Forum The Sensuality and Romance of Sargent and his Work
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Subject: Introduction
From: Natasha

The art of Sargent is often unquestionably sensual. Not overtly but in a wonderfully indirect way. Even within the controversy of Madame X, if we separate out the “modern” influences of Manet (the tonality of the skin etc.), the sexuality of Madame X is not an “in your face” statement like Manet’s Olympia or Henri Gervex's Rolla; and yet,   it is unavoidable as in Lady Agnew.

What of Sargent's sexual life? Did Sargent have any lovers? Was he gay? Was he not gay? Was he celibate? If he was celibate was it because he was a closet gay? Can you be a closet heterosexual? I have seen all of these implications in one form or another in articles.

One thing we know: sex sells and sex sells big. The marketing of Sargent’s sensual side in the retrospective exhibition certainly caught fire in the press and had a great appeal to the public -- of which I include myself. 

People and historians today are more interested in the personal lives of the people they study as a background for motivation (ie what about Thomas Jefferson's sexual life and the deep irony between his public and private). In this sense, the nature of Sargent's private life does raise a few interesting questions that are legitimate areas of discussion. 

But it is all more complex than that, not really but I like to make it so. There is a difference in understanding art in the context of its time and enjoying art for ourselves today – it CAN be two separate things. There is nothing wrong with just enjoying a piece of art for its pure esthetic self and through the prism of our own lives. After all, once you peel away all the pedantic hogwash, sometimes you like a painting because . . . because you just do, and for no discernable or expressible reason.

All this was meant to be an introduction, but I’ve gone on much too long. Let me just end by asking: What about the romance of Sargent -- his life and his work? 

Subject: Just Enjoy the Art -- a Response to Natasha's Intro
From: Bert
Date: 10/25/99

Not only is there "nothing wrong" with "just"  enjoying a piece of art, it is essential.  Emotional involvement  must always precede intellectual acceptance.  One enjoys a sunset for it's sheer beauty,  not because of celestial mechanics and the refraction of light. Be it the visual arts, film or music, it is the personal response that triggers everything else.

What is it that makes one person adore a certain work and another be entirely impassive towards it? What we "like" is a synthesis of all that we are. Every thought or sight, consciously remembered or not, everything and everyone that has ever touched us in some way makes each of us eternally and  universally unique. This uniqueness also makes each of us potentially alone. Artistic  enjoyment takes place when an image or sound mirrors something recognizable within us, some contact outside of ourselves that feels and looks like "home" giving a sense of collective belonging. 

I think we wade through the pedantic "hogwash" to become active in our enjoyment of art. Viewing art is in and of itself entirely passive. We gaze. We revel. We inhale the images that please us.  It is after we have an emotional response to art that we want to examine the more cerebral aspects of our enjoyment. Do we need to do this to rationalize such an inert activity? Thus we study aesthetic composition, learn about the golden section, the rule of thirds and read of the artist's lives in an attempt to become more involved in that which gives us such quiet pleasure. Thus we develop a relationship with the paintings and - even as in human relationships - the more work we put into them the more we get out of them. Pleasure is magnified by effort. The work rewards us.

I sometimes feel a voyeur as I fall into an image, feeling privy to the private manifestations of another's soul.....

So, was Sargent purely a "romantic" artist or a genuine synthesis of the aesthetic past combined with his own uniqueness? He has for me - putting him into a musical idiom - the humanity of Bach, the introspection of Beethoven, the romanticism of Schubert and the humor of Satie all melted into the ethereal chords of Debussy.

Sargent's Life
Subject:  Who did Sargent have a relationship with, if any?

[I had incorrectly indicated in my thumbnail pages that Kate Moore was the woman Sargent had a relationship with right before she got married
From: Wonsug Jung

I think the woman Sargent had an intense relationship with her right before she got married was Charlotte Louise Burckhardt (Lady with the Rose, which is hung in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, not in the Clark Art Institute). I have read somewhere that there was even a talk of an engagement. She died so young, not long after her marriage, and though she looks very charming to my eyes in that painting, she is not attractive at all in the portrait where she and her mother was featured together. 

From: Wonsug Jung

    "A romance between Sargent and Louise, perhaps initiated by Mrs Burckhardt, developed in the early 1880s and there was talk of an engagement, but prospects of a marriage seem to have evaporated by the summer of 1883." -- Complete Paintings vol.1 by R. Ormond p.65 
She married Roger Ackerley in 1889, so it cannot be said that Sargent had an intense relationship with her 'right before' she got married. 

