11.17.17 — Falling for Modernism

Let me wrap up a busy week of reviews that somehow never found space. It means looking back, but give it a try.

John Singer Sargent delighted in attention, and he got it. Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children earned praise in all the right places, including a review from Henry James. Together with an earlier report on portraiture in the cause of revolution, it is also the subject of a longer review and my latest upload.

It drew scorn for “these over-civilised European Orientals,” meaning Jews, and caricatures by Max Beerbohm of both Carl Meyer and Sargent. Of the two, the artist appears more boastful and more stylish. It provoked outright parodies, playing on the children with no evident place to stand and their mother, Adèle, perched so precariously as to have already fallen off the sofa.  John Singer Sargent's Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children (Tate Britain, 1896)It cemented a bond between the painter and the family, strong enough that he returned to the girl in charcoal eight years later as a beautiful and intelligent woman.

One might expect the display of a single painting as part of the museum’s “Masterpieces and Curiosities” from its collection, like The Steerage by Alfred Stieglitz last winter. Actually, that series now focuses instead on a Hanukkah lamp by Peter Shire, of Italy’s Memphis design school. Like Adèle Meyer at home in London, Memphis has its roots everywhere. It includes Shire, an American, with tilted planes in bright colors like the Bauhaus brought to LA. A candle would look in danger of tumbling off, much like Meyer as seen from below. Meanwhile Sargent’s 1896 portrait is on loan from Tate Britain and once again a center of attention.

Its display at the Jewish Museum, through this past February 5, is all about its reception. One might go expecting related paintings and studies, and the room does include portraits of Carl Meyer and his son, by others, in a manner more suited to a nineteenth-century library than to a modern museum. It has a photograph of the couple, but a quarter century after the painting. Mostly, though, it shows Meyer as a man of means, a German Jew who had become a British citizen, an aristocrat, and a representative of the London House of Rothschild—with the badge of a baronet and a silver cigarette case. And it attests to the artist as a man of his time and place as well. That only starts with the quote from James high on the wall.

It makes sense that James admired Sargent. As Americans abroad, both navigated realism and high society. Both, too, made their art a tour de force. Just listen to James. Writing in Harper’s Weekly, he praised the painter’s “knock-down insolence of talent and truth of characterization, a wonderful rendering of life, of manners, of aspects, of types, of textures, of everything.” The line moves from a touch of slang to a hint of the complex syntax in his own late novels.

Sargent can seem at once terribly old-fashioned and precociously modern. He pays tribute to a woman’s fashion while upending fashion. He wanted a portrait that could match Francisco de Goya, who did well by children, or Thomas Gainsborough—who saw his art as a “dialogue with nature.” Yet Sargent also wanted to push painting toward self-reflection. So what's NEW!The settee’s upholstery shows a rural boy and girl after Rococo painting. They appear directly below the actual children, and who is to say who is commenting on whom?

The painting’s reception suggests art’s new place in the public eye. An artist still needs a patron, a role that Adèle embraced to the fullest, but his critics range from The Times of London to a woman’s magazine. James also tells more than he intends by his extravagant praise. He attests not just to the artist’s strengths, but also to their shared standards. Sargent is no longer after Renaissance idealization or Baroque movement, and he is not yet after art for art’s sake. He is in the game for characterization, manners, texture, and excess—and so is much of the public today.

No wonder New York never seems to lack for an exhibition of John Singer Sargent. He gets at psychology through the reaching of hands between mother and daughter, connected and apart while encompassing the shyer son. As for manners, the shimmer of the mother’s dress echoes even in the pages of a book, reducing its letters to a clash of pink and green. The perspective that destabilizes them all may have the last word. It brings the mother closer and the children further from the viewer, in paired triangles right up against the painting’s borders. It contributes at once to psychology, to manners, and to art.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

9.8.17 — To Make You See

“My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see.” Does that make Joseph Conrad a painter, and what of a near contemporary from across the Atlantic? With “Henry James and American Painting,” through September 10, the Morgan Library would like you, too, to see.

Conrad wrote those words in 1897, on the verge of his greatest works. From the preface to “The Nigger of the Narcissus,” they attest all by themselves to the urgency of the written word. John Singer Sargent's Henry James (National Portrait Gallery, London, 1913)Could they apply to a somewhat older novelist, then also in England and soon to enter his major period as well? It may sound unlikely, if Henry James makes you think of a disdain for appearances. He hated Impressionism and took only the faintest interest in what came after. He seems more determined to make you confused, to make you mired in his syntax, and before all to make you think.

Yet James did write The Portrait of a Lady, and he sure knew portraits. He sat for John Singer Sargent, and he knew Sargent’s New England, London, and Italy by heart. He knew another American expatriate in James McNeill Whistler as well. He took art lessons when young, compared writing well to artistry, created an aspiring sculptor in Roderick Hudson, and lived and worked among artists. He paid a studio visit to William Morris Hunt, advised a sculptor on how to find a market, and shared impressions of Europe with John La Farge. He wrote “The Aspern Papers” while paying frequent visits to Frank Duveneck—a portrait painter whom James called “the unsuspected genius.”

Duveneck married a student, Elizabeth Boott, and James encouraged her, too. According to the curators, Colm Tóibín and Declan Kiely, she also served as a model for the vulnerable heroine of Washington Square, the illegitimate daughter of a treacherous husband in The Portrait of a Lady, and the increasingly suspicious heroine of The Golden Bowl. She may or may not have recognized herself—or felt halfway flattered. The exhibition has portraits by all these artists, with several of James. It has scenes of Florence and Venice by Sargent, London fog by Whistler, photographs, and documents. To underscore its theme, Tóibín is a novelist and critic.

It is less than convincing all the same, as either the key to the novels or as art. James moved among wealth, and much of the show reflects the conservatism of American art entering the twentieth century. Many of the artists on view are half-remembered and conventional—including the sole American Impressionist, Lilla Cabot Perry. Boott’s gilded funeral effigy, by her husband, is downright embarrassing. The sole hint of Modernism comes in a photo, with James inspecting a painting by Arthur B. Davies. Try to convince yourself that he was learning rather than judging.

Nor should it should come as a revelation that writers mingle with artists. Michelangelo as a poet, anyone, or the expansive circles of Gertrude Stein, Florine Stettheimer, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol? It deserves more attention, too, that those relationships change with the times—from shared patronage by the powerful to the shared alienation of the avant-garde. James lies somewhere in between, and it shows in the anxiety and betrayals of his novels. But then Conrad had his greatest success in the murk of characters, morals, and language as well. Think of that verbose and badly punctuated run-on sentence.

Still, the parallels between literature and art extend beyond the slow emergence of the American modern. Whistler could almost have been speaking of James when he titled a portrait Arrangement in Black and Brown. The sudden glimpses of light amid theater and darkness in Sargent suggest the later fiction as well. His portrait of James in 1913, three years before the writer’s death, is the most penetrating in the show. Then again, a sentence or two further into his preface, Conrad could have been describing them all. He may seek appearances, but for “encouragement, consolation, fear, charm—all you demand—and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.”

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.