This weekend I spent a couple hours with four paintings by John Singer Sargent in a new exhibition at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. The four paintings were created when the artist was between the ages of 22 and 26, and represent a period of artistic development prior to the Amon Carter’s own portrait by Sargent, Alice Vanderbilt Shepard.
Sargent is well known for his society portraits, and one of the four paintings in the exhibit is a portrait. There is one fact that makes this portrait, as well as the portrait of Alice Vanderbilt Shepard different from many of the others, however. They were not done for commission.
Sargent was friends with his professor, Carolus Duran. The portrait reads as much near the top. Sargent had met Alice Vanderbilt Shepard, who was noted for her astounding beauty, when he was executing a commission for her father, the lawyer and newspaper publisher Elliott Fitch Shepard. Sargent asked permission to make her portrait.
Sargent received an honor for his portrait of Duran, which allowed him to bypass the jury process for inclusion in the Salon. Perhaps that jury process would have saved him from the scandal surrounding his later portrait of Madam X.
Two of the other paintings are Venitian scenes, not of the canals, but of dark allies in working-class districts. The fourth is an oriental scene Fumee d. Ambr Gris, which has been referred to as a “tone poem.” In all the cases Sargent is more interested in the painting than what is represented. While Duran referred to old masters like Valasquez, Sargent was also looking to contemporaries like Degas and Manet, and while Sargent’s portrait work is rooted in tradition, the compositions are decidedly modern.
I am continually pulled back to the portrait, however. When I returned home, I began to search online for portraits by Carolus Duran. Indeed you can see the skills and traditions passed from teacher to student. It’s also interesting to compare them to “American” portraits by Thomas Eakins, born 1844 and studying under Gerome in Paris from 1866-1870. Both are well known for their portraits, but Sargent’s society portraits can be compared with Eakins’ portraits known for their intimate information about the sitters.
I also want to say I really enjoy very focused exhibits with a few works. You don’t feel the need to take in an encyclopedic amount of information and can really get to know the works, and more about the artist.
The works are on loan from the Clark collection and accompany an exhibit across the street at the Kimbell, The Age of Impressionism.