Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1888

Isabella Stewart Gardner wanted to make a splash in her conservative Boston social circle. The free spirited woman gave her stodgy husband fits with her publicized antics, and she wanted her portrait to reflect her free spirit. So when John Singer Sargent came to America, still fleeing the wave of disgrace that had engulfed him after he painted Madame X, she saw a golden opportunity.

It’s no coincidence that her portrait is so distinctly reminiscent of Madame Gautreau’s portrait four years earlier. Despite Sargent’s reservations (and her husband’s), she specifically requested that her dress and pose mimic those of Amelie, and agreed to pay the steep price Sargent charged for such a portrait. Unlike her Parisian counterpart, Mrs. Gardner’s portrait became a smashing success. The portrait created waves in the Boston art world, but this time critics marveled at the use of color and the stunning pose. It was a massive coup both for Sargent and for Mrs. Gardner. Everyone was not so pleased, however. While most people who saw it fell in love, Mr. Gardner was absolutely ashamed. He could not believe his wife had elected to publicly portray herself in such an indecent manner.

He forced her to hide the painting in a private room in their home until her death. Mrs. Gardner’s intellectual love affair with Sargent does not end there. Later in her life, she founded a museum in Boston—now called the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum—which was anchored by major Sargent paintings such as El Jaleo. She also became one of the most well-known socialites in Boston, remaining relevant right up to her death at the age of 84. Not only did this portrait increase Mrs. Gardner’s standing in the public eye, it also marked a significant change in Sargent’s fortunes. The man who had struggled to scrape by for four years in the wake of his Madame X fiasco finally found himself back on track to big commissions and cultural relevance.

  • 11:20 PM

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907

Hey, ladies.

Pablo Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (The Ladies of Avignon) depicts five unconventionally-painted prostitutes, subjects from a brothel on Carrer d'Avinyó in Barcelona.  (The title comes from that street name, not the French city.)  The painting has a study of the human form accentuated by a small, central still-life.  Although he completed the first draft in 1907, he repainted the two rightmost heads after a breakup with a lover and did not exhibit the completed piece until 1916.  His display was met with fervent criticism as he was accused of destroying the human and womanly forms, reducing them to crude, unfeminine shapes.

Picasso drew inspiration from various sources of art from across time.  The composition and poses are reminiscent of post-Impressionist Cézanne's The Bathers.  The ladies' confrontational manner is supplanted from Manet's Olympia.  Between 1906 and 1909, after his Rose Period, Picasso modeled many of his works after African indigenous art, such as the mask above from the Dogon people of central Mali.  The faces of the three women on the left are instead interpretations of Iberian masks, with large, triangular noses and almond-shaped eyes.  (As hideous as art critics thought that the Demoiselles d'Avignon were, their facial features actually indicated feminine beauty in different cultures.)  The still-life of fruit is an exercise that many painters performed, but in Picasso's painting, it creates a lush feeling, the curvaceous fruit juxtaposed with the angular, unusually-formed women.

I chose this painting as a blog subject because it demonstrates techniques of early Cubism (proto-Cubism).  Cubist theory stems in part from an assertion by Cézanne that the shapes of natural objects could be reduced to cylinders, spheres, and cones.  New postulations in science about the nature of time, like Einstien's Theory of Relativity, influenced artistic visions.  Cubists often strove to evoke contemporaneity in simultaneous but different perspectives of the same subject.  At the same time, others sought to make their works seem like an incidental, miraculous intersection of many planes, a goal that Les Demoiselles d'Avignon appears to match more closely.  Beyond the techniques that distorted conventional shapes and viewpoints, cubists still wanted a unity across the canvas, as Les Demoiselles does with complimentary colors and neutral shadows and accents.  The painting marked a transition into a new and influential period of modern art that questioned standard perceptions of time, beauty, and form, trying to find the most basic possible representation of humans.

