Boston's Sargent Summer

Call it Boston's Sargent summer! That's what art fans in his adopted hometown have titled the first major John Singer Sargent retrospective. His famous portraits of the upper class along with landscapes, watercolors and murals grace five cultural institutions across the city. CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Jacqueline Adams reports.


John Singer Sargent was an American, but just barely. Born in Florence, Italy, in 1856, he grew up in Europe and actually painted alongside the famed Impressionists of France. But his work received different treatment: While Paris' conservative salon elite rejected the radical impressionists, it accepted and exhibited Sargent's work. He came to England and America to paint the portraits (usually of the rich and famous) that most of us know him by.

"To see these great people of such noble spirits and good looks and great fortune ... tells us something very fine about human life and aspirations," says Boston's Museum of Fine Arts director, Malcolm Rogers. "He makes it seem rather wonderful."

Sargent was the preeminent portrait painter at the turn of the century on both sides of the Atlantic. But his reputation became a curse, when portraiture went out of style and cubism and fauvism came into vogue.

"He was left behind by what was most radical in European art," says Rogers. "Fashion simply left him behind."

Rogers hopes this summer's exhibits will serve to restore the artist's image. This retrospective is the first since Sargent's death in 1925.

"The point of this exhibition is to say, 'Forget about fashion. Just look at him with the eyes of someone who loves beauty, who loves a great painter's technique and see the real quality of freshness and originality there,'" he says.

Richard Ormand, Sargent's great nephew who helped organize the show, says the artist's upbringing abroad deeply influenced his work.

"He was brought up traveling around Europe looking at art galleries, listening to concerts. He was very reserved," he says. "He'd been brought up in this rather strange, sort of cosmopolitan environment. [He was] very self-reliant, not one to show his feelings and not somebody who readily embraced intimacy."


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Fumée D'Ambre Gris
As Ormand looks at one of Sargent's works, he finds the master is like a perpetual observer. "Very often in these pictures, the missing person is Sargent himself."

In Paris, Sargent's talent made him a prodigy and something of a chameleon. He painted alongside Monet and the impressionists, but also sought and woprizes within the conservative salon scene. His 1880 submission, "Fumée D'Ambre Gris," won raves.

Theodore Stebbins, co-curator of the Sargent exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, says "Fumée" is a study in white yet amazingly modern. "It showed that he could paint whites like no other painter of his time. He was trying everything. He was in love with paint. He was learning from the impressionists, from the academic painters, from all sides and ... building his career and his reputation," he says.

This summer's Sargent exhibits incorporate the home of one of Sargent's former patrons, Isabella Stewart Gardner, whom he often visited and painted. It was in her home (now a museum) that Sargent painted his famous portrait of the wealthy woman. His friend, author, Henry James, described it as "a Byzantine Madonna with a halo." Her husband's description was reportedly more blunt: "It looks like hell, but it looks like you." He refused to let it be shown publicly during his lifetime.

"You tend to think of him as a portraitist, but I think he was first and foremost a painter," Ormand explains, adding, "He was sometimes a portraitist. He was sometimes a landscapist. He was sometimes a muralist."

That variety is amply apparent in Boston's Sargent exhibits. Landscapes are on view at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, just down the hall from his glistening "El Jaleo," which features a dancer. Harvard University's Fogg Museum showcases Sargent's brushes and paints, while elsewhere at Harvard, in the Widener Library, his murals are on display.
John Singer Sargent exhibit information.
Boston's Museum of Fine Arts sports freshly restored murals in its rotunda and grand staircase (which Ormand considers his great-uncle's attempt to emulate Michelangelo) as well as an exhibit of more than 150 of his paintings and drawings.

"He [was] brought up in the tradition of mural art," says Ormand. "You couldn't do anything greater than to paint in a great public space."

History and the critics didn't share Sargent's view. Curator Stebbins says Sargent banked on mural painting as his lasting greatness and he may have been wrong.

"For me, I think it wouldn't have done any harm if he hadn't painted them," he says. It is the portraits, according to Stebbins, that made Sargent's career. "That's where the rewards were - the social rewards, the financial rewards and the prestige. Sargent painted people on the rise."

Often portraits took more than 30 sittings. With fluid strokes and vivid colors, Sargent captured the richness of his subjects' silks and velvets, the coolness of their porcelains. But whether he was painting a captain of industry or a society matron, Sargent had an ablity to see into a sitter's soul.

To Stebbins, Mrs. Russell seems depressed, Elsie Palmer seems quite mad and he loves the two lords: Lord Ribblesdale and Lord Dalhousie. "They look so weak. These are the faces that lost the British empire, I think, and you can see that in them," he says.


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Madame X
Another portrait, "Madame X," is now considered Sargent's greatest masterpiece. Originally designed with a diamond strap falling off her shoulder, the painting debuted amid a minor scandal. "Her skin is too white, almost pale purple and there's something about her arrogance and her animalistic vitality, her sexuality. It was somehow too much for people," explains Stebbins.

Once he had earned enough money, Sargent abandoned portraiture and ignored the critics to depict whatever he chose. At the end of World War I, he painted a modern battle scene, "Gassed." And it's taken some time for curator Stebbins to appreciate it.

"I was originally opposed to having it in the exhibition and I've come to respect the painting more and more," he says. It speaks to war, to death, to human cruelty, to suffering and to the life of man. We can't ask for much more than that in a painter."

This summer museum director Rogers hopes visitors will decide for themselves the focus of the artist's work. "It was a gilded age, but it was also the age that ended in the first World War. So great splendors, great tragedies and great humanity going through all that and surviving. That's what the career of a great artist tells you," he says.


©1999 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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