The Hidden Sargent

A recent show asked new questions about John Singer Sargent: Was he homosexual? Did his sense of "otherness" make him sympathetic to his Jewish clients?

Fans of John Singer Sargent who enjoyed the artist’s 1998–99 retrospective in London, Washington, D.C., or Boston might wonder why the Seattle Art Museum decided to mount another comprehensive Sargent show this spring. The answer—in addition to giving the West Coast its first Sargent exhibition—is that the private identity of the artist was imagined quite differently in Seattle than in the retrospective. Working against earlier biographies that portray Sargent as a staid, reticent bachelor, the Seattle show, “John Singer Sargent: The Sensualist,” presented him as “a complicated, exuberant, passionate individual with a homosexual identity.”

This nude study of the strikingly handsome Thomas E. McKeller, ca. 1917–20, wasn’t exhibited during Sargent’s lifetime.
Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Organized by Trevor Fairbrother, Seattle’s former deputy director and curator of modern art, the survey incorporated all of the works in the recent exhibition that appeared at the Jewish Museum in New York, “John Singer Sargent: Portraits of the Wertheimer Family,” as well as other London portraits and watercolors and oil sketches created during Sargent’s travels. Also exhibited for the first time as a group was an album from Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum of 30 charcoal drawings of well-built men. Together with a large nude study of a strikingly good-looking African American model, these intimate drawings form the backbone of Fairbrother’s argument that Sargent’s sphinxlike public facade successfully deflected attention from his passionate homosexual sensibility. Never exhibited publicly during the artist’s lifetime, these images, in Fairbrother’s view, illustrate the extent to which Sargent compartmentalized his life. It’s important, Fairbrother says, to “keep one’s eye on the differences between the things Sargent presented to the public and those he anxiously kept from scrutiny.”

Other forms of evidence about the artist’s private life are almost nonexistent. Personal papers found in his studio were lost or destroyed after his death, and only a few documents relating to his private life have been unearthed. The French artist Jacques-Émile Blanche, one of Sargent’s early sitters, said after Sargent’s death that the painter’s sex life “was notorious in Paris, and in Venice, positively scandalous. He was a frenzied bugger.” This observation hasn’t been confirmed, however, except by possible clues Sargent left behind in his paintings and drawings.

In the retrospective’s catalogue, Sargent scholar Richard Ormond (the painter’s great-grandnephew) argued for a can’t-tell-why-ask? policy regarding investigations into the artist’s sexual identity. “If [Sargent] had sexual relationships they must have been of a brief and transient nature and they have left no trace…. We simply do not know, and decoding messages from his work is no substitute for evidence,” he wrote. Yet Ormond and many of his peers have no qualms about decoding other messages in Sargent’s paintings—the artist’s attitude toward various sitters, for example—despite a lack of supporting documents. Fairbrother’s outing of Sargent pushes these standard readings into a new territory that has attracted many younger scholars in the past two decades, one in which images alone are called upon to support arguments about subjectivity and sexuality.

So far, Fairbrother’s case rests heavily on the album of male nudes, which he first presented as evidence of Sargent’s homosexuality in a 1981 article. Several figures are shown from odd angles of vision, and some poses recall a late-19th-century genre of voyeuristic depictions of women that art historian Bram Dijkstra calls “nymphs with broken backs”—reclining nudes with pushed-up midriffs, arched spines, and thrust-back heads. In the Seattle exhibition, these lush charcoal drawings were showcased in their own gallery. Homoeroticism wasn’t mentioned in the wall text, but the display left little doubt about the artist’s affection for the male body.

This affection, to be sure, could be homoerotic but not necessarily homosexual. “When I talk to people, gay and straight, I don’t find widespread agreement about the eroticism of these drawings,” observes Sargent scholar Martha Kingsbury. “Some see them as just facile exaggerations of studio-nude conventions. Heterosexual men have told me they look like locker-room nudes—the kind of athletic male bodies they admire in sporting events. They see an identification with these bodies on the artist’s part, but not necessarily sexual intimacy.”

