brush on a palette dabbed with immortality.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Introductory Image:      
John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925) The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy, 1907  Oil on canvas 28–1/8 × 22–1/4 in. (71.4 × 56.5 cm) The Art Institute of Chicago, Friends of American Art Collection

John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925) Edwin Booth, 1890 Oil on canvas 87–1/2 × 61–3/4 in. (222.3 × 156.8 cm) Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas

John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925) Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), 1883–84 Oil on canvas 82–1/8 x 43–1/4 in. (208.6 x 109.9 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1916 (16.53) Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925) Self-Portrait, 1906 Oil on canvas 27–1/2 × 20–7/8 in. (69.8 × 53 cm) Instituti museali della Soprintendenza Speciale per il Polo Museale Fiorentino. Galleria degli Uffizi

John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925) Paul Helleu, early 1880s  Graphite on off-white paper board 13–3/16 x 10–5/16 in. (33.5 x 26.2 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Francis Ormond, 1950 (50.130.121) Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

John Singer Sargent American, 1856–1925) An Out-of-Doors Study, 1889 Oil on canvas 25–15/16 × 31–3/4 in. (65.9 × 80.6 cm) Brooklyn Museum, Museum Collection Fund 20.640

John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925) Garden Study of the Vickers Children, 1884 Oil on canvas 54–3/16 × 36 in. (137.6 × 91.4 cm) Flint Institute of Arts

John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925) Pailleron Children, 1880 Oil on canvas 60 × 69 in. (152.4 × 175.3 cm) Des Moines Art Center Permanent Collections; Purchased with funds from the Edith M. Usry Bequest, in memory of her parents Mr. and Mrs. George Franklin Usry, the Dr. and Mrs. Peder T. Madsen Fund, and the Anna K. Meredith Endowment Fund      
John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925) Vernon Lee, 1881 Oil on canvas 21–1/8 × 17 in. (53.7 × 43.2 cm) Tate: Bequeathed by Miss Vernon Lee through Miss Cooper Willis 1935 Photo: © Tate, London, 2015