Summer Must-See: John Singer Sargent at the Met

Summer Must-See: John Singer Sargent at the Met

 Paul Helleu Sketching with His Wife, 1889.

When it comes to art exhibits, summer is usually a relatively sleepy season for museums - not that people don’t visit; on the contrary, tourist crowds are at peak. However, the caliber of shows is generally art “lite,” i.e., pleasant summer fare, while “important” shows are reserved for the fall. This summer mark’s a notable exception with the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit, “Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends.” These 90-some oils, watercolors and charcoals explore Sargent’s relationships to people as well as to his art, and convey more about the man than might be garnered solely from his more famous works.

Born in Florence to American parents, Sargent’s talent was fostered by his watercolorist mother, and he was educated in Europe’s best art academies. His mentor, the prominent Parisian portraitist Carolus-Duran, showed Sargent how to navigate through the upper classes of society, thus providing the young artist with the patrons and models that would make him a celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic. Sargent’s reverence for Carolus-Duran imbues his portrait of him, one of the most poignant in the exhibit.

Not to be upstaged is the infamous Madam X, Sargent’s sensational portrait of the alluring Madame Pierre Gautreau, which proved scandalous in its time. The artist was 28 when he submitted it to the 1884 Paris Salon, and it nearly caused a riot because he had depicted the voluptuous young lady with one strap of her long black dress slipping down her shoulder. Critics who had previously sung his praises were now outraged. Madame Gautreau, however, loved it. So did Sargent, and rather than readjust her strap (which he finally would years later), he left Paris for London. There he would become the most in-demand portrait artist of his generation.

Another highlight of the exhibit is Sargent’s portrait of the dashing Dr. Pozzi, renowned gynecologist of the day, at home in a brilliant red robe and embroidered slippers. One would be hard-pressed to find any gentleman that could look as elegant in loungewear today. Other notable subjects are Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife, which shows her dressed like an Indian princess, and two portraits of Sargent’s friend, the famed artist Claude Monet, one of which cleverly evokes Monet’s own Impressionistic style. Indeed Sargent’s technical mastery allowed him to effortlessly draw from a wealth of artistic influences - from Velázquez, El Greco and Titian, to the avant-garde painters of his own time. One dazzling example wherein the artist’s command of light eclipses the personal attributes of the models is Group with Parasols [Siesta]. Painted in the Italian countryside, the work magically pulls the viewer into its luminous setting.

When Sargent grew bored with society portraits, he raised his rates exorbitantly, hoping to discourage new commissions. His plan only succeeded in making him rich. By the time he died at age 69, Sargent had completed some 900 oil paintings, including over 600 portraits; and more than 2,000 watercolors. The highest price paid for any of these was for Group with Parasols, sold by Sotheby’s in 2004 for $23.8 million. Fortunately, this summer’s must-see exhibit is available to all for the mere price of admission to the Met. Afterwards, you can take your parasols into Central Park for a siesta in homage to the master.    

Group with Parasols (Siesta), c. 1904-5.