  • 7:00 AM

Loplop Introduces Loplop

Max Ernst, Loplop Introduces Loplop, 1930

When Max Ernst was fifteen years old, his younger sister was born on the same day that his pet cockatoo died. He blamed the newborn Loni for stealing the life force of his pet, and even in his later life continued to conflate bird and human, life and death. As the other Surrealists did, Ernst took Freud’s admonition to “analyze the symbolism in his dreams and other unguarded thoughts” to heart, and he used his art as a way to explore his subconscious, including his childhood fears and the hallucinations he suffered after a bout of measles. A “menacing nightingale” figured prominently in these hallucinations, and even after his recovery he purposely tried to bring back his visions. He saw birds as symbolic of freedom, while humans sought control and represented the Freudian concept of the superego.

Page from Une Semaine de Bonté, Max Ernst, 1934
Page from Une Semaine de Bonté,
Max Ernst, 1934
The character of Loplop, Superior of Birds, came out of this combination of symbols, and appeared in many of his works. Serving the role of narrator and presenter in Ernst’s “collage novels,” Loplop was both a reflection of Ernst’s own personality and a spirit animal or totem of sorts. Loplop takes many forms, both male and female, and displays the heads of many different birds. The aspect of the hybrid creature varies wildly from endearingly goofy to erotic to grotesque and intimidating.
Loplop Introduces Loplop features the titular figure with a fanciful head resembling a chicken and painted in a primitive, tribal style, with multiple arms, displaying a framed collage a la Vanna White. Other images of Loplop were created directly with collage, pasting bird’s heads over the bodies of men and women in formalwear. Loplop is the central figure of Une Semaine de Bonté, a work entirely in collage and a predecessor of sorts to graphic novels. The surreal, deeply personal imagery of this and other Ernst novels is, even today, poorly understood.

  • 7:00 AM

Gust of Wind

Louis Anquetin, Gust of Wind, 1889

Synthetism was a movement started after some disgruntled artists decided they were tired of all things Impressionist. In order to move past the famous period, the artists of the Synthetism movement painted not what they saw, but what they remembered seeing, and took total control of their scenes. The leaders of the Synthetism movement were known for solid color blocks, shapes outined in black, and little perception of depth. Anquetin was no different. Anquetin, along with Emile Bernard, headed a movement within Synthetism called Cloisonnism, named after it's similar appearance to the form of mosaic which used melted metal in the between the shapes. This technique was frequently noted as looking somewhat like stain glass windows, and is what Anquetin became famous for.

This painting takes place over the Seine River in France. Although little is known about the details of the painting, it serves as a good representation of what Synthetism was all about. It is quite possible that the scene is something that Anquetin saw one day and decided to recreate at a later time, as many of his fellow artists did. The scene clearly differs from the Impressionists because the scene lacks the realistic qualities that they strived for. The horses, buildings, and woman are all outlined in black, which was traditional of Sythetism. In addition, the colors are clearly not as Anquetin really saw them, and the clouds did not really look that way, but in typical Synthetism fashion, the general idea of the scene is portrayed. 

I picked this painting because I really like the way Anquetin paints the scene. I like that the colors are blocks, but there are some variations of the colors. I also like that the painting has some motion without the use of shading or color mixing. For me, the scarf is what makes the title of the painting make sense. Although there is some movement in the horses manes, the scarf's swirling qualities draw attention to the chaos that Anquetin felt in the scene. Despite how uncharacteristic the swirling scarf is for the movement, I liked it because it draws attention to how motionless the rest of the scene is.

  • 7:00 AM

Two Girls With Parasols

John Singer Sargent, Two Girls with Parasols, 1889. 

In John Singer Sargent's career he painted over 900 oil paintings and 2,000 watercolors, which doesn't even include the endless sketches and charcoal drawings. After the scandal of Madame X, Sargent's portrait career ended in Paris but eventually grew in Britain and America. Sargent painted Two Girls with Parasols five years after his strapless gal got him in hot water. The tree and the woman in the center create a barrier from the lush green on the right and the rough browns on the left. The contrast of the colors is not harsh, instead it flows.

Sargent's brushstrokes smoothly sweep across the canvas, which allows the colors to not only stand on their own, but look like they belong. These strokes allow the painting to move, not just because the women are facing left. The brushstrokes start in the top right and slide down to the bottom left, aiding the woman in pushing the viewer's eye. 

