Visual Arts Commentary: “Fashioned by Sargent” — The Elephant in the Room
By Mary Sherman
The MFA’s Fashioned by Sargent alludes — only at whisper level — to the fact that many of John Singer Sargent’s clients represent questionable ideals.
Portrait painting is a strange genre. Its clientele is typically the rich and famous. Its aim is to glorify these elites, immortalizing them for prosperity, typically in a medium steeped in history, meaning oil paint. It is a form of advertisement, and like all advertising, its aim is to project power, wealth, seduction, and now and then, a dash of provocation.
Among the best portraitists of his time was John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). By the late 1800s, a new ruling class — the colonizers, the landed gentry and, in America, the uber-industrialists — had risen to power. They, or better yet, their wives and children, were Sargent’s subjects and now serve as the marketing draw for the Museum of Fine Arts show Fashioned by Sargent (through January 15, 2024). Here, viewers are confronted with dozens of paintings of primarily upper-class Americans and Brits. These are presented in no particular order, aside from grouping the portraits by such visual clues as people wearing black and white. The fashions on view are treated nearly the same. Sadly, combining this strategy with darkened rooms, patterned wallpaper, and harsh spots, make it impossible to see such works as Lord Ribblesdale front on, which quickly leads to visual fatigue.
Nonetheless, what can’t be missed is that Sargent’s job was to immortalize his sitters — to cast them in the same light as the greats before them, just as our founding fathers borrowed from Greek architecture to reflect Ancient Greek ideals. Thus, when choosing to paint W. Graham Robertson — the author, art collector, and sometimes set designer for Ellen Terry (also portrayed in the show) — Sargent wrapped Robertson in a full-length coat and set him against a backdrop that readily recalls the portraits of his illustrious predecessor, the 17th-century painter Sir Anthony Van Dyke. To further that aim, Sargent gave Robertson a jade-handled walking stick and, at his feet, Robertson’s fluffed-out poodle, Mouton. By simplifying Robertson’s dress, which also elongated his figure, and throwing in an elegant cane of an older man of ease, Sargent presents us with a timeless picture of youth for whom having to toil long hours to arrive at the leisure his props suggest had already been achieved — in Robertson’s case, through family wealth.
When Sargent paints these friends and clients, he is projecting both their aspirations and his. And that is not surprising. Artworks are products of their creators and, in Sargent’s case, that was particularly so. Sargent was born and bred of society and had no desire to leave it. In fact, the opposite. During his youth, there was hope that Sargent might become the next Diego Velázquez or Van Dyke of his age. Glimpses of such hope appear in selected passages of paint, such as the bold swipe of white that trails through the red of one of the girl’s pinafores and then abruptly stops in The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (on view in the museum’s permanent collections). This stroke is a tour de force of illusion. At the same time, it is a reminder that this is a painting of a dress. In the hands of a lesser painter, that stroke would have been finessed to death. But Sargent’s confidence with paint saves it. As does his understanding of composition, which in this case is lifted straight from Velazquez’s all-time masterpiece Las Meninas. Sargent’s years of studying previous such artists, absorbing their lessons, and then adding to that his natural facility gave his more radical friends, like Claude Monet hope that the younger man might eventually do more than whip up one canvas of meringue-like bravura brushwork after another. Sargent, however, did not oblige.
Sargent quickly abandoned any adherence to radicality. Only now and then are there signs of rebellion, as when he transforms the carpet in the wonderfully painted Madame Ramón Subercaseaux into a wall of pattern. He turned, even more quickly than his Swedish equal Andres Zorn, to chronicling his own milieux, using the same techniques as those before him, which suited his clientele just fine. Sargent saw no reason to draw attention, as Monet does in Gare Saint-Lazare, to the clotted coal-filled skies generated by the Industrial Revolution, or the plight of the working classes, as depicted by the earlier French Realists Honoré Daumier or Gustave Courbet. And certainly not the gritty New York alleys of his American compatriots, the artists of the Ashcan School. Nor was Sargent about to fracture reality with anything that might come close to Cubism.
No, Sargent’s desire was to revel in society, glorifying his friends, who were shoring up monopolies, colonizing the world, amassing fortunes, and, in the process, ignoring the growing protests against economic inequality, voter disenfranchisement, unequal access to education, and increasing demands for progressive reform. All of this might be fine — up to a point. It isn’t just that the museum has skirted dealing with a true assessment of Sargent’s talent, lumping together all the works as if they are equal (the last room ends up making little sense). The show alludes — only at whisper level — to the fact that many of Sargent’s clients represent questionable ideals. We should be taking a hard look, for instance, at continuing to showcase people like Colonel Ian Hamilton, whom Sargent painted to commemorate his role in storming Pakistan’s Dargai Heights, or more clearly stated, serving the British’s subjugation of that country.
We should also not be so quick to absolve Sargent and his friends of callously dressing up in the clothing of those their countries overran, essentially treating these items as little more than colorful baubles. That this was a craze at the time does not make the practice right. Nor is the MFA immune from perpetrating the same. The wall label for Almina, Daughter of Asher Wertheimer, for instance, suggests that Almina, the daughter of the Jewish art patron (whose family is well represented in the show), was a willing accomplice in Sargent’s fanciful depiction of her wearing a light over-garment from Turkey. That may be, but it ignores the fact that Almina’s main dress – at least, according to the painting’s owner, the Tate – is Persian, meaning that Sargent had no qualms about throwing a Turkish overcoat over a dress of its long-time rival. Worse, the wall text likewise ignores the same, making the show complicit in asserting what it accuses Sargent of, a “perpetuation of . . . Orientalism,” lumping together at least two vastly different cultures, under the rubric of the East.
On top of this, the reality is that the more likely inspiration for Almina’s portrait had nothing to do with the Ottoman Empire. It was most probably the great French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix’s numerous sketchbooks and paintings of his time in Morocco, which was a French colony. Delacroix traveled there in 1832 on a diplomatic mission, commissioned by King Louis-Philippe. While there, he chronicled harem life and made detailed sketches and paintings of the Jewish communities, thanks to introductions by his interpreter. Delacroix was an artist whose works the Francophone Sargent knew well. Like other, greater artists before him, Sargent often cribbed for inspiration, composition, and technique. Thus, it is most likely that Sargent decided to create Almina’s portrait à la Delacroix – perhaps also as a nod to the only other country Delacroix traveled to in his lifetime, England. This explanation is certainly a more likely response to the MFA’s text, which asks us to consider why a Jewish woman, living in England, would don what they are questionably calling an Ottoman outfit.
The MFA’s fixation on the painting’s possible references to the Ottoman Empire is a missed opportunity to place Sargent’s work in its proper art historical context and to render the kind of respect to diverse cultures that Sargent’s ilk withheld. It is this type of cultural insensitivity that, sadly, helped feed the Western powers’ callous overthrow and then carving up of places like the Middle East. This has led to the horrific wars and conflicts that we are witnessing today. Isn’t it time for this to stop?
More Arts Fuse commentary on Fashioned by Sargent here.
For two decades Mary Sherman wrote about the arts, beginning as a freelancer for the Chicago Reader, followed by being the art critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and, later, as a regular contributor to The Boston Globe, Boston Herald, and ARTnews among many other national and international publications. In addition to writing, she is a widely exhibited artist, a teacher at Boston College, and founding director of TransCultural Exchange. Currently, Mary is at work on her first book And Then the Stars Aligned. It is part memoir, part Cold War investigative journalism, prompted by the many unexplained encounters she had with her late father, not the least of which was his once showing up at an airport, a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist.