Sargent and Spain: John Singer Sargent exhibit graces the Legion of Honor

  • by Robert Brokl
  • Tuesday February 14, 2023
Share this Post:
Installation view of 'Sargent and Spain' at the Legion of Honor <br>(photo: Gary Sexton/courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)
Installation view of 'Sargent and Spain' at the Legion of Honor
(photo: Gary Sexton/courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Like a swank ocean liner of a bygone era, the John Singer Sargent exhibition, "Sargent and Spain," at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco (Feb.11-May 14) from the National Gallery in Washington, is a welcome arrival, full of his trademark bravura painting and drawings. Since it's Sargent, there's also the whiff of bygone scandals (the coquettish "Madam X" and the smoldering Doctor Pozzi), and lingering questions regarding Sargent's sexuality, recently explored in other venues.

This definitive exhibition has been assembled by Sargent scholars Richard Ormond (Sargent's great-nephew) and Elaine Kilmurray, and National Gallery curator Sarah Cash. With a few caveats, it's the last word on Sargent and Spain.

Sargent traveled to Spain some seven times, from 1879 until 1912, beginning when he went with his parents, at 12. He wasn't content to just stay in Madrid, but traveled widely, from Gibraltar in the South, to Barcelona and Salamanca, to Andalusia and Granada for the Alhambra, even to the island of Majorca. Travel could be long and arduous.

That Sargent would be fascinated by Spain is no surprise, as it was a fascination shared by his contemporaries. Spain was considered exotic, more picturesque. It was somewhat off the beaten track, not on the traditional Grand Tours, separated as it was by the Pyrenees Mountains from Europe, nearer North Africa just across the Strait of Gibralter.

'Mosquito Nets' by John Singer Sargent, 1908, oil on canvas (courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)  

Sargent was born in Florence, of well-to do but not rich expatriate American parents, who traveled throughout Europe, depending upon the seasons. They had six children, of whom four survived into adulthood, and Sargent's sister Mary also became a talented artist, without her brother's acclaim. She is one of the women under mosquito nets in Sargent's 1908 painting.

Lest we spend much time envying rootless expatriates with means, Paul O'Connor, in the Oct.-Nov. 1986 FMR Magazine on the Whitney Museum's Sargent exhibition, wrote: "Sargent's upbringing was a totally nineteenth-century affair: his family trailed from city to spa, from country to country, expatriate Americans who stayed aboard in Europe because it was cheaper, and who used the excuse of feeble health, of nursing infants, to avoid family obligations and the strife-ridden atmosphere in America during the Civil War."

Sargent studied art in Florence and Paris where his prodigious talents in art, not to mention music, were recognized early and encouraged by his teachers and parents. He seems to have been born sophisticated. Henry James, the premier expatriate novelist who first encountered Sargent in Paris in 1884, described him as "a Franco-American product who has high talent, a charming nature, artistic and personal, and is civilized to his finger-tips."

Albert de Belleroche, portrait by John Singer Sargent, 1882, oil on canvas  

In the footsteps of El Greco, Valesquez and Goya
In Spain, Sargent made the important connections to his lifelong influences: El Greco, Velazquez and Goya. Prado Museum archives document the numerous visits Sargent made to the museum, making copies of these artists' work, including the Velazquez masterpiece, "Las Meninas." One very painterly copy is in the exhibit.

This seminal exposure would bear fruit in some of Sargent's greatest, and earliest work, "El Jaleo," and the "Daughters of Edward Darley Boit," from 1882, at the Boston Museum of Art, with the precocious girls flanked by giant Japanese vases, emerging from darkness. Sargent borrowed from his predecessors the theatrical, dramatic use of light and dark, in expansive, moody spaces.

His interest in the Roma people and the culture, especially their music and dance, is noteworthy for an artist so identified with the Gilded Age and lush society portraits; the Andy Warhol of his day, but so much better.

Roma (the term "gypsies" is eschewed from catalog and exhibition) were, according to the exhibition, "oppressed and marginalized," "stereotyped as 'picturesque' flamenco dancers and fortune tellers, or considered to be 'nomadic criminals.'" They were later sent to Nazi death camps. But Roma were sought out by the adventuresome like Sargent.

