John Singer Sargent

At Home in the World

by Adrienne Baxter Bell

In a letter dated June 2, 1884, to his friend Elizabeth (Lizzie) Boott, the novelist Henry James zeroed in on a feature of John Singer Sargent’s work that might be overlooked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s handsome retrospective “John Singer Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends.” Writing just one month after Sargent’s infamous Madame X (1884) had been exhibited, largely to choleric reaction, at the Paris Salon, James updated Boott on the comings and goings of their wide circle of friends. Comparing Sargent to Julian Story, son of the sculptor William Wetmore Story, James remarked: “He [Story] has real talent but a rather uninteresting one, and carries even further (with far less ability) Sargent’s danger—that of seeing the ugliness of things.”1


At first glance, “ugliness” seems hardly appropriate to the work of Sargent (1856–1925), renowned portraitist of Gilded Age luminaries. Even a summary view of Sargent’s work at the Met inspired genuine delight in his technical virtuosity and in his faithful representation of so many singularly attractive people—those who, like the renowned “Madame X,” Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, used their striking physical beauty as social currency. As if these captivating visages weren’t enough, the sheer quantity of beautiful clothing, costumes and environments that Sargent painted could easily belie the value of James’s comment.

But by June 1884, James knew Sargent quite well, so his reflections should not be discounted. James met Sargent in February that year and took an immediate liking to him. In the same letter to Boott, he wrote: “[Sargent] is more intelligent about artistic things than all of the painters here rolled together… and in short we are excellent friends.”2 James even sought to persuade Sargent to move to London, James’s expatriated home base, and was determined to “make things pleasant and easy for him” there.3 His intuition about Sargent’s “danger” touches an unexpected but salient aspect of the artist’s work. For beyond the renowned virtuosity of Sargent’s technique, beyond the fact that Sargent’s circle of artists and friends included many of the most capable, intelligent and creative figures in Gilded Age society (the overarching theme of the Met’s exhibition), resides the fact that Sargent seems to have tussled with his urge to convey the gritty reality of his subjects. In some cases, that reality emerged as “ugliness,” though not in the facile meaning of lacking beauty. “Ugliness” emerged in a whiff of vanity, a tincture of noblesse oblige or the intimation of pageantry. In his official capacity, Sargent walked a thin line between representing his subjects faithfully and representing them pleasingly. This tightrope is, of course, one walked by every portraitist; while he worked in this genre, Sargent was no exception.4

Indeed, Sargent’s life was, in many ways, a balancing act. Born to American parents in Florence, he led a peripatetic existence—one familiar to James, his friend and, in many ways, literary alter ego.5 Encouraged by his mother, an amateur watercolorist, to pursue his innate artistic abilities, Sargent could return to the private, familiar activities of drawing or painting when his physical environment seemed unstable. Constantly putting off her husband’s desire to return to his medical career in their native Philadelphia, Sargent’s mother cobbled together a “gypsy lifestyle” for her family that brought them to Nice, Rome or Florence for the winter, and to Switzerland, France or Germany for the summer.6 Young Sargent learned to adapt; he developed fluency in communication, learning four languages (English, French, Italian and German) and, equally important, learning the universal languages of art and music. His facility at the piano helped to smooth his passage into unfamiliar environments; later, his love of Wagner nourished friendships with such figures as Judith Gautier, an early champion of the German composer. With languages, art and music at the ready, Sargent found stability in the kaleidoscopic worlds of his adolescence.

Self-confidence came to Sargent through his love of art; it blossomed in his first major portrait (1879), a spirited likeness of his art teacher Carolus-Duran, with whom he had studied in Paris since 1874. Adopting a gently arcuated pose that brings his head and improbably elongated fingers (one of which hosts a saucy turquoise ring) to the foremost picture plane, Carolus-Duran confronts the viewer with his penetrating gaze. Sargent conveyed the lessons of his teacher: the informality of the pose, the supremacy of elegance and realism in representation. We sense, too, evocations of Édouard Manet in the freedom of the brush and the elimination of distracting detail from the background; together, they signal Sargent’s solidarity with one of Paris’s most radical and controversial painters.7 Even at this early stage in his career, the old Tuscan proverb “ogni dipintore dipinge se”—every painter paints himself—rings true; there is a little bit of Sargent in every Sargent portrait.

