Sunday, September 20, 2015

An Afternoon at the Met with John Singer Sargent

In New York City - like anywhere else - it's easy to stay home on a Sunday afternoon. Clean the apartment, catch up on email, or fall asleep as that book you've been wanting to read slips out of your hands onto the floor. All admirable options. But then, there's that brochure from The Metropolitan Museum of Art on the table, the one that's been laying around all week. The one announcing the final two weeks of the "Sargent's: Portraits of Artists and Friends" exhibit. The Metropolitan Museum of Art!! It's a forty- five minute subway ride + walk away. I haven't been there in months.

What am I waiting for?

I enter the first exhibition room to find each painting encircled by at least five people, who have apparently asked themselves the same question. Some listen to audio guides, others read commentaries beside paintings, while a few quietly whisper comments to a companion. We all patiently wait our turns for the coveted spot in front of the next piece. If we bump a bag or brush against a hand poised to take a picture, we say a polite, "Excuse me," and move on.

John Singer Sargent,  Self-Portrait (1886)

John Singer Sargent received high praise during his own lifetime, but would undoubtedly be complimented by such reverent admirers, ninety years after his death. He is often referred to as "the leading American portraitist of his generation"(1856-1925). I'm unfamiliar with portrait painters who came before or after, but I can scarcely imagine any more gifted. Examples in the Met exhibit include:

Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau)
Carolus-Duran (one of Sargent's teachers)

William Butler Yeats

As admirers, we each pause longer in front of one painting than another, for reasons we might be hard-pressed to explain. Is it the subject, the technique, an expression or setting? Or a feeling, perhaps.

 I stopped at each of the ninety-two paintings, and returned to two.

A Gust of Wind

The first was a portrait of a woman - not seated in a chair, or posed as a statue - but on the move, outdoors, holding her hat in place as she strides through the grass. I want to know her story. Where is she going, and might I tag along? The commentary describes it as "one of Sargent's most daring compositions - freely painted and boldly abbreviated." Perhaps his subject was equally daring to move beyond a life of expectations.

The second could have been voted "The Most Unlikely To Get A Second Notice." It is unfinished.

Woman and Collie

A dog with his kind face and tongue hanging out; a faceless woman bending forward -- a friend, mistress, stranger? With only a few brushstrokes, Sargent began a portrait of companions, then "abandoned the composition before completing it." No reason why. He has left us to continue their story. As a writer, I'm intrigued by the challenge… yet more intrigued by Sargent's ability to capture my imagination, by what he has left undone.

I'm almost out the museum's front door when I turn around. I reach in my purse for my credit card, then walk to the membership desk. "I'd like to renew my membership, please."

 Next time, it's….

American Quilts and Folk Art
Ancient Egypt Transformed
Celebrating the Arts of Japan






  1. Sargeant, my all time favorite painter. We have 2 in New Orleans, one when seen far away is like a picture portrait . . . up close you can't even tell it's a woman wearing a long string of pearls. I have a few prints in my home, and a huge color book of all his paintings. You have beautifully painted your experience, like Sargent, in just a few brush strokes. Magnifique!

    1. Thanks, Michele! I'm delighted to hear of our connection to Sargent and his work! I'm in awe of his tremendous talent. I felt extremely fortunate to be surrounded by so many of paintings for a couple of hours!

  2. Ah, your Sunday afternoon is my delight. I too love the unfinished painting as well as the Gust of Wind. Inspiration to begin my day.

    1. Hi Vanda! One artist inspiring another! I wonder what you're creating today. :-)


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