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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

September 11, 2012: John Singer Sargent

[There are few Boston sites that I would more highly recommend for a fall visit—for anybody, from tourists to lifelong residents, students to seniors, and American Studiers of all varieties—than the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. For this week’s series, I’ll be blogging about five topics connected to the Museum and its historical and cultural contexts. Please add your responses, and your suggestions for other unique American sites and experiences, for the weekend’s crowd-sourced post!]
On the diverse talents of the Museum’s most prominently featured American painter.
As I noted in yesterday’s post, John Singer Sargent was perhaps Isabella Stewart Gardner’s closest friend, across much of her inspiring life—his portrait of a young Gardner in Venice is probably the most famous image of her, and his portrait of the aging Gardner represents one of (to reiterate what I said yesterday) the most humanizing and powerful American images period. He also painted many other portraits of Gardner in between, and many of them, along with other Sargent works and paintings by some of his American contemporaries, are prominently featured in one of the Museum’s most intimate and compelling rooms. In a lot of ways Sargent could be said to be the Museum’s Muse, just as Gardner seems to have been his, and taken together the two of them offer as impressive a picture of the American artistic scene (particularly as it came into its own at the turn of the 20th century) as any I’ve encountered.
Just as the Gardner Museum’s impressiveness goes well beyond Sargent’s presence, of course, so too does  Sargent’s importance to American art extend beyond the Museum’s Venetian walls. Sargent’s most prominent and influential works were his portraits, and I would argue that he brought the same kind of pioneering realistic style and perspective to these works that literary contemporaries such as William Dean Howells and Henry James did to their novels. Sargent wasn’t alone in that advancement, but he certainly ranks alongside his sometimes more acclaimed peers such as Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer in helping move American portraiture and painting forward in this way. Similarly, Sargent certainly built upon the legacies of prior prominent innovators of the American portrait, such as Gilbert Stuart and Charles Wilson Peale, but he extended and amplified their efforts and to my mind deserves the same place in our national artistic tradition.
Yet Sargent’s stylistic and thematic innovations aren’t limited to that one genre. His biography and life were even more international than Gardner’s—he was born in Italy to American parents, trained with Italian, German, and French masters, and spent much of his adult life in Europe—and he brought that transnational identity to his artistic career. Stylistically, for example, his training with the Frenchman Charles Emile Auguste Carolus-Duran emphasized a new method of painting directly on the canvas (rather than drawing and prepping first), one that certainly contributed to the more humanistic and realistic feel to Sargent’s works. And perhaps due to his increased exposure to the French Impressionists, Sargent turned later in his career to watercolors, producing more than 700 such works between 1900 and 1914; moreover, in those works he consistently portrayed European scenes, including many drawn from his and Gardner’s beloved Venice. If Eakins and Homer are thus more clearly and overtly American artists, Sargent exemplifies the same international influences and inspiration as Gardner—and to the same great effect.
Next Gardner Museum link tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other American artists you’d highlight?

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