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Why not catch one of Baron Rothschild’s fast overnight trains to Holland

Prologue: The Prince of the Glass Palace

The three young artists hatched their plan, out of the blue, at an overpacked café in the Left-Bank quarter of Montparnasse. In the torrid mid-July, in the too-warm wool suits of the early 1880s, they all hankered to escape the hot pavements of Paris and its rowdy Bastille Day crowds. Their ringleader, the rising star American painter John Singer Sargent, had just hit on the perfect solution. Why not catch one of Baron Rothschild’s fast overnight trains to Holland, the land of Johannes Vermeer, Rembrandt van Rijn, and Frans Hals?

Twenty-seven-year-old Sargent, though lanky, dark-bearded, and rather solemn—a card-carrying workaholic—enjoyed a good lark. At the prospect, his sedate surface broke. He flashed a little of the impudence that most people saw chiefly in his stylish, unconventional paintings.

Sargent’s friends well understood that his still-water mysteries ran deeper than most people knew. He was deeply passionate about painting. Though an edgily modern artist, he didn’t underestimate “Old Masters,” as the nineteenth century understood them; he didn’t consider them passé, stiff, or pedantic. He’d been infatuated, for a while now, with the splendors of Frans Hals. He adored that impudent seventeenth-century portraitist of swaggering, rich-costumed burghers, an artist no one else in Paris seemed to appreciate quite enough. And he’d also made a private religion of the seventeenth-century Spanish firebrand Diego Velázquez. Past artistic revolutionaries offered Sargent intriguing keys to painterly secrets as well as a vivid and emancipatory life. He was equally inspired by the bold new Parisian portraiture of the 1880s, of which he was already, at his young age, a leading light.

His friends, drawn to his enigmatic qualities—and yet kept at bay by them—sensed that this sudden trip qualified as personally important to him. It channeled one of his sudden, heartfelt desires.

The diminutive, combustible Paul César Helleu especially delighted in Sargent’s mysteries. He was often to be found smoking a cigarette and lounging in Sargent’s studio. A slender, animated Breton of twenty-four, Helleu was immediately game to go.

The third conspirator, Albert de Belleroche, hung back a little more. This half-aristocratic, rather elfin Anglo-Belgian, just turning twenty, had only recently come to Paris to study art. He was just finding his feet in the painterly world. But he’d gone to quite a bit of trouble to pursue Sargent’s friendship—was intrigued by the older man’s color-soaked canvases and surging reputation. He also appreciated Sargent’s “habitual good humour” and his willingness to undertake activities full of “surprises and imprévu”—the unexpectedness, now, of this spur-of-the-moment trip.

As the three friends gathered at the great glass portals of the Gare du Nord, nesting their carpetbags together, they paused beside a huge Roman arch of Lutetian limestone—calcaire grossier, the Parisians called it, “coarse limestone.” But this limestone, from the nearby Oise Valley, actually appeared as smooth as butter and creamy in color, facing many of the public buildings in Paris and lending that great, electric-lit, modern metropolis its luminous, subtly consistent palette of pale gray, pale gold.

Almost everything in Sargent’s Paris glowed with such visual style. Sargent was immersed in the latest Parisian trends, and his painter comrades were more than willing to follow where he led.

Even among friends, Sargent could be shy, formal, socially awkward—fond of sitting back and obscuring himself in the fog of his endless cigarettes. Yet his little railway junket with his artist chums revealed another Sargent. His companions sparked a species of elation, not to mention at-ease intimacy, that liberated a more spontaneous and less filtered version of the young painter. At the palatial station, on the express train, Sargent flared into enthusiasms, jokes, and confidences. He waxed joyous and daring. He called Helleu “Leuleu” and Belleroche “Baby Milbank”—a reference to the surname the young painter was using at the time, as well as to his younger age. The young artists buzzed with inside jokes, shoptalk, and art-insider fandom.

As the train rocked northward, the young men found it hard to sleep. Their overnight in the high-end sleepers called Wagon-Lits, inspired by Pullman cars in the United States, granted them all a whiff of luxury and adventure—even if their cramped, fold-down berths provided a rather coffin-like discomfort. And that’s perhaps why, as the last hot light failed across the bleak and stubbly plains of northern France, Albert de Belleroche packed out a pencil and a hand-size notebook and risked a sketch of his drowsing friend. Belleroche’s sketch of Sargent, 1882 or 1883.

