MFA Director Matthew Teitelbaum said there’s a degree of theatricality in each of John Singer Sargent’s paintings. He’s right!
Sargent’s sitters assumed elegant postures, their clothing was resplendent, and in many ways the personalities portrayed represent an engaging cast of characters. Seeing “Fashioned by Sargent” as though it’s a Broadway show offers guests a new way to appreciate works that may look as familiar as family members around for the holidays.
Presented at the Museum of Fine Arts In Boston, “Fashioned by Sargent” co-curated with Tate Britian, articulates more than opulent sartorial statements. It’s a narrative on Sargent’s life. Set with style, gallery walls are color-coded, people and places are polished to perfection, and couture is lit to glow~ just as the artist would have directed.
To embellish staged appearances, Sargent exercised the prerogative of an executive-producer. Taking artistic-license with settings, clothing, and jewelry not only flattered his ‘actors’ but created a snapshot of the world in which gilding every lily was the rage in-the-age of pedigreed expectations. By design, his paintings were intended to showcase his talents and tastes.
Grand in composition, lifelike in nuance, each masterful painting is captivating for it’s ability to interpret a story of the sitter’s prestige and serve Sargent’s ulterior business motives. The dynamic between saturated paints and curated costumes sets the stage for an exhibition that is as carefully choreographed as a debutante’s ball and alludes to just as many secrets.
This first-ever exhibition focusing on the relationship between John Singer Sargent’s Portraits and Fashion is fresh for it’s fusion of fabrics as much as it’s fabrications.
Like any great story, as the gallery-plots unfold, things aren’t always as they appear to be. Manipulation is part of many of Sargent’s ‘ avant-garde’ masterpieces.
Born in Florence John Singer Sargent was the son of a cosmopolitan mother and a father who practiced medicine in Philadelphia and Gloucester, Massachusetts. Gifted in the humanities, the young man was educated in both Italy and France. Sargent worked in a private Parisian studio until Madame X caused a stir, then he moved to London in the late 1800’s.
Peeking behind MFA’s ‘curtain’ with James Finch, Tate Britain’s Assistant Curator, 19th Century British Art, offers an unexpected insight on the sub-plot that inspired many of the acts in the painter’s tour-de-force. Finch said although Sargent was well recognized as a portrait artist, there was a time he, like all aspiring talents, needed to expand his portfolio. In today’s vernacular the guy was trying to build ‘street-cred’ one painting at a time.
To polish his reputation and prove his sense of gravitas, Finch said Sargent would paint commissions in dark settings. Subjects would wear monochromatic clothing emulating the Baroque style of Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck or Dutch portraitist Frans Hals. Technical mastery of dimension and movement with limited palettes was proof Sargent had game. His gowns looked crisp yet the lines were fluid.
Including imagined lace, satin scarfs or shiny jewelry was another signature of Sargent’s accomplishments.
For contrast, Sargent also worked in the classically lyrical style of French painter Francois Boucher. Known for compositions of idyllic themes Boucher’s work was celebrated for light-hearted and sensuous qualities. Sargent’s attention to Rococo detail echoed an ethereal style embraced by glitterati in Sargent’s circles.
The artist eventually found fame in Boston a city that promoted his talent beyond the little city. Friendships with Isabella Stewart Gardner, Stanford White and Charles McKim helped Sargent expand his catalogue of accomplishments. Sargent’s reputation as a portraitist for fashionables in America and Europe grew through his eclectic style and patrons word of mouth.
When Sargent died in London in 1925 his catalogue of works had grown to include 900 oil paintings, 2000 water colors, countless sketches and large-scale murals in the Boston Public Library as well as Harvard University’s Widener Library and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
His brush-strokes of genius are legendary. All that you’ve previously read and heard about his ability to master compositions and capture light and are true. However, “Fashioned by Sargent” , like any great Broadway show reveals the master-painter was also a master manipulator ~ perhaps this is food for thought and a great escape from your holiday happenings.
This exhibit will haunt your memory!
Now -Janurary 15th 2024 at the MFA
Tate : 22 February ~ 7 July 2024
- Headline painting Lady Agnew of Lochnaw National Gallery of Scotland John Singer Sargent 1892