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"No More Paughtraits": Final Thoughts on Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends

John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925). An Artist in His Studio (Ambrogio Raffele)

John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925). An Artist in His Studio, 1904. Oil on canvas; 21 1/2 x 28 1/4 in. (54.6 x 71.7 cm). Lent by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Hayden Collection–Charles Henry Hayden Fund

In 1907, Sargent declared that he would no longer paint portraits on commission. "No more paughtraits," he wrote to his longtime friend Ralph Curtis, using his personal and satiric spelling of the genre that had made him famous. "I abhor and abjure them and hope never to do another especially of the Upper Classes."

Sargent's disenchantment with creating commissioned portraits arose, in part, from the difficulty of satisfying his discriminating patrons. Due to the litany of minor complaints from his sitters, Sargent once defined a portrait as "a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth." The need to engage his sitter's attention while he painted his or her likeness further challenged the reticent Sargent. He explained to his friend, painter Jacques-Emil Blanche: "Painting a portrait would be quite amusing if one were not forced to talk while working." [1]

Max Beerbohm's caricature of Sargent at work, below, satirizes the creation of a portrait by representing it as a performance. Sargent rushes frenetically towards his canvas, paintbrushes in hand, while a trio of musicians accompanies him. In the background, his posing society client oversees the show.

Max Beerbohm (English, 1872–1956). Sargent at Work (cartoon)

Max Beerbohm (English, 1872–1956). Sargent at Work. Offset lithograph; 8 x 6 1/8 in. (20.3 x 15.6 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The John Singer Sargent Archive—Gift of Jan and Warren Adelson (2014.2248). Image courtesy of Hyperallergic

As the demand for his work increased throughout the 1890s, Sargent grew weary of painting portraits to satisfy others. These commissions bound him to studios in London, Boston, or New York and took his time from other, preferred artistic endeavors. He began to refuse commissions from about 1900 and instead was able to focus his considerable energy on his ambitious mural project for the Boston Public Library, painting landscapes and subject pictures, developing and exhibiting his work in watercolor, and traveling with family and artist friends to favorite picturesque locations in Europe.

Though Sargent had painted images of his friends and acquaintances throughout his life, the personal portraits from this late period, on display in the final gallery of Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends—which closed this past Sunday, October 4—strike me as some of the most intimate works of his career. An Artist in His Studio, for instance, has become one of my favorite paintings for what it reveals about Sargent and his life.

John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925). An Artist in His Studio (Ambrogio Raffele) (detail)

Detail of An Artist in His Studio

The title is humorous, as you notice immediately; the studio is, in fact, the artist's bedroom. Sargent's dear friend, the Italian painter Ambrogio Raffele (1845–1928), is at work on a landscape in the cramped conditions of his room at Purtud in northern Italy. His final composition is propped between the washstand and the bed. Ironically, the plein-air artist is painting indoors and developing his composition from the preliminary studies, which are scattered about the room.

Sargent's painting is about the creation of art—inspired by nature but originating with the artist's intellect. Light, from the window at left, illuminates the dome of Raffele's head, as if to signify the source of his idea for the painting. He peers through the fingers of his right hand at a small sketch held as he holds a fistful of brushes. Sargent cleverly describes the process of painting—from the artist's head, to his hands, to the small sketches, to the larger studies to the painting, in progression. In between Raffele's head and hand and the final canvas are his tools—his palette and brushes, splayed in his hand and pointing towards the sketches and painting. Sunlight enters the room from behind him, and nearly half of the canvas is filled with Sargent's brilliant rendering of light on the rumpled sheets and his friend's nightshirt draped at the foot of the unmade bed.

The composition is tight and intimate and contains elements of self-portraiture; also in the crowded room is Sargent, an unseen presence. Sargent is revealing information about his own life, how he lived, and how he himself created art. As Sargent makes these personal paintings public by exhibiting them, he's giving us a glimpse of his private life, which is so separate from his work as a society portraitist.

I close this exhibition blog with the words of writer Vernon Lee, Sargent's friend since childhood. In her posthumous tribute to the painter, she describes the artist's pleasure in enjoying the world around him through his art:

More and more it has seemed to me that Sargent's life was absorbed in his painting; and the summing up of a would-be biographer must, I think, be: he painted. To some of us he seemed occasionally to paint to the exclusion of living. In latter years he seemed to be painting from morning till night, an easel, more than metaphorically, in every corner, a picture under way for every effect of changing weather. But looking over the portfolios of sketches, thinking of all the more elaborated landscapes . . . I recognize that his life was not merely in painting, but in the more and the more intimate understanding and enjoying the world around him, and which the work of his incomparable hand enables some of us, also to understand and enjoy, if only in part. [2]

Sargent in the Alps, 1910-11

Sargent in the Alps, 1910–11. © Private collection

On a personal note, I have enjoyed connecting with visitors to the exhibition and the readers of this blog. Thank you for your thoughtful comments and observations. If you'd like to keep in touch, please follow me on Instagram, where I'll continue to post about Sargent, The American Wing, and the Met.

Notes

[1] Excerpts from letters are quoted in Stanley Olson, John Singer Sargent: His Portrait, London, 1986, p. 237.

[2] Vernon Lee, "J.S.S. In Memoriam," in Evan Charteris, John Sargent, New York, 1927, pp. 254–5.

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