John Singer Sargent and the Art of Reinvention

John Singer Sargent: An Artist I admire

 

The problem of Choosing a Topic

As mentioned in a previous blog post, I haven’t been painting much lately. This is a challenge because, without artwork to illustrate my blog posts with, I don’t know what to write about. Over the past few weeks, I have considered writing about art business related topics. However, since I have been having some doubts about whether I want my art to be made mainly for pleasure, such as a hobby or for profit, based on a business model. In fact, I sometimes feel that making art for profit, sometimes steals the joy of creating, and it often involves a host of other tasks I don’t enjoy such as marketing and bookkeeping, which also takes away the limited time I have to make artwork.  To resolve this problem, I am going to return to an earlier topic which I had enjoyed writing about and that is, artists I admire. In this case, I will focus my discussion upon the life of John Singer Sargent, and his subsequent reinvention as a painter around 1900, in which he shifted his focus from creating oil portraits of high society figures to creating watercolors of people and places he visited in Europe.

Re-Invention of the Self: A pop culture staple

All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, and imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. If we don’t, our lives get made up for us by other people. —Ursula K. Le Guin

The topic of reinvention is important to me because I am in the process of trying to separate others ideas of what they think I should be doing with my life, and my own conflicts between pursuing art, and what role I want it to play in my life. Is it a profession, a hobby or something in between? Along the way, I have also been sidetracked with other pursuits such as pursuing more practical lines of work, such as graphic design and social work, and even, art entrepreneurship. This is a process that began in 2005 when I graduated from McDaniel College with an art degree to the present moment.

That is why reading about Sargent’s journey to aesthetic reinvention, in the article, “Examining Sargent’s Shift from Oils to Watercolors”, by Judith H. Dubrinsky, of the New York Times, caught my eye and inspired me to write about him.  I took classes in both graphic design and social work and after much ambivalence and indecision, decided ultimately that they were not interesting enough for me to complete a degree and change my career direction. It seems that I always return to making art no matter what other avenues for employment, volunteering or education that I have pursued. As I have been introspecting about this process of shedding layers of false selves, my truer self-seems to be emerging, and I am finding fulfillment in finally getting to pursue my dream of teaching art. Meanwhile, I am working part-time as a receptionist, who provides stable income and a sense of security, when art sales are low or the teaching contracts are not long-term, as is the case with my new contractual position at Buckingham’s Choice. The topic of reinvention, however, is not just limited to the past, as in the case of Sargent. Instead, it can still be observed in more current times.

For example, in  popular culture, a good case in point of the re-invented self  is found in the 2009 movie, Julie and Julia, a biopic about the life of the renowned chef, Julia Child, which is intermingled with the life one of her fans, Julie Powell who aspires to be a cook, but struggles with finishing things, like her novel. Powell gets inspired by Child’s book, The Art of French cooking, and takes on the challenge of cooking all of Child’s recipes from the book, and blogging about her adventures and mishaps during this journey. In addition, the writer, Georgina Del Vecho, in an article, Can You Really Reinvent Yourself? States that, “Countless teen movies revolve around the plotline of a transformation—“The Princess Diaries,” “Grease,” “She’s All That” and “Clueless,” to name a few—which, even if the transformed character ends up realizing they’ve forsaken their morals in pursuit of popularity/fame/a man, still suggest that changing your appearance or other aspects about yourself can help you reach your goal.” (Source: Del Vecho, Georgina. “Can You Really Reinvent Yourself?” The Chronicle: The Independent News Organization at Duke University, 09/13/2007, https://www.dukechronicle.com/article/2017/09/can-you-really-reinvent-yourself, accessed on November 15, 2018.)

Another example of transformation, which is popular today, is the notion of changing your profession and seeking to find a dream job, such as leaving the corporate world to start your own business, especially during the retirement years. (Source:  Freedman, Marc. “The Dangerous Myth of Reinvention.” The Harvard Business Review, January 1, 2014, https://hbr.org/2014/01/the-dangerous-myth-of-reinvention), accessed on November 15, 2018.)

These examples, however, opens up the question, such as, do these types of transformations really change who you are as a person, or not? I’m particularly interested in this questions and the journey of reinventing myself because I have been making some significant changes in my own life. For years I have wanted to teach art, but haven’t known how to go about it. For example, I have faced many roadblocks to getting qualified to teach after I obtained my baccalaureate degree in art. Despite taking the standardized teaching certification test, called the Praxis 1 test many times, I could not pass it. This test is required to obtain teacher certification in the state of Maryland, and it allows you to apply for teaching jobs in the public school system.

