John Singer Sargent is known for his dazling and often daring portraits portraits of British and American high society at the turn of the century. Most of his best known works are glamorous portraits of eminent or socially prominent people of the period and helped to shape our view of the era. The elegance and often arrogance of the rich and famous were brilliantly displayed. Sargent was not a social critic. He simply portayed the rich and famous as he saw them. If the true portrait artist's job is to reveal the inner soul, then John Singer Sargent has certainly earned a prestigious place in the pantheon of great artists.
Sargent was born in Florence, Italy, during 1856 to expatriate American parents. That same year France's Napoleon III was presented his only child, the Prince Imperiel Eugene. It was a period of expectation. The Crimean War had ended. America was about to explode in Civil War. Italy had not yet been unified. Prussia had not yet unified Germany. However Europe armed with a never ending series of industrial developments was laying the foundation for the new industrial era. Photography was rapidly improving making portrature available to the common man. John's parents were extreme Europhile Americans and interested in the arts. His father was a New England doctor. His mother was a clinging woman, constantly complaining of fatigue, aches and depression. She looked down on what she saw as the crude culture of America. The family was not wealthy, but they moved throughout Europe. They moved with ease and often. The young John did not put down roots in any one country. They lived in Rome, Paris, Nice, Munich, Venice, the Austrian Tyrol until their son's was 18 years old. Everywhere it seems except America.
Sargent never attended school as a boy and did not receive a formal basic education. He did, however, grow up in the cosmipolitan societies of Rome, Vienna, Geneva, and London. Rather than school, John was tutored by his parents. He was a precocious student, excelling in languages, music, and drawing. His artistic talents were recognized by his parents and encouraged from an early age. His mothger was a talented anateur artisrt and tutored John as a boy. He spent a great deal of time in the great museums of Europe, sketching master woirks. Finally when John was 18, his parents decided that something had to be done about his education. They decided that his future lay in art and that of course meant France. His family moved to Paris so that Sargent at 18 years of age could study art at the École des Beaux-Arts and in the Paris studio of the noted French Third Republic society portraitist Carolus-Duran. He was an academic portratist, but had a destinctive way of doing oil portraits. The strandard method taught at the time at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts was for aspiring artists to do preliminary sketches which were used for a guide when the artist began applying the oil paint. Carolus-Duran taught his students to apply the paint directly onto a blank canvas. The image was developed by applying futher layers of wet paint. Sargent proved to be his star pupil and the two became close friends. Sargent would his mentor's path of painting high-society portraits.
Sargent spent most of his adult life in England, maintaining a studio there for more than 30 years and visiting America only on short trips. Unlike some other expatriats, however, he always regarded himself as an American. All that Sargent had, however, to demonstrate his American heritage was a passport and traces of an accent--but he retained his idenity as an American throughout his life. Many American expatriats were critical and resentful of their homeland. This was not the case for Sargent. But Sargent was in many ways beyond nationality. He was ideally suited for the cospitalian world of Europe in the the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.
Sargent studied under Carolus-Duran, Paris' leading Portratist. Duran became a mentor for the aspiring young artist. Duran drilled him the virtues of direct observation and bravura painting, rather like Velazquez. Sargent open a studio in Paris and rapidly achieved a great reputation for his portraits. The great triumph of his early days in Paris was El Jaleo ("Uproar) which he exhibited at the age of 26 in 1882. It was a darkly lot dramatizatin of a gypsy flamenco dancer with her entourage. He was the darling of Paris. Then only two years later he exhibited Portrait of Madame X. Yhe New Orleans beauty in one of his most brilliant portraits was painted with pale white skin, a revealing gown, and a shoulder strap slightly askew. Paris was scandalized. The modern viewer would wonder what the fuss was about.
The shy young painter was distraught. He had not expected that reaction in Paris after his earlier success. He withdrew from public life. The stream of commissions that had poured into his studio dried up. He decided to seek refuge from the fickle Gaelic embrace across the Channel and it was in England that he would make his name. Had this not occurred it would have no doubt been the cream of French society that he painted rather than English and American families. At first Sargent was considered to modern and to French in both England and America. But it was in England that he made his fortune. He soon made his name in the English parlour's and country homes. Wealthy Victorians had for sometime wanted a portrait painter to paint them with the grandeur of a Gainsbourough. They found him in Sargent. Both the artistocratic blue-bloods and the nouveau rich of Victorian society sought him out. And of course, once he was accepted by the English, wealthy Americans lined up at the door of their expatriat countryman. He was ecentually sought after by the rich and famous on both sides of the Atlantic. The resulting portraits are breathtaking. One wonders why the wealthy flocked to him. The resulting portraits were oner tour de force after another. They are without a doubt dazzling. But they picture more than the individual and his or her suroundings, the often reveal the inner self which in many cases was not very flattering.