As for Kate Moore, Sargent disliked his portrait of her and I don't think he had a romance with her. 

    "I am dreadfully tired of the people here and of my present work, a certain majestic portrait of an ugly woman. She is like a great frigate under full sail with homeward-bound steamers flying" -from complete paintings vol.1 by R. Ormond p.118 
From: Natasha

Thank you Wonsug for the clarification on these -- that really helps.

Subject: Miss Priestley (1889)

From: Natasha
10/18/99  (posted 10/28/99)

In Carter Ratcliff's Book (John Singer Sargent, Abbeville Press, New York, 1982) I thought I read that he may have had a relationship with Miss Priestley and I wrote that recollection in my thumbnail pages under the year 1892. Am I mistaken on this? I will reconfirm in due course. 

This is what i said:  "Marriage is rumored between them by others though it is not clear whether she refused to marry him or it was he who was reluctant to marry her."

From: Wonsug Jung
10/20/99  (posted 10/28/99)

Again from the Complete Paintings vol.1

    "Sargent and Miss Priestley probably knew each other as children in Nice, although R.C. Barton [her nephew by marriage] also thought it possible that they had met in Paris in 1882, when his aunt was an art student, studying painting at the Academie Julian. She became a lifelong friend of the artist and his sister Emily, moving in the same circles as they in Florence and in London. There is no doubt that Sargent was attracted by her striking appearance and personality as well as her penchant for dressing up in unusual costumes, and she posed for a number of studies in the 1880s. There is said to have been a romance between the two. According to Mount, Sargent proposed to her several times while, according to Ormond family tradition, it was she rather than he who was in pursuit. In an undated letter to Vernon Lee, Sargent introduced her as 'Strange girl - eyebrows- know her'"
Subject: Marketing of Sargent?
From: Wonsug Jung

You said there was a marketing of Sargent's sensual side in the retrospective exhibition, but I didn't notice that. All I know is that a book titled 'John Singer Sargent : The Male Nudes' was published this year.  Can you say more about it, please

From: Natasha

Actually, I'm not really all that pleased with my introduction and I think it's misleading and I may re-write it. It was not so much the retrospective exhibition marketing the sensual side it was more the press and how they latched onto the idea. In the Smithsonian Magazine there was a centerfold of Madame X and in the New York Times had an article on Sargent's sensuality -- and there have been numerous others.

I have noticed about a half dozen websites in my search for Sargent material, which are dedicated to gay artists, and all stating that Sargent was gay. One had a lengthy site that discusses in depth the circumstantial evidence that Sargent was gay. If I can find it again I will post the link here.  (see below

R. Ormond has been quoted as stating that there isn't any concrete evidence of anything about Sargent's sexual life -- one way or the other. 

So it was in this context that I wrote my introduction. Of course for the new reader to my page, they had no idea what i was talking about, and in that sense I'm not sure my intro is appropriate.

Yes there is a book of Male nudes just out this year. I have seen it at the bookstore and glanced through it briefly but didn't have time to read the introduction so i don't know what its theme is by the author. It has been taken from his studies that he did for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. and they are all similar to what I have listed under the year 1919 in my thumbnail pages. I will get back to you when I know more about the book.

Subject: Perhaps Sargent was Asexual
From Bert

Sargent lived to work. Leon Edel writes: his "sexual drive was invested totally in his painting". Perhaps he was asexual. 

On page 21 in the Ratcliffe book we read: "Some writers hint at love affairs with women. Others claim a "homoerotic" tone for Sargent's drawings of male nudes. It's certain that he never married - and that he never ceased to paint" 

This leads to a footnote which states: 

    "Charles Merril Mount, John Singer Sargent: A Biography. Mount includes among Sargent's possible lovers women as disparate as Mrs. Charles Hunter [painted 1898], the wife of a mining tycoon and La Carmencita [painted 1890-]
Olson provides a brief account of the Relationship between Sargent and Mrs. Hunter.

