The Met did the art world a great service with this show, revealing John Singer Sargent’s complexities in a way that a more tightly focused exhibition could not. We saw him here as artist and man, partaking of the practical, the romantic, and the aesthetic—indulging in commerce and high art. He was of two worlds—Europe and America—and his commissioned works, though lucrative for him and aesthetically pleasing for many, fall well beneath the brilliance of the probing portraits of such creative and intellectual luminaries as Monet and Rodin and the British lesbian fantasist writer Vernon Lee. The show was organized by Sargent’s grandnephew Richard Ormond with Elizabeth Kornhauser and Stephanie L. Herdrich of the Met.
Society portraits and familiar impressionistic scenes much in evidence here, including the hyper-cool Madame X (1883–84), appear largely conventional today. But it was Sargent’s other sides that stole the show. Most of all, there was a novelistic feeling to the character studies that fall under the slightly diabolical psychological watch of Henry James, one of Sargent’s leading men. The spirit was exemplified by the emotionally complex portrayal in Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife (1885), where the consumptive novelist stands distracted and far apart from his brushily described wife slumped in a chair.
Not to be overlooked was the frank 1888 portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner of the Boston museum bearing her name. Influential interior designer Elsie de Wolfe wrote of how Sargent captured Gardner’s “darker tendencies in the portrait he painted of her. Instead of feet he gave her two tiny hooves set close together.” She appears posed, full frontal, like a saint with a Byzantine gold halo behind her.
Sargent’s sketches, too, added depth to the show. Man and Trees, Florida (1917) foregrounds a handsome dark-skinned male nude poised on a limb. It—like many works here—exposes a side of Sargent we may not have known.
A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 78.