What Belleroche captured, though not obviously striking, spoke volumes. It revealed an off guard, informal Sargent with his left hand pillowed under head, his shoulder bunched up in his jacket, his fingers curled against his forehead. What’s more, though Sargent’s short beard and mustache remained shadowy, Belleroche rendered his face as handsome and luminous as an angel’s. Belleroche’s rather dreamy image, in fact, revealed an intimate and private vision of Sargent that Belleroche wouldn’t share with others till decades later, after Sargent’s death. For this sketch illuminated a side of the two men’s life, threaded with private meanings, that few people suspected.

What’s more, Belleroche’s sketch was actually just the tip of an immense iceberg. In fact, Sargent’s own renderings of Belleroche were ten times as plentiful. Back at his studio in the boulevard Berthier, Sargent had reeled off many sketches and half-finished canvases of his younger friend. These included moody, lyrical views in charcoal and oils, capturing the young man’s delicate features and Cupid’s-bow lips. Such mementos littered the shelves, tables, and easels of the studio.

In a mania for sketching his friend, Sargent even considered producing a grand exhibition portrait, with the young man styled as a sort of Velázquez prince, draped languorously over an enormous sword. “With the exception of Madame Gautreau,” Belleroche later admitted, referring to Sargent’s infamous Madame X, “I do not believe that Sargent ever had so many sittings as for this portrait.” Yet Sargent would eventually abandon this princely set piece. Or rather he would alter it, rendering it smaller, more emotive, and more personal.

He’d also keep his images of Belleroche quietly in the semiprivacy of his studio. He would never exhibit them in the grand, sunlit halls of the Salon.

Sargent’s recent and sudden celebrity had first taken wing in another limestone-faced glass greenhouse, some three miles from the Gare du Nord—the so-called Palais de l’Industrie in the Champs-Élysées. That great iron-and-glass-vaulted hall, built originally for Louis Napoléon’s 1855 Exposition Universelle, hosted the world’s most prestigious exhibition of paintings, the annual Paris Salon. Sargent had exhibited at the Salon every year since 1877. Merely to have works accepted counted as an honor. But Sargent hadn’t just squeezed his canvases into the corners of this massive, world-class exhibition. He’d stolen the spotlight, the limelight, and just about all of the daylight. He’d already won two Salon medals, the maximum number allowed for an artist’s whole lifetime.

Yet in the crush of the Salons, not just two but many of Sargent’s paintings had dazzled critics and enthralled Salon-going crowds. Shrewdly, Sargent had chosen to portray conspicuously handsome and stylish Paris women: Marie Buloz Pailleron, the daughter of the editor of the Revue des deux mondes, sporting a tea gown in her half-wild garden at Chambéry; Amalia Subercaseaux, the young wife of a Chilean diplomat, sitting, fresh and charmingly dressed, at her piano. In his fascinating Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, he’d intriguingly captured four little American expatriate girls in pinafores, lost in the gloomy grandeur of their eighth-arrondissement apartment, hinting at the labyrinthine psychological complications of their high-end lifestyles.

Attuned to color and spectacle, Sargent had also dashed off lively portraits and figure studies of exquisitely beautiful and “exotic” women: a rosy Capri peasant, shawl-wrapped Venetian bead-stringers, and a white-robed Moroccan hovering over an incense brazier—this last an orientalist concoction he’d entitled Fumée d’ambre gris. And a year or two after this railway getaway, Sargent would produce his prodigious succès de scandale, Madame X, which would crown his reputation as a portraitist of the emboldened, newly liberated women of the Belle Époque.

And yet all this dazzling work concealed another oeuvre.

For all its huge, exhibitionistic greenhouses, the Victorian world was anything but transparent. True, the art worlds of the Belle Époque provided Sargent with a vast glass palace, part hall of mirrors, part forcing house, in which the painter managed to seed and nurture his brilliant hothouse flowers. Yet for all the rather edgy subjects that Sargent could paint—and he was enraptured with the whole teeming visual world around him, its unexpectedness and idiosyncrasy—there were plenty of things he couldn’t, that threatened to shatter the glass edifice of his reputation.