The most interesting feature of this painting is the faceless women. Is he allowing the identity to be anyone, or is he hiding the true identity from the scandal of Madame X? Is Sargent's reputation still harmed five years later, that he wouldn't paint the faces of his models? The unrevealing dresses, shade from the tree, and shade from the parasol seems to put the women in the dark; they even seem constrained. Even though there is space for the action to move, the shadows and the clothing make the women timid. Their gaze does not meet the viewer (the lack of eyes help), and it seems to be a passing moment of hiding.

  • 7:00 AM

Symphony in Violet

Albert Gleizes, Symphony in Violet, 1931

Orphism, arguably a subsidiary of Cubism consisting of artists that would have been unfortunately forgotten otherwise, attempted to combine music and art into a singular experience. Prescribed by Guillame Apollinaire in 1913, Orphism's name stemmed from Orpheus, a legendary musician in the  Metamorphoses most known for attempting to retrieve his wife, Eurydice,  from the Underworld… and failing. A non-representational style of art, Orphism concentrated on color contrast and space. Many of the artists Apollinaire dubbed Orphists could better be catagorized as Cubists. In fact, Robert Delaunay, the most famous Orphist, would shy away from being labeled as such unless the connection to music was involved. Delaunay was heavily influenced by Michel-Eugene Chevreul's theory of simultaneous color contrasts. The theory tests the idea that, instead of seeing one color at a time, one is able to process multiple colors at one time. In correlation, Wassily Kandinsky, an expressionist, claimed to have synaesthesia: being able to see a color when listening to music. Apollinaire's direct definition of Orphism stated that it was, "an explanation of color and geometry that owed nothing to the actual forms of art."

Albert Gleizes, better known as a self-proclaimed founder of Cubism, painted Symphony in Violet in 1931, years after the Orphist movement had come and gone. Yet Gleizes' title links the core Orphist themes of music and color. His abstract shapes, primarily circular, are distinctly influenced by Delaunay. To really get the full effect, I'm listening to "Preludes, Les Filles Aux Cheveux" by Debussy. While I think that this painting is less of a Debussy and more of a Stravinsky, the only way to fully experience this painting is with music. This, I believe, is was that Orphists were trying to achieve: an experience. Often times paintings only use sight, you look at a painting, but do not touch, hear, smell, or taste it (disclaimer: please do not lick any paintings). Orphism demands that you use more. You have to hear the color and see the music, and owe nothing to the reality of art.

  • 7:00 AM

Fashion Show

Hannah Höch, Fashion Show, 1925

If Hannah Hoch lived in 2014, I would imagine her art would look pretty much the same as it did during her lifetime from 1889 to 1978. She thrived under the influences of Dada in Germany during (and after) World War I. As a woman, her perspective on Dada was different than that of the hyper-political George Grosz or Marcel Duchamp. In German society, and even within Dada, Hoch faced discrimination due to her gender. For the first time, women’s culture was put in the limelight with the emergence of the fashion industry and mass media aimed at women’s beauty standards. Having worked for a fashion magazine under the Ullstein Verlag publishing company in Berlin, Hoch new firsthand the impact the fashion and advertising industry had on society, and she hated it. Her art was inspired by an acerbic disproval of the fashion industry and society’s obsession with women’s beauty. Rather than sit at a vanity pondering over an assortment of creams like the archetypal woman of the time, Hoch turned to Dada to criticize society and express her views of women’s liberation. Hoch’s rejection of media’s portrayal of women led her to create art that combined different media to satirize the values that women seemed to venerate.

Hoch used an art form called photomontage for most of her work. She popularized the method and it easily complimented her dada style. Photomontage involves piecing together different parts of photographs to make seamless illusions. In Fashion Show, which Hoch created in 1925, the main focus is the three female forms in a line in the center of the canvas. Each form is dressed exactly alike, however where a face should be, instead are pieces of different faces molded together. The “faces” are disturbing at best, with parts of mouth, distorted eyes, and mismatched expressions. And the name, Fashion Show, could not be any more spot-on.

