Progression of Art
The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit
This early work illustrates the influence of the Old Masters on Sargent. He adopts the very untraditional square format used by Diego Velazquez in Las Meninas (1656) as well as the Spanish artist's method of presenting figures in an unposed, natural manner in order to capture something of their personalities.
The composition is different than that seen in a traditional group portrait wherein each subject is given equal status. The girls are scattered around the dim, immaculately decorated room in what looks to be a haphazard fashion and dwarfed by furniture elements including two massive blue and white porcelain vases. Three of the four girls gaze directly at the viewer, while the fourth faces her sister, clad in a matching black and white ensemble. The informal posture of the youngest daughter (Julia, age 4) seated on the floor, contrasts sharply with that of the older girls, who stand primly, even stiffly, behind her. The two oldest girls (Jane, 12, and Florence, 14) stand in the opening to another room and are partly obscured in shadow. A number of critics have noted the manner in which the painting goes beyond its role as group portrait to suggest the symbolic loss of innocence that inevitably comes with maturity. Sargent's depiction clearly suggests how individuals tended to hide their true selves behind "walls" of manners and propriety, evoking the restrictive, repressive environments in which young, upper class women were raised at the time.
Oil on Canvas - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Portrait of Madame X
Perhaps Sargent's most famous work, this portrait depicts a young socialite, an American expatriate named Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau and known as Madame X, who was married to a French banker, Pierre Gautreau. The Gautreaus did not commission the work. In fact, it was Sargent who initiated the project, intrigued by the opportunity to capture this scandalous Parisian society figure known not only for her stunning looks but also, as many rumored, love affairs. The concept of painting a portrait that speaks about the sitter's character was an entirely modern one. Accordingly, Sargent's Madame X stands at the forefront of Modern Portraiture.
Sargent vividly accentuates her striking presence by exposing her alabaster skin with a daring décolleté and setting her against a background of warm, muted, brown tones. The revealing, corseted, black satin dress with thin, jeweled straps in which she is posed, shows off her stunning figure and, combined with the ornate style of her auburn hair and powdered complexion, set a standard for contemporary aristocratic beauty. Her notorious reputation is hinted at through her particularly self-confident pose.
Painting this portrait proved a challenge for both Sargent and Gautreau. In fact, the artist drew and painted more than thirty studies of Gautreau over the course of several months in its preparation, in the end using an entirely different pose than that originally intended. Gautreau reportedly grew bored with their sessions and would frequently run off to various social obligations, leading Sargent to lament "the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Madame Gautreau."
Though both artist and sitter had high hopes for the work, this portrait was poorly received upon its exhibition at the Paris Salon in 1884. This blow effectively put an end to Sargent's hopes of becoming a society painter in France, and was partially responsible for his move to London. Nevertheless, despite the controversy over this work, the artist considered it a success, commenting later in 1916, "I suppose it is the best thing I have done." Currently, of course, it is his most iconic work.
Oil on Canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art
Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children
This painting is a prime example of the commissioned portraits of the upper classes that eventually earned Sargent fame. Pictured are Adele Meyer, her son Frank, and daughter Elsie. Baronet Meyer was a British banker and diamond miner, known for his connections with the Rothschild family and the De Beers group. Wealthy plutocrats like Meyer, commissioned portraits by successful artists such as Sargent in order to convey their wealth and status within elite social circles, using the artist's impeccable talent to cast themselves in the most flattering, glamorous light possible.
The family's attire and the furniture included within the image evoke the height of opulence in 18th-century Britain. The elaborately patterned gilt sofa and the heavy, iridescent rose silk of Mrs. Meyer's gown look like something out of Louis XIV's Palace of Versailles. Sargent purposefully surrounded Meyer with objects of sumptuous luxury in order to emphasize her reputation as a lavish member of the London upper crust. As noted earlier in his career, Sargent's use of flattering details was derived from that used by the most successful Old Master portrait artists such as Van Dyck. The placement of Mrs. Meyer front and center, with her children largely hidden from view behind the couch and noted only from the shoulders up, suggests something of the familial relationship between the three. For Mrs. Meyer it was obviously more important to highlight her own glamour as well as that of her surroundings, than to waste such emphasis on her children.
Oil on Canvas - Tate Britain
Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood
Though Sargent's work in watercolor is typically associated with the later phase of his career, this painting demonstrates how he experimented with different media and styles early on, when establishing himself as the premier portrait painter of the social elite.
Sargent met Monet during his student days at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and their friendship developed over the ensuing years. During the 1880s Sargent visited Monet's home at Giverny, outside Paris, numerous times. In this image of his friend painting nature directly outdoors, Sargent draws on Monet's en plein air technique. Monet's second wife, Alice, is depicted sitting patiently in the background.
Although the image Monet is painting, noted on the easel, depicts a scene with the sky, Sargent's own image focuses more on the two figures as well as the play of light on the grass and trees. Sargent's adoption of the impressionist style here is quite different from the more realistic approach noted in his portrait work. That being said, the exploration of the relationship between Monet and Alice is precisely the kind of thing for which Sargent is best known.
