Seattle Art Museum

Seattle, WA

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John Singer Sargent

December 14, 2000 - March 18, 2001


On the heels of the wildly successful John Singer Sargent retrospective that was organized by London's Tate Gallery and traveled to the National Gallery, Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1999, the Seattle Art Museum will host its own Sargent exhibition in the West Coast's first major comprehensive exhibition of the artist's impressive oeuvre.

John Singer Sargent is curated at SAM by Trevor Fairbrother, Deputy Director of Art/ Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern Art, and will be on view in SAM's Special Exhibition Galleries Dec. 14, 2000-March 18, 2001. Fairbrother is an internationally recognized scholar of Sargent's work. He has published numerous articles on Sargent, has lectured in each city that hosted the recent Tate-organized exhibition and is writing a book that will accompany SAM's Sargent exhibition.

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), born in Florence to American parents and raised throughout Europe, "was the last great society portraitist - the Van Dyck of his time, as Auguste Rodin was the first to say," art critic Robert Hughes wrote recently in TIME Magazine. After mastering the techniques of Velasquez and Goya while an art student in Paris, Sargent created a scandal when, in 1884, he exhibited a portrait of 23-year-old Virginie Gautreau at the Paris Salon. The portrait, which emphasized the woman's bare shoulders and well-endowed figure, became known as Madame X and today is one of New York's Metropolitan Museum's most popular paintings. At the time, however, Sargent was ostracized from Parisian society. He relocated to London, where he established a successful career as a portraitist.

John Singer Sargent will approach Sargent's work from many different directions and will allow visitors to form their own impressions of the artist. The exhibition will comprise four major components: a dozen works from a traveling exhibition of Sargent's portraits of his London patrons, the Wertheimer family; 30 - 35 large charcoal drawings of male nudes; about 30 lively group of watercolors and oil sketches completed on Sargent's vacations to Italy, Spain, British Columbia and Florida; and informal portraits made throughout his career.

The exhibition showcases The Wertheimer Portraits of John Singer Sargent, a traveling exhibition organized by the Jewish Museum in New York City. Included are a dozen grand portraits of the London art dealer Asher Wertheimer and his family, painted between 1898 and 1908. Prior to the current exhibition, the paintings had not been exhibited together since they hung in the Wertheimer family's opulent residence more than 70 years ago.

The exhibition's second section features the 29 charcoal drawings from the "Album of Figure Studies" given to Harvard's Fogg Museum by Sargent's sister. The sensuousness apparent in Sargent's figure studies is evidenced in many works throughout the course of his career. The Seattle exhibition will mark the first time that all of the sheets from this rare and important album have been displayed together.

Also included in the exhibition will be numerous watercolors and oil paintings that illustrate Sargent's love of the informal and the sensual. The subjects include brightly colored rooms decorated with sumptuous fabrics, Tuscan gardens with lush foliage, Venetian street and canal scenes and witty, brilliantly executed portrait sketches of Sargent's friends and associates. (left: John Singer Sargent, American, 1856-1925 Boboli, 1907 Watercolor, 18 1/8 x 11 7/16 inches, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Purchased by Special Subscription, 09.817)

Fairbrother's accompanying book, John Singer Sargent, will available in the Museum Stores. Many Seattle-area hotels have created special hotel packages geared to the art museum traveler that include accommodations and special entry tickets to the exhibition.


John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)

John Singer Sargent, the premier international portrait painter of his time, was born in Florence on Jan. 12, 1856, the son of American parents. His father, Fitzwilliam Sargent, was a doctor who had practiced medicine in Philadelphia. The Sargents decided to move to Europe in 1854 to live as expatriates and raised their son and two younger daughters in an international and cosmopolitan world. Winters were spent in Nice, Rome or Florence and summers were in the Alps or resorts in France; Sargent emerged from this childhood steeped in art and culture and fluent in French, Italian and German, as well as English.

Sargent was drawn to the world of art and first studied in Florence. In 1874, at age 18, he went to Paris, where the finest artists of the day had gathered. He joined the atelier of Carolus-Duran, a fashionable portrait painter, and enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts to study drawing. Carolus-Duran, a friend of Manet and Monet, believed in direct, realistic painting and worked directly on the canvas with a full brush. This technique encouraged Sargent to work in a broad, painterly style.

In 1877 Sargent exhibited, quite successfully, at the Paris Salon. He continued to exhibit portraits and some subject pictures for several years and was well received as a gifted innovator who gently-and non-controversially-challenged the conventions of the Salon. Travels to Spain and Holland allowed Sargent to study Velazquez and Frans Hals; visits to Brittany, Capri, North Africa and Venice inspired subject paintings.

In 1883 Sargent moved into his own studio in Paris. That year he began his full-length portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau (Madame X), a stunning American woman he had longed to paint. Sargent exhibited the finished painting at the Salon of 1884, where hostile critics were scandalized by what they considered the portrait's provocative eroticism. This chilly reception discouraged Sargent and led him to turn toward London, where he had already received several portrait commissions. After being introduced to English society by the admiring novelist Henry James, the young artist decided to move to London in 1886.

