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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (15/4/2024)

(Review of John Singer Sargent: Fashion & Swagger)


Approaching 30 feature documentaries since its inception in 2011, Exhibition on Screen continues to offer scholarly, yet accessible insights into the lives and works of the major figures in art history. The latest entry, David Bickerstaff's John Singer Sargent: Fashion & Swagger, centres on a show that was curated by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and will remain at Tate Britain until 7 July.

`To paint is to show one's soul,' reads the opening caption as we see John Singer Sargent's `Portrait of Miss Elsie Palmer (A Lady in White)' (1889-90) and `Mrs Adrian Iselin' (1888) and hear that he expanded the vocabulary of painting while producing portraits that look deceptively perfect, but actually captured blemishes with such acuity that some people were afraid to sit for him. Although he has not always been fashionable, Sargent uses colour and the application of the paint to convey an exuberance for life in works like `The Chess Game' (1907) and `Madame Ramón Subercaseaux' (1880-81).

James Finch, Assistant Curator of 19th-Century British Art at Tate Britain notes over `Ena and Betty, Daughters of Asher and Mrs Wertheimer' (1902) how the artist demonstrated a fascination throughout his career with fashion and the ways that fabrics fold and light plays on different textures. Over `Mrs Carl Meyer (Adèle Lewis) and Her Children (Frank Cecil and Elsie Charlotte)' (1896), Paul Fisher, Professor of American Studies at Wellesley College, reveals that Sargent used clothing, props, and the posing of his sitters both to explore their personalities and the society in which they lived. Stephanie L. Herdrich, Associate Curator of American Painting and Drawing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York concurs that there is a performative aspect to Sargent's portraits that allows viewers to make connections with the subjects.

As Matthew Teitelbaum, Ann and Graham Gund Director at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts finds a link between Sargent and selfies, Erica E. Hirshler, the museum's Coll Senior Curator of American Paintings, explains that exhibits like 'Lady Sassoon (Aline de Rothschild)' (1907) are accompanied by the actual costumes the sitters were wearing so that visitors can detect the liberties that Sargent took in making the portrait. As we see `Sibyl Sassoon, Countess of Rocksavage' (1922), photographer Tim Walker describes how Kate Moss saw the picture at Houghton Hall and got to pose in Sybil's clothing.

Artist Stephen Farthing claims that Sargent's portraits say more about him than the sitter, as he creates theatre by posing the model in the tradition of the `swagger' portrait that is epitomised at Kenwood House by the likes of Thomas Gainsborough's `Mary, Countess Howe' (c.1764). Louise Cooling, the curator of Collections and Interiors, gives us a potted history of the `grand manner' that started with such William Larkin portraits as `Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset' (1613) and Anthony Van Dyck's `Princess Henrietta of Lorraine, Attended By a Page' (1634).

Cooling considers Sargent to be the last of the great swagger portraitists, while writer and fashion podcaster Lucy Clayton enthuses about his appreciation of the language of clothes. Cooling and Farthing concur that Sargent echoes Gainsborough in items like `Lady Helen Vincent, Viscountess d'Abernon (Helen Duncombel)' (1904) and `Daisy Leiter (Later Margaret, 19th Countess of Suffolk)' (1898). But he always makes the subject seem modern.

Rosie Findlay, a lecturer in fashion media, states that fashion imagery is invariably designed to create a sense of desire. She believes that Sargent echoed that mentality in pictures like `Mrs Charles Inches (Louise Pomeroy)' (1887), as he never seeks to provide an accurate rendering of the garment, but an idealised fantasy that enhances the beauty of the figure, while also showing off his own technical expertise.

Fisher and art historian Richard Ormond (who is the director of the John Singer Sargent Catalogue Raisonée Project) trace Sargent's early life from his birth in Florence, where parents Fitzwilliam and Mary happened to be as part of their peripatetic lifestyle. John was close to younger sister Emily (Violet came along later) and she became his companion-cum-hostess, as neither married. Encouraged to sketch by his mother, Sargent was allowed to train in Paris under Carolus-Duran (Charles Auguste Émile Durand). He urged his students to paint and discover the tonal value of each brushstroke and this fluency is evident in early works like `Resting' (c.1875). Carolus-Duran also recommended a close study of Frans Hals and Diego Velázguez and artist James Hayes points out the blend of treatricality and truth in `A Venetian Interior' and `A Street in Venice' (both 1880-82), which would recur in Sargent's later society portraits. Hayes also identifies the pleasure that Sargent took in creating such works as `Fishing For Oysters at Cançale' (1878).