Oil on Canvas - Tate Britain
From September 1905 to January 1906, Sargent traveled throughout what was then known as the Ottoman Levant, visiting Jerusalem, Syria, and Beirut. He had a longstanding interest in the region and read a number of books about its history and culture prior to his travels. This interest was likely deepened by his acquaintance with the academically-oriented Gertrude Bell, who specialized in Levantine archeology and Arab culture. Sargent traveled on horseback and visited Bedouin camps in the Jordan Valley, and later certainly used the trip as inspiration for his extensive mural cycle, Triumph of Religion (1895-1916), at the Boston Public Library.
This image illustrates the same realistic nuance and detail for which his portraits were known, albeit a more impressionistic manner is noted in the treatment of the surroundings as well as the men's garments. The painting radiates warm color with a palette of saturated indigo blues, warm browns, and fuchsia tones. The men's head scarves are dappled with white gouache highlights, capturing the blazing heat of midday in the desert.
Watercolor on Canvas - Brooklyn Museum
Like many of his contemporaries, Sargent was captivated by the beauty and character of Venice; he visited the city frequently between 1898 and 1913. The tower depicted at the center of the canvas is not the iconic campanile from the Piazza San Marco, but instead, part of the lesser-known Church of San Barnaba. The image is presented from water level offering the viewer the perspective someone sitting in a gondola might have.
Sargent diverged from standard watercolor painting with his extensive use of gouache, or opaque white watercolor paint. Traditionalists preferred the translucent quality of watercolors, using the canvas or paper to stand in for white. Sargent used these patches of gouache, with its reflective sheen to great effect, highlighting the play of light off various surfaces. This is evident in the water depicted in the foreground of the canvas. The differing textures of the water and buildings are captured with a combination of brushstrokes - some obvious, some not -- which capture these complex and distinctive surfaces.
Watercolor on Canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art
From 1918 onward, Sargent was employed by the British Ministry of Information to depict soldiers' experience of wartime, and the spirit of Anglo-American cooperation. In preparation for these works Sargent visited soldiers on the front lines in Belgium and France.
This very large painting (over 7.5 feet tall and 20 feet long) shows the aftermath of a German mustard gas attack. The color palette contrasts sharply with much of Sargent's other work, predominated by drab khakis, greens, and beiges. Two clusters of wounded men (one in the foreground, one in the background) march toward a medical aid tent, holding onto one another's shoulders because their vision has been blurred by the effects of the gas. Countless dead bodies litter the sides of the road. The line of injured men walking in single file evokes the Flemish renaissance painting, The Blind Leading the Blind (1568), by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, updating and revising the original image for its modern purpose. The First World War saw the first widespread use of chemical and biological weapons in wartime. Mustard gas causes large blisters to form on exposed skin and, if inhaled, in the lungs. Its effects are not seen until approximately 24 hours after exposure, and while not always fatal, are agonizing. While the viewer may be struck by the camaraderie between the men on their slow, labored march, one cannot help but wonder how many of them will, in the end, suffer the same fate as the dead men at their feet.
The painting met with a mixed reception, with prominent writers and social critics such as E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf attacking what they interpreted as the work's naive patriotism. Nevertheless, it has endured as a powerful symbol of the incomprehensible horror of the Great War. It is one of a number of Modern masterpieces devoted to the atrocities of war including other greats including Goya and Picasso.
Oil on Canvas - Imperial War Museum, London
Nude Study of Thomas E. McKeller
In the later phase of his career Sargent painted a number of male nudes. For the most part these works were not exhibited during his lifetime. Among these works are several studies of McKellar, an elevator operator in a Boston hotel, executed in preparation for future use in murals. McKeller's strong, muscular body is rendered beautifully with painstaking detail. The artist's delineation of the stone wall behind him, with what comes across as feathered wings and a glowing blue-white light, give the impression that he is somewhere between a mortal and a god. The painting was not widely known until it was purchased by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1986.
Sargent's male nudes, and the study of McKeller in particular, have drawn a great deal of academic interest recently as indicating his attraction to men. The artist's exploration of this subject connects him with early modern masters such as Gericault and Ingres. The technique noted in these works indicate that they were relatively personal in nature, an interest he felt necessary to hide within a career devoted to capturing society's best. According to Jacques-Émile Blanche, a French artist and friend who Sargent once painted, the artist's sexual preferences were "notorious in Paris, and in Venice, positively scandalous. He was a frenzied bugger." It's worth noting that Blanche was a notorious gossip so these words should be taken with a grain of salt. Indeed there is much about the artistic and personal relationship between the two that remains unknown. While Sargent's sexual preferences remain unclear, this interpretation contrasts dramatically with the mainstream image of Sargent as a reserved, aloof bachelor.
Oil on Canvas - Boston Museum of Fine Arts