Sargent's 'Grand Affair' - biography of the painter brings new light on his life

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday February 14, 2023
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biographer Paul Fisher
biographer Paul Fisher

Paul Fisher, professor of American studies at Wellesley College, begins his full-scale biography, "The Grand Affair: John Singer Sargent in His World," with a confession that Sargent, a great American artist (1856-1925), is also an abiding enigma. He was a buttoned-up respectable persona yet he scandalized viewers with the frankness and sensuality of his work.

The enigma Fisher is referencing was the discovery in the 1980s of an extensive collection of the artist's mostly private sketches and a few paintings of nude male models, which ushered in a radical reconsideration of Sargent personally and professionally, as an old-fashioned, superficial, "glitzy society painter or a fustian muralist."

It raised questions how his same-sex interests and fascination with gender nonconformity influenced his art, which then forced critics to review his entire oeuvre, seeing themes unnoticed or ignored, reevaluating whether past interpretations were still valid.

Also, Sargent's "engagement with ethnicity, race, and emerging globalization, by his representation of an ever-more-complex modernity and an ever-more-diverse and multicultural world," rendered a painter, formerly seen as stuffy, as occupying compelling 21st-century relevance. Fisher's book is his attempt to chart a more open and contextual exploration of Sargent's life, his complicated historical world, and an artistic creativity more adventuresome and bold than previously suspected.

John Singer Sargent  

Family travels
Sargent's "perpetual love affair with the visual world," began at an early age, due mainly to his unconventional upbringing. His father was a physician. His mother Mary, a Philadelphia heiress and a watercolor-artist, received no support because it was considered an unrespectable occupation for a woman. She loved European culture, becoming a restless indomitable tourist.

The family, living on her small income, migrated to Switzerland, Paris, Salzburg, Milan, Genoa, and Rome. Sargent was born in Florence and wouldn't visit the U.S. until he was 20. Mary conducted salons with well-known writers, society figures, musicians, architects, historians as well as artists.

Sargent lacked a traditional education and, because the family were permanent itinerants, he was rarely enrolled in local schools, nor did they have the money to send him to a boarding school. In a 19th-century version of home schooling, his father tutored him, but Sargent learned much from visiting museums, libraries, gardens, tourist sites and ancient ruins.

It was clear early on, based on his constant sketching, that he was an artistic prodigy, encouraging his parents to consider more formal training for him. Eventually the teenage Sargent studied in Paris with the famous portrait artist Carolus-Duran, who recognized his astonishing skills. Sargent became his first student to enter the prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts where artists were trained.

At age 21 the Paris Salon accepted one of Sargent's paintings, a significant event in establishing a professional career and burnishing one's reputation. Eventually he won all the medals permitted by the Salon. Receiving private portrait commissions (but publicly exhibited) often from society matrons, which provided most of his income, many of his most famous paintings were finished while in his 20s.

Like his mother, he was continually traveling and working in New York, Rome, London, Spain, and exotic locales in North Africa/Middle East, painting lots of non-Western subjects. Fisher writes, "In spite of his sometimes colonialist or orientalist formulations, Sargent's unique transnational perspective heralded the beginnings of an expanding polyglot global culture."

The 'repaired' portrait of Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) by John Singer Sargent, 1884; currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City  

Madame X marks
Probably his most notorious painting was his 1884 "Madame X (Madame Pierre Gaudreau)," a beautiful fashionable socialite and close friend, who appalled the city with her extramarital affairs. Sargent painted her in a coquettish pose wearing a black evening gown with the left jeweled strap off her shoulder exuding a moody elegance. It created a furious firestorm, such that he almost gave up painting and exiled himself to London. Today, this portraiture is considered his masterpiece.

Sargent later painted the official White House portraits of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, as well as such VIPs as Robert Louis Stevenson and John D. Rockefeller. Sargent's style was influenced heavily by Old Masters like Hals and particularly, Velazquez. For a five-year period, due mainly to his friendship with Monet, he went through a brief quasi-Impressionist period, but his work never quite fit comfortably in that tradition. Sargent was a master at capturing what lay underneath the images' appearance, painting their hidden stories.

The Madame X uproar illustrates the main tension of Sargent's life between respectability and challenging the artistic status quo to the point of transgression, not coincidentally seizing public attention. Sargent was attracted to assertive, rule-breaking, confident women, whether they be confidantes, divas (a term originating in the 1880s), models, or patrons (the most famous was Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner). Because these women were educated, often sought sexual autonomy and self-determination, they were controversial because they flew in the face of convention. But Sargent seemed to draw energy and inspiration from them, probably because they did things he couldn't or wouldn't do.

Sargent also derived some of his material from roaming back alleys, canals, sketchy dance halls, so he painted street people, "decadents and bohemians," Spanish dancers, and (athletic) Venetian gondoliers, all atypical and controversial Victorian subjects.