I said I imagined Hoch’s art would look the same in the modern times as it did 80 years ago, and here’s why: Between Photoshop scandals, ridiculous fashion trends, and every pretentious fashion blog out there, the fashion industry is just as distorted and absurd as it was in Hoch’s time. The trends have changed, as well as the designers, but the monotony and corruption remain the same. 

  • 7:00 AM

Albert de Belleroche

John Singer Sargent. Albert de Belleroche. 1883.
The way John Singer Sargent and Albert de Belleroche met was the prelude to a beautiful bromance. Belleroche, then a student at Carolus-Duran’s studio, happened into Sargent’s favorite restaurant one night in 1882. The two had met briefly once at a dinner honoring their mentor Carolus-Duran, but they did not know each other then. On that night at L’Avenue, Sargent was so captivated by Belleruche’s slender figure and exaggerated features that he sketched Belleroche without him knowing it. Later Belleruche was overjoyed to find his portrait in the restaurant’s album. He tore the page out and took it home. 
John Singer Sargent. Head in Profile of a Young Man. 1883.

The two quickly began friends, sharing a studio space in Paris where they sketched and painted each other. Sargent painted Belleroche in more thirty works of various poses and costumes, ranging from a medieval courtier to a Spanish aristocrat. Even when Sargent focused on his masterpiece of Madame Gautreau, he was thinking about Belleroche. Sargent’s drawing, most commonly thought of as a sketch for Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast, has been proposed by art historians that Sargent merged Madame Gautreau and Belleruche into one image. The “brooding and romantic quality” in these works, argues Deborah Davis, suggests a relationship went beyond friendship or mentorship.

Sargent had started to draw Amelie but transformed her into Belleroche, an indication of his emotional confusion in that summer of 1883. Some even go as far to say only when Sargent confirmed his desire towards Belleroche had he lifted his artist’s block and allowed himself to concentrate on Madame Gautreau. Could the peripatetic lifestyle and loneliness in Sargent’s early life make him afraid of “otherness?” After all, as an expatriate, otherness was a feeling Sargent knew all too well. Other than his works, however, there is little evidence about the artist’s private life. But if he was gay, does it matter? On the bright side, this speculation gives Sargent scholarship a new direction. Until recently, Sargent was seen as a slick, superficial society painter. Discussions about his sexuality, whether relevant to the art, forces people think about implications of sexuality.
  • 11:50 PM

Mrs. Henry White

John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Henry White, 1883

Painted just before Sargent's famous Madame X, Mrs. Henry White was painted in a fashion that was perhaps more of what Virginie Gautreau had in mind. Mrs. Henry White, otherwise known as Margaret Stuyvesant Rutherfurd White, was of similar social standing to Madame X. Margaret was the wife of Henry White, a wealthy US diplomat, and the daughter of wealthy parents. Like Madame X, Sargent's painting was supposed to immortalize the fame of the socialite. Not only was this a way of maintaining her status, but it would help to get her well known quickly amongst high society by being captured by the next big artist.

Unlike their similar lifestyles, there were some major differences between Sargent's portrayal of Mrs. White and Madame X. Mrs. White is elaborate but modest, clean, well put together, and clearly very wealthy. Although the background of the painting is relatively plain, the red and gold chair certainly make a statement. Mrs. White's dress is also elaborate, covered in draping and ruffles, unlike Madame X's famous garb. At first the painting was not overly well received, as it seemed to be nothing special according to the critics, but at least her painting had the lasting effect she was looking for.

This painting is one of many that gained Sargent the fame necessary to be chosen by Madame X for a portrait. I chose this painting because I couldn't help but wonder how the lives of Madame X and Sargent would have been different, had Madame X's portrait been more like Mrs. Henry White. Would Sargent have been even remotely as famous as he is? And would Virginie Gautreau's fame have dissolved just as Margaret White's?

  • 9:49 PM

A Gust of Wind

Sargent, A Gust of Wind, 1886

While working on Madame X in Brittany, Sargent painted Judith Gautier. I choose this painting of Sargent's because Judith is absolutely fascinating to me, and Sargent paints her in a way that perfectly describes the person I would imagine Judith Gautier to be.