The nearest that I have found regarding a true Sargent romance was with Louise Burckhardt [painted 1882] yet John ended his relationship with Louise abruptly. I quote from Olson 

    "The degree of intimacy of John and Louise's intimacy can only be guessed at. Though they acted like 'lovers', this does not mean that they were lovers. All the signs of deep affection were evident while the pair were at St. Pierre for those few days in July 1881 .......The fact that they were unchaperoned was sufficient proof that their engagement was inevitable. It would be stretching evidence to assume anything more"
Yet suddenly:
    "...he reverted to etiquette. Louise was helpless; she could do nothing to sustain or renew the affection she enjoyed out of Paris. She was also perplexed. She had no control over his waning devotion, because she was not to blame. His romantic feelings for her had grown, it seemed, out of context, detached from his day-to-day working life. The two could NOT coexist. He did not WANT both to coexist. He did not want to forfeit his precious independence. Those few days at St. Pierre slipped into memory, never to be regained, never to be equaled. John did not care to be vulnerable, and he never allowed himself to be."
Was Sargent Gay?

There seems to be no escaping - even in the most academic of Sargent books - those hints of homosexuality, particularly in regards to the oil "Nude Study of Thomas E. McKeller" and the wonderful charcoal "Nude Male Standing" - also McKellar. If these were "studies" their destination was never realized as neither image is even closely related to any of the figures in Sargent's murals. Certainly Sargent produced many more male then female "nudes" and created the males with far more confidence and passion. Why? Is the answer solely in his sexual orientation?

Natasha asks: Can you be a closet heterosexual?

An interesting term. Or is it a matter of repressing or denying ones sexuality whatever the orientation? Imagine the affect that a lifetime of doing this can have on your work if you're an artist

Subject: More on Louise Charlotte
From: Wonsug Jung

I also ran into an interesting paragraph while reading the complete paintings. In the portrait of Charlotte Louise Burckhardt's sister (I forgot her name), the author quotes a letter that says Burckhardt family thought Sargent fell in love with her (Charlotte's sister).

Anyway, she looks like a little paranoid in the portrait and in fact later she demanded Sargent should remove Charlotte from the painting Mrs. Edward Burckhardt and her Daughter Louise [painted 1885], which Sargent of course declined. She even wiped off Charlotte from the photo of the painting she enclosed in the letter to Sargent. Sounds pretty weird, huh?

In the book, it happens that the portrait of Mrs. Charles Gifford Dyer [painted 1880]was next to Ms Burckhardt. She really got insane.

From: Natasha

[both of the letters from Bert and Wonsug came without the knowlage of the other -- with talkcity unable to upload new files, I sent this via e-mail]

You guys are killing me, <smile>. This could get very confusing, but I think we all agree that we can't find any direct overt evidence of any long term sexual relationship, though there is plenty of speculation. And the sibling rivalry of the two Burckhardt sisters may have been a reason for John's "waning devotion"?

I'm sort of inclined to think that Sargent was staunchly independent and with him traveling at the drop of a hat, his true romance was his work. 

Bert raises a good point. A lifetime of denying ones sexuality could lead to quite beautiful pieces of art.

 It should also be understood that he came from -- or his parents both had come from a puritan background (both Ratcliff and Charteris). So the idea of causal sex, probably was not part of his fiber. And if that is the case, I would think he may have felt the limitations and entanglements  of "romance" too restrictive to his nomadic life. There is also his mother and sister and the dynamics of his mother who was a very strong influence on him. His sister never married either, and he was very devoted to both.


Subject: More on Louise Burckhardt
From:  Natasha

1) If the romance of Louise Burckhardt was in the summer of 1881, why is the painting of her attributed to 1882, certainly he wouldn't have painted her after the romance was over?

2) I remember reading in one of the books about the significance of the white rose, but I forgot what it was? 

3) I know I should know this but does someone know the significance of the different colors of roses: yellow, white, red etc?

From: Wonsug Jung

Regarding Sargent's romance between Charlotte Louise, 'the prospects of a marriage seem to have evaporated by the summer of 1883, when Vernon Lee described Miss Burckhardt as having "gone off the horizon"'. (p.65)

So it's not strange Sargent painted her portrait in 1882.  [the romance lasted longer than one summer]



Subject: Mrs. Edward Burckhardt and her Daughter Louise
From:  Natasha

I was confused as to the relationships and identities of the daughter in Mrs. Edward Burckhardt and her Daughter Louise. And who wanted whom blotted out from the mother-daughter portrait. 

In order to not confuse people I have deleted my original question and this is the correct synthesis as I understand it (Wonsug explains it in more detail to the right): 

Sargent paints Louise Burckhardt aka Lady with a Rose in 1882. He again paints Louise Burckhardt with her mother in 1885. Sargent has also painted Louise's younger sister Valerie (her portrait I don't have). It is rumored by the family that Valerie and Sargent also had a budding romance going. 

It is sometime after Louise's untimely death, that Valerie demands that Sargent blot out Louise (her older sister, then diciest) from the Mother-Daughter portrait. 

