Connect with us

DailyArtMagazine.com – Art History Stories

Beyond Madame X: Portraits by John Singer Sargent

Artists' Stories

Beyond Madame X: Portraits by John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent Self-Portrat Portraits by John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent, Self-Portrait, 1906. Florence, The Uffizi Gallery

John Singer Sargent is one of art history’s most famous portrait painters. He was born in Italy to American parents and received his formal artistic training in Paris, where he quickly became successful at the all-important annual Salon. He soon began to receive commissions to paint socially important men, women, and families – first in France and later on in England and America. He also made oil and watercolor sketches of the people and places he encountered on his extensive, worldwide travels.

John Singer Sargent, Lady Evelyn Cavendish Portraits by John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent, Lady Evelyn Cavendish, 1902. Derbyshire, Chatsworth House

Ada Rehan by John Singer Sargent Portraits by John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent, Ada Rehan, 1894–5. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sir Frank Swettenham by John Singer Sargent Portraits by John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent, Sir Frank Swettenham, 1904. London, National Portrait Gallery

The glamorous portraits by John Singer Sargent are popular and easily recognizable today. His subjects look elegant and romantic thanks to his soft brushwork and his skill at depicting the beautiful fabrics that adorn his fashionable subjects. His works often have a subtle, yet powerful, psychological component to them. They always manage to convey a sense of the person beyond the painting.  In his many family portraits, he frequently used unusual compositions to hint at the relationships within the family. In all things, he was a master at striking a balance between innovation and tradition that satisfied his clients and the art establishment. His style sometimes seems to reflect the attitude of the sitter, with conservative subjects receiving the most conventional treatments.

The Wyndham Sisters by John Singer Sargent Portraits by John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent, “The Wyndham Sisters: Lady Elcho, Mrs. Adeane, and Mrs. Tennant”, 1899. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit by John Singer Sargent Portraits by John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882. Boston, The Museum of Fine Arts

John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children Portraits by John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children, 1896. London, Tate Britain


The steady stream of commissions from prominent families formed the basis of Sargent’s success, but he also painted non-commissioned images of turn-of-the-century society’s most fascinating characters. He actively sought out certain socialites, actresses, singers, and other celebrities and asked them to sit for a portrait. One such case was his famous Madame X, the elegant-but-aloof American-Parisian socialite named Amelie Gautreau. The work is widely admired today as a symbol of turn-of-the-century elegance and high society. However, it was very controversial in its time for being overly suggestive and unflattering to its subject. This was Sargent’s only work to receive such criticism, which has only enhanced his lasting fame today. It is now an icon of style that eclipses the scores of other beautiful ladies and handsome men he painted during his career.

Madame X by John Singer Sargent Portraits by John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent, Madame X, 1884. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

There’s no question that Madame X is a classic, but my favorite Sargent painting is of Scottish noblewoman Lady Gertrude Agnew of Lochnaw. In her portrait, Lady Agnew wears a pale purple dress with a big sash and sits in a floral chair with an Asian hanging on the wall behind her. She looks directly at the viewer.  In many ways she’s so demure. Her dress is modest and frilly, her dark hair is simply styled, and her posture is casual without being too relaxed. However, the way that she looks at her audience is strong and quietly assertive, and her facial expression is neutral, but far from passive. Unlike the brazen Madame X who looks away from the viewer, Lady Agnew shows her own confidence by looking directly at us. That’s what I find so compelling about this painting.

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw by John Singer Sargent Portraits by John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent, “Lady Agnew of Lochnaw”, 1892. Edinburgh, The National Gallery of Scotland


We encourage you to see portraits by John Singer Sargent reconstructed in photographs with Nicole Kidman!

Sources: Davis, Deborah. Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2003.


Ormond, Richard & Elaine Kilmurray. Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends. New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2015.

Trumble, Angus. “The Soldier, the King, and the Proconsul: an Edwardian Processional” in Trumble, Angus & Andrea Wolk Rager eds. Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2013. P. 11-37.


“Catalogue” in Trumble, Angus & Andrea Wolk Rage eds. Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2013. P. 161-162.

“Past Exhibition: Lady Agnew of Lochnaw”. New York: Frick Collection, 2014. Accessed November 1, 2017.

    


Alexandra believes that enjoying the art of the past is the closest she can get to time travel, only much safer. When she’s not being an art historian, she can usually be found ice skating and dancing. Visit her at ascholarlyskater.com.

Comments

More in Artists' Stories

  • 19th Century

    Painting of the Week: Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The Roses of Heliogabalus

    By

    Lust, Gluttony, and Sloth. Three of the Seven Deadly Sins are depicted in Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s The Roses of Heliogabalus. Many other sins are depicted alongside these cardinal vices making this an extremely wicked painting. While the late Victorian world was morally prudish and clad in...

  • 19th Century

    Jane Morris. A Pre-Raphaelite Muse and Artist

    By

    Jane Morris (1839–1914) was an English embroiderer and artists’ model who embodied the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of beauty. She was a model and muse to her husband William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood Three rebellious young artists, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82), William Holman Hunt...

  • 19th Century

    Jane Poupelet: Bronze, Paper and Commitment in WWI

    By

    Jane Poupelet was a French sculptress and illustrator most known for her involvement in World War I. There were not many female artists at the time so Jane Poupelet had to really stand out to succeed. She distinguished herself from others through the themes of her...

  • 19th Century

    AE Russell’s Visions of Ireland

    By

    George William Russell, known as AE, painted the spirits and visions he had seen since childhood. His Irish landscapes are topographically familiar, but juxtaposed with fairyland qualities. Russell’s paintings glow with light and soft colors, which often form a background for faeries and spirits of folklore....

  • 19th Century

    Painting of the Week: John Singer Sargent, Madame X

    By

    Happy Birthday, John Singer Sargent! If you were alive, you would be 164 years old! The world has changed substantially since 12 January 1856, however your legacy has stood enduringly. You are still considered the leading portrait painter of your generation. The late 19th and early...

To Top

Just to let you know, DailyArt Magazine’s website uses cookies to personalise content and adverts, to provide social media features and to analyse traffic. Read cookies policy