John Singer Sargent only visited Chicago twice—first as a tourist in 1876 and then while en route to painting the Rocky Mountains forty years later—but exhibitions of his portraits depicting the international elite helped establish the Second City as the Midwest’s hub for the arts.
“John Singer Sargent & Chicago’s Gilded Age,” on view at the Art Institute of Chicago until September 30, is a comprehensive look at pieces of the artist’s work that have passed through Chicago since the 1890s: his early genre scenes and several of his more striking portraits, as well as his later watercolors. The exhibition is interspersed with several paintings by Sargent’s contemporaries—notably Claude Monet’s Gare Saint-Lazare: Arrival of a Train (1877), several of James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s portraits, and the grand manner portraits of Cecilia Beaux and William Merritt Chase—all of which provide a glimpse at the billowing unreality of life in the industrial age.
Sargent riffed on the techniques of the seventeenth-century masters of portraiture Diego Velázquez and Frans Hals with sweeping impressionistic brushstrokes—infusing his work with a sense of compelling movement.
Sargent was fascinated by the new wealth from the Industrial Revolution pouring into New York, Boston, and—in the latter half of the century—Chicago. This flowering of wealth created an opportunity for the artist. He used his keen perception and painterly skills to depict the decadent lifestyles of the newly rich. Blending his Beaux-Arts training with a penchant for the avant-garde, he riffed on the techniques of the seventeenth-century masters of portraiture Diego Velázquez and Frans Hals with sweeping impressionistic brushstrokes—infusing his work with a sense of compelling movement (which Whistler would embrace fully, a similarity that often invites comparison between the two men’s work).
Portraits such as La Carmencita (1890), Portrait of a Boy (1890), and The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy (1907) represent Sargent at the height of his career. The first two came to the city the year they were painted and the third in 1912 — where it became the first Sargent painting to enter the Art Institute’s permanent collection. Although not Chicago scenes, they burnished the city’s claim to be the artistic capital of the Midwest. Along with the rest of the exhibition, they convey Sargent’s ability to capture opulence in motion and reveal sitters swept up in the unceasing flux of their lives.
La Carmencita, a full-length portrait of the Spanish dancer Carmen Dauset, whom Sargent approached early in 1890 for an ambitious and uncommissioned work, was the first of Sargent’s portraits to appear in Chicago (another nine would be shown at the World’s Fair Columbian Exposition in 1893). It stole the show when first displayed in 1890, and it does so again in 2018. La Carmencita presents Dauset poised for performance: heels perpendicular to one another, right leg outstretched, and hands planted on hips. Dauset looks out from the canvas and directs her eyes upward, with a defiance reminiscent of Sargent’s infamous Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) (1884), which provoked controversy at the Paris Salon in 1884 because of the lewd implications of a dress strap slipped down Gautreau’s shoulder.
Sargent’s handling of color and texture creates a high contrast between Dauset’s golden dress and the muted brown background. Japanese-inspired embellishments splashed on in thick impasto suggest vibrant movement while a shining silk mantle leads the eyes upward to meet the dancer’s powdered haughtiness. The dress’s shimmering vibrancy redoubles the power of Dauset’s unflinching gaze—cheapened, unfortunately, by the Art Institute’s choice to plaster every bus and billboard in Chicago with a reproduction above the Netflix-inspired tagline, “Gold is the new black.”
The domestic scene in Portrait of a Boy is a more placid composition, but it carries traces of La Carmencita’s frenetic audacity. Painted shortly after La Carmencita, it was the result of a friendly acquaintance Sargent struck up with the American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens: Sargent agreed to paint the sculptor’s son Homer, and, in return, the sculptor would carve a relief portrait of Sargent’s daughter (Violet Sargent, 1890, also on view at the exhibition). Sargent’s contribution catches the ten-year-old in a moment of boredom; his feet dangle off a high-back chair, and a slump in his shoulders further wrinkles his disheveled suit. Sargent sketches in Saint-Gaudens’s domestic surroundings with dirty brushstrokes, pushing everything but the rosy-cheeked boy into the background, including his mother, who tries to catch her son’s attention. Like Dauset, Saint-Gaudens looks out expressively, but here Sargent captures indifference rather than confidence.
Looking back in 1941 on sitting for the portrait, Homer Saint-Gaudens recalled that Sargent’s obsession with portraying his discomfort only heightened his childish annoyance: “This small boy had no respect whatsoever and scant liking for John Singer Sargent, who squelched the small boy’s obstreperousness every few minutes by just plain sitting on him.” Who would like that?
Sargent largely retired from commissioned portraiture in 1907—favoring plein air landscapes, watercolors, and a time-consuming mural commission for the Boston Public Library—but he continued to paint several portraits in private. The Fountain is one of Sargent’s first major plein air works, painted over several outdoor sittings with friends in Italy. Sargent labored to make it appear an effortless study of a summer day, combining his waning interests in portraiture with the passion for landscape that would occupy the rest of his career.
Aside from several portraits only painted after repeated begging (the most notable of these being a portrait of John D. Rockefeller) and charcoal sketches completed for his subjects in one sitting, Sargent focused on landscapes, and dove further and further into impressionistic abstraction. The best of these are a series of watercolors painted while on vacation in Florida with his friend and patron Charles Deering. These Florida scenes play with the sun-haunted underbelly of the American South, bringing its humid vibrancy to life with luminous tones and an earthy palette.
Although Sargent’s stylistic shift surprised many in his day, it actually represents a more fluid continuity. Having exhausted his interest in the rich and famous, Sargent turned to another face, aged and nearly limitless in its aspects—and he excelled at finding personality in both.