Reputations were especially fragile during an era when gender transgressions raised furors, and same-sex liaisons were ridiculed in France and brutally criminalized almost everywhere else. Under such surveillance, in so grandiose and brittle a world, it is hardly surprising that Sargent, who would pursue many friendships that pushed the acceptable boundaries of the era, cultivated and enforced a strong distinction between his public and private work. Even in relatively permissive Paris, Sargent was obliged to present an expurgated self and a restricted painterly canon.

It wasn’t just Albert de Belleroche who signaled Sargent’s complex involvements with other men. Throughout his long life, Sargent would consort with fellow artists such as Paul Helleu, Edwin Austin Abbey, Frank Millet, and Peter Harrison, as well as male models such as Anton Kamp, Thomas McKeller, and Nicola d’Inverno—this last a man Sargent would keep in his household for a quarter of a century. Such alliances dominated the painter’s life, for all of his important personal and professional connections with women. But to outsiders the possible significance of such male companions remained largely obscure, taken at face value, until a different category of Sargent’s private artistic production came to light.

Significantly, Sargent didn’t sketch Albert de Belleroche nude—not that anyone can document, anyway. But throughout his career Sargent portrayed many other naked men. As Sargent’s friend Abbey discovered several years later in 1890, Sargent had in fact produced “stacks of sketches of nude people.” Though life-study nudes were a prominent feature of academic painting, Abbey found himself a little unnerved by the revelation of his friend’s enthusiasm for nudes. Even from “cursory observations,” Abbey found them “a bit earthy.” It isn’t known if the specific sketches Abbey observed have survived. But they belonged to an extensive private body of work that would take even longer to emerge, and that would eventually render Sargent an entirely new kind of conundrum.

Sargent’s nudes, along with many of his sketches of Belleroche, didn’t come to light, to scholarly and public attention, until the 1980s, when they raised thorny questions about Sargent’s life and career, stirring up much scholarly and public debate about his identity. Yet the labels that have been attached to Sargent over the past several decades—some convincing, some less convincing: “homosexual,” “gay,” “queer,” “asexual,” or even “closet heterosexual”—have plucked Sargent from his own times and context. Such labels have tended to curb rather than liberate the painter’s opulent complexities, which transcend simplistic categories and remain fused with his lived experiences. For here his private passions took on even larger implications.

Before the discovery of Sargent’s private opus, in fact, many art historians regarded Sargent as an old-fashioned, high-cultural painter, antithetical to any form of compelling relevance. By the end of his life, thanks to a run of ultrafashionable portraits and some rather stodgy library decorations painted in Boston, the artist was pigeonholed by many as a glitzy society painter or a fustian muralist.

Yet the rediscovery of Sargent’s fraught private life began a radical reconsideration of the painter and his work that has only gained momentum in the early twenty-first century. We can now see that Sargent’s social and aesthetic relevance—both to his time and ours—draws strength not only from his same-sex interests and his fascination with gender nonconformity but also from his engagement with ethnicity, race, and emerging globalism—by his representation of an ever-more-complex modernity and an ever-more-diverse and multicultural world. In spite of his sometimes colonialist or orientalist formulations, Sargent’s unique transnational perspective heralded the beginnings of an expanding polyglot global culture.

At home or abroad, it wasn’t just Sargent’s relations with men that we can now understand as productively rich. Sargent’s distinctively unconventional liaisons with women too also profoundly shaped his work and its long-term relevance. In forging his career, in making a name for himself in Paris and then around the world, Sargent’s most typical artistic formula, like that of some leading Impressionists, took advantage of bold, theatrical, iconoclastic women. If Édouard Manet painted cocottes and courtesans, if Edgar Degas sought out grisettes and ballet dancers, Sargent was increasingly obsessed with divas. The term “diva,” derived from the Italian for “goddess” or “fine lady,” came into use in the 1880s to describe the bold female singers, dancers, and actresses of the Belle Époque who increasingly dominated both the high and low stages of Europe and America. And Sargent used these divas to fly high, himself. All his life, Sargent was powerfully drawn to dynamic, rule-breaking women. His choice of such exuberant models tapped into one of the biggest revolutions of his age, the creation of assertive, modern, and self-determining women.