Sargent spent the remainder of the 1880s trying to build up a clientele in London. When patrons were slow to come (he was considered quite avant-garde), he experimented with Impressionism and landscape painting. He was familiar with Impressionist work, especially that of Manet and Monet, and incorporated elements of their style in his work. However, Sargent never became as experimental with light and color and did not apply strokes of pure color to his canvases, as the Impressionists did. While his figures never dissolved in light, but were always clearly and solidly presented, he did use daringly unusual compositions and achieved a sense of immediacy in his characterizations of people.

In the late 1880s Sargent traveled twice to the United States, where he began to enjoy his first real success as a portrait painter. He was welcomed in New York and Boston and received important portrait commissions through his friends, who included Isabella Stewart Gardner, Boston's formidable grande dame, the prominent banker and collector Henry G. Marquand, and the architects Stanford White and Charles McKim. By the 1890s, Sargent was recognized as the preferred portraitist of the international elite. He was in great demand, painting 40 portraits in nine months in America in 1890; by the mid-1890s in England, he was painting three sitters a day.

After Sargent was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1894, he became the darling of the British establishment. In 1898 he painted portraits of Asher Wertheimer and his wife in celebration of their silver wedding anniversary. This commission led to a close friendship between Sargent and Wertheimer, who became an important patron. Ten further portraits of Wertheimer's wife and children ensued. By the turn of the century, Sargent began to make inroads into the English aristocracy and counted the nobility among his patrons.

As Sargent entered his 60s, he tried to move away from formal portraiture and the fashionable world that generated these commissions. He turned again to landscape, traveling often to Venice, and produced many oils and watercolors that were rarely exhibited or sold. World War I ended Sargent's ability to travel throughout Europe. He went to the United States from 1916-1918, painting landscapes and murals and portraits of John D. Rockefeller and President Woodrow Wilson.

Sargent never married. When he died in 1925, memorial exhibitions were mounted in Boston, London and New York.


The Asher B. Wertheimer Family

Between 1898 and 1908, John Singer Sargent devoted much of his time to painting a dozen large-scale portraits of Asher B. Wertheimer, his wife and their 10 children. All 12 paintings are being exhibited together for the first time in more than 70 years, thanks to the efforts of The Jewish Museum of New York City, which organized the traveling exhibition, John Singer Sargent: Portraits of the Wertheimer Family.

Asher B. Wertheimer, a well-established art dealer in turn-of-the-century London, was the son of a self-made German-Jewish bronze maker and art dealer, Samson, who emigrated to Britain in 1830. Although he arrived a poor man, Samson built a successful business dealing in art and antiques from his gallery on New Bond Street. When he died in 1892, his business was valued at £377,000 (approximately $41.6 million today). Asher Wertheimer followed in his father's footsteps, specializing in Old Master paintings and objets d'art from a New Bond Street gallery. In his youth, Asher Wertheimer traveled to Russia, Paris and other European cities, where he acquired paintings that ultimately attracted collectors in Europe, the U.S. and Britain. Among these were the Rothschild family, who favored Wertheimer over his long-established German-Jewish rivals in New Bond Street. In 1898,

Wertheimer secured his stature as a major dealer by purchasing the Francis Hope collection of 83 paintings, which included Vermeers and Rembrandts. That same year, he and his wife, Flora, celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. To mark this silver anniversary, Wertheimer commissioned Sargent to paint individual portraits of himself and his wife. Sargent, then at the peak of his career, was the most sought-after portraitist in the world. These two portraits were the first of 12 large-scale paintings of the Wertheimer family that Sargent would paint-and the start of a genuinely warm friendship between the painter and the Wertheimer family. All the paintings hung at Asher Wertheimer's opulent home on Connaught Place in London's West End; eight were on view in the dining room, where Sargent dined weekly.

The portrait of Asher Wertheimer represents him as a benevolent but humorous patriarch. Wertheimer and his family liked the portrait, which was very well received when it was shown in New York and Paris. In 1911, it was described as "one of the great portraits of the world" by The Art Journal.

The Wertheimers were not as fond of Flora Wertheimer's initial portrait, although a second painting, completed in 1904, had greater success. Between 1901 and 1908, Sargent painted Wertheimer's sons Edward, Alfred, Conway and Ferdinand and his daughters Helena (or Ena), Betty, Hylda, Essie, Almina and Ruby. Wertheimer was enormously proud of the series of portraits, which represented his children both on their own and in various combinations. His only regret, it was said, was that he had no more children for Sargent to paint.

The Wertheimer portraits were exhibited widely; many were first shown at the Royal Academy in Paris. Of the 12, six were shown in both London and Paris between 1898 and 1910. Critics raved about the paintings, and their public exhibition brought great prestige to Wertheimer, portraying him as a man of wealth and aesthetic discernment. The publicity had a positive effect on Wertheimer, both in his business and his social life.

In 1916, Asher Wertheimer made a controversial announcement for someone of his immigrant background and social stature: he declared his plan to leave nine of the portraits to Britain's National Gallery "for the benefit of the nation," requesting that they be shown together. He died two years later, in 1918. When Flora Wertheimer died in 1922, the nine paintings, which had been left to her for her lifetime, entered the National Gallery's collection. In 1926, they were moved to the new "Sargent Room" at the Tate Gallery. They remain at the Tate Gallery today.

