Maria de Juan

Sargent, the fashion painter

A new exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston reveals that the artist not only had a good eye for his models, but also an exquisite fascination with fashion.

john singer sargent mrs carl meyer and her children

The American painter Sargent is known for his luxurious portraits of glamorous figures of his time: ladies, famous actresses, illustrious politicians, art collectors…

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), was born in Florence to American parents. His European approach to portraiture has its roots in his Parisian training. He lived between Europe and America: Italy, Switzerland, Germany, England, New York… He spoke five languages and played the piano.

john singer sargent madame x

Sargent loved clothes and had a good eye for fashion.

Sargent felt a deep affinity with two painters: the Dutchman Frans Hals and the Spanish Velazquez. Unlike the old masters who inspired him, Sargent was able to take advantage of the brilliant new chemical pigments of the late 19th century, which gave his paintings a dazzling palette. He was a prestigious colourist.

In his paintings, the models adopt postures of great elegance. The fabric of his dresses is richly expressed with colourful broad and sensual brushstrokes.

john singer sargent dr pozzi

Sargent went beyond the simple portrait. He chose the clothes of his models. In his study, he simplified and altered details. The adjustments to his clothing and pose were an integral part of each painting.

The exhibition is not only about the ability to represent a model. The real themes are fashion, style and the psychology projected by the protagonists.

john singer sargent wertheimer sister

His skill is amazing. In his hands, a night cape, like Aline Rothschild’s, looks like a vein of charcoal painted by Velazquez.

A long pearl necklace slides down the voluminous pale pink dress like a glistening waterfall seen from a hot air balloon.

john singer sargent viscountess ednam lady rosemary

The crimson dressing gown of a handsome doctor, on a red velvet curtain, floods with the chromatic intensity of a Matisse set.

The ruffles of a black dress are like a flowering vine painted with the brio of a Manet still life.

Mother and daughter’s fingers sink into satin, reflecting opalescent light in a tangle of brush strokes.

john singer sargent lady agneu

The exhibition reveals to us a talented painter who enjoys shapes, textures and colourful silk, velvet and organza dresses, hats and feathers.

His friend Auguste Rodin described Sargent as “the Van Dyck of his time.” He was a virtuoso who invites us to look to tradition, rather than forward. He embodies a portrait tradition that reached its peak in the 17th century.

john singer sargent lady helen vincent viscountess dabernon

His brushwork recalls the hands of Rubens, Velázquez and Frans Hals, and those of his own century, such as Delacroix and Manet.

John Rockefeller and Presidents Wilson and Roosevelt were the clients who commissioned his portraits.

He found how to elevate the art of social adulation into something surprising, subtle and tender. There is a certain wild beauty in Sargent‘s virtuosity.

john singer sargent mrs charles inches

Although he gained an excellent reputation, he was also denigrated as superficial. The artist was accused of frivolity as a society portraitist serving the vanities of his elite subjects. Criticism focused on his exaggerated taste for fashion.

The writer D.H. Lawrence ridiculed his work:

Nothing but yards and yards of satin from the most expensive stores, with a pretty head resting on top.

You can take Sargent out of fashion, but you can’t take the fashion out of Sargent.

His success was gradually forgotten, first by the invention of photography and then, dramatically, by the First World War. His portraits were relegated, as poignant emissaries of an outdated world, privileged and alien to reality. But Sargent died in 1925 and now we have the pleasure to revisit him, a century later.

It takes more imagination for people today to understand what Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich were painting than it does to grasp the status-pumping impulse behind Sargent‘s portraits. They chime naturally with contemporary portrayal and share the hip-hop swagger, Instagram selfies, jet-setting antics and flaunting wealth of today’s millionaires.

john singer sargent mrs fiske warren and daugther

Sargent‘s liquid, sliding brushstrokes are one of the glories of world art. He was a great colourist.

There are paintings that leave you breathless. A hypnotic and sensual portrait is “Lady Agnew” which made Sargent the leading portrait painter in England.

Sargent was a tonal painter, not an impressionist. His brushstrokes were not guided by discrete patches of colour in uniform lighting conditions, but by gradations of light and dark.

Sargent loved reds and burgundy. He also understood the complexity of black and white. The richness of the blacks, for instance, in the slim-fitting dress of “Madame X” (Amélie Gautreau). She represents fashion and power. Its blackness is as crucial as the bold, sculptural pose.

john singer sargent nonchaloir repose

Today it seems majestic to us, but the painting scandalised Parisians. They considered her vulgar and flashy, especially because of the strap slipping off her shoulder. Sargent let the simplicity of the black dress’s tight silhouette speak for itself, dispensing with the obligatory combination.

He transformed his model into a work of classical sculpture. The painting was so much criticised that Sargent left Paris and thought of dedicating himself to the piano.

Another daring work is his best male model painting: “Dr. Pozzi” from the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. The Parisian playboy gynecologist looks defiant, wearing a lush crimson red dressing gown.

john singer sargent carmencita

The famous portrait painter shaped the styles of his characters. His brushes did the rest. Image creation is rarely successful if it is limited to power projection. It begins to attract when it communicates more transitory qualities, such as indifference, boredom or rebellion. These are qualities that are perceived in these paintings.

The key to Sargent is that he immerses us in the depths of the essence of the portrait.

The exhibition, curated by Erica Hirshler, will travel from Boston to London. 50 paintings are on display, plus period accessories: mannequins with dresses, shawls, hats and fans.

john singer sargent almina

Fashioned by Sargent

You may also like

Revista pensada para un público inquieto y contemporáneo, sensible a la creatividad.

Oficina Principal MARBELLA

N-340, km. 176
C.C. Oasis, Local 1
29602 Marbella [Spain]

Oficina MADRID

Serrano, 98
28006 MadrId [Spain]

Oficina PARIS

91, Quai D'Orsay
75007 Paris [France]