John Singer Sargent, Violet Paget, 1881 TATE GALLERY, LONDON

As news of his success spread, Sargent painted accomplished portraits of his equally accomplished friends. He sought out those in the high echelons of French society, such as the Paillerons and the Subercaseaux. There are a few slight misses in these early works. Mme. Édouard Pailleron (painted in 1879) awkwardly clutches the skirt of her high-necked, black lace dress and seems dwarfed by the setting’s unnaturally high horizon line. Painted in 1885, Alice (Mrs. Frederick) Barnard wears a dress with puffy leg-of-mutton sleeves, designed “in the style of the 1830s,” that overpowers her in a tsunami of satin. The Garden Study of the Vickers Children (c. 1884), a precursor to the masterful Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885–86), highlights the beauty of Albert and Edith Vickers as they water a slender lily plant. And yet, the flowers seem to trap the children; their arced petals, particularly those against Edith’s light brown hair and white frock, generate an ominous tone, one amplified by Albert’s black-button eyes and the smeared crimson of the lily pistils. The painting hints at Jamesian “danger” by juxtaposing childhood innocence with the perils of growing up.

No such danger is felt in Sargent’s portrait of the British novelist and critic Violet Paget (aka Vernon Lee). The lives of artist and subject paralleled from the start: both born in 1856, both born to émigré parents who valued culture and education, both the product of a “continental” upbringing, both with vivid imaginations.8 They met when they were just ten and quickly bonded; during their adolescence, they spent weeks painting and drawing together, discussing music and exploring the cities of Europe. Their sturdy friendship must have been all the more valuable given their peripatetic lifestyles. Sargent would manifest their mutual admiration for European culture in his paintings; Lee’s vehicle was her much-praised Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy (1880), published when she was only twenty-four. So close was their bond that Sargent would later refer to her as his “most illustrious twin.”9

It is this intimacy, this bond between two vibrant and singular personalities that Sargent captured, like a firefly in a glass jar. With her cropped, brownish-black hair tousled and her eyes nearly hyperextended, Lee seems clairvoyant, a woman of extrasensory alertness. The raw canvas at the left edge distinguishes this work from Sargent’s polished portraits of European aristocrats and justly includes Lee in his circle of artists. Sargent’s use of her birth name in his inscription—“to my friend Violet”—underscores their bond. His success here is somewhat ironic, in that Lee maintained little faith in the act of portrayal. “We do not guess,” she wrote, “that this humble desire for a likeness is one of our most signal cravings after the impossible: an attempt to overcome space and baffle time; to imprison and use at pleasure the most fleeting, intangible, and uncommunicable of all mysterious essences, a human personality.”10 Well aware that “ogni dipintore dipinge se,” she noted, “in truth, a portrait gives the sitter’s temperament merged with the temperament of the painter.”11 Indeed, in the Lee portrait, Sargent conveys their deep friendship and mutual admiration through the Delphic language of his brushwork.

When Sargent invested such intimacy in his portraits, he nearly electrified them. His depiction of the well-regarded novelist and translator Madame Emma-Marie Allouard-Jouen (1882), seen at the age of forty-six, reflects his high regard for her intelligence. To some, her black hair, hat and dress might seem funereal; here, they reflect her sagacity. Her downward gaze might read, at first, as arrogant; here, it conveys her profound humanistic empathy. Set against a tenebrous backdrop of burnished golden brown, with light gently rising from the abyss, she emanates both worldliness and transcendence. She can hold her own against any portrait by Rembrandt.

