It’s hard to believe it’s taken this long for a museum to zero in specifically on John Singer Sargent’s legendary observations of women. But despite the tremendous acclaim the expat painter experienced during his lifetime (as the portraitist to the rich and famous), Sargent spent much of the 20th century widely unappreciated and fairly unknown. Considered only a deft technician, if anything, who played a larger role in our historical understanding of power and wealth than he did within the confines of art history, Sargent was seen as out of touch with modern art, modern times, and modern women.
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This conception has, of course, changed drastically. Art historian Patricia Hill advocated for Sargent’s critical inclusion in the trajectory of late-19th and early-20th-century art by organizing the first major retrospective of his work at the Whitney in 1986. The artist’s auction prices have since skyrocketed to eight figures and a new exhibition at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York, proves that when it comes to depicting women, Sargent’s tastes extended far beyond cream-puff-like satin dresses and the silly socialites who wore them.
“ Portraits in Praise of Women,” organized by the Fenimore’s chief curator Paul D’Ambrosio and on view at the museum through December 31, is divvied up into three unofficial categories: women of wealth, women of substance and wealth, and exotic beauties. The fine lines, crows’ feet, and delicate wrinkles of the aristocratic subjects are cleverly disguised (after all, these were commissions). But a certain essence nonetheless shines through as the artist aptly negotiates the line between what his sitters desperately wanted him to see and what he himself actually saw—both in his subjects and in the particular milieus they inhabited.
For example, Mrs. William Shakespeare’s (1896) pursed lips, gently furrowed brow, and slight (though apparent) jowl provide a stark contrast to the poufy satin monstrosity clinging to her unremarkable figure and Madame Escudier (1883), smirking and wide-eyed, peers out from beneath a hat topped with a frilly cream bow. Then there’s Lady Eden (1906), impeccably dressed in black lace, sitting alone playing solitaire, her sad brown eyes and outstretched neck suggesting a tepidly hopeful anticipation that someone might join her for a game of cards, a drink, anything, in her Neoclassical London fortress.
Sargent’s “women of substance” are strikingly different. Dressed predominantly in black with their busts carefully hidden and wearing little to no makeup, they exude confidence and humility—though these attributes are, in many ways, just as manufactured as the long necks, creamy skin, and cinched waists of their less-substantive counterparts. And while some of these women were indeed brilliant, pioneering forces at the time (including Mary Elizabeth Garrett, founder of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and M. Carey Thomas, president and dean of Bryn Mawr College), others just hoped to appear as such. It’s a cunning move not unlike those famous Eve Arnold photographs of Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses in a Long Island park, yet one that subtly nods to the new sort of standards that women—especially wealthy women—held themselves to at the onset of the 20th century.
On to the “exotics”—the most stirring, stunning, and beautifully executed portraits of the bunch. These subjects were, predominantly, poor women and professional models that the artist met while traveling through Spain, Italy, and Morocco. They were dark-skinned beauties draped in lace, ribbon, and rags. They were sullen at times, exuberant at others. They were blessed with youth, unbridled by aristocratic expectations or decorum, and, it’s been said, precisely Sargent’s “type.” His brushstrokes are less restrained and less calculated here, particularly in the Impressionistic A Parisian Beggar Girl (1887-90), in which Sargent’s young subject comes across as part nymph, part vagabond, and part child bride, and in A Venetian Girl (1880-82), a veiled and playful portrait once owned by Jackie O.
It’s through the “exotics” that we meet a more intuitive, passionate, and playful Sargent—one working off the clock. Here he is most deserving of his relatively newfound place in art history and an even closer look.
Rachel Wolff is a New York-based writer and editor who has covered art for New York, ARTnews, and Manhattan.