Source: John Singer Sargent: Portraits of the Wertheimer Family, Norman L. Kleeblatt, ed., The Jewish Museum, New York, 1999


Trevor Fairbrother: Sargent Scholar

Trevor Fairbrother, Deputy Director of Art/ Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern Art at the Seattle Art Museum, is also one of the leading scholars on John Singer Sargent in the U.S. today. He is the curator of the West Coast's first major comprehensive exhibition of the artist's work, John Singer Sargent, on view at SAM Dec. 14, 2000-March 18, 2001.

Fairbrother received both a B.A. and M.A. from Oxford University and earned his Ph.D. from Boston University. Before joining the Seattle Art Museum in 1996, he was on the staff of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for 15 years. While there, he served as curator in both the American Paintings department and, later, the Contemporary Art department. Fairbrother has completed extensive research in the field of American art and has published numerous articles and books. Sargent was the topic of his doctoral dissertation (John Singer Sargent and America, Boston University, 1981), which Garland Publishing of New York printed in hardcover in its "Outstanding Dissertations in the Fine Arts" series.

From 1981 to 1988, Fairbrother served on the American staff in the Department of Paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts. During that time he wrote about the pictures by Sargent in the exhibitions A New World (an American survey organized for the Musée du Louvre in 1984) and The Bostonians (Museum of Fine Arts, 1986). He also was responsible for the acquisition of Sargent's Nude Study of Thomas E. McKeller (c. 1917-1920) by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. This informal portrait depicts the African American whom Sargent employed to model for many of the figures in his mural decorations at that museum. The painting of McKeller will be included in the Seattle exhibition.

Early in his career Fairbrother wrote a landmark essay on Sargent's repainting of Madame X (Arts Magazine, January 1981). In it he assessed Sargent's reaction to the public mockery of his portrayal of the young Parisian beauty Madame Pierre Gautreau, whom he depicted wearing a revealing black gown that she wore so brazenly at social events. The literature had long indicated that the Madame X "scandal" at the Paris Salon of 1884 caused the end of Sargent's Parisian career and his relocation to London. In his 1981 essay, Fairbrother documented that Sargent had painted out the woman's fallen shoulder strap and added another in the respectable upright position. (The Seattle Art Museum's exhibition will include the artist's unfinished replica of Madame X, in which Sargent made a stunning new version of the woman's head and torso, but most intriguingly, could not bring himself to paint in the problematic shoulder strap. On loan from the Tate Gallery, London, this painting has never before been exhibited in the U.S.) (left: John Singer Sargent, American, 1856-1925, Madame Pierre Gautreau, ca. 1884, Oil on canvas, 81 1/4 x 42 1/2 inches, Presented by Lord Duveen through the National Art-Collection Fund, 1925 © Tate Gallery, London 1999)

In 1994 Fairbrother published the monographic study John Singer Sargent (Abrams), which attracted this comment in the journal Art History: "It is welcome both because the literature on Sargent is slight, and because, within the confines of a book aimed at the general reader, he [Fairbrother] raises many interesting issues." Taking a broad and inclusive approach, Fairbrother has written about a wide variety of works by Sargent, from the little-known Album of Figure Studies owned by the Harvard University Art Museums (Arts Magazine, December 1981) to the celebrated collection of watercolors in Worcester, Massachusetts (Traditions in Watercolor: The Worcester Art Museum Collection, 1987). At the time when he was making a transition to the field of contemporary art, Fairbrother took Andy Warhol to a Sargent retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art and interviewed him about society portraiture (Arts Magazine, February 1987). Warhol's sly and witty comments revealed the Pop artist's admiration for Sargent's professionalism and technical dexterity.

In his most recent book, John Singer Sargent: The Sensualist (Yale University Press, 2000), published on the occasion of the Seattle Art Museum's exhibition, Fairbrother examines the relationships between the artist's broadly brushed technique and his personal sensibility. The book surveys Sargent's entire output and makes the argument that his painterly style expressed the voluptuous side of a man whose public demeanor was very reserved and awkward.


John Singer Sargent was organized by the Seattle Art Museum with generous support by the Robert Lehman Foundation, Inc., Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and the Seattle Arts Commission. Additional funding provided by The Allen Foundation for the Arts, Christie's, The Citibank Private Bank, McCann-Erickson Seattle, the Margery Friedlander Exhibition Endowment, and contributors to the Annual Fund.

Additional funding for the Seattle Art Museum publication John Singer Sargent: The Sensualist provided by the William E. Weiss Foundation, Catherine and Paul Buttenwieser, and the Harry and Joan Stonecipher Exhibition Endowment.

The exhibition features John Singer Sargent:Portraits of the Wertheimer Family, a traveling exhibition organized by The Jewish Museum, New York, which was made possible by a special appropriation obtained by Governor George E. Pataki and the New York State Legislature; with generous support also provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency; Betty and John Levin; The Morris S. and Florence H. Bender Foundation; and the David Schwartz Foundation.


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