John Singer Sargent | The Sensualist


Madame Pierre Gautreau [1884], oil, 81 1/4 x 42 1/2.  painting, southwest art.
Madame Pierre Gautreau [1884], oil, 81 1/4 x 42 1/2.

By Trevor Fairbrother

Ask today’s artists which past masters have influenced their work, and chances are good that one of the names mentioned most often will be John Singer Sargent [1856-1925]. The Seattle Art Museum presents the West Coast’s first comprehensive exhibition devoted to Sargent from December 14 through March 18, 2001. The exhibit includes more than 120 oil paintings, watercolors, and drawings from 18 museums and 11 private collections. Following are excerpts from John Singer Sargent: The Sensualist, published by the Seattle Art Museum in collaboration with Yale University Press and written by the exhibition’s curator, Trevor Fairbrother.

Although American by birth, John Singer Sargent was raised in Europe and spoke several languages. He based his artistic career first in Paris, then London. By the beginning of the 20th century, he had become the world’s most successful portraitist, the darling of wealthy, powerful, and fashionable figures who hailed him as the van Dyck of the time. Eager to build a broad reputation, Sargent produced a wide variety of landscapes and figure studies and worked on mural decorations for three civic institutions in Boston between 1890 and his death. He was also one of America’s most talented watercolorists.

Sargent admired painters who resisted the “official” Paris Salon-mediated obsession with smooth, glossy, painstakingly detailed finishes. His images present a vibrant, forceful realism while subtly projecting emotions, desires, and intuitions as their visual subtext. He jabbed, dabbed, smeared, slapped, and scratched his paint surfaces; he deployed brilliant, murky, flashy, peculiar, and ravishing colors.

Robert Louis Stevenson [1887], oil, 20 1/16 x 24 1/4. southwest art.
Robert Louis Stevenson [1887], oil, 20 1/16 x 24 1/4.

Sargent was happy to paint the forms of things—people, animals, objects, and buildings and less drawn to the atmospheric volumes inherent to landscape. “Enormous views and huge skies do not tempt me,” he remarked in 1920. Although abstraction and spatial ambiguity exist in some of his watercolors, their compositions are built around the specifics of sunlight defining a space, as opposed to evocations of general atmosphere.

Sargent’s art ap-peals to the senses in two ways. First, it depicts and celebrates sources of pleasure enchanting places, intriguing objects, and striking individuals of diverse types and classes. Second, Sargent’s way of painting is itself sensual. The conspicuously worked, physically appealing surfaces of his pictures are the visible remains of the pleasure he derived from wielding his brushes. According to a witness: “His method was to glance at his subject [then] dash at his canvas with curious circular motions of his hand, rather like a boxer seeking an opening in his opponent’s defense. He made his stroke and retreated, working with amazing speed, never erasing, though often painting over. All the time he smoked delicious, fragrant Egyptian cigarettes.”


A Street in Venice [ca. 1880-82], oil, 29 9/16 x 24 5/8. painting, southwest art.
A Street in Venice [ca. 1880-82], oil, 29 9/16 x 24 5/8.

Sargent’s portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau, now popularly called Madame X, caused a sensation at the Paris Salon of 1884. The Salon included numerous paintings of female nudes that year, and several were lascivious in tone. Yet they caused no scandals because they depicted mythical figures or were allegories for such subjects as the dawn. Sargent, however, had shone an insinuating light on a member of Parisian society.

Sargent had observed Madame Gautreau at social gatherings wearing a black gown engineered to reveal much pale-powdered flesh and crowned with the crescent of Diana, goddess of the hunt. Bewitched by this “curious” social creature, he planned a Realist homage to a celebrity with a unique sense of ostentation. But Sargent failed to consider that other Parisians might not relish such a hard look at the woman and her eccentric theatricality. When the portrait went on view, people laughed at the corpselike effect of Madame Gautreau’s makeup and the absurdity of a dress that scarcely covered her breasts.

The most damning detail of Madame X was a fallen shoulder strap that pressed into her flesh. The extreme torque of her arrogant pose held this diamond-studded band in horizontal tautness. When the mockery failed to abate, Sargent tried to remove the painting from the exhibition temporarily so that he could paint the strap in the “proper” upright position, but the authorities denied his request and Sargent made the change as soon as the exhibition closed.

Ena and Betty, Daughters of Asher and Mrs. Wertheimer [1901], oil, 75 x 51 1/2. painting, southwest art.
Ena and Betty, Daughters of Asher and Mrs. Wertheimer [1901], oil, 75 x 51 1/2.

It is not known precisely when Sargent began his unfinished replica, Madame Pierre Gautreau, or why he did not complete it. The picture shows no signs of the extensive reworking apparent in the original. And, although the background is incomplete, its subdued earth brown color resembles that of the Salon work, which has at least two different layers of brighter background colors beneath its surface. The replica presents a beautiful enigma, made more cryptic by the complete absence of the problem shoulder strap.


Sargent had painted Stevenson twice before, and the third portrait of the seated author benefits from the slight familiarity between subject and artist. Stevenson casts an amused and quizzical glance at Sargent, who finds much to occupy his painterly endeavors: long skinny fingers, rings, a cigarette, a brightly colored modern wicker chair, a 17th-century oak cupboard, an extravagant fur rug, lanky legs in gray flared trousers, and a shiny black shoe. Sargent made the portrait at Stevenson’s house, where he savored the opportunity to record both the sitter and his habitat. He sometimes improvised the rather perfunctory settings of other portraits, but in Robert Louis Stevenson the props are compelling extensions of an idiosyncratic person, and moreover, they were his possessions.


Venice inspired Sargent to blend his love for the painterliness of Velósquez with his Realist desire to explore slightly edgy back-street imagery. He ignored the grand architectural splendors that attracted genteel tourists and sought out the sensualism that was the root of Venetian style and imagination.

The sharply receding planes of two walls and a street dominate the composition of A Street in Venice. Though true to Venice, the boldness of the pictorial space has broader affinities with the Impressionist art that had begun to interest Sargent, including unconventionally cropped, snapshotlike points of view.

On the left side of his canvas Sargent made quick long strokes of reddish pink to suggest the lines of bricks exposed by the crumbling of its weathered stucco finish. At the top of the picture, where he depicted a blast of sunlight at the end of the shaded alley, he used a palette knife to work the thick bright paint. After rendering this visually active space, Sargent added two figures standing in conversation. They strike strong silhouettes thanks to his black cape and her black shawl. The woman turns to the dark interior of a tavern doorway, as if a flirtation is developing. The scenario is cryptically seductive, and the painterly treatment of the details is its own vehicle of sensual expression.


Sargent painted twelve portraits of the Wertheimer family between 1898 and 1908, memorializing each parent, six daughters, four boys, and five dogs. The lively composition of Ena and Betty, Daughters of Asher and Mrs. Wertheimer presents the women in the drawing room of the London house where they and the portrait then resided. They glide arm-in-arm, with Ena reaching back to touch the finial on a large ornate Chinese covered jar. Betty’s open fan is a miracle of economical brushwork, and her red headpiece is riveting both as image and as paint. Ena’s white satin gown is alive with rustle and sheen. Although some critics faulted the arm and hand holding the open fan, a contemporary medical student took photographs of twenty different arms in order to acquit Sargent, showing his image to have been anatomically correct as well as artistically original.

Featured in December 2000