Strange indeed.

[Editor's Note  -- by the way, the painting Mrs. Edward Burckhardt and her Daughter Louise is for sale at at one of the galleries, I don't know what the price is but if you have an extra three-quarters of a million dollars laying around your dresser you could click on over and pick up this painting before bedtime -- it might look good in your spare bedroom. And I think they DO take the American Express card.]

From: Wonsug Jung

Well, let's start with Valerie.

from complete paintings.

    'Valerie Burckhardt (1857-1932) was the daughter of Edward Burckhardt and his American wife, Mary Elizabeth Tomes. Valerie and her younger sister Charlotte Louise (1862-92), whom Sargent painted in 1882 as Lady with the Rose, became part of Sargent's intimate circle in Paris in the later 1870s. Valerie married Harold Farquhar Hadden, a silk importer, in 1880 and subsequently moved to America. Sargent presented the portrait of her father as a wedding gift.
According to the sitter's daughter (Valerie), Mrs Kenneth Robertson: 
    "There was also some correspondence about the unfinished sketch of Valerie Burckhardt which my father offered to buy several times and was refused. When finally he (Harold) and my mother(Valerie) went to Mr Sargent's studio in London and asked again, Mr Sargent said he would not sell it but would give it. Although it was face to the wall for so many years we suspect he might have been in love with her at the time it was painted and when Louise was only 13 or 14."
    It was dated 1878 but it seems unlikely that Sargent would have signed and dated a sketch which remained unfinished in his studio for some years and it is possible that the signature and date were added later, when the Haddens acquired the work from the artist, and that the date of its execution was misremembered.'  p.71
Mrs Kenneth Robertson thought Her mother's portrait was painted 1875 or 76 (from her reference to Charlotte Louise's age), and date 1878 is inscribed in the painting and the author thinks it was painted circa 1880.

Now let's see what Valerie wanted done to the portrait of her mother and sister.

    '... Louise's figure is awkwardly posed, which may be due to the fact that Sargent seems to have planned the picture originally as a portrait of Mrs Burckhard alone. This was the view of Mrs Burckhardt's granddaughters, Mrs Francis Riggs and Mrs Kenneth Robertson, and it is supported by Valerie Burckhard's later attempt to have her sister's figure removed. She had the picture photographed and produced a print with the offending figure blotted out, which she sent to Sargent. He replied in an undated letter (perhaps 1922): 
    I will return the photographs to you - as I found the composition as a whole is destroyed by taking out such an important part of it and leaving a gap instead. I cannot consent to do that any more than I would wear my hat in a drawing room or eat peas with a knife at dinner.

    I wish you would send me a photograph of the picture as it is without the figure of Louise having been taken out. I would know better if anything can be done about it, and also what is wrong.'  p.127

So, it's a long time after the painting had been drawn and also Charlotte Louise had died when Valerie demanded her sister's figure removed from the painting.

Anyway, I thought her behavior very weird and after knowing what she had done to the photograph, her oil sketch portrait began to look horrible. ^_^ 

And As I told you, it happens that next to Valerie's portrait, Mrs Charles Gifford Dyer's portrait is reproduced, who began to suffer from
mental illness soon after Sargent painted her and finally became insane.

So even if they are Sargent's paintings, seeing them together is not that pleasant experience and if they were in my bedroom, I would have a
nightmare. ^_^

Regarding Sargent's romance between Charlotte Louise, 'the prospects of a marriage seem to have evaporated by the summer of 1883, when Vernon Lee described Miss Burckhardt as having "gone off the horizon"'. (p.65)

So it's not strange Sargent painted her portrait in 1882. Actually Sargent's paintings of Burckhardt family( Charlotte Louise, Valerie, her father Edward, and their dog 'Pointy') was all presented to the Family as gifts and the author of complete paintings thinks the commission of double portrait in 1885 was an act of friendship, to help him over a difficult period since Sargent's career was at a low ebb following the Madame X furor.




Subject: How about Vernon Lee?
From: Daniel Wallace Maze 
(x an  der 
Date: Mon, 24 Feb 2003  

Did Vernon Lee keep a diary where she might of made mention of [of any possible relationship]? She may have been the only person both to have known and written about Sargent’s sexual experiences. 

Don't know about a diary, though she was a writer so there might have been one.

Subject: The Case for JSS Being Gay
From: Natasha
August 22, 1999 (posted 2/11/00)

Editor's Note -- I wanted to show links to referred paintings so I have copied the article here


New retrospective rekindles old question: Was John Singer Sargent a "lover of women'?