After that, I was rejected to four graduate degree art programs, which is a required qualification if you want to teach art on the college level. It seemed that all doors for teaching art had been effectively closed.  I have driven down many detours and pursued lots of classes and volunteering, most of which not related to art, but seemed more “practical.” Making time for art and thinking about how I wanted it to be a part of my life got sidelined. For years, I simply focused on survival and paying my bills, which was important because I had student loans to pay off. However, after my father died in 2011, it was a catalyst to motivate me to find a way to make art a part of my life again.  Initially, this began by taking art classes with Rebecca Pearl, a local Thurmont, MD artist, and teacher. Later, it grew to include a sideline as a pet portrait painter and exhibiting my artwork in local art shows. Recently, I have begun teaching art classes in an enrichment art class at the retirement community in Adamstown, Md, called Buckingham’s Choice, and I have applied for a position as an enrichment art teacher at Frederick Community College in the Institute for Learning in Retirement. However, this journey hasn’t been easy. I’ve had to work against my inner resistance to change, even good change, and fears of the unknown, to get to this new destination in my life. But, upon reflection, I’m realizing that perhaps the biggest failure of all, would be not to pursue one’s hopes, dreams or ambitions and settle for the unresolved life, which is  characterized by “what might have been,” or “if only.”

John Singer Sargent: Artistic Scope and Reinvention

That’s why I was intrigued by an article entitled, “Examining Sargent’s shift from Oil to Watercolor”, by Judith Dubrynzynski, a writer for the New York Times. (Source: Dubrynzynski, Judith. “Examining Sargent’s shift from Oil to Watercolor.” The New York Times, March 20, 2013, https://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/21/arts/artsspecial/new-appreciation-for-the-watercolor-works-of-sargent.html, accessed on November 15, 2018.)

I tend to associate Sargent with oil paintings of well-known entities such as Theodore Roosevelt and the robber baron John D. Rockefeller. But, little did I know that he had much more range and ability in the arts than I can imagine. In fact, sometime around 1900, Sargent abandoned his oil paints and picked up watercolor paints instead. (Source: ibid) According to the author, Dubrinsky, he abandoned painting portraits of high society figures and instead focused on painting “gardens, exotic locales, and people at leisure, at work and at rest, often on his travels in Europe and the Middle East. Experimenting with unusual compositions and new techniques, he reinvented himself aesthetically.” (Source: ibid)

Furthermore, later in life, he painted a series of murals for the Boston Public Library, with the theme of the Triumph of Religion. According to the Boston Public Library, Sargent, depicted several themes in his murals, including “early Egyptian beliefs, Judaism and Christianity”, in his murals, located in the McKim building of the Boston Public Library. (Source: “Digital Commonwealth: Massachusetts Collections Online, Mural Cycles at the Central Library in Copley Square”: Boston Public Library, https://www.digitalcommonwealth.org/collections/commonwealth:sq87dv033, accessed on November 15, 2018,   and The Art Story,  “John Singer Sargent: American Painter”,  https://www.theartstory.org/artist-sargent-john-singer.htm, accessed on November 15, 2018.)

 

Note: You can view examples of Sargent’s murals at the Boston Public Library by clicking on this link: https://www.digitalcommonwealth.org/collections/commonwealth:sq87dv033,

John Singer Sargent: Biography

All of this makes me wonder, who was Sargent really? According to a biography written by Stanley Meisler,  Sargent lived a peripatetic life in Europe during his childhood, although his family originally lived in the New England area. (Source: Dubrynzynski, Judith. “Examining Sargent’s shift from Oil to Watercolor.” The New York Times, March 20, 2013, https://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/21/arts/artsspecial/new-appreciation-for-the-watercolor-works-of-sargent.html, accessed on November 15, 2018., and  Meisler, Stanley. “John Singer Sargent”. Smithsonian Magazine, February 1999, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/john-singer-sargent-65338011/, accessed on November 15, 2018.

He obtained his artistic training at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France. (Source: ibid) Furthermore, some of his artistic influences included:  the artists: Goya, Velasquez, and other contemporary Impressionist painters, and he quickly put into practice the lessons he learned from these masters. (Source: ibid)

What Made John Singer Sargent’s Work Exceptional?

