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John Singer Sargent
We often think of the "jet set" as a late 20th-Century phenomena, but except for the ease of transportation, the "set" goes back at least another hundred years to the transatlantic liners and expatriates who couldn't decide which side of the Atlantic they liked best. One of these was John Singer Sargent. He came by his nomadic ways honestly. His parents seldom resided anywhere more than a few years and he was educated all over Europe. With that kind of background, and an early artistic bent, it is little wonder he settled in Paris as an impressionable young art student and was quite impressed with Impressionism. A painting dating from 1879 entitled Luxembourg Gardens at Twilight could easily be mistaken for a Monet. But Sargent was just as impressed by Spanish art, particularly that of Velázquez, and in Holland he found Franz Hals' work quite impressive. He seems to have been a fan of Edouard Manet as well. Thus, in describing Sargent's style, the term "eclectic" comes to mind. Actually, his style is so distinctive one might be tempted to coin the term Sargentism. His compositions were daring. Critics were often disturbed by his massive, seemingly "empty" sections of canvas and often deeply recessive shadows. His painting, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit dating from 1882 is nothing if not revolutionary in the realm of portrait composition. In 1884 he was commissioned to paint a portrait of one of Paris' greatest beauties, Madame Gautreau. The painting, is the ultimate in late-nineteenth-century elegance, the profile so striking it ranks with that of Nefertiti. But the bare shoulders and incredible, plunging neckline of the solid black evening gown were too much for even the French. When it was exhibited at the Salon, not only was Paris society shocked, but so were Judith Gautreau and her husband. Thus the portrait became known simply as Madame X. It was so unfavourably received that Sargent thought it best to move to London.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
8 March 1998

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