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.

John Singer Sargent, Madame Ramon Subercaseaux, 1880. Photo: Wiki Common

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.

John Singer Sargent, W. Graham Robertson, 1894. Photo: Creative Common

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.

John Singer Sargent , Almina, Daughter of Asher Wertheimer, 1908. Photo: Creative Commons

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.


  1. Mark Favermann on November 10, 2023 at 10:08 am

    Mary, I am not sure what your point is. Presentism? You seem to be critically judging the top 1% in terms of our cultural context of today and disapproving an artist who painted them. And the extremely easy target of the MFA was thrown in for good measure by you.

    Since Egyptian times, artists have portrayed the ruling class. Sargent was a gifted society as well as an all around figurative painter who painted society figures to earn a living. What Andy Warhol did at $25K a portrait was similar, and Cecil Beaton’s glamorous photo portraits are the same. Much of Annie Leibovitz’s work portrays the rich and famous as well. I don’t see you ranting and railing against these later truly commercial portraits of the top 1%.

    Recently, a major Sargent painting was re-installed at the Imperial War Museum in London portraying visually and metaphorically World War I–“Gassed.” Perhaps you should spend time focused on that instead. It depicts the aftermath of a mustard gas attack during the First World War, with a line of wounded and blinded soldiers walking towards a dressing station. Sargent was commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee to document the war and visited the Western Front in July 1918 spending time with the Guards Division near Arras, and then with the American Expeditionary Forces near Ypres. The painting was finished in March 1919 and voted picture of the year by the Royal Academy of Arts in 1919. So, he wasn’t just a painter of questionable rich folks. Your arguments are not very convincing.

    • Mary Sherman on November 10, 2023 at 1:51 pm

      Hi, Mark. I’m not against portraits per se – or against Sargent’s portraits. I noted that he was among the best portraitists of his day and also pointed out why (see: the discussion on the Boit children) and how his skill prompted others to hope he would become among the greatest artists of his time.

      My review, however, was not a ‘think piece’ on portraits. It was a critique of a particular show that I found flawed by inaccuracies, difficulty seeing the work, etc.I do believe I explained my reasons for drawing those conclusions (some works are visually obscured by the spots on them), some texts are misleading, unhelpful, or, as I said, inaccurate (for which I gave the example of Almina, Daughter of Asher Wertheimer.) Other works, like many in the last room, seem off-point. As for your saying that I should’ve mentioned Sargent’s paintings of wounded soldiers, I would’ve been happy to, but they were not in the show. However, his painting of Colonel Ian Hamilton was.

      • Mark Favermann on November 10, 2023 at 3:20 pm

        I didn’t have the same take at all on this Sargent exhibit. I tend not to judge a historical exhibition in terms of how the works shown could have somehow effected mankind toward better outcomes. Like looking historically at slavery from a 21st Century perspective, you stated that “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.” Was the Ottoman Empire callously overthrown? Certainly aspects of how the Mideast was divided up between the French and the English was problematic. Perhaps, aspects of “horrific wars and conflicts that we are witnessing today had some geo-political origins there. But and big but, all of the individuals painted in show could not be connected to some over-riding evil cultural zeitgeist that permeated as you say “Sargent’s ilk.” I brought up the “Gassed” painting as an example of something else that Sargent did rather than upper class portraits to try to balance your rather strident comments. I guess that we will agree to disagree.

        • Mary Sherman on November 10, 2023 at 6:57 pm

          Mark, my point was that to claim a dress is Ottoman when in fact, at least, the main dress is Persian and to claim the work references the Ottoman Empire, when it more likely references Delacoix’s works executed in Morocco, seems both inaccurate and culturally insensitive. It is the lack of care about facts and cultural histories that causes many problems or, at least, I think so.

          Also, I never imagined that a reader would interpret that part about “Sargent’s ilk,” so literally. (It was meant to be a reference to the show’s stating that Sargent and many of the people he painted treated clothing from other cultures with little regard to their cultural significance.) But now I know. Thank you. Of course, this is just my opinion (and concern, given all that is going on at the moment).

  2. Gerald Peary on November 10, 2023 at 10:53 am

    Hi, Mary: Thanks for ruining ahead of time my planned trip to the MFA to check out these Sargents. I do think your points have validity and especially when expressed by a genuine art historian. I am curious what you would want the MFA to do? Not show these paintings at all? Or contextualize them? And if so, how? If you were allowed free hand to change things up at the MFA, hands-on, what would you do?

    • Mary Sherman on November 10, 2023 at 1:09 pm

      Hi Gerry. I am not against the MFA showing Sargent’s work, but the museum has a responsibility when doing so to provide accurate facts about the works. Thus, I would’ve liked to have seen more accurate wall labels (this seems a minimum) and, for instance, works hung better so that they could be better seen. I also would’ve, perhaps, made different choices as I alluded to my article.
      As for if, I was given a free hand, I would have been proud to have been the curator of either of the 2 shows currently at the Gardner, which deal with a similar topic. On view there is “Inventing Mrs. Gardner,” which –albeit smaller – is better focused, the research is solid and it also features portrait artists whom we Americans often overlook (like Zorn). Additionally, its impressive companion show “Faviola Jean-Louis: Rewriting History,” brilliantly reminds us how much cultural, social, and political messages fashion embodies. Here, Jean-Louis offers a corrective to much of what is problematic about the MFA show.

      Also one correction, I am not an art historian. Instead, like many artists, I am passionate about the field and do my best to inform myself. ‘Writing about art for 2 decades also helped. 🙂

  3. Tommy on November 10, 2023 at 2:13 pm

    Mary, I thoroughly enjoyed your piece, as I always do. Brilliant just as it always is. I have to say though I am a man of simple tastes and never read too much into them. Sorry. I either just enjoy them or I don’t.I adore the painting of the children of Mr and Mrs D Boit. The portrait of Graham Robertson I find truly boring. Isn’t it great that we are all different 😀

  4. Erica Abeel on November 10, 2023 at 3:40 pm

    Thank you for this illuminating insight into Sargent and his world! I was struck by the Orientalism fad in one portrait. So glad Arts Fuse ran this piece that opens up a fresh assessment of this painter impossible to ignore.

    • Mary Sherman on November 10, 2023 at 6:33 pm

      Erica, thank you for your kind words.

  5. Mary Sherman on November 10, 2023 at 3:42 pm

    Tommy, thank you for your kind words. Yes, isn’t it great we are all so different? Graham Roberson was actually an interesting fellow, sort of a well-to-do dandy who tried his hands at various arts with unequal but, sometimes, surprisingly sparkling results. I can certainly relate to your sentiments, though. All best.

  6. Pen Revel on November 15, 2023 at 10:52 am

    I thought that Ms. Sherman’s review was a parody of wokeness gone wild and over all tops.

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