Saturday, May 18, 2013

John Singer Sargent and the Gilded Age

American painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was a great master of beauty. When he wanted to make a woman beautiful, she shines out through the canvas like a goddess revealing herself to mortal men.

There are few women in art more alluring than Sargent's. They are beautiful, but they are also at ease, entirely comfortable with who they are and what they are doing.

They need nothing from us, not even out attention. They are the perfectly happy, perfectly beautiful inhabitants of a world beyond our reach.

And although the women are his most famous images, Sargent could bring the same gifts to other subjects: handsome men, completely sure of themselves; Italian villas, where you wish you could be instead of whatever humdrum place you inhabit; gorgeous landscapes.

His Orientalist works and his paintings of Spanish dancers infuse faraway places with the perfect mix of exotic detail and erotic possibility. I love Sargent's paintings and never tire of looking at them.

Yet sometimes Sargent makes me a little queasy. These people are the robber barons of the gilded age, the ones who raised private armies to break the miners' strikes. (Andrew Carnegie: "You can't mine coal without machine guns.") Those palazzos are the ones they bought and looted of treasures to decorate their own homes and museums. Sometimes, looking at Sargent's immaculately dressed, absolutely confident, obscenely wealthy subjects, I get an urge to join an anarchist cell and throw bombs at them.

It has always been like this, of course. The grand artistic tradition is the tradition of aristocracy. Sargent's clients were probably not any worse than Caravaggio's, or Mozart's, or even Homer's. It is just that as we get closer to my own time, my ability to ignore the politics and see the art as something separate from the stark reality of power crumbles a little.

But I won't hold that against Sargent. He lived as other artists always have, navigating between his own vision and the tastes of the moneyed people of his age. He left us a great treasure of beauty, and I will enjoy it, marveling at his talent.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A throw-away line in a NYT review of a Sargent book or exhibit has always stuck with me: he was described as the "Gold Standard of the Gilded Age."