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What John Singer Sargent Saw

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Perhaps you also know the famous “Madame X”?

She with an aquiline profile, alabaster skin and a plunging black neckline was recently transported to the Tate Britain, in London, for the second stage of “Sargent and Fashion” (until July 7), which made its debuted at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston last fall. The retrospective brings together more than 50 works that highlight the portraitist’s interest in the way clothes make a man or woman.

In 1882, John Singer Sargent and his subject Virginie Amélie Gautreau were both twenty-something Americans living in Paris, outsiders eager to enter the city’s rarefied circles and learn the unspoken rules of class and of decency. The young painter, newly admitted to the prestigious Salon of the French capital, asked the beauty from New Orleans, known for her eccentric cosmetic routine (she covered herself with white powder tinted with purple and made up the edge of her his ears) to sit for a portrait. .

This strikingly modern painting, with its clean palette and austere lines, pleased both its painter and its sitter, but when it was publicly exhibited in 1884, critics described Gautreau as haughty, his dress crude. Others have criticized Sargent’s painting as overly stylized and indecent. Gautreau’s mother said he had destroyed her daughter’s reputation. Sargent removed the young woman’s name from the title of the portrait and replaced it with “Madame X”, but the damage was done.

An unfinished preparatory study hanging nearby shows the real scandal: one of the dress’s diamond-studded straps was originally painted off the shoulder, as if it had momentarily slipped during an evening out, or, worse yet, perhaps the state of undress was intentional. Following the outcry in Paris, Sargent repainted the fixture securely in place, but he never showed the painting again and was forced to decamp to London to restore his quarry. In 1916, after Gautreau’s death, he donated “Madame X” to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, writing to its director: “I suppose it is the best thing I have done.” »

He may have been right, but in the decades that followed, and until his death in 1925, Sargent produced work that showed a rare sensitivity to the scrutiny that women faced in the public eye. For these women, clothes were a kind of armor, but also an opportunity for self-expression at a time when gender roles were increasingly shifting.

Throughout the exhibition, Sargent refers to himself as a “stylist” – a contemporary but effective term to describe the way he arranged and interpreted his models’ clothing, in person and in painting. Portraits were a place of exchange between the subject and his audience, but also of collaboration between the subject and his painter.

In “Lady Sassoon,” a 1907 portrait of Aline de Rothschild, the highly educated music lover is depicted in a sumptuous black opera coat of silk taffeta lined with pink satin. Compared to the real cape, hanging fixedly on screen as most of the models’ costumes are, Lady Sassoon’s painted ensemble is composed of energetic undulating lines and folds, its pink interior flashing where Sargent must have pinned the sleeves for contrast.

Nearby, “Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth” (1889) captures the famous British actress in a bejeweled green dress and an embroidered brown dress, her long red tresses braided with gold, as she lifts in the airs the crown of her murderous husband. Terry’s elaborate “Beetle Wing Dress” is displayed nearby, illustrating Sargent’s confident rendering of its luminous details.

Sargent painted artists, women of the world, artists, writers, socialists and suffragists. Some brought boxes of dresses to sessions only to have them thrown away by the painter who might insist on draping the fabric to produce sumptuous ad hoc ensembles or, conversely, suggest that they wear the simplest fashion.

“I see you! I see you!” Sargent finally said to a customer dressed in a simple black dress, after eagerly watching her make her way through all her finery. Others were depicted in decidedly unfeminine clothing, as in the costume “Vernon Lee” (1881), which depicts Sargent’s friend, a writer born Violet Paget, who chose an androgynous nickname and look. In many of these portraits there is a sense that the painter, himself an outsider – a long-term expatriate, a single (and perhaps gay) man in Victorian London – was keenly aware of the difference between being looked at and be seen.

And then there are the details. I have rarely heard “beautiful” pronounced so many times, in such a hushed tone of reverence, during an exhibition. The skirts billow like clouds. The colors are sweet like ice cream. Pearl necklaces feature delicate opalescent stumps. The flowers are bright spots held in the hands or pinned against the chest and neck.

“Lady Agnew of Lochnaw” (1892) is a vision of gossamer white, her waist surrounded by a purple band that spills out from her side as if she had come to life. “Lady Helen Vincent, Viscountess d’Abernon (Helen Venetia Duncombe)” (1904) is enveloped by a flash of brilliant pastel pink that hovers and twists like a colorful abstraction.

In his later years, Sargent stopped taking commissions and spent his time painting friends and family, often en plein air. These works, not adapted to the requirements of patrons, demonstrate a remarkable sense of impressionist experimentation. “Two Girls in White Dresses” (1911) shows the titular characters reclining in an alpine meadow. The foreground is dominated by the skirts of one of them, and her little face stands out from the mass of folds of fabric as if it – like the surface of the painting – had dissolved into planes of color. Canvas is, after all, a textile in itself.

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