John Singer Sargent

Ena and Betty, Daughters of Asher and Mrs. Wertheimer

John Singer Sargent ranks high in my list of favourite painters.  In particular I love his portraits.

The above is his 1901 portrait of Ena and Betty, Daughters of Asher and Mrs Wertheimer which hangs in the Tate Gallery in London, close to Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.

Sargent befriended the family and  Asher Wertheimer, an art dealer, helped Sargent obtain commissions.

I visited the Tate yesterday on a glorious sunny summer morning and as in my wont I wandered the gallery stopping at whim, at random when some painting or other grabbed my attention.

I am a Johnny-Come-Lately to the visceral attractions of visual art, although my first visit to the gallery was in 1970, when I was at school round the corner in the precincts of Westminster Abbey.  I am ashamed to say I have been all too rare a visitor in the intervening period.  My wife is rather scornful of my late attraction to culture since she, unlike me, studied the history of western art at school.  Well as far as I am concerned, better late than never.

My attitude to culture is that it is to be enjoyed and, if possible “understood”.  As with literature I don’t really need to know a great deal about the painter to appreciate what he is trying to tell me (or, perhaps more probably, his patron).  A few details of the artist’s life and his place in the society of his time can greatly enrich my experience but are not strictly necessary for me to enjoy and understand his work.

In any event, I did learn a little about John Singer Sargent, an American expatriate in Europe, and in London in particular.

The more personal details are that he appears to have been an avid and busy lover and while nobody seems to know for sure, some believe his lesser known erotic portraits of the male form suggest his taste may have veered in that direction.

It is said by some that Sargent may even have used a male figure as an initial model for his stunning and controversial 1884 portrait of Mme Gautreau, American wife of a French banker in Paris.

Whatever his personal life may have been he was a favourite of the important and wealthy in the late Victorian and Edwardian days: his clients included Roosevelt, Rockefeller, and Lady Randolph Churchill amongst other luminaries of his time.

Anway while such details are of interest to me, my pleasure in art is of quite another sort. Sargent’s glorious portraits do something for me. Mme Gautreau was a beautiful woman and the Wertheimer daughters, while not so beautiful, were nonetheless wonderfully portrayed.  The female form, beautifully attired, is indeed a work of art, however it is portrayed and in whatever medium.

The sheer voluptuous elegance of his woman, the richness of their costly gowns, the translucent skin. And the evocation of those now far off days. The “certainty” of that period; the days of Empire of world domination that brought such security and power to what in those days was rightly described as Great Britain.  The luxury liners of Cunard and White Star, the glamorous first class dining rooms on those magnificent transatlantic behemoths. The J Class yachts, the robber barons, the wicked and louche Edward VII.

It is living history. I do not admire the concept of empire as my long suffering readers will certainly have gathered nor do I condone the arrogance it entailed. But I do envy the certainty of the time, which tragically was too end all too soon in the apocalypse of World War One.

Sargent’s portraits bring alive a distant and in some ways attractive and enviable age for me. I revel in his technique, the beauty of his women and the grandeur of their surroundings.

Sargent moves me.


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