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26 June, 2013
Sargent's Portraits
Even though you're good at it, even though you're famous for it, even though you earn big money doing it, can an artist do so much of a particular type of painting that he grows sick of them, even though their popularity demands he continue? That was the predicament in which John Singer Sargent found himself shortly after the turn of the century as wealthy European dowagers and their debutante daughters practically lined up outside his front door in an effort to join the elite group of rich and famous society ladies to be portrayed by perhaps the most successful portrait painter in history. He came to despise the "paughtraits" for which they heaped obscene amounts of money upon him to paint, referring to many of them from the latter part of his career as "mug shots."

This was not the only difficulty Sargent faced. Coupled with the fact that his portraits had ceased, even in his own eyes, to be great art; was the uprising known as "modern art." His style and subject matter came to appear dated as compared to the work of Picasso, Matisse, even as compared to a painter from his own generation--Monet. Critics declared him passť. His work was that of another century. He sought refuge in painting murals. Today, even though they were painted in England, his mural work can be found in numerous public buildings in the Boston area. He often journeyed to Boston to supervise their installation. So great was his reputation, he was even known to demand changes in the architecture to accommodate them.

Sargent died suddenly in 1925 as he once more prepared to depart London for America, this time to supervise the installation of a series of murals in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. These works augmented the biggest retrospective of his work ever mounted--113 paintings. They came to Boston in 1999, following an initial showing in Washington. Included in the show was the infamous portrait of the American-born Paris socialite, Judith (Virginie) Gautreau. It was this daring depiction of a pasty-white dilettante in a sleek black dress with its scandalous cleavage and slipped shoulder strap that drove Sargent from Paris to London in 1884. Sargent eventually sold it to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, insisting upon the title Madame X. He described his subject as having a complexion of "...uniform lavender or blotting paper colour all over." (She is said to have regularly ingested small amounts of arsenic to keep it that way.) Her mother told Sargent, "My daughter is lost--everyone in Paris is making fun of her. My son-in-law will have to challenge you to a duel." Sargent is said to have joked in response, "Every time I paint a portrait I make at least one enemy."

Contributed by Lane, Jim
22 February 1999

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