Poignant Portraits

Exploring the intimate relationship between the sitter and the artist, the Metropolitan Museum of Art utilizes John Singer Sargent’s work as a case study. The exhibition entitled Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends focuses on Sargent as a career portraitist, which deviates from the comprehensive study of Sargent as a watercolorist launched last year at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Rather than investigating the mechanics behind how Sargent painted, the current show at the Met delved into the process behind how Sargent chose his sitters.

Having established himself as a premier portraitist of the era, Sargent was highly sought after for his realistic and emotive portrayals. While his monetary success derived from these commissioned portraits, Sargent often sketched sitters whom he intimately knew to experiment with color, form, and composition. Sargent painted prolifically.  Crafting canvases of his friends, family, and landscapes, he, with time, devolved his formal style to adopt the more informal mode of watercolor. It is this very devolution of formality that enlivens Sargent’s portraits shown at the Met. Full bodied, stoic portraits of well-off aristocracy are juxtaposed with Sargent’s informal depictions of his panoply of acquaintances. Traversing the exhibition, one notes the abstraction and personalization that comes to dominate his later works. His portraits capture not only his sitters’ physical attributes but also his sitters’ personal peculiarities.

Initially intrigued by the subject matter of the show, I left pondering not aspects of Sargent’s artistic style, but rather facets of his lifestyle. Living in 19th and early 20th centuries, Sargent had access to the great thinkers, businessmen, actors, and aristocrats of his time. He was in constant dialogue with those who held unprecedented influence, and was afforded the opportunity to investigate their physical and intellectual fronts. While the era that Sargent painted posed many obstacles to societal advancement, it is our own that isolates those who seek to impose societal change or alter the status quo power dynamic. At dire times such as these, I often wonder what it would have been like to live in an age where people lusted after knowledge, prized honest artistic depicts, and championed revolutionary ideals, rather than one where people are driven solely by the instant reward of monetary wealth.

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