Sargent is now widely regarded as the leading portrait painter of his generation. Sargent's international reputation as a portraitist reached its peak in the1890s and early 1900s, and he painted many of the distinguishedpersonalities of his day, including the actress Dame Ellen Terry (Tate Gallery), the art dealer Asher Wertheimer and his family (Tate Gallery), Coventry Patmore and Henry James. Many of hisclients were Americans: Roosevelt, Rockefeller, H.G. Marquand, and LadyRandolph Churchill. He showed remarkable technical precocity as a painter which nowhere is better illustrated than in his portraits. Sargent was often criticized for what some believed to be a superficial brilliance and his portraits were largely dismissed after his death. In more recent years, however, Sergent's works have been acclaimed for their naturalism and masterly technical skill.
We only know of a few Sargent portraits in which boys' fashions are depicted. surely there are more, but the ones we currently know of include:
Anthony Asquith: Anthony was the son of Primeminister H.H. Asquith who made the fateful decession after the Germams invaded Belgium to declare war and enter what would become World war I. His mother Margot gave him the name Puffin, we are not sure just why. Famed American artist John Singer Sargent did a lovely drawing of Anthony when he was 6 years old about 1908. It is a little difficult to see what he is wearing. He received a classical education, attending Winchester College and Balliol College, Oxford, two of the most important English schools. He was just a year or two tto young for World War I. He wanted nothing to do with politics.
Jacques Barenton: This is one of John Singer Sargent's earlier portraits during his time in France (1880s). This charming portrait of Jacques Barenton. The Southerby Auction House in New York handled the auction with a Guide price of $1-1.5 million dollars. Like many such portraits of young boys at the time such as Renoir works, boys like Jacques are often described as young girls. Among the clients coming to Seargent's Paris studio were the Brentons, Jacques; parents. The resulting portrait of Jacques (1883) was the first in a series of Parisian paintings (1880s). Several depicted young boys in sailor suits which along with the Fauntleroy suit in the second half of the century had become the peak of fashion for boys at the time. Jacques wears a traditiionally styled sailor suit which lppks black rather than navy blue. Notice the fancy long hair. His hair was not done in tight ringlets as was common in America, but had a prominant light-blue hair bow. We have tried to find some information about Jacques, but have found virtully nothing. He may be related to M. O Barenton, a wealthy confiseur (Confectioner) of the time.
Livingston Davis: A 1890 painting shows Livingston Davis who wears a white summer sailor suit and wide-brimmed hat (figure 1). We do not know much about Livingston. Notice he does not wear long stockings with his sailor suit. That was not very common in America.
Duke of Marlbourough: Sargent painted the 9th Duke of Marlborough and his wife Consuella Vanderbilt with their two sons, the Marquess of Blandford and Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill.
Homer Saint-Gaudens (1890): Sargent painted of Homer Saint-Gaudens with his mother in 1890. Sargent was a friend of the famous sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), who was one of the most prominent New York artists of the so-called Gilded Age. The elder Saint-Gaudens did a bronze sculpture of Sargent's sister, so Sargent repaid this favor by painting a portrait of Saint-Gaudens's eleven-year old son Homer, shown in the painting with his mother.
Meyer children: A 1896 Sargeant portrait shows an American family, Mrs. Carl Meyer and her children. Notice the grey Fauntleroy suit and ruffeled collar worn by her son who looks to be about 12 years old. Note that his suit does not have wrist ruffles to match the collar (figure 4).
Wertheimer children: Sageant painted Essie, Ruby, and Ferdinand in 19??. Ferdinand wears a classic Eton suit, the formal outfit for boys that had graduated fom Fauntleroy suits and sailor suits.