Fairbrother points out that Sargent produced a relatively small number of female nude studies, many of them uninspired. Kingsbury thinks this observation may be more significant than Fairbrother acknowledges. “Most of the female nudes are studies for Sargent’s late murals. It’s difficult not to link some of these murals with classic psychoanalytic literature on male castration anxiety,” she says. In the cycle in the Boston Public Library, for example, Orestes is shown being pursued by women waving fistfuls of snakes. “If there’s a kind of misogyny at work in the gap between Sargent’s male and female nudes,” Kingsbury adds, “it could be the result of a garden-variety heterosexual fear of women rather than a gay sensibility.”

For Sarah Burns, who tracked Sargent’s public image in her book Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in Gilded Age America, debates about the sexual identity of artists such as Sargent and Thomas Eakins “raise questions that can be worried to death and never answered. And even if they can be answered, the payoff is not necessarily rich—the artist was gay, so what?” But Burns thinks that Fairbrother has opened up a potentially rich perspective. “Until recently,” she says, “Sargent was seen as a slick, superficial, antimodernist society painter. Fairbrother has taken a current concern with identity politics as something that necessarily shapes and informs esthetic production, and he has projected it onto a historical figure. The result is a much more complex and challenging image of the artist, about whom we want to ask new questions. Sargent was involved with dandies like Robert de Montesquiou in Paris and Oscar Wilde in London, for example. What do we learn about Sargent’s strategies and tastes by revisiting these associations if we assume he was a homosexual?”

London National Gallery curator Kathleen Adler links Fairbrother’s observations about Sargent’s homosexuality with his reputation in the 1890s as “the painter of Jews.” Sargent’s sympathy with the otherness of his English Jewish clients, Adler says, may have been supported by his own veiled homosexuality. The air of mischief and delight in Sargent’s portraits of the extravagantly costumed daughters of Asher Wertheimer, for example, suggests a complicity among artist and sitters in tweaking stereotypes of sexual identity—in this case, that of the “sexual Jewess.”

When Sargent’s portraits of the Wertheimers were first exhibited in the mid-1920s, their “excessiveness” was condemned as a freakish expression of Jewish racial characteristics. Today, thanks in part to Fairbrother, this reading is being examined as part of an interdisciplinary inquiry into the assimilation of Jews into British society. The Wertheimer portraits are also being recognized as compositions in which all the players—painter and clients—actively engaged issues of sexual exoticism. Because Sargent was a
n expatriate, “he and the Wertheimers knew the English would always regard them as outsiders,” Fairbrother argues. “United in their understanding, their times together were occasions for self-expression with all guards down.” Sargent may even have let his guard down about his own sexuality: the painter “was only interested in the gondoliers” while in Venice, a Wertheimer daughter reported in one of her letters.

Sargent’s early-20th-century murals for the Boston Public Library are usually rated among the artist’s driest, most academic works. As Kingsbury indicates, the sexual tensions they convey have often been overlooked by art historians. However, when Andy Warhol was shown Sargent’s study of male bodies for the mural of Hell, he immediately pronounced it a “gang bang.” Fairbrother thinks reactions like Warhol’s are “healthy and necessary.” The sexuality of Sargent’s work has been resisted, he says, “because it might mar celebrations of him as a recorder and defender of upper-class privilege.”

Jonathan Weinberg, an American art historian who has studied gay artists, congratulates Fairbrother for “changing the terms of Sargent scholarship, forcing people to deal with the implications of sexuality.” Sargent’s “mainstream sensuousness” has always been recognized, Weinberg says. “Now there’s the possibility of another kind of sensuousness, which relates to the forbidden. Sargent’s work seems to be appealing to a wide range of possible desires and suggests the need for a complex, fluid view of human sexuality. Masquerade has become an issue for Sargent studies, making him a much more relevant artist in contemporary terms.”

Weinberg calls the Seattle show “courageous, growing out of years of work that was resisted.” It should make us all reconsider, he says, “why Sargent’s painting, which used to seem so empty, has cast such a spell over audiences at the end of this century.”

Patricia Failing is a professor of art history at the University of Washington.

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