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John Singer Sargent, meeting the worlds of Art, Fashion and History

Sunday, 28 February 2016
John Singer Sargent is a painter from a world apart. First of all, he is American, which is enough rare when you study Art History to be highlighted. Only few of them became well-known in the European Art History, where we basically find 19th and 20th centuries painters from France, Italy and United Kingdom. But Sargent has been admitted in the European Art History, by chance. The young man quickly left Italy where he was born to go back to United States with his parents when he was only a child. But growing up he started painting, and quickly understands that he has to go there to become someone. From British's coasts to Paris, where he'll meet the most influent artists of the end of 19th century, being a part of the born of Impressionism, arriving at the right tome to live a big turn in Art History. Claude Monet will only be one of the many people he was lucky to meet in Europe, but the reason why he came to the old continent was way more personal. He was there to become famous, and since he arrived in London in 1885 he putted all his efforts to achieve his goal: to become an influent portraitist. But the way we see this artist today is far from the one people of 1880's did. Criticized for his portrait representing all of the figure, with women with way too pale skin color, as well too sensual, too tall, not enough in the details, too blurred, well, everything was out of people's tastes. But from the distance, many paintings and studies later, and after several decades, everybody has to admit that he's a true master in his field. But more than this, with all of his works, he also left archives of the past, many information concerning fashion, History, lifestyle, and nouveaux riches. Meet the portraits of an American painter who knew how to link different worlds: Art, Fashion, and History. 

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Lady Helen Vincent, Viscountess D'Abernon, 
huile sur toile, 1904, Museum of Art, Birmingham, Alabama

    Portrait gender has always been more than just art, it had a social utility. Actually, lords, popes, kings, rich people, or even artists, were represented in painting to show themselves to others, to present there rank and their activity. Portrait is like a mirror, showing those important people to a curious audience, so the one painted has to be represented in the most advantageous way, his gesture and his outfit has to show who they are, letting know in an obvious way to show someone's place in the society. By a dress, an attitude, you can define the activity of somebody, and also if we talk about rich or poor people. It's at the same time something that tells us about somebody, but as well about a specific time in History. And Sargent helps us today to know about people of his time, and to learn about the lifestyle of those years. 

     Joshua Reynolds, Mrs Richard Crofts,                                                              John Singer Sargent, Violet, oil on
     oil on canvas, 1775, Dixon Art Gallery                                                           canvas, 1886, Private Collection

    A lot of artists of all periods of time practiced this gender, which is very popular, especially in the United Kingdom where portrait is considered as the most important art. Mostly because painters were able to realize portraits of very important men and women, as clergy men. At the end of the 19th century, Sargent arrived in the United Kingdom and distinguished himself with his works from out of the crowd, influenced by the new-born impressionism movement. I'd rather talk properly about Sargent's works, but before I have to show you some technical aspects of his art, just as you can understand in a better way what he tried to achieve. When he arrived in the UK, people criticized many part of his technical work: his paintbrush was too fast, his lines too strong, and above all, his portraits were way too technical, and it wasn't what was expected from a portrait in those times. It has been a long and tough road to be recognized as an influent portraitist, but time has helped him to change his way of painting, and going more and more clearly in the impressionism path he finally convinced the audience that he was an American painter worth the European ones. After the first critics recognized his talent, everybody started to see Sargent as a painter with a smart and elegant style. He focuses all of his attention on the face, trying to paint the more details he can, working on the facial expression, but also on the outfits' detail. But the back of the canvas is always quickly painted, with a dark color, and visible paintbrush marks, and in is that way he is able to make the most of the figure, who is the only element on the canvas, and so it is the only thing audience focuses on. By choosing the full-length portrait, far from the traditional paintings with hunting dogs in front of a massive house like Joshua Reynolds did, he succeeded in becoming the one who revolutionized portrait style. Thanks to his popular clients, he has been put under the spotlight and his work became more and more well-known by European artists and critics. The new thing that he brought in portrait style was the primacy of the figure, only element of the canvas. Sargent puts all is attention on the face, his expression, outfit's details, but also a realistic point of view concerning the body that he tries to represent as true as possible, far from idealistic representations. The precise touch lets him focus on the facial expression that is more than just an emotion, he can represent women's sensibility, or men's strictness and harshness, he's able to show their character, and clothes help him to do so. Sargent created a dialog between art and fashion to met is meet a personality hereafter the figure. Face introduces us to the man or woman's character, clothes complete the portrait with social and personal information, as one's tastes. Working in partnership those two elements lead to historical and biographical paintings, telling us about a lifestyle, but also a period of time, a society, and also fashion and social classes. John Singer Sargent is way more than a painter, he is a historian of ones lives.
I've decided to talk about some portraits to illustrate what I said, some canvas where we can find the elements we mentioned before, art, fashion, and History. The first painting that I would like to talk about is a portrait in bust representing Mrs. Charles E. Inches (Louise Pomeroy), painted in 1887, in Boston. 