Sargent's work, unfortunately, includes few portraits of boys. Thus while there are many portraits illustrating the dress of women, girls, and men, there are only a few of boys to illustrate fashions in the late 19th and early 20th Century. The two most interesting are Livingston Davis in a white sailor suit (1890) and the son of Carl Meyer in a grey velvet Fauntleroy suit and ruffled collar (18??). The intimacy of the Meyer family stands in sharp contrast to the Darley Boit sisters. While Sargent executed relatively few portraits with boys in them. There are quite a number with girls. These paintings include the girls with their mothers, both outfitted in their finest gowns. There are a few exceptions. One is The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882). The girls are pictured in there informal clothes worn with crisply starched white pinafores, an interesying glimse of everday clothes and nursery wear. Perhaps his most brilliant painting is Carnation, Lilly, Lilly, Rose (18??). He handles light brilliantly, the Japanese latterns glow as if they were actually alight and the light plays off the children's faces and the lillies. I think the children are girls, but they wear informal smock frocks as they prepare for a party.
These Sargent paintings offer interesting insights into late-19th Century childrens' clothes.
The one Sargent painting I know of with a Fauntleroy suit is the painting of Carl Meyer. While Fauntleroy suits are generally thought of as black, Carl's suit is a good example of one of the many colors that the velvet suits came in. Most of the colors were dark ones (birgandy, deep blue, brown, and green), but Carl's suit is quite a light shade of grey. It is somewhat unusual in that there are not matching wrist ruffles. I'm not sure what age he is. He is not a little boy. He looks to be about 11 or 12 years of age. Carls suit in the 1896 painting had a ruffled, rather than lace collar. This shows that as the turn of the century approached, lace collars were giving way to ruffled collars.
The sailor suit worn by the American boy, Livingston appears to be a fairly standard white suit. He wears a very wide brimmed sailor hat, also not unusual. His suit is a knee pants suit, worn without long stockings. This shows that by the 1890s, the long stockings that boys almost always wore--even in the summer, were beginnin to give way to socks by the 1890s.
Boys by the late 19th century, except for very young boys, were no longer as commoinly wearing pinafores, although there were some country differences. Crisp white pinafores, however, were de rigor for girls of all ages, as shown in the Darley Boit painting.
Smocks were commonly worn by boys in the era Sargent painted. They were. however, much more common on the continent than in Britain and America. I am not sure, however, just how common they were. They were informal wear and boys to be painted or photographed would almost always be dressed in their best party suit or other smart outtfit and not allowed to wear an informal smock.
Sargent by 1910 he had given up all but the occasional portrait, devoting himself to landscapes and the murals at Boston. He accepted few commissions. He is said to have tired of his subjects demanding small changes to their features in finished portraits. (I recall a similar experience reported by Millais, who reports a boy his parents to insist that the lace collar and cuffs of his Fauntleroy suit be painted over.) Sargent then worked in watercolors chiefly on European landscapes in an increasingly impressionistic style.
After his death Sargent fell from favor. It was often said that he was a diletant who sold his art to the artistocrats and robber baron industrialists of the day. While essentially true, it is a rediculous criticism. Any assessment of art history shows that this was precisely what all the great masters had done for centuries. In fact no one captured the turn-of-the-century Gilded Age more brillantly age than Sargent. His consumate draftsmanship and tecchnical skills captured the haughty aristocrants and new industrial elite of England and America, with all their elegance, drama, arogance and color, better than any other painter. Looking at some of Sargent's paintings one is tempted to a criticism of the wealthy clients--both aristocrats and the new industrial rich, but Sargent was not a social critic. He simply portrayed what he saw. Clearly much of the work portrays the beautiful and richly dressed women and girls of his era. For those of us who beauty in art, Sargents legacy is paintings of daziling technical skill, often showing radiently beautiful images of the Gilded Age. Along with the beauty one is offered amazing insight into the personalities of the rich and famous.
A reader writes, "The Sargent works, especially figures 2 and 5 are among the most fantastic paintings of American impressionism along with the work of Mary Cassatt. I disagree with the HBC assessment of the Darley Bott sisters (figure 2). I wouldn't say that yje girls are expressing a feeling of aloneness. I think it is more a feeling of individuality and identity which was not so much the lot of little girls at that time. In that sense, the children in those pictures are ahead in feminism . The party scene (figure 5) is a masterpiece. The yhe painting light seems to emmenate from the lanterns--even in the image where this comes out. I think the light from tghe latterns reflects the purity of the girls' souls. These wonderful paintings give us a feeling of kindness and humanity."
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