John Singer Sargent Judith Gautier: A Gust of Wind 1883 PRIVATE COLLECTION

The daughter of the French writer and aesthete Théophile Gautier and his Italian mistress, the operatic contralto Ernesta Grisi, Judith Gautier was long surrounded by members of the French intelligentsia. A noted Sinologist and translator of Japanese and Chinese poetry, she was, like Vernon Lee and Allouard-Jouen, an accomplished woman.12 The intimacy of her friendship with Sargent is less evident in her indoor portrait (c. 1883), in which she leans gracefully on the edge of her piano, than in the singularly refreshing Judith Gautier: A Gust of Wind (1883). In the latter, we see an abstracted Gautier set against a cerulean blue sky.13 Broad streaks of paint invoke the wind that threatens Gautier’s broad-brimmed hat. Precociously, Sargent experiments with dematerialization, recalling late Titian, late Inness, late Cézanne. Mimesis is not his goal; Gautier’s face, composed of flat planes of color, resembles that of a kabuki actor. For a scarf caught in the breeze, Sargent flecked two dashes of white near Gautier’s left shoulder. For a hint of the grayish-black dress under her cream-colored gown, he constructed a three-sided square through several daubs of dark paint. “Col sporar si trova,” Piranesi inscribed into one of his prints: “messing about one finds.” In these types of aesthetic events, David Rosand observed, the artist “affirms his belief in that Leonardesque aesthetic, in the open form, the macchia, as a source of new inventions.”14 Through the vascular activity of his brush, Sargent honed his capacity to engage his viewer in the fiction of art.15

While visitors to the Met have access year-long to the celebrated Madame X (1884), the portrait seems all the more eccentric when juxtaposed to the majestic Dr. Pozzi at Home (1881). The painted Gautreau, famous for having the fallen right strap of her figure-hugging black dress restored to her shoulder after it caused an outcry at the Paris Salon of 1884, exhibits lavender-powdered skin that seems icy beside Pozzi’s warm-blooded flesh.16 Likewise, her Egyptian pose, grievous to sustain, clashes with his open and engaging stance. Warmth emanates only from her auburn hair, though, it, too, being henna-dyed, embodies artificiality. Contrasted to A Gust of Wind, Madame X evokes Sargent’s Florentine education and his youthful attempt (c. 1870) to copy Michelangelo’s San Lorenzo allegory of Night (1526–31).17 Gautreau’s twist and graven outlines even conjure the Renaissance statue’s marmoreal substance. To press the point, we sense in the work a measure of Florence, about which the great humanist Leonardo Bruni wrote: “Nowhere else do you find such internal order, such neatness, and such harmonious co-operation….There is nothing here that is ill proportioned, nothing improper, nothing incongruous, nothing vague; everything occupies its proper place….”18 Bruni’s vision was, of course, idealized—an impossible dream. Perhaps Madam X’s claim of perfection, an inhuman goal (and one for which Sargent is equally responsible), contributed, as much as the fallen strap, to the painting’s denunciation.

Florence seems to play a role as well in the life-size Dr. Pozzi at Home (1881), a portrait of Dr. Samuel-Jean Pozzi, a Gilded Age Lorenzo de’ Medici. The leading gynecologist of his day, Pozzi founded the League of the Rose, a society devoted to the confession and acting out of sexual experiences.19 Sargent capitalized on the affiliation; he displayed Pozzi in a feral-red dressing gown and set him against an amatory-red backdrop. Pozzi’s lithe fingers, formed with osteological perfection, perform a semiological narrative. The doctor’s right hand lightly clasps two edges of his robe’s broad collar—a gesture, a closing, that seems… unfamiliar. He slips the fingers of his left hand into his corded belt, a gesture of limber insouciance. In these positions, Pozzi’s hands almost repeat those of the Venus de’ Medici, who likewise highlights her sexuality by coquettishly attempting to obscure it. At the base of this pictorial performance, Pozzi’s deftly embroidered slipper accents his balletic pose. The drawn curtain backdrop speaks volumes: the theatre of portraiture, a form of visual seduction, meets the theatre of seduction, an artform.

John Singer Sargent Dr. Pozzi at Home, 1881 HAMMER MUSEUM, LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA

For respite from the post-Madame X Parisian press, Sargent traveled to Bournemouth and the Worcestershire hamlet of Broadway in England; works painted there formed a small, second section of the Met’s exhibition. In early 1886, he settled in London and embraced grand projects, such as the breathtaking Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (1889). Her custom-made gown features iridescent beetle wings to evoke her Shakespearean character’s homicidal, serpentine identity; despite its overt literary allusion (rare for Sargent), the portrait easily surpasses its fastidious Pre- Raphaelite cousins. The conflicted actor Edwin Booth (painted in 1890) exudes gallant confidence and, simultaneously, the burden of his brother’s assassination of Lincoln; Sargent bathed him in the warmest of sympathetic lights.