Sargent left little behind in terms of diaries and letters, which are very light on any behind closed doors activities. Fisher analyzes his paintings and sketches as a source of feelings and thoughts about his psyche, trying to discern how his personal life contributed to his creative imagination, with a generous 60 illustrations in the book. His examinations are often enlightening and perceptive, particularly with regards to sexual innuendo.

'Dr. Pozzi at Home,' by John Singer Sargent, 1881; now at the LA Hammer Museum  

Intimate subjects
And now we come to the crux of Fisher's book concerning whether Sargent was gay. Fisher is gay, and while reluctant to view his biography as an entry in queer studies, he certainly employs queer theory methodology. Sargent was a lifelong bachelor and though he had many close female friends, there's no concrete evidence he had a romantic relationship with a woman.

Fisher orients his discussion of Sargent's sexuality around the concept of male romantic friendship which "allowed various forms of emotionally or erotically tinged male bonding ... typically took place among young, unmarried white middle-or upper-class men of roughly the same age and social status ... and went by such terms as "intimate friendship," "brotherly love," or "manly love," with various degrees of openness, sentiment, or eroticism."

Overall, they were more complicated relationships that can't be labeled the way we would classify them today. Sargent had many of these male romantic friendships including writer Henry James, painter Auguste-Alexandre Hirsch, artist Paul Helleu, gynecologist Samuel Jean Pozzi (the source of one of his most-celebrated paintings), among others, most of whom were or later married to women (whom Sargent often befriended).

Fisher rightly focuses on three of his models, who were the likeliest candidates as sexual partners: the Anglo-Belgian artist Albert de Belleroche who posed more than 80 times for Sargent; Nicola d'Inverno, a boxer and Italian immigrant to London, who served as Sargent's live-in valet and assistant for 25 years, traveling with him; and 26-year-old African-American Thomas McKeller, an elevator operator, hotel bellman, and sometimes contortionist, later the source for his large Boston-area mural projects (i.e. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Public Library) toward the end of Sargent's career.

There is no proof that any of these men had love affairs with Sargent. Certainly, if there was any smoking gun, Fisher in his comprehensive research would have found it. In a footnote, he claims, "This book does not make a claim that Sargent was 'gay' in the present understanding of the word. As the historian of sexuality Jonathan Ned Katz has argued, "We may refer to ... nineteenth-century men's acts or desires as gay or straight, homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual, but that places their behaviors and lusts within our sexual system, not the systems or erotic and emotional institutions of their time."

One of John Singer Sargent's later discovered male nudes of Thomas McKeller, from the 2020 Gardner Museum exhibition in Boston  

Unsolved riddle
The circumstantial evidence that Sargent was gay is almost overwhelming, yet there's no documentary evidence (letters, diaries, photos, essays) that definitively corroborates the case, except some discredited hearsay unsubstantiated rumors. What is clear is that any homosexual scandal would have destroyed him professionally and Sargent loved his high society connections (such as staying in wealthy patron's/model's country houses), the respectability and elite privilege they afforded him, as well as the lucrative payments his work provided. He was not going to endanger a lifestyle he prized.

Sargent was friendly with Oscar Wilde (though each critiqued the other's artistry) and certainly would have interpreted his imprisonment as a warning. The other possibility, not advanced by Fisher, is sublimation. Sargent was a workaholic, sketching continually, especially his private male nudes. Perhaps much of his erotic energy was channeled into his creative work.

'Tommies Bathing,' a 1918 watercolor painting by John Singer Sargent; now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art  

This is not to say he didn't have sex with men, but assuming he did, it could be contained in safe discreet quarters, such as his studio or bedroom, without the risk of seeking street prostitutes, which might have led to permanent ignominy and ruin.

Fisher is superb at describing the emerging fin de siecle queer culture and the gay underpinnings and accomplishments of the many men Sargent knew. Fisher doesn't solve the riddle of Sargent, but makes a valid case that his "engagement with ethnicity, race, and emerging globalism" as well as his ambiguous sexuality, makes him catnip to our sexually diverse, multicultural 21st-century world. For many critics, Sargent is the finest 19th-century American artist and Fisher's exhaustive, page-turning intimate biography is likely to remain the definitive account of Sargent's life.

Fisher contends, "Labels such as gay, queer, asexual have tended to curb rather than liberate the painter's opulent complexities, which transcend simplistic categories and remain fused with his lived experiences."

We may not understand all those complexities, but with Fisher's stringent analysis of Sargent's life, the world he lived in, and the art he produced, his reassessment makes him more vital and contemporary than ever. Sargent and Fisher are ideally matched. Sargent's tantalizing ambiguity remains intact and one suspects he'd be delighted that whatever secrets he harbored, will remain forever insolvable.

'The Grand Affair: John Singer Sargent in His World' by Paul Fisher. Farrar, Straus and Giroux/MacMillan, $40, 496 pages.

Read our feature on the 'Sargent and Spain' exhibit at the Legion of Honor.

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