John Singer Sargent, Mrs Charles E Inches (Louise Pomeroy), oil on canvas,
1887, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
    In my view, this art work is surely one of the most representative of what I try to explain, that does mean the link between art, History and fashion. Sargent's style is easy to recognize, with a figure just under the spotlight, luminous, with pale skin in front of a dark back quickly painted. The painter wants the viewer to only see the woman, whose beauty is her principal asset. Let's admit it, it's not that far from the standard portrait style, but the American painter choose subtlety instead of an obvious message. First of all, we can clearly see the social rank of the woman, especially thanks to her jewels, a diamonds necklace and a brooch, and also her skin color, very pale - tanned skin was peasants' skin color because they worked in the fields, so rich had ti have white skin to show they weren't working outside - which shows us that it's a rich woman that Sargent has painted. As we can see, details are more in the face than in any other place of the painting, but another point tells us about her social rank, combined with her jewels, her dress. John Singer Sargent has an interesting relationship with fashion. I can't say if he was personally interested in fashion, but as a real portrait painter he tried to know better this world to represent fashion in the right way. Like today's fashion photographers, he had to know what he was representing, to know how to make it look beautiful. Louise Pomeroy is here wearing a dress inspired by the one designed by the French designer Worth. And the fact that historians have been able to recognize his style shows us that the painter perfectly knew how to represent fashion of one moment in time, and also of one country. The amount of work on the dress is not as important as the one on the face, as we can see we can't really see what is the fabric of the dress, and on the other side, popes' portraits of the 16th century are way more detailed concerning their red outfit, so detailed that we're able to distinguish silk from velvet. Sargent hasn't put that much importance in those details, he only gives us information, show us the limits of the dress and the figure, gives only a detail, the bow on the arme, uses the dress to show Louise's slim-waist, but don't go very much further. And we could ask ourselves, why? An artist interested in fashion, always dealing with people living fashion of their time, why did he hasn't gone further with the dress? There is only one answer, even if the dress is important, nothing is more important than the model's face. He only wants to put all of our attention on her serene face, showing thanks to this part of her body way more than fashion codes, but her character, her feelings, whom are way more interesting than the dresse that we see only after we've noticed every single point of Louise's personality.
    Now I would like to talk about another painting executed by Sargent, the portrait of Alice Vanderbilt Shepard. I choose this one only because it is one of my favorite, and so in my view, one of his best work. I know why I love it, it's because of the girl's face, her determined expression, and that is what caught my eye, what the painter has been able to don how he painted her character that is what impressed me here in this portrait. Her pale face seems to have been blushed by her determination and strong temperament, and si it is even more apparent thanks to her hair tied in a braid and the black background. Dark lips, frowning eyebrows, a hard and childish face at the same time, here Sargent completely confused me and I didn't know what to think about this portrait. I couldn't say a thing about her character, I was troubled, and I didn't know  what I should conclude on she really was, unable to choose between ardor and coldness. Her face was a mystery, but thanks to her outfit I finally understood who she really was. A tuxedo with a Garibaldi shirt, hands in pockets, frowning face with a fiery smile. I was finally sure of myself, Alice Vanderbilt Shepard was an impertinent and careless young woman, I couldn't see her in a different way. Here Sargent confused the viewer who doesn't know what to think about this 16 years old girl, with a determined eye, a fiery expression and her so special outfit, sketched and detailed at the very same time. His work is like a mirror with a legend which tell us everything that we want to know about this young American girl. Once more, the clothes are only sketched, but it is enough to show us that it's not about a night dress or a luxurious one, not even a deep neck, but a strict and feminine shirt, added to a tuxedo jacket replay austere, actually what a man could have wore in those times, more than teenage girls were used to wear. On an historical point of view, the outfit is as well really interesting. We learn that Italian fashion has made its way to United States in 1888, and added to that, we know that women adapted those clothes to their personal looks. In this painting, we've reached John Singer Sargent's work's paroxysm. We learn about an historical fact, we confirm that an outfit is an open door to someone's personality, and finally we understand that in portrait art, details are beautiful, but never as important and as mesmerizing as the character of the one painted. You can watch this work for hours, because every second you will feel like you'll learn more and more about that girl, Alice Vanderbilt Shepard. 

John Singer Sargent, Alice Vanderbilt Shepard, oil on canvas,
1888, Private Collection

    By studying Sargent's works one after another, I've quickly realized that every single one was partly blurred, on the body part, and that the face had to inspire feelings, emotion, and learn us about the character of the person represented. And the fact that the blurred part is always the body, outfit part, confirms what I was trying to say: like a fashion designer, Sargent uses clothes to enhance the woman who's wearing it, and not to hide her behind an impressive dress. Outfit is here, worked, great, like in the portrait of Mrs. Wilton Phipps, with massive brushstrokes, but as well many details, just sketched, as the bow on the arm, or the flower in the corset, but the dress even if it's detailed, doesn't capture all of the attention. Perfectly painted, dresses let us travel to another time and let us know more about fashion at the end of 1880's, giving us the codes of the high-society thanks to a balance between figure and face. And I think it is thanks to its balance that Sargent can be qualified as one of the most important fashion painter in Art History. Contrary to realistic painters, to precedent centuries, to the British school, he puts all of our focus on the woman in the dress, and not on the woman and the dress. Like a fashion designer, it could be either Christian Dior or Raf Simons, Sargent worked to make her feel good and pretty, until she becomes naturally elegant with her face, combined with personality. Those portraits can be compared to the numerous mirrors used by Yves Saint Laurent, they reflect fashion, clothes, but above all they set free l'élégance de Coeur - "elegance of heart" - of women, their feelings, because without them, outfit has no matter, elegance disappears and fashion looses all interest. By revolutionizing portrait stye John Singer Sargent did more than entering in the Impressionism world with his blurred lines, he has changed how we saw people in portraits, and he snubbed fashion and history right where they were supposed to be in portrait, that does mean after emotion, feelings and characters, which are the work of art of every single man and woman.  

John Singer Sargent, Mrs Wilton Phipps, oil on canvas,
1884, Private Collection

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