Sargent memorialized their flamenco dancing with his monumental 12"X7' "El Jaleo" from 1882, dramatic with theatrical light and dark now enshrined at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and depicted their society in other works like "Spanish Roma Dwelling" in the exhibition.

The Legion exhibit has many fine examples of Sargent's skill, appreciation of architecture, and bravura technique. Two dazzling, sun-drenched examples are "Court of the Myrtles" from 1879, and "Alhambra, Court of the Lions" painted on the spot in 1898. A recently-unearthed photograph shows him painting that very subject. While Sargent was known for many preparatory drawings (several are on view), he was capable of fast, confident workmanship for the final product. "El Jaleo" was done quickly, perhaps in one session.

Another fine work from 1908, a smiling, insouciant young man, is titled "Majorcan Fisherman." We're told Sargent didn't title his work, which evolved over time, as these curators have made changes, especially regarding the Roma. Ormand, in a National Gallery YouTube video, muses that the painting shows no fishing nets or boats, just the smiling boy with "piercing eyes," a thatched roof streaming sunlight, and the bright blue sea. So why the job description (justification?) for the portrait of a young Majorcan man? Don't miss the watercolor/gouache "A Falucho" hanging nearby, and spot the gamboling boys in the water.

'Study for 'The Spanish Dancer' by John Singer Sargent, 1880-1881, watercolor  

Criticism and scandal
Sargent had his critics who reacted to the flashy technique. The preeminent Bloomsbury critic and artist Roger Fry, responding to the 1926 London Sargent retrospective in London: "Wonderful indeed, but most wonderful that this wonderful performance should ever have been confused with that of an artist."

Even more scathing, in a letter to a friend, Toulouse-Lautrec wrote, "Are you anxious to make sales, Monsieur Sargent? Certainly you mop the canvas in a marvelous manner, but international art will hardly be revived by contact with that overwrought brush of yours."

Unexpectedly for Sargent, his portrait of Madame Gaultier, who was well known for her pale, powdered complexion and bold ways, became a scandal-de-jour. The dangling spaghetti strap of her figure-clinging dress was a sensation, and he feared the uproar would ruin the possibilities of more portraits in Paris and moved to London, where he was friendly with Oscar Wilde, who lived across from him on Tite Street, before Wilde's downfall.

In England, Sargent redeemed his reputation, with sumptuous, sought-after portraits of society belles, in glamorous gowns and jewelry, with just enough personality to not seem rote.

These can seem too rich for modern sensibilities, but not his 1881 portrait of his friend from childhood, Violet Page, who went by the name of Vernon Lee, for its "advantage of leaving undecided whether the writer be man or a woman." Lee was a well-known writer with a salon, likely a lesbian, and the Sargent's bold, frank portrait of her is in stark contrast with the commissioned work. Lee appears almost manic, but Sargent clearly meant well. He signed his name and inscribed "To my Friend Violet" on the front of the canvas.

'Majorcan Fisherman' 1908 Oil on canvas  

Speculation on sexuality
The charming portrait of a sultry Albert de Belleroche, from 1882, the year they met in Paris as fellow students of Carolus-Duran, depicts the skilled painter, wealthy enough to pursue painting as pleasure, not for income. He's sporting a Spanish hat and cloak, likely picked by Sargent in his 1879 trip. This portrait hung in Sargent's dining room, and he and Sargent traveled together. Wikipedia suggests he was Sargent's "likely lover."

The curators are mum on this score, reminiscent of Emmanuel Cooper's "The Sexual Perspective: Homosexuality and Art in the Last 100 Years in the West" from 1968, which seems both dated and clueless on Sargent:

"Ever aware of protecting his reputation, Sargent was cautious in the face of public comment. For example, he declined to become a regular contributor to 'The Yellow Book' for fear of being associated too closely with Aubrey Beardsley...Sargent offered little information about his work or his sexual preference. He is generally described as being 'emotionally inhibited.'

"Certainly he found great pleasure and security in the companionship of his sisters and nieces....But much of the 'evidence' of Sargent's sexual interests lies in his drawings and watercolors rather than his more formal paintings."

