Portrait of Madame X — which John Singer Sargent considered his best painting of his career even though it was one of his earliest works.
Recently someone asked me why I don’t blog about writing. Yawn. Is there anything more dull than writing about writing? Ok, maybe reading someone’s writings about writing. That could be worse.
People are so much more than what they do, even if they do something interesting and do it very well. Most of the time, people who do something well don’t even like what they do. Rare is the person at the peak of their profession who is also happy in that profession. But profession is the great American obsession. Almost every conversation starts with “And what do you do?”
Fortunately, I’m not very American or very obsessive. I suppose that’s why I’m so fascinated by humans’ beingness. You never know what’s behind the facade of a profession.
John Singer Sargent was a master of his profession. But, he was also fluent in French, Italian, and German, and played a mean piano. He became famous for a painting that also got him run out of town. He tried to “fix” the painting (you can see the original version here) but the damage was done. The girl’s mother thought her daughter had been made to look a whore (read the letter from Ralph Curtis to a friend on the same page). Commissions dried up, he had to leave.
Paris felt the Portrait of Madame X (fixed version above) was shockingly sexual. I suppose Paris might have thought some other things as well. JSS had pursued an introduction to Madame for months. It then took a year to do the painting. People probably thought there was something going on. However, JSS was actually gay.
JSS’s father was a doctor. Dr Sargent had moved the family to Europe after JSS’s older sister died and JSS’s mother had a nervous breakdown. Some years later, when JSS’s father fell very ill, he basically became his father’s nurse — while continuing to paint. JSS nursed his father till the day dad died. He did it with a patience, compassion, and tenderness that astonished his friends. It was the year after his father died that JSS became a big success. His father never lived to see it.
JSS had a great relationship with his mother. He took care of his mother, who lived with him remainder of her life. His work gave his mother financial security and social status. It was a good life for her. But JSS really didn’t like being a portrait painter. He called his work, “the second oldest profession.” JSS did about 900 paintings, but he did 2000 watercolors (and countless sketches and drawings). Although he’s known for portraits, he actually preferred being outdoors painting landscapes.
JSS never married. I suppose he liked his freedom and was too honest about his orientation to go through with a sham marriage. His friends knew he was gay, as did most of his sitters I’m sure. How could they not? Before starting a portrait, he went a lady’s house and had her maid lay out all her gowns and baubles. Then he picked exactly what his female sitter would wear for her portrait!
When JSS’s mother died, he stopped taking portrait commissions. He finished out his remaining scheduled portraits, which took a year, then closed his studio — for good. For the remaining 18 years of his life, he travelled, socialized, and painted what he liked. Although we think of him as an American painter, he really was European. He was born to American parents, in Florence, and spent the vast majority of his life abroad in Europe.
All of this plays in my head when I look at a JSS’s work.
President Theodore Roosevelt by JSS, in 1903
I feel there were other artists working in portraiture, around the same time as JSS, who were better at it. To me, the work of JSS has an insipid formal distance, a staged quality, and a whiff of “I don’t really like doing this (or you)” most of the time. The exceptions occur only when JSS sketched or painted actual friends. Don’t misunderstand, JSS’s art still great art, But the even greater artists of his era, and their works, to this day still lie hidden in his cast shadow. And when I look at JSS’s work, I think about those artists’ lives too.
Same subject, by Philip De Laszlo, 1908 — of which this is a 1968 copy!! by adrian lamb — and it’s still a way better portrait. It pulses with life and the subject’s actual personality. (And Teddy’s wife liked this one better too, for just those reasons!)
It’s good to do something well. It’s good to understand the ins and outs of a profession. It’s good to be able to cast a critical eye on others of that ilk. It’s good to be able to stand back and objectively consider one’s work and that of others. But in the end, it’s only the person that’s interesting. It’s all the emotional, subjective, goofy, quirky bits of life that are of interest, that make a person a person. Profession? That’s mostly incidental.
If a person’s profession is all you see when you meet them, you don’t see anything. If a person’s profession is all you know about someone when you encounter her/his work, you really don’t understand that work. You can’t truly appreciate Lizst or Rachmaninoff or Tolstoy or Van Gogh without knowing their lives. And every life is like that.
Take for instance my grandmother’s friend’s granddaughter. I’ve never met her. All I know is she’s young, paid a lot of money, and works in military intelligence as an interrogator — at various places around the globe. I suppose I could wing off about extraordinary rendition. But really, she’s someone granddaughter. Just like I am. Her gran is proud of her. Just like my gran is proud of me. She travels a lot. Just like I do. She’s a young woman. Like I am. Maybe she’s the kind of person I could be friends with the way my gran is friends with her gran. What she does is just work she came to do. I’m sure it’s interesting, but not nearly as interesting as the woman herself and how can you understand the work apart from the person?
And now, if you were paying close attention, you’ll understand that I actually just wrote about writing while writing about why I don’t write about writing.