After a nomadic childhood, Sargent always felt like an outsider. But, by being fluent in French, Italian, and German, he was always able to fit in and this enabled him to paint such intimate works as `Fumée d'ambre gris (Smoke of Ambergris)' (1880). This came a year after he has submitted `Carolus-Duran' (1879) to the Salon, where he won a prize. A portrait of playwright Édouard Pailleron came the same year, but the indoor image of shabby bohemianism contrasts with the outdoor elegance of wife Marie Bulot Pailleron, whose black evening gown looks unusual against a verdant background that shows a familiarity with Impressionism.

Indeed, Sargent stayed at Giverny to paint `Claude Monet Painting By the Edge of a Wood' (c.1885). He also visited Granada, where he was taken by flamenco (he was a fine pianist in his own right) and we see a study of seated figures for `El Jaleo' (1882), which reflects his newfound fascination. This was painted in the same year as `The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit', which both Ormond and Hirshler highlight for its dark spaces and its curious composition for a commissioned portrait. Findlay spots the space either side of an open door in `Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife (Fanny Van der Grift Osborne Stevenson)' (1885) and contrasts the novelist's boho uniform with the sari worn by a writer spouse whose imagination went in a different direction.

Frances Fowle, Chair of 20th-Century Art at the University of Edinburgh, expounds on the energy with which Sargent imbues the powerful women he paints in the likes of `Portrait of Ena Wertheimer: A Vele Gonfie' (1904). She reveals how he used to make detailed sketches of faces over four sittings in a notebook, but worked more freely on the setting and costume. He then worked directly on the canvas for pictures like `Mrs Robert Harrison (Helen Smith)' (1886) and `Mrs Hugh Hammersley (Mary Francis Grant)' (1882) and Finch alights on the blocks of colour and the differing fabrics that Sargent employed to create contrasts. Herdrich explains that this fuschia/cerise gown suggests the artist's excitement at painting this particular subject, while Mrs Hammersley left a record of the sittings that reveal Sargent's chatty charm and habit of breaking off to play the piano.

Awed by the poetic nature of the brushstrokes, Teitelbaum echoes this sense that Sargent had a mastery of his medium in showing us `Nonchaloir (Repose)' (1911) and `Fiske Warren (Gretchen Osgood) and Her Daughter Rachel' (1903)'. But Ormond highlights the importance of rapport in portraiture and Walker recalls how sessions with the Monty Python troupe and Helena Bonham Carter took off when they contributed their own ideas to his vision.

According to Fisher, Sargent's theatricality is evident in the introduction of the sarod (an Indian musical instrument) into `Almina, Daughter of Asher Wertheimer' (1908). But it's also in the stillness of `La Carmencita' (1890), a dancer famed for the swirling gyrations shown in an 1894 Kinematoscope clip. The movement in the portrait comes from the decoration of her yellow dress and Fisher and Hirshler latch on to the vigour and drama that this comparatively shy man invests in images of performers, such as `Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth' (1888).

Clayton mentions Charles Frederick Worth and the rise of couture fashion at this juncture. But Findlay notes that Sargent didn't let sitters wear their seasonal finery in portraits like `Mrs Charles Thursby (Alice Brisbane)' (c.1897-98), which Fowle explains shows a supporter of women's suffrage wearing the colours of the movement, green, violet, and white. Hirshler takes up this point about Sargent dressing his sitters and, over `Mrs Joshua Montgomery Sears (Sarah Choate Sears)' (1899), she reveals that the museum owns several items from Sarah's wardrobe. These reveal a fondness for bold colours, but Sargent painted his fellow artist in white.

Photographer Mark C. O'Flaherty discloses that portraits are never as collaborative as the subject might want them to be, while Findlay discusses how clothing reflects personality and is often a performative statement. O'Flaherty comments on the contrasting light and dark backgrounds in `Lord Ribblesdale' (1902) and `W. Graham Robertson' (1894) to convey different aspects of masculinity. But he also claims the latter is filled with queer signifiers that he can also detect in Sargent's obsession with fashion and posture in pictures like `Fiona Priestley' (c.1889), `Clementina Anstruther–Thomson' (1889), and `Sir Frank Athelstane Swettenham' (1904).

Fisher explains how gestures that were usually associated with the aristocracy were repurposed in portraits such as `Sir Philip Sassoon' (1923), the cut of whose black coat merits a mention. As we see `Vernon Lee (Violet Paget)' (1881), `Mr & Mrs I.N. Phelps (Isaac Newton Phelps and Edith Minturn)' (1895), and `Dr Pozzi At Home' (1881), Fowle places them in the context of changing attitudes towards the status of married woman (and their property) and the growing feminisation of men through the rise of the dandy.

Pozzi is one of the few subjects who is discussed in any detail, as he was `gay friendly' and we are shown how the portrait contains references via the frilled collar and cuffs of the white shirt he wears beneath his scarlet dressing gown. Walker picks up the theme of androgyny and lets slip that `Mrs George Swinton (Elizabeth Ebsworth)' (1897) is the great-grandmother of Tilda Swinton, who he had photographed for an ancestral series inspired by the Sargent connection.