By: David Bonetti, Art Critic, San Francisco Examiner

There were no homosexuals in the arts before 1969. Indeed, if you read standard histories, there were no homosexuals at all before the Stonewall riots in New York blasted the doors off the often comfy closets both male and female same-sexers had been forced to occupy for as long as anyone can remember. But, of course, we know that the reticence that forbade discussion of such topics only cast a veil of denial over the sex lives of the rich, famous, talented and ordinary alike. 

It might not have been talked about, but people found ways to express their sexuality even if it took non-sanctioned forms. The subject of "what famous person of the past might have been gay" has become a lively topic of conversation again during the "Sargent Summer" now going on in Boston, the turn-of-the-century homophile capital and the favorite American city for expatriate painter John Singer Sargent. 

The issue of Sargent's sexuality has been talked about for years. In 1957, art historian and old master dealer Bernard Berenson ended an appraisal of Sargent with the rumination, "Was he a lover of women?" The issue is currently addressed in the catalog of the touring Sargent retrospective organized by Sargent's great-nephew, Richard Ormond, that is now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. "But what was Sargent's sexual orientation, and did he enjoy sexual relations with either sex?" Ormond asks forthrightly, if rhetorically: 

    "The record is not clear. A homosexual reading of certain works has been proposed in a recent study of Sargent. He did have close male friendships, and groups of portrait studies of young men, for example, parallel those of his female friends. However, Sargent continues to guard his privacy. That he was a physical and sensual kind of person is clear from the whole tenor of his work. But he did not relish intimacy, and he avoided emotional entanglements likely to complicate his life and compromise his independence. If he had sexual relationships, they must have been of a brief and transient nature, and they have left no trace. The answer is that we simply do not know, and decoding messages from his work is no substitute for evidence." 
The recent study Ormond refers to is Trevor Fairbrother's 1994 Abrams book "John Singer Sargent." (Fairbrother, currently chief curator of the Seattle Art Museum, was formerly an American painting curator at Boston's MFA, where he encouraged the museum to buy Sargent's erotically charged "Nude Study of Thomas McKeller." ) "The Sargent literature usually affirms that he was a shy bachelor with a simple private life," Fairbrother writes. "This reading is suspect because it serves as a convenient and genteel foil for admirers to avoid the systems of exhibitionism and voyeurism that operate in his work. Stanley Olson, the most recent Sargent biographer, suggested that he was sexually unresponsive, and stressed his "emotional abbreviation.'" 

Since there is no evidence one way or another, the party line has been to deny that Sargent was a sexual being. Despite his large appetites and sensuous nature. Despite his 20-plus-year relationship (of undefined nature) with his valet, Nicola d'Inverno. Despite his documented friendships with other homosexual or similarly closeted men of the time like Henry James, Comte Robert de Montesquiou – the model for Proust's homosexual Baron de Charlus – and W. Graham Robertson, a wealthy poet and dandy in Oscar Wilde's circle. Despite his comfort in the largely gay group that surrounded Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner. Ormond dismisses decoding messages from the work, but without evidence of his intimate life, that is where we have to go if we want to know Sargent fully – and knowing him fully means acknowledging the nature of his desire. 

From years of looking at Sargent, it appears to me that he was best at painting women with their clothes on and men with their clothes off. Sargent did tons of drawings of male nudes – many currently on view at Harvard's Fogg Museum – which speak frankly of erotic longing. 

Dismissed as an intellectual tourist on permanent vacation in his 1986 Whitney Museum retrospective, Sargent did travel extensively, and wherever he went he was attracted to beautiful men. Swarthy Italian peasants, sexy Spanish soldiers, sultry Bedouins, naked African American laborers taking a swim in Florida caught his fancy. Along with his studio nudes, they attest to an interest in the male form that was not approached in his chaster representations of the opposite sex. And the fact that the men he depicted with the greatest gusto were working-class and decidedly non-Nordic suggests a cross-class erotic connection that was typical of his time and status. 

Fairbrother says it best: "Sargent's art is the best 'evidence' of his personality, and the homoeroticism of some portraits and many informal studies has been prudishly avoided by most scholars. If, indeed, Sargent balanced a public career with a repressed sexuality, his conflicted social-sexual identity may be a key to the successful tensions within his art: for example, his ability to paint a portrait that is ultimately respectable and yet is colored by showiness, grandeur, pride or sensuality. 

