THE American Expat Painter

Yes, I guess that title and caps-lock implies just how very much I like John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). He’s probably my favorite American painter*, expat or otherwise.

A Street in Venice, 1880
A Street in Venice, 1880, Clark Art Institute, Mass

I’m happy to say a second THATd’Or is imminently descending upon the coffered halls of the Musée d’Orsay! Kristina Tencic, the AFMO’s Communications Liaison, and I are co-hosting another treasure hunt. This time it’s private and for an exclusive group of expat Americans who’ve been in France for a long time. Who at the Musée d’Orsay could represent such a group better than John Singer Sargent?

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit
The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882, MFA, Boston

And so it is with this in mind that I shall let my fingers flutter and see our subject cross the channel and the pond (although to be fair, John Singer Sargent (JSS) didn’t make it to the States till he was 20 years old, when he established citizenship). Both his parents were American, his father was a Dr in Philadelphia; 2 years prior to John’s birth his older sister died. This caused his mother, Mary Singer, to breakdown, and as a result his parents set sail for Europe, never returning. JSS was born in Florence, though he was raised with seasonal visits across Europe. If you’re born and raised “abroad” are you an expat – or is it simply “abroad” for your parents? For that matter, if you grow up on the road are you an expat?

Wyndam Sisters
Wyndam Sisters, 1899, Met, NYC

Putting questions of Sargent’s identity aside, he was without a doubt a great painter whose portraits created an enduring image of society of the Edwardian age, often focusing on ladies in their brocaded satin gowns. Though he studied in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts and under the fashionable society portraitist Carolus-Duran, the heavy spell of JSS’s idol, Velazquez, is apparent in most of his works. The haunting interior of The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882, at Boston’s MFA) has distilled light and delicately adjusted forms which pays tribute to Velazquez’s Las Meninas. Northern masters to influence Sargent were Frans Hals, with his quick stroke and light touch, and of course Anthony Van Dyck with his rich textures and fabrics.

El Jaleo, Isabella Stewart Gardner
El Jaleo, 1882, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Boston

Sargent’s best known work, and certainly his own favorite was the portrait of Madame X, the famous Parisian beauty. A fellow American expat, Madame Pierre Gautreau was a Louisiana Belle married to a Parisian banker. Sargent did a gazillion studies of her, spending a good amount of time at her country house in Brittany trying to get his studies right. A nervous and, I get the idea, self-important woman, Madame Gautreau never sat for long, but Sargent was the only portraitist of many who’d been granted the permission to paint her – no doubt due in part to being a compatriot – and he was dead-bent on capturing her marvelously.

Madame X, 1884 The Met
Madame X, 1884, The Met, NYC

When he finally did capture her, Sargent entered Madame X‘s soignée portrait in the Salon of 1884 and much to his despair was totally panned. Critics dismissed it as near pornography, complaining of the revealing décolleté black dress, all that skin and her provocative pose. One of the straps of her dress in the first version was off her shoulder! Scandalous! Discouraged by his Parisian failure he fled to London, welcomed by his good friend Henry James. London became his permanent home, but Sargent had many a client in the States, including Robert Louis Stevenson, Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and perhaps most importantly Isabella Stewart Gardner (who was one of his most loyal and forceful patrons).

Lingering on a light summary of Sargent’s life has been fun, but what to say of THATd’Or? Why have you been reading this? You must want some reward, other than the pleasant visit of seeing his quick and talented stroke, no? Well here’s the give-away: a second prize will go to the team who writes the best limerick which includes elements of the story of John Singer Sargent’s Carmencita, which our hunters will be seeking out at the Musée d’Orsay on Thursday night.

Carmencita, 1890
Carmencita, 1890, Musée d’Orsay

* Although Rembrandt Peale (1778 – 1860) is pretty damned good as well!