Back to the City - IV

Some painters seek to flatter their subjects.  Others work very hard to do just the opposite. I suppose it comes down to this: Is the painter working for the sitter or is the sitter working for the painter?

In the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I came across this charming scene, pictured above.  A father kneels besides his son, perhaps explaining the painting to the lad, Washington Crossing the Delaware by the German-American painter, Emanuel Leutze (1851).  I had never been drawn to the painting.  It always seemed so staged, so theatrically heroic.  It has always seemed (to me) to be a "highly-inventive portrayal"—though it does chronicle an actual moment in America's early years (Christmas Day, 1776). I suppose that I find Leutze's flattery is too apparent, too contrived. 


John Singer Sargent was also accused of flattering his subjects—rich titans of industry and their families.  True, they paid big dollars for his services.  And these subjects wanted their family members presented in a way which communicated that "We've made it" (or "We still have it").   Shown above, a detail of Sargent's large portrait, The Wyndham Sisters (1899). Apparently, Sargent succeeded.   When the picture was exhibited in London in 1900, the Prince of Wales (soon to become King Edward VII) dubbed the painting "The Three Graces." Note how simply—how effortlessly—Sargent conveyed so much with one spontaneous, flamboyant brushstroke.  With a few, quick motions, Sargent captured so much: the light glancing-off the taughtly-pullled satin skirt, draped over the anatomy of her crossed knees.  



Sargent is one of my favorite artists, especially in the modern era.  His ability to convey complexity with minimal brushwork makes him a model of the emerging Modernity. Further, I believe that I can "read" just how much Sargent enjoyed spending time with a particular subject—just from looking at his picture of them.  Young, handsome men seem to be a favorite.  And he liked certain women, too: those well-connected girlfriends with whom he could share the latest society intrigues and gossip.

While Sargent's society portraits paid the rent, he also painted a wonderful collection of "art pictures" which he made for his own amusement and enjoyment.  Venetian scenes, woodland studies, male nudes.  Shown above, a small portion of his Bringing Down Marble from the Quarries to Carrara (1911).  Two Italian quarrymen are captured hard at work on the hillside, amidst the dangerous boulders, sharp fragments, and occasional landslides of quarried marble.



Shown above, Sargent's Il Solitario (The Hermit, 1908).  In what appears to be an almost abstract study of a sun-dappled forest in the Italian Alps, one can perceive two deer and a man—all camouflaged within the spontaneous brushstrokes.



Finally, a lovely picture by one of the masters or American Realism, Thomas Eakins, titled Arcadia (1883).  Eakins led an unconventional life—at least by Nineteenth Century American standards.  He was a prolific portraitist.  And he taught (and later led) the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where he made an important contribution to a generation of younger American artists.  Eakins was fascinated with the human body, women's and (especially) men's.  His instance on portraying nude bodies—and requiring his art students to study them—got Eakins into trouble more than once.  As a result, Eakins's importance was dismissed for decades after his death.  Today, he is considered amongst the most influential of American painters.  Though past generations of art historians refused to discuss it, it is now commonly believed that Eakins harbored homosexual longings.  He did marry; his future wife, Susan Hannah Mcdowell, is one of the models in the painting above.


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