"I propose," he concludes, "that the visual edge and emotional volatility of his work may have been shaped by his attraction to male beauty: It particularizes the work of Sargent as it does that of Michelangelo and Caravaggio, Marsden Hartley and Charles Demuth." We may never know if Sargent ever acted on his erotic impulses, but how he felt comes across so clearly in his male images that only those in profound denial could fail to see it. 

San Francisco Examiner, August 22, 1999
P. O. Box 7260,San Francisco,CA,94120 
(Fax 415-512-1264 ) 
(E-MAIL: ) 
( )

Subject: Counterpoint
From: Natasha
Date: revised 11/17/00

The other side of the question is a bit more difficult to excerpt. David Bonetti excellent article is concise and written under 1,000 words. Likewise, Stanley Olson's biography is just as compelling, though deliberate, and developed slowly over 300 pages making it more complex and difficult to put next to Bonetti's.

The conclusion of Olson's argument comes in a footnote on page 199, Olson writes:

This sensitive department of his life [his sexuality] has been, hardly surprisingly, the target for much conjecture. Students of his character have often read his obsession with work [the male nudes and others] to be evidence of some ungratified desire, the consequence of an unidentified frustration; the search for proof to support this theory has always been unrewarding in the extreme. There is not one indication anywhere in the debris of his life that this might have been a possibility . . . 
The concealment theory [of homosexuality] -- also popular in speculation stakes -- must be discounted for exactly the same reason. And while it is of course possible he could have covered his tracks in his life, he would never have had such power in death. No one who knew him well or slightly has ever been tempted to suggest anything whatever about his private life, which presents a major obstacle for any claim which is advanced.
To support his argument, Olson tries to explain Sargent's complex personality -- and I will roughly try to summarize my interpretation of the entire 300 pages in 5 points.

1) The Sargent family, with the exception for Violet to a lesser degree, were all staunchly independent. Given their nomadic lifestyle -- changing cities as some change their wardrobe for a season. Because of this, they couldn’t rely on anyone to be there for them (They themselves wouldn’t be there in a few months). As a result, the family unit was the sole source of emotional and psychological support.

2) John’s personality was a peculiar and fortuitous mix of shyness and a strong sense of who he was. This gave him the introversion to be a spectator of the world around him (good for his art) and a cockiness of his own worth to keep at it in the face of objections. For those that didn’t know him he might appear aloof, detached.

3) Because of his upbringing, John could fluently speak French, Italian, Spanish, English, and German to a lesser extent. He moved effortlessly between cultures, yet he was an American -- an identity which he so jealously held onto. This made him an outsider. Even to other expatriate Americans he seemed indigenous to Europe since he really knew so little about America (never having grown up there). Though his personality was reserved and shy, to those who were patient they found him  charming, funny (a sharp dry wit), amazingly generous, and was almost universally liked (even by those that hated his art), but he never fully belonged anywhere.

4) His mother was a huge influence on him. Like his father he was a strong individual but he liked strong women, and in his father case, she pretty much controlled the family. Mrs Sargent was very much upset over Violet (John's youngest sister) marrying off to Ormond and although there might have been “reasons” for doubting him a good husband, I suspect that Mrs. Sargent would have been upset over anyone. Emily (his other sister) and John never married. Mrs. Sargent, in Olson’s eyes, was rather selfish and Emily spent her youth as a nurse maid to her mother’s hypochondria which was the reason for their nomadic existence (certainly the loss of three of her children to sickness and poor health didn’t help her hypochondria). But the fact of the matter was that after Sargent’s father dies, his mother looked to John as the head of the household. Was he a mama’s boy? –  like his father, John  was hardly an emotional weakling, but I don’t think you can dismiss his mother’s influence. And if figuratively it is their mother that most men want to marry, it would be difficult to find a woman as head-strong as Mrs. Sargent's that, at the same time, wouldn't conflict with his art. I've heard it said that art is a selfish endeavor. Unlike his father who had forgone his carrier and his personal passions for the love of his life, John could ill afford to succumb if he was to fulfill his destiny

5) After his mother’s death Emily is left alone, completely, and with some money - but nothing beyond a modest standard. Of course John supports her (buys her a house near himself) and they become the emotional equivalent of a married couple – supporting each other (nothing beyond that). Although they had different houses, they dined together when they were in town daily, she taking the responsibilities of a wife -- acting as a hostess at dinners and parties, becoming his personal confident and she often traveled with him.

