After writing my blog on John Singer Sargent’s paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago (click here to read that blog), I realized that although I was familiar with many of Sargent’s paintings, I knew little about his life. I was also intrigued by the furor around his most well-known portrait, “Portrait of Madame X.”
So I went looking for information and came across a book that I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend – Strapless by Deborah Davis (it’s shown at the end of this blog). It’s full of all sorts of tidbits including Haussman’s work creating the grand boulevards that are so much apart of Paris, and the makeup habits of women (mostly) of the time, as well as covering the histories of both Sargent and Madame Amelie Gautreau (aka Madame X).
I knew I would just have to write another blog post on Sargent but what to focus on? There is soooo much to say. Eventually I decided that what might be interesting would be a survey of his Salon entries leading up to the hanging (!) of Madame X in 1884 which sunk him and then the painting that pulled him out of his disgrace and put him on the path to fully-fledged fame.
The Paris Salon was an annual exhibition where an artist could make a name and launch a career. If you were going to make it, you needed to enter and be discovered at this long standing and popular event. To participate, you had to be accepted by the 40-person jury.
Born 12 January 1856, Sargent was only 22 (egads!) when he submitted his first entry to the Salon in 1877. Here it is:
The following year his painting, En Route Pour La Peche (Setting Out to Fish), was accepted by the jury.
In 1879, he entered a portrait of his teacher, Carolus-Duran (famous for his painting, The Lady with the Glove). Sargent’s painting won an Honourable Mention which meant he was guaranteed acceptance into the following year’s Salon. The painting emerged as a favourite that year, highly acclaimed by critics and public alike, and even appeared on the front page of the newspaper, L’Illustration.
In 1880, he entered two paintings, Madame Edouard Pailleron and Fumee d’Ambre Gris (inspired by a trip to Morocco).
In 1881, he entered Madame Ramon Subercaseaux, a painting that I had never seen before and this may be because it’s in a private collection. (In my research, I came across a post that included an apparent entry from Madame Subercasceaux’s diary detailing the commission of this portrait.) The painting won a 2nd place medal at the Salon and this achievement meant that Sargent would not have to submit to the jury process again. It also meant that he was invited to the country estates of wealthy clients who wanted to be painted. Sargent was still young, only 25!!!
We are now at the 1882 Salon and Sargent’s entry was the dramatic El Jaleo.
The following year he entered his huge and psychologically intriguing portrait, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit. Click here to have a closer look at the painting in a short video. There are many interesting articles on this painting – just try googling it! Here’s a review of a book called Sargent’s Daughters.
And finally we come to the Salon of 1884, the year that changed everything for this rising star. He entered his painting, Portrait of Madame *** (titled in that manner to keep Mme Pierre Gautreau’s name out of reviews).
Rather than garnering the acclaim he hoped, this painting brought Sargent to his knees. Something I didn’t know until reading the book was that his original painting showed the strap of Amelie’s dress on the left side of the painting off the shoulder. It was this, even more than the comments about the deathlike white skin (“monstrous and decomposed”), that was the worst offense. As soon as Sargent had the painting back in his possession (and he kept it until he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum in 1916 saying, I think this is the best work I have ever done), he repainted the strap back on the shoulder.
There is so much to say around the topic of this painting, for instance, examples of more risque paintings at the 1884 Salon by well known artists of the time, or why this painting created furor around its sexuality (strap off the shoulder indicated sex – about to undress to have it or having recently dressed afterwards) when there were so many other nude (and blatantly titillating) paintings at the Salon, or how many sittings it took to complete the painting. But I’m trying to keep focused on my topic!
For three years, Sargent struggled to regain his place (and this must have seemed like an eternity to the young artist) but it wasn’t until the appearance of his painting, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, at London’s Royal Academy of Art in May 1887 that Sargent rose once more to prominence. The painting was a smash hit (and once again, there is much to say about this painting but for now, I’ll just give you a link to this short video which has some beautiful close-ups of the painting and is informative too). From then on, Sargent was successful in his artistic life.
So, there you have it – the meteoric rise of Sargent, his overnight ruin, and his deserved ascent from the ashes.
I loved this book, easy read and so full of info.
That’s it for this time. As always, I’d love to hear what you think so please leave a comment. Remember, if you have trouble figuring out the whole commenting thing, you can always reply to this email with your thoughts which I can then attach as a comment to the blog.
Until next time,
PS. It’s interesting to note how similar the right arm position is for both Portrait of Madame X and Mrs George Swinton (seen in my previous blog)
PPS. Here’s the other book I mentioned above. I haven’t read it yet, but one day I’ll get my hands on it 🙂