Tuesday, 3 April 2018

John Singer Sargent in Boston

There is a lot of John Singer Sargent in Boston. He's one of those artists that most people know the name but probably not a lot of his work. That was certainly me until  few years ago when I went to the great exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London when I saw a much wider range of his works. One of his paintings is even the object of a ballet performed by the Royal Ballet. Then I saw a range of his watercolours at Dulwich Picture Gallery last year so I was ready to have my horizons expanded beyond society portraiture and that's what you get in Boston. He's all over the place.

The first painting of his that I saw i Boston was his portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner that hangs in the museum of her name. Apparently she knew Sargent socially so is graced with her own portrait. The painting is in her 'gothic' room in her museum and looks out over a small panel by Giotto so she's in good company and is still keeping an eye on her treasures.

I next encountered Sargent in the Museum of Fine Art a bit further up the road from the Gardner Museum when I spotted a drawing that drew my attention. The pose reminded me of a model I'd drawn a few weeks earlier on one of my life drawing classes so I walked closer to have a look and saw it was by Sargent. I don't think I've seen a nude by Sargent before so that was a surprise but, I suppose, he's actually drawn all sorts of pictures.  He painted the dome and ceiling of the museum and there's an exhibition of his sketches in the space underneath the dome. I suspect this model was Thomas E McKeller of whom there is is an excellent portrait in the Sargent room upstairs.

This is an excellent portrait on so many levels. I'd never associated Sargent with nude paintings but, of course, he must have made many as all artists do to get the hang of the human figure. This is such a direct pose, so vulnerable and strong at the same time. I just stood there for a moment thinking 'Good grief, this is Sargent?'. Apparently he used Thomas as a regular model and he's the basis for many of the Sargent murals in the MFA. This is a great painting. The other paintings in the Sargent room are more like you'd expect from him, formal portraits and paintings with children but this powerful painting of a naked man is the one that will stay with me. It's very impressive.

There are more paintings by Sargent in Boston Public Library. It's a big old Victorian mausoleum of a building with big murals on the walls, grand staircases and lifts with the names of benefactors. Sargent's murals about religion are on the second floor (or Level Three in American) and are free to access. A few of the sketches at the MFA are sketches for these murals so it was nice to see them. I found it particularly strange to see a sketch of Christ on show - definitely not your standard Sargent drawing!

We see ancient Egyptian gods and demons at one end of the hall and Christ crucified at the other end. It's all very strange and painted in deep, rich colours. It's not entirely clear to me what Sargent was trying to say through these paintings even though he spent a long time working on them. It's a really odd collection of strangely religious, strangely mystical paintings that need an explanation but that's exactly what Sargent doesn't give us. He seems to be saying 'make your own minds up'.

I'm really pleased to have seen these drawings and paintings by Sargent that broaden my understanding of his work. Yes, he was a society painter but he was so much more. I've never understood why there were so many books about him but now I do. There's an angle to Sargent that can please almost everyone, you just need to find that angle. Boston is a good place to start.

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