Tuesday, March 20, 2012

John Singer Sargent, An Artist Who Stood His Ground

The other night I was reading a Jack Higgins thriller--The Judas Gate--and one of the characters in the story is a portrait painter.  It got me thinking about portraits and wondering if portrait painters still exist.  But now and then in a bank or a corporate office or a state capital you'll send an actual portrait painting, so such artists must be available.

When I think of portraits, I think of one of the best painters of that type, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925).  Sargent was American, but born in Florence, Italy, and he seemed to spend much of his adult life moving around Europe and the United States.  Like people in many professions, he went where the work was.  He studied in Germany, Italy and France, spending four years in Paris with Emile Auguste Carolus-Duran. 

Some critics dismiss Sargent's work as too commercial.  After all, he received commissions to paint pictures of rich people and politicians, including two presidents.  (Example above is of Lady Agnew)  However, I find this a narrow view.  Sargent not only painted portraits, but landscapes and watercolors, too.  Also, Sargent was not content with art as a hobby--he was a professional and he wished to earn his living as artist.  In those days, painting a portrait was a good way to improve his skills while also making money to eat.  And when shown to the public, the paintings were excellent advertisements for his business.

In the early 1880s, Sargent painted three full-length portraits of women that received good reviews and his career was taking off.  But in 1884, at the age of 28, he painted Madame Gautreau in Paris.  The painting was exhibited as Madame X, and it caused a storm of negative opinion because people thought it was too sensual.  Demands were made that he alter the painting, or remove it, and even his friends worried that his career would be ruined, but Sargent stood his ground.  He refused to take the painting down.

By today's standards, Madame X (seen above) is quite tame.  But at the time, Sargent was a young artist with his whole career on the line.  However, he clung to what he believed in.  He believed in the beauty and value of his own work, and he would not bow to popular opinion or pressure. 

It cost him.  Wealthy patrons in France stopped hiring him for commissions, and his money situation grew so bad he couldn't afford paint supplies.  Eventually, he moved to England and had to start over again.  Fortunately, he did find work and his career resumed.  Sargent made many trips to the United States, and during World War 1 visited the war zone in France, resulting in a haunting painting of soldiers blinded by mustard gas.  In 1925, he died of a heart attack while home in bed.
After his death, some critics complained about him working for the rich on portraits designed to impress the middle class.  They ignore the fact that Sargent stood firm in the face of public displeasure, even though it hurt him financially.  I believe he showed moral courage, something which is often absent from business decisions made in the public eye.  Equally important, he continued to practice his craft, pushing himself to improve and to try new things even late in life.

And that's a pretty good example for all of us.

(The following sources were helpful:  JohnSingerSargent.org, Artcyclopedia, Spartacus Educational, and Ray Carney's American Painting.  The images :  top is Lady Agnew from National Galleries, middle is Madame X from Harpers Bazaar, bottom is Gassed from Spartacus Educational.)

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