We sat, stood, squatted or slouched—in sometimes impossible positions—late at night in a well-lit hallway of my college’s art building. Sometimes three-deep, we craned our necks and strained to see the hundreds of photos arrayed in tight formations along the walls of the lengthy corridor. It was all part of a hallowed ritual: Art 100. This massive year-long survey course sought to give each undergraduate the history of world art and its historical context. The memorization required was notorious in its volume and certain lecturers were “must see” in their presentations. One professor’s almost campy, effusive admiration of Donatello’s “David” had us in stiches, and another’s stories about the Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka revealed just how personal art historians can feel about their subjects. Still, I reference Art 100 repeatedly as I strive to understand world history, culture, and current affairs.
Art allows us to understand ourselves and each other. Neither simply a luxury or an extravagance, it can be sharp social critique or coded tableau revealing much about the society from which it springs. I rediscovered and unpacked an art history book in my attic about painter John Singer Sargent this week, and just hours later, purchased a book at a tag sale about Americans finding inspiration in Paris. Historian David McCullough’s “The Greater Journey” called to me from among hundreds of books. I did not need another book—the stacks on my bedside table are proof of that—but I inexplicably kept circling back to it. I finally relented. For goodness sake, it was only a quarter, and it clearly wanted to come home with me. When I had a moment to skim the chapters, I saw why: Sargent features prominently in McCullough’s work.
John Singer Sargent is considered one of the greatest American painters, despite the fact that he lived almost his entire life abroad. His American parents, Philadelphian eye surgeon FitzWilliam Sargent and the talented watercolorist Mary Newbold Singer, decamped to Europe after the death of their two-year-old daughter. Devastated by the loss, the Sargents found solace in Europe. According to McCullough, they wandered about the continent, “moving from one city or spa to another for twenty years, according to the seasons of the year, always in search of more amenable climate or more economical accommodations, seldom settling anywhere for long.”
Although John Singer Sargent was technically an American painter by birthright, he was born in Italy and was profoundly influenced by the incredible art he absorbed as his parents moved from city to city: Rome, Florence, London, Paris, Salzburg, St. Moritz, Venice, Dresden and more. McCullough asserts that although it was certainly an interesting life for the Sargents, it was far from “the romantic expatriate life commonly imagined.” It was more captivity than freedom; Sargent’s mother feared both that her health and her social standing would deteriorate if they returned to the more expensive United States. His father grew weary of the nomadic life but consoled himself with the knowledge that their lifestyle exposed his son to superb art. Indeed, Sargent had an early love of and appreciation for beauty.
McCullough notes that Sargent’s first memory was of viewing deep red cobblestones along Via Tornabuoni in Florence. They were so gorgeous that he constantly urged his nanny to take him to see them. By the age of 13, he knew he wanted to be an artist—an aspiration encouraged by his parents—and at 18 his expansive portfolio astonished his Parisian art teacher. Sargent’s talent not only pushed the other students to be better but soon surpassed his teacher’s abilities.
But, when Sargent hung “Madame X” in the Paris Salon of 1884, the portrait of American ex-pat Madame Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau was considered scandalous and shocking. Gautreau, daughter of a Confederate major killed in the battle of Shiloh, was raised in Paris by her widowed mother. When she married a wealthy French banker, she became a “professional beauty”—a wife known for her extraordinary loveliness and socially-appropriate “stage presence”. McCullough explains: “[I]n her appearances in society, [she] was expected to fill that role with all due attention to wardrobe and the artful use of cosmetics, no less than a great actress.” Sargent painted her in her trademark chalky lavender powder on her face and body, and had her strike an eccentric pose of self-confidence. Her poise was derided as arrogant in its strength. The original painting showed one strap of her dress falling off her shoulder as she leaned on a table; Sargent later retouched it to “fix” the Victorian version of a wardrobe malfunction.
The Paris Salon that year, not surprisingly, was filled with paintings of nude women. But it was Madame X—in her floor-length black evening dress—that caused outrage. The pallid, lavender quality of her skin, combined with her strong pose, made the portrait daring and decidedly unconventional. Both Sargent and Madame Gautreau were castigated for being vulgar in their magnificent audacity; no doubt because that audacity shook society’s notions of itself. The painting is subversive in its honesty. As Picasso reminded us, “Painting is just another way of keeping a diary.”
At least since Art 100, “Madame X” has been one of my favorite paintings by one of my favorite American artists. Its apparent simplicity evokes so much mood and tone. Madame Gautreau appears luminous and confident, and her portrait is at once vulnerable and strong, sumptuous and straightforward. It is an impressive example of what French poet and art critic Théophile Gautier called “L’art pour l’art.”: Art for art’s sake.