One of John Singer Sargent's rediscovered male nudes of Thomas McKeller (not in the Legion of Honor exhibition) from the Gardner Museum, "Boston's Apollo: Thomas McKeller and John Singer Sargent"  

Other exhibits
A more perceptive take occurs in the 2010 groundbreaking, controversial "Hide/Seek" National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution exhibition and catalog by Jonathan Katz and David C. Ward:

"John Singer Sargent invested his luxe and voluptuous portraits with an exotic and erotic flair that frequently caused them to become objects of public titillation and scandal. ...Sargent's other paintings might not have carried the same charge (as Madame X, Virginie Gautreau), but they carried at least a sense of the sitter's sexual allure. This was as true of his portraits of men as it was women."

As evidence, the full-length red-robed portrait "Doctor Pozzi at Home" (1882) at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Pozzi was a well-known cosmopolitan surgeon-gynecologist, a Lothario, aka a "love doctor."

But some more intimate drawings and paintings hitherto less exhibited really tell the tale.

"A Private Album: J.S. Sargent's Drawing of Nude Male Drawings" by Trevor Fairbrother in "Art Magazine," Dec. 1981, describes the album of 29 large charcoal drawings donated to the Fogg Art Museum in 1937 by Sargent's sister Violet, drawings that had been assembled by Sargent.

Many are preparatory sketches for his far more formal and "proper" Triumph of Religion murals for the new Boston Public Library, designed by his architect friends McKim, Mead, and White.

The style of these intimate sketches of the male body are in the long line from Michelangelo drawings to more contemporary renderings by Paul Cadmus and William Theophilis Brown.

For a closer examination of Sargent's private life, the 2020 perhaps COVID-overshadowed exhibition at the Gardner Museum, "Boston's Apollo: Thomas McKeller and John Singer Sargent" may be the definitive argument for Sargent's most deeply held preferences and persuasions. The exhibition, described is length in a May 8, 2020, New York Times review, "Sketches Outline the Story of Artist and Muse," by Holland Carter. The show merited an earlier March 13, 2020 Times article, "His Secret Muse: In Boston, a look at John Singer Sargent's surprising relationship with a once-unknown model," by Alina Tugend.

One of John Singer Sargent's rediscovered male nudes (not in the Legion of Honor exhibition)  

That show celebrated the African American model, Thomas Eugene McKeller (1890-1962), who worked as a bellhop and elevator attendant at the Boston's deluxe Hotel Vendome, where Sargent stayed and perhaps where they first met.

The Gardner show, a surprising shift by the vaunted museum, was motivated by a curator Nathaniel Silver's discovery of a cache of nude sketches, 10 large charcoal drawings and a lithograph, almost all of McKeller, although the curator had to uncover the mystery of the black model. He identified McKeller, who was Sargent's paid model from 1916 through 1921 for preparatory charcoal sketches for his Boston Museum of Fine Arts mural and rotunda projects, posing nude, taking male and female poses, his racial identity obscured in the final mural product, if not the drawings.

The Gardner show's drawings had been signed by Sargent and gifted to Isabella Gardner, his patron friend. The nude portrait of McKeller was his largest male nude and which remained in Sargent's collection for the rest of his life, is stunning, as worshipful as Marsden Hartley's more famous portraits of Maine fisherman. The muscular McKeller figure, nude, arms behind, legs spread, looks upward. The painting is not shy but also not carnal (Sargent was not Mapplethorpe), but empathetic, even reverential, the figure bathed in light and shadowed by a "feathered aureole."

The Times' Tugend wrote, "Further digging revealed a longtime relationship between Sargent and McKeller as artist and model; although it is not definitively known, it is thought possible that the relationship was romantic. In any case, Dr. Silver said, 'We believe Thomas McKeller unlocked for Sargent a degree of creativity that he couldn't find with other models.'"

"Sargent and Spain" is an important, deeply researched, and well-organized show, but if one wants to learn something more private and personal about the artist, the portraits of Lee/Page and McKeller are well worth exploring.

'Sargent and Spain,' at the Legion of Honor, through May 14. Tue-Sun, 9:30am-5:15pm. Free/$15. 100 34th Ave., Lincoln Park.

Read our review of the new biography, "The Grand Affair: John Singer Sargent in His World."

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.