Fowle places Sargent in an era in which men were enduring a crisis of masculinity as women were beginning to assert themselves. She considers his most significant contribution to this situation to be `Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau - Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau)' (1883-84). Herdrich takes up Virginie's story, as she had settled in Paris as a child and married a banker twice her age at 19. As a society beauty, she was a regular in the gossip columns. Sargent was bewitched by her and painted `Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast' (1882-83) to show off what he called her chlorate of potash-lozenge colouring (she was born to white Creole parents in New Orleans).

Virginie was thrilled with `Madame X', but Paris was scandalisd by the lavender pallour of her skin and the fact (in the original) that the right strap of her gown had slipped down her shoulder. Crushed by the Salon response, she asked Sargent to remove the painting and he refused. He did, however, repaint the strap in his studio and confided in a friend when he sold the picture to the Metropolitan in 1915 that it was the best thing he had ever done.

At the behest of Henry James, Sargent moved to London in 1886 and took over James McNeill Whistler's studio in Tite Street, Chelsea. He also found his way to Broadway, where he painted `Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose' (1885-86). But the British found his style too progressively French and Ormond reveals that he exploited his prodigal cachet among the American nouveau riche to paint portraits like `Mrs Edward L. Davis (Maria Robbins) and Her Son, Livingston Davis' (1890) and `Mrs Edward Darley Boit (Mary Louisa Cushing)' (1887). Such was his celebrity that he was awarded the contract for the murals at the Boston Public Library and the Museum of Fine Arts and spent over 30 years on them, during which time Sargent painted such city patrons as Isabelle Stewart Gardner (1888).

But we're back off to London for Fowle to draw our attention to `Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (Gertrude Vernon)' (1892) and how Sargent had been inspired to paint her after she had slumped down in a studio chair while recovering from the flu. Sargent continued with portraiture for another 15 years and accepted occasional commissions like `John D. Rockefeller' (1917). But he devoted the period to his death at 69 in 1925 to oil and watercolour work, often en plein air. We see `Simplon Pass: Reading' (1911), `Simplon Pass: The Lesson, and `Simplon Pass: The Tease' (both c.1911), for which he posed his nieces in clothes he had carried with him in a suitcase.

More casual were compositions like `Muddy Alligators' (1917). But Herdrich reminds us that there was more to Sargent than portraits and we see `Gassed' (1918), which dates from his time as a war artist on the Western Front and hangs in the Imperial War Museum. Over `The Pink Dress' (c.1912) and `Mrs Leopold Hirsch (Mathilde Seligman)' (1902), Finch wraps things up with a claim that the Tate exhibition is so timely and relevant because Sargent was ahead of the curve when it came to the way people present themselves.

One of the risks run by Exhibition on Film as a series is that each entry's success depends heavily upon the quality of the show under consideration. On this occasion, the film has been let down by the curators, whose fixation with fashion as the key to understanding the art and enduring appeal of John Singer Sargent feels flawed at the outset and flogged by the conclusion. Clearly, the Boston show hoped a focus on self-fashioning and presentation in the age of the selfie and performative social media would attract a younger audience. But, with the assembled experts feeling more like they are lecturing than confiding down the camera to the viewer, they struggle to reconcile their undeniably impeccable scholarship with the clickbaity accessibility they are shooting for.

It doesn't help that the artists and photographers invited to discuss their own experience of creating portraits talk more about themselves than Sargent and how he used facial expression and body language to capture the personality of his sitters with such intuition and vivacity. Similarly, the fashionistas rarely convince that painting is their forte. As a consequence, we learn next to nothing about Sargent's brush style or his way of painting directly on to the canvas. No attempt is made to put his career in a cultural or historical context or to compare him to rival portraitists. The Kenwood section on his grand manner predecessors is excellent. But the Boston and Tate curators hijack the word `swagger' in the misguided hope of making it sound street.

Swathes of Sargent's career are overlooked in order to focus on his skill at depicting drapery and the symbolism with which he invested it. This would be fine if we got to discover anything about the sitters and why the coded details were pertinent to their individual situations. But we only get this for a couple of paintings, with the majority having to be settle for namechecking captions. Just as frustratingly, there is little discussion of Sargent's personality or private life, while we are told nothing about his legacy (in terms of influence) or why he was considered outré in his own lifetime and then spent so long out of fashion before being rediscovered in the 1960s and reassessed more recently by queer scholars.

As ever, with EOS, the photography is rich and attentive, whether it's picking out details in lingering close-up or providing a spatial overview of the gallery layout. But, on this occasion, the film-makers are hamstrung by the unpersuasive thesis imposed by their curatorial collaborators.

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