She grew up thrown into the arts by her father, Theophile Gautier. As a writer he pushed Judith to read outside the box, and she become accustomed to a bohemian lifestyle that she took on "with a vengeance" (Davis 114). Her father asserted his independence and non-conformity by never marrying her mother, which might have something to do with Judith's controversial marriage herself. She married super star bachelor, Catulle Mendes, who was a writer like her father. They climbed into the elite social arts groups together. Because of her desire to climb the ladders, Judith turned the other cheek to her husbands quite public infidelity. Victor Hugo and Richard Wagner helped Judith to realize that she could still stand in social graces on her own as her marriage finally ended in 1874. Relationships with the men she met with her husband quickly turned into flirtations and Judith became the ultimate fan of the arts. As the number one groupie, "she convinced them that she alone understood art and its importance" (Davis 115).

To me she has a lifestyle that has taken her quite a long way, but is she really an independent superstar riding on the backs of these talented artists? If her goal was to become an independent women I'm not so sure because using Hugo for government pension so she can keep living the high life doesn't sound too independent to me. She is definitely one of a kind, and I believe Sargent's painting of her here shows just that. She was known for embracing Asian culture and wore kimonos often - as seen here and alone in the open - and he has painted one of his magnificent portraits in true Sargent fashion.    
  • 7:00 AM

Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife

John Singer Sargent, Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife, 1885

It is sometimes little uncanny to discover the most unexpected things could somehow intertwine. Couple weeks ago I saw this Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife in the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas. And now I’m writing about this portrait of certain Stevenson who turns out to be the author of one of my childhood favorites, Treasure Island. A little different from how I imagined him I have to say.

The composition is somewhat odd and the portrait of Stevenson as he fidgeting across the room and his wife Fanny in the back right is nevertheless strange too. As Stevenson himself put it, "it is too eccentric to be exhibited. I am at one extreme corner; my wife, in her wild dress, and looking like a ghost, is at the extreme another end...all this is touched in lovely, with that witty touch of Sargent's, but of course, it looked damn queer as a whole." Stevenson published his most celebrated work Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1886, just a year prior to this painting. So Stevenson might very well be working on his book at that moment--walking around chasing his thoughts in the room. 

After the scandal of Madame X in Paris, Sargent retreated to England and had a hard time getting commissions. He depended on his friends for a while and painted them in their everyday life. Sargent met Stevenson in Paris in 1874 and remained friends for the rest of their lives. And it is here on this canvas that the artist captured a colleague in his most intimate and least self-conscious moment as he looks intensely into the viewer while dwelling deeply in his work.
  • 7:00 AM

Portrait of "Fanny" Watts

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Frances Sherbourne Ridley Watts, 1877

Sargent painted this portrait of Frances Watts, affectionately called Fanny, in 1877. She was a childhood friend, perhaps even a romantic interest; however more so than that, she was his ticket into the art world. At only 21 years old, Sargent and his portrait were accepted into the Salon and thrown into a world of fame and recognition. Judges and critics loved the portrait, calling it “charming” and “promising.”

The portrait embodied France’s aesthetic and stylistic values of the time. Fanny Watts’ ivory skin and coiffed hair appealed to French taste while distinguishing her as a lady of affluence. She looks in the direction of the viewer – or perhaps Sargent – with a coy gaze that French women have somehow perfected. Her position on the chair is telling of the modernity of the portrait. Unlike traditional portraits, where the subject is seated, straight-backed, and rigid, Sargent paints Fanny in the midst of raising herself up. Sargent often paid attention to the pose of his models. He often positioned them in unconventional ways, drawing attention to different aspects of the body. Her twisted torso and extended arm, paired with that coquettish gaze, evoke a sense of 
vivification. Although this portrait is conservative, that splash of red and shadow of knee hints at Sargent’s boldness that would soon surface in later paintings.

  • 7:00 AM

Madame Gautreau Drinking A Toast

John Singer Sargent, Madame Gautreau Drinking A Toast, 1882-3

Preceding his famously controversial portrait of Madame X, John Singer Sargent painted this far more intimate and gentle piece as a gift to Madame Gautreau's mother. One of my favorite parts of this piece is what Sargent coins, "the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Madame Gautreau." This work was actually a simplistic sketch for quite a while, but Sargent decided to finish it and add more life to his subject.

