Editor's note: The following exhibition catalogue essay was rekeyed and reprinted on February 8, 2008 in Resource Library with permission of the Vero Beach Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Vero Beach Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

In the Face of Change

by Jennifer Bailey Forbes

 

There is no greater work of art than a great portrait -

Henry James

 

While many might take exception to the sentiment above, novelist Henry James made this heady declaration in an 1887 review exalting the portraits of a young John Singer Sargent.[1] James went on to praise Sargent, the most lauded society portraitist of his time, for his "brilliant triumphs" in the medium and most importantly for his gift of perception in finding and portraying the sitter's innermost essence. The close of the nineteenth century brought with it a flourishing of formal portraiture -- artistic interest in the genre opportunely collided with the Gilded Age demand for conspicuous display. However, the burgeoning new aesthetic interests of modern artists, along with new cultural and intellectual currents, began to push traditional portraiture beyond its quotidian boundaries. Moving away from stringent realism and verisimilitude, artists began experimenting with the process and purpose of portraiture, and in turn, used the genre to comment on larger issues, beginning with the identity and psychology of the subject, and turning towards politics, cultural and social issues, history, and the cult of celebrity. Modernity began to shift and shape the customary definitions of portraiture and inform new concepts of what is or was actually considered a portrait.

The late nineteenth century was marked by tremendous growth in the American economy and as a result incredible fortunes were made and vast amounts of wealth were accumulated. Along with these new levels of wealth came new heights in extravagant living and lifestyles, coupled with the desire to lavishly display it for all to see.[2] Formal society portraiture established the sitter's status, character, and social prominence; social standing and achievement were beautifully put on display. These portraits generally presented their elegant subjects in fashionable dress, set in equally fashionable environments, surrounded by the splendor of wealth, achievement, or other success. Sitters for these formal portraits were booming businessmen, industrialists, clergymen, politicians, and socialites -- and nobody better captured them in all their glorious comforts and style than John Singer Sargent.

Sargent's monumentally successful trip to America in 1890 heralded the arrival of a golden age of American portraiture. [3] Traveling to Boston, New York, and throughout New England, Sargent completed over forty portraits in less than a year.[4] Other great artists of the period, including Thomas Eakins, William Merritt Chase, John White Alexander, and Edmund Charles Tarbell, were also supplying the demand of popular consumption. Foreign artist were traveling to America to cash in on the public's unflagging interest in portraiture. Young Beauty in a White Dress by Julius LeBlanc Stewart is characteristic of the sumptuous society portraits being turned out by artists at this time.[5] Stewart depicts the porcelain-skinned beauty resplendent in her corsage and dress of lace, silk, and satin. Her image is one of a beautiful, polished, confident woman floating in a haze of finery. Literally a picture of demureness and decorum, Young Beauty exemplifies the accepted and expected social ideal.

While the portraits of John Singer Sargent certainly function within the realm of traditional portraiture, Sargent was also incorporating contemporary ideas and aesthetics into his work. Under the influence of Impressionism, Sargent's portraits became more painterly and incorporated a higher level of dramatic lighting. Departing from the staid and static forms of grand manner portraiture, he excelled at portraying his sitters as if he caught them in a fleeting moment, capturing them in an instance of elegant movement. Sargent also began incorporating compositional elements and aesthetics introduced by photography.[6] All of these small experiments and additions in his work pushed the envelope slightly, but still very smartly enhanced the overall presentation of his subjects. In Portrait of a Young Girl (Polly Barnard) the child is quietly rendered in a wash of expressive and painterly brushstrokes -- "a marvel of delicate vigor."[7] A soft light bathes the left side of her body; Polly's soft hair and dress are merely suggested through brushstroke and tonal color changes. Sargent reserves most of his detail for her eyes and lips. Although Sargent's paintings were sometimes criticized for "want of a finish," Henry James very deftly described the overall effect of Sargent's impressionistic tendencies in his portraiture:

...the artist has constructed a picture which it is most impossible to forget, of which the most striking characteristic is its simplicity, and yet overflows with perfection. Painted with extraordinary breadth and freedom, so that surface and texture are interpreted by the lightest hand, it glows with life, character, and distinction ...[8]

Although Sargent began inserting some of the tenets of Impressionism into his portraiture, he was still working in a traditional medium based on mimetic representation of the human form. At the close of the nineteenth century -- and certainly for artists in the early twentieth century -- interest in this type of realism began to wane. The invention and accessibility of photography pushed artists to find new modes of expression to differentiate their art from that of a photographer. At the same time, currents in intellectual and cultural thought were also shifting. New thinking in the fields of natural science, social science and psychology -- led by Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud -- changed the way the human mind, personality, self, and behavior, were perceived.[9] The decorous images of the Gilded Age were at odds with discourse about the dominance of the unconscious and instinct on human behavior, and ideas of natural selection. Social theory also analyzed the rise of the leisure class and contextualized "conspicuous consumption" in the evolution of economic and "predatory culture."[10] Awareness about "conspicuous consumption" also fed criticism about its own manifestation:

In the so-called old and effete civilization wealth is apt to be synonymous with culture, or, at any rate, finds it convenient to pose as it were; and when it wants its portrait painted, seeks out the painters who have a recognized standing in their own community ...[11]

Twentieth century artists sought a fresh and real perspective that was embedded in their own particular time and consciousness. In general, these artists were oriented towards developing new visual vocabularies, rather than preserving and perpetuating those of the past and began creating works with new attitudes toward content and aesthetics. The move towards nonrepresentational art in the twentieth century appears incompatible with portraiture -- a genre in which the primary function of the work is centered around successful representation and likeness. However, instead of being dismantled by abstraction and other investigations, portraiture merely reinvented itself. A fundamental shift occurred and moved the focus and purpose of portraiture from producing a likeness or realistic portrayal of its subject, to producing something akin to an interpretation.

 

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