It’s true that John hung around homosexuals and closeted men such as Henry James, but he hung around a lot of people. He loved the culture and hung around Spanish Gypsies who had been persecuted for centuries, but he wasn’t a Gypsy. He hung around and painted  groups of people that weren’t “socially accepted” in “polite society”. He painted many Jews at a time of rising anti Semitism, but he wasn’t Jewish – The Wertheimers, the Meyers, the Sassoons, the Pulitzers and the Rothchilds, were all Jewish patrons. The Wertheimers being very good friends of John. (Some people, in reference to the Wertheimer Exhibition this year, have even looked for possible Jewish heritage for motivation. And some gypsies have insisted that the artist of El Jaleo must have been Gypsy).  He painted the rich and famous. He also painted street children. He moved freely, openly, and comfortably between countries, between cultures, between peoples. Although American, he acted like a world citizen and was completely indifferent to politics. He seemed to accept people for who they were and didn’t seem to judge them. 

Hey, maybe we could learn something from Sargent . . . But I’m getting off my point.

Bonetti hasn’t quite given a balanced picture. Sure, the “closeted gay” Henry James was his friend, so was Paul Helleu (his closest friend), so was Edwin Austin Abbey, Francis Davis Millet, Frederick Barnard, Wilfrid de Glehn, and a host of other heterosexual friends. Many of them spent long periods of time with him such as Abbey at Morgan Hall when Sargent lived with him working on the Boston Library murals, and de Glehn and his wife on his many trips with Sargent. No one saw anything that would suggest a homosexual or heterosexual relationship with anyone. And they don’t seem to be politely covering anything up either, because many privately speculate amongst themselves (with some frustration) on whom he may or may not eventually marry. 

Also, the  "20-plus-year relationship" with his valet, Nicola d'Inverno is not really all that “undefined” -- only his job description was a little vague. None of his friends ever saw anything unusual in it, and given the sheer weight of equipment they lugged around, he came in quite handy (As a side note, Sargent dismissed him when d'Inverno got in a fight with another servant at a hotel in America.)

Sure, Sargent painted swarthy Italian peasants, sexy Spanish soldiers, sultry Bedouins, naked African American laborers swimming, but he also painted sensuous fem fatales, lushly exotic Capri women, stunning depictions of delicious femininity, and always . . . always, strong women at the peak of their art, engaged in life, or in the quiet force of their certitude.

Basically what we have is his male nudes -- and that’s all we have. For every circumstantial evidence to support a homosexual tendency, there is as much on the other side of the scale. There is nothing there but the nudes. 

Unquestionably, the nudes are some powerful evidence, because they are some powerful works of art, and Olson doesn’t give it proper weight given the sheer number of them. 

Is that enough?

Of the nudes, this is what I think we know. Certainly since the time he was a student, the male form was a critical study in academic art. The bulk of nudes, however, started shortly after he received his commission from the Boston Public Library (Abbey's letter to Boston). They were done primarily as studies for the murals at the Library and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). It is true that many don't directly relate to a finished mural, but you can see any number of naked greek gods at the Museum of Fine Arts or library murals, such as the twisted naked male bodies in his Hell of the West Wall lunette. I think he painted the bulk of them between 1917 and 1920 when they stop or between the ages of 61 and 64 (no offense to the older viewers out there, but that’s hardly the peak of his sexuality). 

Did he only come to terms with himself in the last part of his life? Did it peak and only last 4 years? Should we even look at him as an unchanging monolith and is everything always to be defined in black and white terms? Should we label a person’s sexuality who seems to never have had sex? And just how adequate are labels anyway?

So what do we make of it -- are you in profound denial if you don’t see it?

This is my take (if you haven’t figured it out by now). People see in Sargent what they want to see. It speaks volumes about his art. The emotional cord resonating deep within can sometimes be that strong and tuned that perfectly. If you are homosexual, then you want to believe the emotional reaction you feel when you see his art to be the same reaction that Sargent felt. And if you are heterosexual, for the very same reasons, the feelings and emotions you experience certainly must be the shared experience with the artist. Regardless of your orientation, you want to believe Sargent felt what you -- yourself feel. How could it be any different? There is nothing unusual in that. In fact it’s pretty normal. That there is a controversy over his orientation when there is no evidence to support anything what-so-ever towards anything what-so-ever (outside of his art) shows you how powerful is art is.