What Henry James described as the “‘uncanny’ spectacle” of Sargent’s talent was based on his glittering portrayals of such women, also on his penchant for tapping into the scandals they created. He did that with Madame X, his outrageous portrait of the society starlet Amélie Gautreau. But that, again, was only the tip of a complicated and ramifying iceberg. Sargent treated all his female models, courtesans and society ladies and suffragists, with a nervous personal fascination as well as a cool professional detachment.

For all the brilliance of Sargent’s painterly eye, it mattered which specific friends, sitters, and patrons Sargent chose, cultivated, and pursued. It mattered how his passionate brand of outlawry shaped and infused both his private works and his better-known paintings. It mattered that he immersed himself in non-Western places like Egypt and Turkey, that he embraced Jewish cosmopolitanism, and that he consorted with working-class models of diverse ethnicities and races like Rosina Ferrara in Capri, Nicola d’Inverno in London, and finally Thomas McKeller in Boston.

For Sargent, travel was a crucial mode of encountering these multifaceted and potentially emancipating worlds. He perfected the art of travel (and sometimes tourism) as much as anything else. On the road, away from the strictures of home, he could enact versions of liberation that his society didn’t otherwise permit. Whether his peripatetic cosmopolitanism was “queer” or simply free-spirited, it proved one of the most important mediums of his iconoclasm, as in the spontaneous outing he took to Holland with his two artist friends. Other junkets produced private fascinations as well as publicly acclaimed masterpieces.

In Paris as well as in London, Boston, and New York, Sargent’s contraband private life strongly affected his public one. Painting during the rise of clinical psychiatry, Sargent was enmeshed in the psychological complexities of his sitters as well as spurred by his own inner demons. In particular, the restless, rebellious art worlds in which Sargent circulated—from his edgy training in a bohemian Paris on down—allowed him to articulate more personal intricacies than the Victorian world otherwise permitted.

Among Paris decadents and bohemians, among English aesthetes and queers, among American mavericks, among Spanish vagabonds, among Venetian street people, Sargent could give rein to an idiosyncratic genius hardly allowed to show itself in the more conventional Victorian world. He adopted and adapted international art-world settings to create facsimiles of liberation and self-expression—both in his private works and, in sometimes fascinating and intriguing ways, his public ones.

Between 1874 and 1925 especially, Sargent ventured a quirky brand of personal liberty among his friends and fellow artists as well as in his studio worlds of models and patrons and in his paintings and drawings themselves. His semiprivate art-life—his sketchbooks and private pieces—allows us a vision of a fuller and richer, a more unpredictable and border-crossing Sargent.

In some ways Sargent remained a prisoner of his privileges; in others, he was able to transcend his narrow, elite milieu. Though a few critics have continued to see Sargent as a slick, elite, or meretricious artist, most twenty-first-century experts and audiences have been entranced by a brilliance in his best paintings whose exquisite painterly technique and provocative social content still strikes us as rare, elusive, and intriguing. Now that a more extensive opus has come to light, a more open and contextual exploration of Sargent’s life, of his complicated historical world, can help us fathom that brilliance. It can also help reclaim a more adventurous and surprising version of him.

Sargent belongs to everyone, and everyone sees something different in Madame X, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, or his nude portrait of Thomas E. McKeller. But what many people have loved about Sargent is his perpetual freshness and free spirit.

Sargent’s quirky spontaneity sprang from many sources—his family background, his early travels, his self-education, his infatuation with firebrand painters, his relentless transnational perspective, his unique Paris training. But his distinctive gift also grew from those half-hidden worlds in which he was able to find joy and inspiration, and the half-obscured passions that fueled his extraordinary love affair with the visual world. Sargent’s works teem with all the many and multifarious relationships of his life—his imperious patrons, his iconoclastic friends, his enterprising models—with all their rich and shadowy complexity.

Whatever else Sargent’s paradoxes have suggested, the painter’s distinctive taste, imagination, and life experience enabled him to envision his many models, sitters, and patrons from a rare vantage point, rendering him a painter of dazzling human complexity. And it is just this complexity that grants this painter, this wayward stepchild of the Belle Époque, his most compelling contemporary relevance. (Pg.12)

“The Grand Affair: John Singer Sargent in His World” by Paul Fisher.

WE&P by: EZorrillaMc.

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