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National Review
National Review
6 Jan 2024
Brian T. Allen


NextImg:Seducers in Red, a Chesterfield Coat, and a Baron with a Whip

{T} oday I’m writing mostly about the men whose portraits John Singer Sargent painted and are displayed in Fashioned by Sargent, the elegant new exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. On Thursday, I wrote about the ladies. Today is the gents’ turn.

Sargent’s sitters are sumptuously, often glitteringly dressed. He became famous starting around 1880 for his portraits, painted in a slasher brushstroke style, his subjects sparkling with sprezzatura and, often, dressed to the nines. Around 1907, though, he more or less retired from portraiture, sick of his demanding, difficult clients and, barely 50, a rich man.

For the rest of his life, he focused mostly on mural projects and scenes of everyday life populated by friends with whom he vacationed. He was an exceptional watercolorist as well. During the First World War, Sargent was an official war artist. He had an eye for fashion but also an eye for devastation.

Left: John Singer Sargent, John D. Rockefeller, 1917, oil on canvas. (*Kykuit, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Pocantico Hills, N.Y., bequest of John D. Rockefeller 3rd, Nelson A. Rockefeller, Laurance S. Rockefeller, David Rockefeller, *image by Ben Aden, *courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) Right: John Singer Sargent, Woodrow Wilson, 1917, oil on canvas. (Public domain/via Wikimedia)

Portrait-wise, he made exceptions for those on Olympus such as Woodrow Wilson and John D. Rockefeller and did hundreds of small, charcoal portrait drawings, but his portrait days were otherwise done. So, his portrait career coincides with the Gilded Age in America and Britain’s imperial peak, of which Henry James said, “It’s nothing if you are great and good but everything if you are dressed.”

Fashioned by Sargent exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

In his lifetime, critics saw Sargent as a woman’s painter, much as George Cukor was a woman’s director. He was made for taffeta, silk, satin, and velvet, color adventures, jewelry, and dresses with territorial ambitions. Rich men might have been too busy for the seven or eight two-hour sittings, sometimes more, that Sargent required for a full-length portrait, but rich women were vain enough to endure them for the sake of posterity. What did Sargent do with men? He painted a bunch, many busts of friends, so they were not fashion-focused, but lots went over the top, and I don’t mean trenches.

In Charles Stewart, Sixth Marquess of Londonderry, from 1902, he showed his subject in his state regalia, carrying the Great Sword of State at Edward VII’s coronation. Lesser men made for a challenge. On the one hand, men’s fashion in his day was limited, mostly to the long, black frock coat and the dark business suit. On the other, London was, and still is, the center for high style for men. Sargent’s men are indeed soigné at its zenith. Even in a black business suit, they mean more than business.

And no one does that touch of louche better. Dr. Pozzi at Home, from 1881, painted when Sargent was only 25, is the Old Master swagger portrait translated into the language of private space, decorum be damned. The Pozzi portrait belongs to the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, a place now known for contemporary art, but it’s lent freely. I’ve seen it lots of times, but it never ceases to startle.

John Singer Sargent, Dr. Pozzi at Home, detail of the hands, 1881, oil on canvas.

Pozzi, then 35, was living in Paris and already a pioneer in gynecology. From his crimson robe de chambre dangles a thick, long, suggestive tassel. Turkish slippers on his feet, he stands before a closed red curtain leading to we-can-surmise-where, and it’s not the front steps of Notre Dame on Palm Sunday. His rangy fingers are his tools in work but also off duty. I never realized how knuckled they are. One hand is pressed against his heart as if to promise he’ll keep a secret. Sargent got the finger arrangement from an El Greco portrait.

Paintings of women in the boudoir, or retired for the evening, are a dime a dozen, but men? I can think of Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus but not many more. With Bactrian invaders at the gate, the Assyrian king had just retired for the evening and for eternity to a suicidal pyre. Years after Sargent painted him, Pozzi was indeed murdered, in 1918, by a former patient who thought Pozzi’s surgical work had left him impotent. Jacques-Louis David painted Marat in his bathtub, but he’d just been stabbed to death. David also painted a half-length portrait of Dr. Alphonse LeRoy in 1783, wearing a red dressing gown and a blue turban, but he’s working at his desk, burning the midnight oil.

Thomas Eakins, Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), 1875, oil on canvas.

I don’t think Pozzi commissioned the portrait, though he sat for it. Sargent was young and saw a daring subject. Unlike Madame X — and the two portraits are sometimes seen as a pair but they aren’t — Pozzi wasn’t a professional hunk to her professional beauty. He was an esteemed doctor, a professor at the University of Paris, and a scientist, yet Sargent’s take is about as far from, say, Thomas Eakins’s Gross Clinic as we can get. The Gross Clinic, from 1876, shows Gross in an operating theater, scalpel in hand, old and learned, and brow furrowed. I believe Sargent saw The Gross Clinic when it debuted in Philadelphia. He filed the memory away.

In Eakins’s work, masculinity is the stuff of work, risk, mastery of tools, leadership, saving lives or commanding a battlefield, and the public sphere. Such was the establishment artist’s take on men starting from the Renaissance. If at home, the man is stewarding his dynasty. The Pozzi portrait seems to subvert all of this. Rich, sumptuous color hadn’t been a staple of men’s dress for decades. Pozzi’s crimson brings color back to the sphere of Mars. Sargent opened the door to men as pin-ups, but few artists took a cue.