It's a delicate piece. Gautreau's skin seems to glow against her dark background, the lines of her dress and body not completely clear; instead smokily fading into the darkness. She cheers either to herself or someone separate from the scene; separate from her hazy nonchalance.
  • 7:00 AM

El Jaleo, Sargent

El Jaleo, John Singer Sargent, 1882

There are only a handful of words able to describe the feeling of watching a well-trained dancer, nimble, graceful even cunning, and Sargent finds a way to extract life from paint- an ability to create a moment. Born into an era where art was “great” made finding a particular facet of the discipline very difficult and somewhat daunting. Should one take the naturalist approach of those in the Rococo? Or stray towards the realism of Courbet.

Sargent like many artists before had established a close partnership and rivalry with his dearest friend Belleroche. His emotionally-charged relationship guided the work he created, ensuring that no piece would be left unable to stand on its own. The sensuality and intensity of their relationship transcended into arguably one of Sargent's best works El Jaleo. Nowhere is it more evident than in this piece the strength of his approach to realism, the eleven-foot wide canvas clearly represents the grandeur and scale of his sentiments.Inspired by his trip to Spain in 1879 and in the throes of his romantic crush, he paints a Spanish dancer being swept away by the rhythm of the music, her form effortlessly gliding about the space. Sargent's love for Gypsy music and elaborate garb could not have meshed in a more perfect manner. The illuminated form tumbles through the painting, her disheveled appearance only adding to the intensity of her movement.

Entered into the Salon in 1882 Sargent demonstrated a new level of involvement with his figures, a parallel from his brush stroke to his inner emotions. Sadly being an American he never received the recognition he deserved from the Parisian upper class. Far worse than his lack of social acceptance was his dear friend Belleroche becoming a cocaine addict and shortly thereafter dying.

  • 7:00 AM

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit

John Singer Sargent, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882
Edward Darley Boit approached Sargent before the Madame X scandal to commission a portrait of his young daughters.  Not only was Sargent one of the most sought-after portraitists of the time, but he, like Boit, was also an American expatriate artist living in Paris.  Perhaps his realization of the Boits' and his common experience led him to commit his own feelings to the canvas, turning a simple commission into something intensely psychological.  In the Boit daughters's portrait, Sargent sees himself and expresses his own uncertainties about the future.

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656
The painting draws inspiration directly from Velázquez's Las Meninas.  Both paintings share similar dimensions (but Daughters is almost exactly square) and use of depth, casting shadows across their subjects.  Each of Boit's daughters poses uniquely, the two youngest in front and the eldest further back.  Two Japanese vases roughly frame the painting, the possessions larger than the girls themselves.  The Boit family donated them along with the painting to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, allowing the viewer to be completely immersed in the scene.

The Daughters maintains a prevailing sense of isolation and unease.  The unconventional composition could be playful in a different execution, but the subdued hues and poses seem to rob the painting of the quiet contentment.  Even the little girl in the foreground looks preoccupied, ignoring her pink doll.  The larger-than-life setting dwarfs the girls, from the strange vases and the tall red divider to the fireplace in the background.  The brushwork is quite good -- look at the light on the leftmost girl's skirt, or the youngest's fine hair -- but the picture seems somehow unsettling.  Perhaps Singer incorporated his own feelings into his art -- uprooted from one's country, the future was too mysterious to contemplate, a dark uncertainty infiltrating the backdrops of his work.

Sargent  entered the painting for the Paris Salon d'Automne in 1883.  Despite some critics accusations that it consisted of "four corners and a void" for its unusual shape and composition, it was well-received.  Would that the Boit daughters had fared so well.  Whatever vague shadows haunted the portrait consumed the sisters later in life.  The younger two remained close, but the older two both developed isolating mental and emotional disturbances.  None of the four ever married.  After a short trip to Madrid to hang alongside its 1656 inspiration in El Prado, the prescient painting was committed to its current museum in Boston, a source of eerie wonder.  The portrait only proves Sargent's deep understanding of his subject and mastery in describing their emotions on the canvas.

  • 7:00 AM