Strangely (or maybe not so strangely) I think it's more revealing of the writers than it is of Sargent (and maybe even revealing of myself).  Olson and Ormond probably want to see Sargent as heterosexual. Bonetti and Fairbrother probably want to see him as a homosexual. There isn’t an “agenda” on anyone’s part, just a strong personal desire to believe that the emotional impact from Sargent’s work is “speaking” to them through their own lens about life’s little joys.  – and maybe that’s how it should be. As freely as Sargent moved across cultures, maybe he speaks to all of us -- Gypsies, Jews, Gays, Straights, Royalty, Bohemians, Italians, French, English, Americans -- what ever -- whom ever -- and maybe that’s the best anyone could ever say about anyone else.

I didn't answer the question, did I?

Well, that's the point.

Subject: Seattle Art Museum's Exhibition, is the show representative?
From: don christensen 
(d o  nc @
Date: 1/26/01

i am a college teacher and will be bringing a group of students to see the sargent exhibit in Seattle. . . . my museum visit [Seattle Art Museum] is tomorrow, but i wanted to get something clarified:

i have gotten contrasting bits of information about JSS and sexuality. many claim he was asexual, had no important liasons.  some report almost romances with women.  but recent studies seem to suggest very strongly that he was homosexual, that that was a partial explanation for his ability to connect with women.  thus his leaving france was less a result of the scandal over his painting and more a reflection of the new laws about sex between men, his friendships with other known gay men gets emphasized, he is reported to have been very very active sexually while in france.

confusing.  the curator at Seattle Art Museum wrote his disseretation on JSS and is promoting his book big time.  he is very clear on this issue.

 . . . finally, i assume you have seen or at least are familiar with this travelling exhibit?  how representative of JSS's work do you think it is?



From Natasha
Date 1/26/01

The curator of the Seattle Art Museum show is Trevor Fairbrother and he is the author of his new book: "John Singer Sargent : The Sensualist". I have not personally seen the Seattle show, but I have seen (roughly) the list of paintings and drawings which are exhibited. Is Fairbrother's show a "representative" presentation of Sargent's ouvre as in "is it balanced"? If you mean is it representative in the sense of proportion of one type of his work to his others -- no, it's not a balanced show at all. In fact it is very unbalanced representation. This show is heavily weighted towards Sargent's nudes. 

If you mean is it a balanced show in the context of the other shows of Sargent's work  (notably the  East Coast shows in Boston, Washington DC and New York -- which are now closed) -- yeah it's balanced because those shows had de-emphasized Sargent's nudes.

This particular show (that you are going to see) started on the East coast to highlight the most amazing suite of portraits done for the Wertheimer family. This was the largest single commission for Sargent and the Wertheimers were quite good friends. Fairbrother has taken this more narrow show and has expanded it enormously to coincide with his book -- or his book to coincide with the show.

Fairbrother is making a statement and he's advancing his thesis. Is his thesis correct? If you want to know my feelings on this I've addressed that above.

Sargent's Work
Subject: Nicole Kidman's Sargent: Glamor photography "in the tradition of John Singer Sargent"
From: Wonsug Jung
Nicole Kidman Does Sargent
Photographs from June, 1999 Vogue
Madame X
Mrs Inches
Mrs Carl Meyer
Mrs. George Swinton
Nicole Kidman as Repose

Nicole Kidman's Cover
Have you seen the Vogue magazine June issue? There was an interview with Nicole Kidman and the photography was by Steven Meisel 'in the tradition of John Singer Sargent'. 
    "And there is the startlingly contemporary beauty Sargent gave many of those subjects: Their faces would be completely at home on the cover of the current Vogue. Which brings up the point that Sargent's real heirs in portraiture aren't painters, but photographers from Cecil Beaton to Annie Leibovitz and Richard Avedon, fellow specialists in glitterati." 
    -- Boston Globe
The first two are obviously after Madame X and Mrs Inches. The following two are possibly after Mrs Carl Meyer and Mrs George Swinton. About the next one, I have no idea and the last one is the cover of the Vogue magazine.

Subject: Doctor Vagina  "Dr. Poozzi at Home"  - A blatant depiction of a   morally-corrupt soul
From: Adam Sutcliffe 
(a    s @ med i
Date: Monday, July 16, 2001 


I have just completed a draft article about SARGENT''s Dr Pozzi at Home suggesting this to be one of the most blatant depictions of amorality in Western Art. In view of your web discussion about Sargent and sexuality I  would be most interested in your response. . . forgive the extreme nature of some of the  text. (go to)

Adam Sutclifffe 

Copyright 1999-2001 Natasha Wallace all rights reserved