Still, some works veer slightly off-kilter. Painted in 1902, William Merritt Chase—palette in hand and paintbrush at the ready, deftly evoking Velázquez’s Las Meninas self-portrait—seems a bit overeager. In a work of 1888, Mrs. Isabella Stewart Gardner seems, by contrast, overly static. Posed in front of a Venetian brocade and encased in a black, columnar dress, then bound by strands of pearls at the neck and waist, she is a butterfly pinned under glass, a lepidopteran display. She is accomplished and lovely, but there is something melancholic in her passivity. Sargent found his balance—an exquisite one—in Portrait of a Boy (Homer Saint-Gaudens and His Mother) (1890). With his head insouciantly cocked and his left leg carelessly wrapped around the edge of his chair, young Homer blithely ignores his mother, seen studiously reading to him in the background. Here, on full display, for all to see, is the indifference of youth.

Sargent’s portrait of Henry James (1913), a highlight of the London years, seizes this infinitely complex personality. Looking askance as he wears the most skeptical of expressions, James recalls Goya in the heavy-lidded self-portrait frontispiece to Los Caprichos (1799). His huge forehead evokes that of Dr. Gross and reminds us of Sargent’s response in Philadelphia in 1903 to the question of the one person he would most like to meet: Thomas Eakins.20 James’s discerning, avian eyes; the glacial crevice of the brow, seemingly carved by amaranthine rumination; the lips, full and sensuous and ready to speak; the starched, pointed collar, crisp and white, the neat little bow tie and the clenched left hand that together embody James’s meticulous portrayals; the domed ring—at once chic and pontifical; the checked vest that abstracts his diagrammatic mapping of the human condition; and the gold watch chain that wraps across his corpulence as it echoes the vast psychological territories covered in his novels—Sargent crafted these details (and many others) to reify the metaphysical reach of James’s prodigious imagination.

Formidable, too, though a generation younger, is W. Graham Robertson (painted in 1894), an illustrator of children’s books and a theatre designer. Robertson trained in the studio of Albert Moore and counted Edward Burne-Jones, James McNeill Whistler and Walter Crane as friends.21 Sargent insisted that Robertson wear his trademark Chesterfield overcoat, adding, “the coat is the picture.”22 Sargent was wrong; Robertson’s expression is the picture. Indeed, it’s haunting: the fullness of wisdom in the corpus of a young man. Gracile and preternaturally youthful, Robertson anticipates Picasso’s Boy in Blue (1905), in which the Spaniard arrests youth on the threshold of maturity. Meyer Schapiro best described Picasso’s achievement: “Here the fantasy of a surmounting effort, of a future strength and glory, endows the picture with the attributes of success; the wreath on the boy’s head, the garlands of flowers decorating the wall behind him, spell out the painter’s laureate consciousness.”23 Robertson’s jade-tipped walking stick correlates to Picasso’s laurel wreath in telegraphing the young man’s “future strength and glory.”24 And just as Boy in Blue reflects Picasso’s precociousness, Sargent’s Robertson reminds us of his own preternaturally mature achievements.

The Robertson portrait is best viewed today in concert with Kehinde Wiley’s rendition, also titled W. Graham Robertson (2013). The model in Wiley’s painting adopts a kindred pose with a walking stick and stands against a Photoshopped version of a Renaissance millefleur tapestry. The YMCMB on the model’s bright-blue-and-fluorescent-yellow jacket stands for Young Money Cash Money Billionaires (a well-known hip hop record label), though it could just as likely be a jab at the “one-percent” whom Sargent also depicted. In a Met podcast, Wiley commented on the Sargent show. He expressed his admiration for Sargent’s virtuosity as a painter but added, “the volume’s turned up too high on so much of this stuff, to the point where we can almost recognize the absurdity of it.” Here, again, are intimations of “Sargent’s danger,” recognized so many years ago by James. Wiley’s pictorial riposte shines a bright, expository light on the privilege enjoyed by Sargent and his subjects—and, by extension, the predominantly white masculinity represented in the Met’s collection. It is, indeed, in Wiley’s words, a “strange history” on view, one in which “so many people who are black and brown don’t happen to people the great museums of the world.”25 Given the presence of Wiley’s reflections, and given Sargent’s unassailable place in American art, it might have been interesting to stretch the parameters of the show to include, even as a coda, contemporary paintings like Wiley’s that comment on and contextualize the works of Sargent for a new generation.

