John Singer Sargent – his Rise, Fall, and Rise

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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:

John Singer Sargent, "Portrait of Frances Sherborne Ridley Watts (Fanny Watts)," 1877, oil on canvas, 41 11/16 x 32 inches
John Singer Sargent, “Portrait of Frances Sherborne Ridley Watts (Fanny Watts),” 1877, oil on canvas, 41 11/16 x 32 inches, Philadelphia Museum of Art

 

The following year his painting, En Route Pour La Peche (Setting Out to Fish), was accepted by the jury.

John Singer Sargent, "Setting Out to Fish" (or commonly referred to as Oyster Gatherers at Cancale), 1878, oil on canvas, 31 x 48 3/8 in, Corcoran Gallery of Art
John Singer Sargent, “Setting Out to Fish” (or commonly referred to as Oyster Gatherers at Cancale), 1878, oil on canvas, 31 x 48 3/8 in, Corcoran Gallery of Art

 

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.

John Singer Sargent, "Portrait of Carolus-Duran," 1879, oil on canvas, 46 x 37 3/4 in, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute
John Singer Sargent, “Portrait of Carolus-Duran,” 1879, oil on canvas, 46 x 37 3/4 in, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute

 

In 1880, he entered two paintings, Madame Edouard Pailleron and Fumee d’Ambre Gris (inspired by a trip to Morocco).

John Singer Sargent, "Marie Buloz Pailleron (Madame Édouard Pailleron)," 1879, oil on canvas, 83 1/8 x 41 1/8 in, Corcoran Gallery of Art
John Singer Sargent, “Marie Buloz Pailleron (Madame Édouard Pailleron),” 1879, oil on canvas, 83 1/8 x 41 1/8 in, Corcoran Gallery of Art
John Singer Sargent, "Fumee d'Ambre Gris (Smoke of Ambergris)," 1880, oil on canvas, 54 3/4 x 35 2/3 in,  Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute
John Singer Sargent, “Fumee d’Ambre Gris (Smoke of Ambergris),” 1880, oil on canvas, 54 3/4 x 35 2/3 in, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute

 

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!!!

John Singer Sargent, "Madame Ramon Subercasceaux," 1880, oil on canvas, 65 x 43 1/4 in, Private collection
John Singer Sargent, “Madame Ramon Subercasceaux,” 1880, oil on canvas, 65 x 43 1/4 in, Private collection

 

We are now at the 1882 Salon and Sargent’s entry was the dramatic El Jaleo.

John Singer Sargent, "El Jaleo," 1882, oil on canvas, 91 1/3 x 137 in, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
John Singer Sargent, “El Jaleo,” 1882, oil on canvas, 91 1/3 x 137 in, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

 

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.

John Singer Sargent, "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit," 1882, oil on canvas, 87 3/8 x 87 5/8 in, Museum of Fine Arts Boston
John Singer Sargent, “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,” 1882, oil on canvas, 87 3/8 x 87 5/8 in, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

 

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).

John Singer Sargent, "Portrait of Madame X," 1883-84, oil on canvas, 82 1/8 x 43 1/4 in, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
John Singer Sargent, “Portrait of Madame X,” 1883-84, oil on canvas, 82 1/8 x 43 1/4 in, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (the top of the painting is slightly cropped)
John Singer Sargent, "Portrait of Madame X," 1883-84, oil on canvas, 82 1/8 x 43 1/4 in, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York - detail of that stunning profile
John Singer Sargent, “Portrait of Madame X,” 1883-84, oil on canvas, 82 1/8 x 43 1/4 in, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York – detail of that stunning profile

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.

 

John Singer Sargent in his studio c.1884, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Museum
John Singer Sargent in his studio with the painting of Madame Gautreau, c.1884, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Museum. You can see he’d already replaced the fallen strap onto 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.

 

John Singer Sargent, "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose," 1885-86, oil on canvas, 68.5 x 60.5 in, Tate Britain
John Singer Sargent, “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,” 1885-86, oil on canvas, 68.5 x 60.5 in, Tate Britain

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,

 

~ Gail

 

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 🙂

 

8 thoughts on “John Singer Sargent – his Rise, Fall, and Rise”

  1. Hi Gail,
    I see that 2 of the paintings (Fumee d’Amber Gris and Protrait of Carolus-Duran) mentioned are in the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. I have been there in the 80’s and it was the most amazing surprise imaginable. I was taking a building course at a place in Massachusetts when someone suggested that I go to see it. It had Degas’, Monet, Gauguin, Renoir, Cassett, Remington’s and so much more. It is in a little college town and if you are ever in the neighbourhood I know you won’t be disappointed if you go. It is better than some big galleries I have visited.
    Check out their website: http://www.clarkart.edu/visit/content.cfm?ID=469

    I recall Fumee d’Ambre and loved it. John Singer Sargent’s work is fabulous.
    Cheers, Susan

    1. Hi Susan,

      How wonderful that you have been to the S and FC Institute. I had heard of them but didn’t realize the extent of their collection until I browsed their website while researching for my blog. I will definitely be visiting it when I make it to that part of the world! I would so love to see both paintings you mentioned in the real.

      Glad you like Sargent’s work. I have always enjoyed it and vaguely appreciated it, but my admiration has deepened considerably over the last few months.

      Thanks for responding :-))))
      Gail

  2. Karen Blanchet

    Totally fascinating article! Love your expertise. I suspect the key to success is keep painting and keep entering…

    1. Thanks Karen. And yes, the lesson learned is to keep painting and entering. I also think keeping true to yourself and what you do is an important lesson too 🙂

  3. Dear Gail,
    I thought you should know that I wrote a term paper on this very subject for my graduate art criticism class at SCAD this semester, but did not see your post on this topic until I was finished. The subject captivated me. I also am a long time Sargent admirer, read all the books, been to the Clark and the Met (still need to get to Boston to see the Boit girls in person). Thanks for getting the story out.

    Jamie

    1. Jamie, thanks so much for writing. I am glad you found my post eventually 🙂 I would LOVE to read your paper – any chance of that? How lucky for you having seen so much of Sargent’s work up close and personal. I’m rather envious as I too am a great admirer of his work.

  4. I’ve somehow arrived at this site via the bunny hole of Instagram, where a photo was posted of Sargent in his studio, and you replied to it. Fascinating discourse on Sargent, a painter whose work I’ve always loved. He sets the bar high for painting, where beauty of mark making is dangerous, seductive and reaches far beyond the surface while being very much of it as well . . . something one could write a book about or spend a lifetime contemplating, working on . . . thank you! rozolution

    1. Wow – love those rabbit holes!! You are so right about Sargent setting the bar high. Such apparent and deceptive ease of painting. Love the idea of a book on the topic you mention 🙂

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