Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Male Nudes of John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent Drawing of Architecture
for Boston Fine Arts Fresco

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was one of the greatest, and most prolific, of fin de siècle artists.  A gifted portraitist, Sargent was also painter of many magnificent landscapes, a champion draughtsman and watercolorist, and he also painted the mighty frescoes found in the Boston Public Library and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Art historians and critics have a little trouble with Sargent – his talent is too great to dismiss, but he does not comfortably fit with either with the Academic establishment or with Impressionist movement, both of which were dominant at that time.  What Sargent was, in short, was his own thing, an artist unique to himself who managed also to wonderfully illustrate his own time.

John Singer Sargent was born in Florence, Italy, to American expatriate parents.  He would study in Florence and Paris, and live in London and Boston.  He was one of most celebrated artists of his time, famous for his “society portraits.”  Near the end of his life, he visited the battlefields in World War I France as an official British War artist.

Two of Sargent’s greatest pictures remain The Portrait of Madame X (see below), first painted in 1884, and the portrait of Graham Robertson (also below).  Madame X created a furor upon his initial exhibition – one of the straps of the lady’s gown was slipped off of her shoulder.  The subject, society-figure Virginie Gautreau (1859-1915), never quite recovered from the scandal, while Sargent’s fortune was made.   The picture now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and it is a remarkable work.  Gautreau’s pale while skin, aristocratic hauteur and dramatic outfit are wonderfully realized by Sargent’s brush.  And don’t look for the dangling strap – after its initial exhibition, he painted it back in place.

My other favorite Sargent is the portrait of W. Graham Robertson (866-1948).  Robertson was a well-known dandy and patron of the arts, who later made a name for himself as a scenic designer and minor playwright.  With his languid look, elegant walking stick, and the long, stylish line of his coat, Sargent managed to sum up the entire Aesthetic Movement in a single picture.  (Oscar Wilde, High Priest of the Aesthetes, lived across the street from Sargent at the time; it’s not impossible that Wilde himself sat and amused Robertson while the portrait was painted.  At least, your correspondent likes to think so.)

One amusing story about the portrait of Robertson, which now hangs in the Tate Gallery, London – Sargent insisted that “the coat is the picture,” and Robertson posed for hours at a time in the blistering summer heat.  “What a horrid light there is just now,” Sargent said one day.  “A sort of green…. Why, it’s you!”  He then rushed Robertson outside into some much needed fresh air.

But one of Sargent’s most neglected bodies of work remain his drawings and paintings of the male nude.  Sargent had a particular gift for the subject, and worked closely with two models throughout his long life, his valet Nicola D’Inverno, and, later, Thomas E. McKeller, a bell-hop at a Boston hotel that Sargent met and employed as model for many of the figures in the Boston frescoes.

Aside from the supreme virtuosity of these drawings – many of which are merely “working drawings” that served as a basis for the business of fresco painting – is the fact that they still exist.  Society at that time mostly regarded the depiction of the male nude to be pornographic.  However, upon Sargent’s death his sister, Violet, donated many of these works to the Fogg Art Museum. 

Sargent has a special genius for the male form.  At once masculine and sensual, Sargent’s male nudes have an almost angelic grace, as if lithe and lissome gods came down among us.  As many of the surviving drawing were also created for his personal enjoyment, it cannot be doubted that these images were emotionally charged for Sargent, as well.

What was Sargent’s erotic life?  Scholarship seems divided on that issue.  Painter Jacques-Émile Blanche claimed, after Sargent’s death, that he was “a frenzied bugger.”  Others, including biographer Stanley Olson, believe that Sargent’s interior life was a mystery even to the painter himself.  In fact, Sargent was so driven by his art that is it possible that his entire emotional life existed only in his work.

Should we care about an artist’s private life?  His affairs, his politics, his relationships?  Well … yes.  We should not judge an artist’s output on his private life and convictions, but understanding the artist and his times often brings us closer to understanding the work.  For instance, it would be a shame to lose Wagner’s music because he was an insufferable monster of a human being; however, knowing something of his life, views and thoughts on mythology provide insight into creation of his Ring Cycle.  That Sargent may have been homosexual is interesting to speculate, but the evidence is inconclusive.  However, it is impossible to look upon his male nudes without appreciating Sargent’s sense of physical or aesthetic adoration.

Readers who want to see more of Sargent’s male nudes may want to find a copy of John Singer Sargent: The Male Nudes by John Esten.  Long out-of-print, it can be found on Ebay and Alibris easily enough, and it is also worth a trip to the local library.  The commentary by Esten, essentially a few pages of double-columned text, is essentially worthless, but the reproductions do justice to Sargent’s genius.  Perhaps the most comprehensive biography is John Singer Sargent: His Portrait by Stanley Olson, which comes highly recommended.

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