 John Singer Sargent, Henry James, 1913 NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY, LONDON“Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends” was on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from June 30 to October 4, 2015. It was organized by Richard Ormond for the National Portrait Gallery in London (where the show debuted), in association with the Met’s Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, Alice Pratt Brown Curator of American Paintings, and Stephanie L. Herdrich, Research Associate.




I would like to thank Betsy Kornhauser and Stephanie Herdrich for their hospitality at the Met’s “Sargent Study Day” on 17 October 2014. Special thanks also to Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray for the wealth of their invaluable scholarship on Sargent.

1. Henry James to Elizabeth Boott, in Leon Edel, ed., Henry James Letters (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Cambridge University Press, 1980), vol. III, 43.

2. Ibid., 42.

3. Ibid.

4. Things changed in 1907. That year, Sargent wrote to his friend Ralph Curtis and declared that he would henceforth give up painting “paughtraits.” “I abhor and adjure them,” he added, “and hope never to do another especially the Upper Classes.” Quoted in Stanley Olson, John Singer Sargent: His Portrait (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986), 227–28.

5. The literature on Sargent and James is vast; a starting point is Adeline R. Tintner, The Museum World of Henry James (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1986), especially 91–100.

6. Richard Ormond, “John Singer Sargent: A Biographical Sketch,” in Elaine Kilmurray and Richard Ormond, eds., John Singer Sargent (London: Tate Gallery Publishing, Ltd., 1998), 11.

7. Sargent purchased two works by Manet, now in private collections, at Vente Manet, Hotel Drouot, in Paris in February 1884. See “A Concise Chronology,” in ibid., 273.

8. Peter Gunn’s Vernon Lee: Violet Paget, 1856–1935 (London: Oxford University Press, 1964) remains a valuable study.

9. Letter from Sargent to Paget, undated but written, according to Richard Ormond, shortly after the end of February 1880; quoted in Richard Ormond, “John Singer Sargent and Vernon Lee,” Colby Quarterly 9:3 (September 1970): 10.

10. Vernon Lee [Violet Paget], “The Blame of Portraits,” in Hortus Vitae: Essays on the Gardening of Life (London and New York: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1904), 140.

11. Ibid., 142.

12. Elaine Kilmurray, “Judith Gautier (1845–1917),” in Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends (New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2015), 62.

13. The out-of-doors setting is probably near Gautier’s villa, Le Pré des Oiseaux, in Brittany; during the summer of 1883. Sargent was at nearby Paramé working on Madame X. See Elaine Kilmurray, “A Gust of Wind (Judith Gautier, 1845–1917),” in ibid., 65.

14. David Rosand, Drawing Acts: Studies in Graphic Expression and Representation (London: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 295. For Piranesi’s print, see 297.

15. The surface of the canvas seems even more activated by the bits of detritus, perhaps from the “gust of wind,” trapped in the impasto.

16. See Susan Sidlauskas, “Painting Skin: John Singer Sargent’s ‘Madame X,’” American Art 15:3 (Autumn 2001): 8–13. Following the fashion of the day, Gautreau regularly applied lavender powder to her body.

17. From the artist’s Splendid Mountain Watercolors Sketchbook, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 50.130.1432.

18. Leonardo Bruni, Laudatio Florentinae Urbis or Panegyric to the City of Florence (c. 1403–04), Section 4.

19. Elaine Kilmurray, “Doctor Pozzi at Home (1846–1918),” in Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, 55.

20. Richard Ormond, “Sargent and the Arts,” in ibid., 20.

21. Richard Ormond, “W. Graham Robertson (1866–1948),” in ibid., 153.

22. Ibid.

23. Meyer Schapiro, Modern Art: 19th and 20th Centuries (New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1979), 115.

24. Unfortunately, Sargent included Robertson’s dog, Mouton the poodle, who apparently bit Sargent a few times during the portrait session. The inclusion evokes “Sargent’s danger”: adding the symbol of privilege probably to appease the sitter.

25. Kehinde Wiley, “Kehinde Wiley on John Singer Sargent,” The Artist Project/The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2015, Volume 35, Number 4