Sargent clamored to paint a portrait of Graham Robertson, a 28-year-old illustrator and stage-set designer. Robertson was tall and not thin but reedy, obviously a man, but pale and ethereal enough to raise questions among the far-sighted.

Before Sargent started the picture in 1894, he had Robertson’s clothing, or costume, in mind. A Chesterfield coat, a bit too long, gives what Robertson called “the look of a lamp post.” Sargent put him on a visual diet. Robertson’s fat poodle, sleeping at his master’s feet, looks like a mound, which makes Robertson look taller and thinner. The show and book say that Sargent was after the look of an English aesthete, but I’m not sure Sargent wanted to paint a type. Pozzi is carnal. Robertson looks like an apparition.

All of Sargent’s sitters got a good, vivid likeness. Few look dead. Robertson is distant, but how could he not be? In describing the painting years later, Sargent said, “It’s all about the coat.” He comes the closest here to Whistler’s “art for art’s sake” in which the portrait sitter is part of a design.

John Singer Sargent, Henry Lee Higginson, 1903, oil on canvas. Right: John Singer Sargent, Lord Ribblesdale, 1902, oil on canvas.

Sargent painted Henry Lee Higginson in 1903. He was an investment banker, key Harvard donor, and founder of the Boston Symphony. Higginson is wearing a loosely fitted wool day suit. Sargent didn’t edit out the scars of saber cuts he got fighting for the Union in the Civil War. It’s a Grand Manner portrait on the order of Reynolds and Van Dyck, but a portrait of Everyman who makes good by his canny wits, common sense, and hard work. Higginson thought the look too informal, too easygoing. He wanted a loftier look to inspire Harvard students. He would be dismayed to know that high fashion among Harvard students these days is a black three-hole balaclava.

And then there’s Lord Ribblesdale, the splendid portrait of the English baron whom Edward VII called “the Ancestor” to describe him as the essence of aristocratic style. He’s dressed in his voluminous riding outfit. A switch on Sargent’s part, since Ribblesdale initially wanted to be portrayed in the livery of the Master of the Buckhounds, a position in the royal court created during the reign of Henry VIII.

Ribblesdale was the last holder of the title. Sargent felt that the costume was too ornate and featured too much leather, which he didn’t like to paint. Including his riding crop was a coup. Ribblesdale was the Liberal Party whip in the House of Lords in the 1890s.

It’s a coup to gather all four portraits for Boston, which, by the by, has a long history with Sargent. His life’s biggest commission was the mural project for the Boston Public Library. His last big commission, done before he died in 1925, was a suite of murals for the MFA’s rotunda and grand staircase. The main 1925 memorial exhibition to Sargent was at the MFA, which also hosted his stupendous 1999 retrospective.

I live in rural Vermont, where plaid flannel is ubiquitous, sweaters are hand-knit, only laid-out corpses wear ties, and shoes are, above all, treaded like tanks and waterproof. It’s nice to begin the year looking at the sartorial splendor that Sargent delivers.

I have my favorite Sargents and would have ditched things here and there, and added things, which the MFA may have requested but didn’t get. Portraits of Philip Sassoon, Albert de Belleroche, Ian Hamilton, Mrs. Frank Millet, Mrs. Charles Inches, and Vernon Lee are modest. Javanese Dancer, from 1889, is a clunker. There are too many pictures of Sargent’s scenes of everyday tourist life among his friends.

Loan-wise, you get what you get, and I don’t know what the MFA sought and what its budget demanded. John Hay’s bust portrait would have been a worthy substitute, and not only because he’s snappy in black. He was Lincoln’s assistant during the Civil War. At 20, he was a new hire for a green president in a red-hot – white-hot — crisis. He rose to become the secretary of state under McKinley. Hay sat for Sargent in 1903. It’s a gorgeous painting, but a bust portrait and he’s wearing a basic black business suit. What Hay said of his experience with Sargent is good enough to include it in the show: “He stands off from the picture, looking at you through and through, then jumps at the canvas and whacks it with his brush.”

I’d also include a couple of the Bedouin watercolors from 1909. The men aren’t dressed by Savile Row, but their cloaks and kaffiyehs are dramatic enough. Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes, from 1897, best expresses the look of the New Woman, that ideal of women as athletic, opinionated, and formidable. Mrs. Stokes, recently married, is front and center while her husband fades into a dark background.

The show has an “Another Perspective” component, drawing from observations by outsiders supposedly unsullied by expertise. It’s fake populism. Here, they’re tiresome — “Almina’s portrait is the perpetuation of an Orientalism that strips women of their dignity and voices.” They could be irrelevant — Sargent didn’t emphasize Mrs. Inches’s pregnancy, but artists today would — or inane — yes, women used feather fans, but so did drag queens and men in the days of King Tut. And the “outsiders” are graduate students or professors. They’re peripheral insiders. Next time, drawing from Bill Buckley, they should just enlist random names from the Boston phone book.

The catalogue is wonderful. It’s scholarly, but art lovers would enjoy it. The MFA’s books are written for people with brains who aren’t eggheads. I loved Dominic Green’s essay on the Ribblesdale portrait and Elaine Kilmurray’s “Riot of White” essay. Don’t fret. It’s not on white supremacy. Sargent was a brilliant painter of white, in all its variations, and could deploy it to express simplicity, luxury, virtue, or purity. Kilmurray and another essayist, Richard Ormond, prepared the massive catalogue raisonné of Sargent’s paintings. At eleven volumes, it took 30 years to produce and is the zenith of art. The essays are a mix of pieces focusing on individual portraits and focusing on themes. They’re all good.