According to the website, The Art Story.org, John Singer Sargent was a celebrated portrait artist who specialized in painting pictures of the elite members of society, such as the oil magnate J.D. Rockefeller, and the presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, in locations such as Paris, London and New York. (Source: The Art Story, “John Singer Sargent: American Painter”, https://www.theartstory.org/artist-sargent-john-singer.htm, accessed on November 15, 2018.)

What distinguished him from other artists was the way that he revolutionized portrait painting by utilizing impressionistic brushwork and nontraditional compositions to “capture his sitters’ character and even reputation.” (Source: ibid) And sometimes his models did not like the completed painting and even refused to buy it, perhaps because it revealed uncomfortable truths? (Source: ibid)  The portrait, Madame X, painted early in his career is a prime example of this tendency. (Source: ibid)

Sargent’s Range of Artistic Projects: Watercolors and Murals

However, he did not limit himself to portraiture; instead, he also painted outdoors with his colleague, Claude Monet”. (Source: ibid)  In addition, Sargent also created murals which were commissioned by government officials in the US and in the UK later in his career. (Source: ibid) He was a talented young painter and he created a “spectacular array of exciting and masterful paintings while only in his twenties.”(Source: ibid)

Scandal in Paris Salon of 1884: Madame X Painting

Despite these accomplishments, in 1884 at the Paris Salon, his portrait, Madame X, created a stir amongst the leaders of the Paris art establishment, who found its depiction of the American ex-patriot, Virginia Gateau, too blatantly sexual, in her low cut black dress which showed a shocking amount of her skin for the 19th century time period and standards of the day. (Source: Baker, Harriet. “The Story Behind John Singer Sargent’s RA ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose.” The Royal Academy, 13 February 2015, https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/john-singer-sargent-carnation-lily-lily-rose, accused on November 15, 2018.

After his debacle in Paris, Sargent moved to England “and spent summer seasons in an artist’s colony in Broadway, Worcestershire”. (Source: ibid) At this location, he painted the stunning and timeless painting, Carnation Lily, Lily Rose, which epitomized the innocence of childhood, and helped to bring him back into the arms of the art establishment. (Source: ibid) Sargent’s inspiration for this double portrait came from a variety of sources such as artwork by the English Pre-Raphaelites, and the Impressionists who painted en plein air. (Source: ibid)   However, his initial inspiration for this painting can be traced back to “an evening boating trip along the Thames at Pangbourne in 1885, when he saw Chinese lanterns hanging from trees.” (Source: ibid) He began working on Carnation Lily, Lily Rose during a visit with Francis David Millet. (Source: ibid) The two girls who posed for the portrait were Polly and Dorothy, who were daughters of the artist Frederick Barnard. (Source: ibid)

 

Closing Thoughts: Why I feel a kinship with Sargent

In conclusion, I feel I can relate to Sargent’s life story in a small way, such as his search to find success, his failures, and his desire to reinvent himself in his middle age. In a similar way, I am at a crossroads in my life and looking for ways to reinvent my life via teaching art. I’m also shedding old selves, perhaps influenced or invented by others or myself. I’m trying to be completely honest with myself about what I really want to do with my life and what I want my contribution to society to be. I am not even sure I want to be an artist-entrepreneur anymore, and I am re-examining what it means for me to be an artist.  For now, I am finding that teaching others to draw and paint is incredibly rewarding, and it seems to be part of that answer. I admire Sargent’s courage to break free from his comfort zone, and perhaps from the expectations of others about what he should paint. I hope that I can grab onto some of that courage.

 

Readers, Please Note: The paintings I am posting to accompany this blog post include not only a portrait that Sargent completed, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,  but also some other master artworks

Copy of Caranation Lily, Lily Rose
After John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. 1885, oil on canvas. I painted this portrait in 2017.
Sohpy Gray portrait_edited-1
After John Millais. Portrait of a Girl, 1857, oil on canvas. I painted this portrait in 2017 with oils on prepared illustration board.
The Family copy_edited-1
After Mary Cassatt, The Family, 1893, oil on canvas. I painted this painting in 2007 with oil paints on prepared illustration board.
Ocean park copy_edited-1
After Richard Diebenkorn, Cityscape 1, 1963. and Ocean Park series # 79, oil on canvas. I painted this painting with oil paint on prepared illustration board.
Woman on a Porch, 1958, Richard Diebenkorn
After Richard Diebenkorn, Woman on a Porch, 1958, oil on canvas. I painted this painting on a canvas with acrylic paintings in 2017.

which I have copied and which I intend to make part of an art history blog series. Thanks for reading! Next month I plan to write about the artist Eastman Johnson. Have a wonderful day!

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