Back to England - VI

Madame X by John Singer Sargent, exhibited at the Tate Britain (LEO Design)


This morning we took the train from Oxford into London.  We went into town to see the ravishing exhibit at The Tate Britain: Sargent and Fashion.  My husband and I both would rank John Singer Sargent as the finest of Modern Era artists (where "Modern" is defined as "from the Industrial Age onwards"). We had hoped to see the same show in Boston, where it originated, but were unable to make that trip before it closed at the Museum of Fine Arts.  So here we are—in London, where Sargent lived for a time and did a good bit of his work.

The organizing principle of this particular exhibit was based on the notion that "fashion" was a driving force in Sargent's career as a painter.  I would not be the only person to question this conceit.  Sargent was a highly-skilled and highly-varied painter.  While he made an excellent living painting the rich and powerful, he also painted landscapes, architecture, woodland scenes, military tableaux, and casual renderings of friends (most dressed, some nude).  When a rich person commissioned Sargent to paint himself or herself—thus engaging the most important portraitist of the day—s/he usually wished to dress in his or her finest.  Naturally, fashionable clothes would be brought to this one-time opportunity, meant to establish a sitter's legacy.  But Sargent rarely let the sitter dictate the costume—what was worn or how it was arranged.  He was known to clip, pin, tighten, loosen, re-purpose or banish certain items all together.  He knew the look he wanted in the portrait and the clothes were utilized to fulfill the artist's conception, not necessarily the subject's.

Even as I dismiss the conceit of this exhibit, I must stress: any time I can see a Sargent painting in-person, at-close-range it's a great day.  To see more than 50 of his paintings together is a life event.

Shown above, Sargent's most famous painting, Madame X.  When he painted the American-born French socialite, it was at his special request (not as a paid commission).  Originally, when the picture was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1884, he had painted her shoulder strap falling from her shoulder.  Combined with her ghostly skin tone, her "sexually suggestive" pose and the gossip of her infidelities, the painting caused a scandal in France and was a major reason for Sargent's relocation to England (where his career flourished).  He kept the painting in his private collection until 1916, at which point he petitioned the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to buy the picture (which they did).  He wrote to them, "I suppose it is the best thing I have ever done."  

Beginning in the second quarter of the Twentieth Century, academia (art schools, critics, curators) was not kind to Sargent.  After his death in 1925, Sargent was dismissed as not much more than "a Gilded Age flatterer."  Pissarro described Sargent as, "not an enthusiast, but, rather, an adroit performer." Modernism and abstract painting had displaced artists like Sargent.  In fact, as late as 1990 (when I moved to New York), Madame X was still hanging in a stairwell at the Metropolitan Museum.  Fortunately, newer academics have begun to re-appreciate Sargent—his talent and his artistic point-of-view.  Madame X now has pride-of-place in the Met's galleries.


Almina Wertheimer by John Singer Sargent, exhibited at the Tate Britain (LEO Design)


Shown above, Almina, Daughter of Asher and Flora Wertheimer, was painted in 1908. Sargent painted several portraits of the Wertheimer family.  People in the West were quite fascinated with the "exotic East" and would sometimes dress-up in "foreign costume" for parties or portraits.  At the time, it was considered playful and exotic.  Today such attempts often are criticized as inauthentic cultural appropriation.  Nevertheless, the painting displays Sargent's ability to deftly render various materials and to convey his subject's personality.


Mrs. Fiske Warren and Her Daughter Rachel by John Singer Sargent, exhibited at the Tate Britain (LEO Design)


Shown above, a detail of the portrait of Mrs. Fiske Warren and Her Daughter Rachel, painted in 1903.  The pose is inspired by traditional aristocratic portraiture of the past, however, Sargent's spontaneous brushwork brings a modernity to the picture.  Rachel's casual (and self-possessed) relaxing upon her mother's shoulder is another modern, humanizing touch.  The picture was painted in the home of Boston art collector (and Sargent friend) Isabella Stewart Gardner.


Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth by John Singer Sargent, exhibited at the Tate Britain (LEO Design)


Shown here, English stage legend Ellen Terry, shown crowning herself as Lady Macbeth. Sargent attended the opening night of this production in London and immediately set-about to paint this dramatic rendering (1889).


Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Singer Sargent, exhibited at the Tate Britain (LEO Design)


After Sargent's escape from Paris, he moved to England and spent his first summer with friends in the Cotswalds.  It was here that he painted his friend's young daughters in the picture, shown above, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885-1886). Perhaps it was an antidote after the Madame X scandal?  The painting is a masterpiece.  As twilight falls in the garden, the two sisters light their Japanese lanterns—the pink light seemingly radiating off Sargent's canvas.


Nonchaloir by John Singer Sargent, exhibited at the Tate Britain (LEO Design)


This picture, Nonchaloir (1911) has always been one of my favorite Sargent works.  Here he paints his niece, Rose-Marie Ormond, relaxing amidst a heap of satin skirting.  This is another example of Sargent painting for his own pleasure—not producing a commissioned work.  Nonchaloir means "indifference" or "nonchalance" in French.  Sargent beautifully conveys such a mood—with a healthy dose of aristocratic entitlement—amidst tasteful luxury.  The economy and spontaneity with which he painted the folds of her skirt and shawl are breathtaking.

Tomorrow we'll look at some of Sargent's men. 


Though our Greenwich Village store is now permanently closed, LEO Design is still alive and well!  Please visit our on-line store where we continue to sell Handsome Gifts (

We also can be found in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, at The Antique Center of Strabane (

Or call to arrange to visit our Pittsburgh showroom (by private appointment only).  917-446-4248