Article by Paul S. D’Ambrosio
John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was the foremost American portrait painter of the late nineteenth century. In his elegant, fluid likenesses of leading figures in industry, society, and the arts, Sargent captured a new America-a country emerging from the ravages of civil war and eager to take its place on a global stage. A lifelong expatriate, Sargent was immersed in European culture and, as Americans traveled to Europe in greater numbers than ever before, became an important link between old world and new. Americans who desired to be seen as sophisticated and worldly sought him out to paint their portraits. The resulting body of work documents a period of profound changes in American society and culture.
Early in his career, Sargent earned praise for his portraits of women. Henry James, in his 1887 article on Sargent in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, saw something about the young artist that made him “so happy as a painter of women.” Sargent’s women were not “the commonplace work that looks down at us from the walls of exhibitions,” where “delicate feminine elements have so often been sacrificed.” The women with whom Sargent surrounded himself, or met on his travels, inspired him to create vibrant canvases that reveal each woman’s allure, intelligence, and complex humanity.
The height of Sargent’s career coincided with an historical era in which women claimed new personal freedoms. The post-Civil War period was a time in which women’s roles in society were changing rapidly. Women entered higher education and professional careers in greater numbers than ever before, and changes in fashion (especially the development of the bloomers and the shirtwaist) and culture gave them greater physical freedom. In art and the popular press, the “new” woman can be seen experiencing her newfound independence and confidence.
The Fenimore Art Museum exhibition “John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Praise of Women” is presenting thirty of Sargent’s portraits of American women, and will connect the artist’s stylistic choices with the character traits of his female portrait subjects. Specifically, the exhibition illustrates the manner in which Sargent created a range of images that effectively communicated the complex changes and paradoxes in femininity in late nineteenth century America. Divided into three thematic sections-Women of Fashion, Women of Mystery, and Women of Substance-the exhibition showcases images of women who exerted leadership in the arts and society as well as in their careers and in the intellectual community. It also demonstrates Sargent’s keen interest in exotic women little known or understood by an American audience, and his visual assertion of the importance of mystery in the definition of femininity.
Women of Fashion includes portraits of women who exemplified sophisticated taste and extravagance, many of whom made their homes centers of social interaction and artistic exchange. Sargent tended to paint these women with a lighter palette and an emphasis on surface textures and light, along with costume details that spoke to the sitters’ wealth and taste.
Women of Mystery features exotic beauties, mainly (but not exclusively) women from cultures little known to fashionable society. These include Sargent’s famous Capriote model Rosina Ferrara and perhaps his most famous (or infamous) subject of all, Virginie Avegno Gautreau, or Madame X, represented in the exhibition by two preparatory drawings for her 1883-4 portrait. In these likenesses Sargent entices the viewer with sensuous poses and emphasizes the “strange and unusual” physiognomies, costumes, and settings of his subjects. Unlike Sargent’s commissioned portraits, these subjects engage the viewer in oblique ways that enhance their allure.
Women of Substance includes portrait subjects known for their contributions to higher education, professional life, or the intellectual community. Many of these women were pioneers in their fields and leaders in society. In these portraits Sargent often employs a darker palette along with restrained compositions and cerebral poses that emphasize the formidable intelligence of the sitters.
“John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Praise of Women” breaks new ground in several ways. It is the first museum exhibition devoted exclusively to Sargent’s portraits of women. It is the first exhibition to directly compare the varied attributes of the women Sargent portrayed and the visual strategies employed by the artist to communicate those characteristics. Lastly, paired with the new exhibition “Empire Waists, Bustles and Lace,” the first exhibition of the Fenimore Art Museum’s collection of historic costumes, the Sargent exhibition is the first to allow visitors to see and experience broader historical context of women’s fashion.
Paul S. D’Ambrosio is Chief Curator, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown NY