Sargent's Story Pictures

John Singer Sargent is best known, of course, for his portraits of pretty society women in fancy gowns. Sargent does not use any symbolism in his painting. That would mean one image stands in place of another image or idea as when a dove represents The Holy Ghost. But, for Sargent, an orange sash is only an orange sash. So how does Sargent catch the intellectual interest of his audience without symbols? He does so by turning these hired portraits into story paintings, which means that his audience is invited to tell stories about them, a story being a narrative that gets from one place to another and has some suspense about what will come next. These stories are there in the pictures but waiting to be found, the viewer the one that has to conjure them up, though the clues for doing so have been supplied by the artist in the way he poses or dresses his subjects.

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Democracy and Genre Painting

Genre painting is the name given to a genre of painting that flourished, among other places and other times, in Mid-Nineteenth Century America. Genre painting in America portrayed the informal social life of a supposedly still unsophisticated  and largely rural America, this movement ending entirely with Winslow Homer’s “Snapping the Whip” (1872), that painting of boys at school recess that is perhaps better known today for its 3D effect of having its participants look as if they are on the verge of breaking out of the frame. These American genre paintings portray people grooming and selling horses, dancing, white people mixing with African Americans, and much else that could be considered informative about what life was like back then if one could trust inferences that are made from an art form, whether that is literature or painting, about what is really going on in the social life of the times. The art historian Elizabeth Johns makes such an attempt with regard to American genre painting and concludes that the paintings present a number of types so as to take a condescending and humorous view of their subject matter and are therefore not to be trusted as a serious set of pictures about the way things were because the pictures are designed to please the city swells who commissioned them. I disagree. I think it is possible, if one is careful, to draw inferences about reality from what might indeed have been painted as fanciful or stylized presentations of the life of the times. More particularly, the pictures, or at least some of them, tell the story of the emergence of democracy in the United States, a subject that historians of the time find crucial but where there is not enough of a documentary trail to explain how that remarkable event took place, something that did not arrive in Great Britain until the Reform Bill of 1886, some fifty year later.

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The Limitations of Painting

One of the things that made Sargent a great painter was that he appreciated the limitations of painting. At least for two hundred years before he did his work, painting had not carried philosophical messages or meanings encoded in symbols but rather did what it was capable of doing, which is to show what things look like. Sargent has no symbolism, no iconography, only what people, particularly, look like in their faces and in how they dress and in their presentation. What Sargent gets from accepting that limitation is an attention to detail that allows him to pick up the telling detail that gives a picture drama even if not anything that could be called meaning.

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Tissot's "Hide and Seek"

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James Tissot was a French painter who moved to England after the collapse of the Paris Commune in 1870, and returned to Paris some ten years later. During his career, he was both prolific and well paid. He made his name as a society painter, portraying fashionable women in good clothes and in appropriate settings. Later in life,Tissot devoted himself to Biblical paintings which are noteworthy for the sculpture-like rendering of Biblical figures, though the emotions of grief or piety that accompany them seem somewhat cliched. There is, however, one picture of his, “Hide and Seek”, created in 1877, that is very different from either of his two major periods, and it stands out as worthy of attention, and makes Tissot one of those artists that produces just a few memorable paintings rather than an artist who keeps producing them throughout the course of a career. For one moment, inspiration caught up with talent.

“Hide and Seek” is set in a large living room. On the right there is a door which opens onto a garden, but this is not a picture of the outdoors as seen from the indoors. Another widow with a view of the outside has a white window shade drawn down on it so that the outside is not visible, which helps the viewer return to the interior of the room as the painting’s subject matter. The room is furnished in Victorian style: overstuffed sofas, tables, ornamented carpets, all set far away from one another so that the room does not seem at all cramped while remaining quite homey. Critics have emphasized that this was a time in his life when Tissot was quite happy, having settled down with the mistress who gave him a son. She may be the person who is leisurely occupying a sofa with her feet up, reading a newspaper, the moment a sad one because she would die within a few years. So this is a bourgeois domestic idyll and so to be savored for how charming and pleasant bourgeois life can be.

There is more to the picture, though, and it refers to a paradox of bourgeois life not easily fathomed. There are four children in the picture, all similar and cherub like. The one at the center  and the main focus of the picture is sitting on the floor and looking at a ball that is a bit removed from her, it also a strategic object in the painting. Why is she looking so carefully at the ball? This, the grown woman neglects to do so, perhaps because it is only a toy there for the amusement of the children. But there is something about the ball that perhaps only children, or the naive, or else the very perceptive, will notice. The ball is geometrically round and it is unadorned. That is different from the furniture, which is plushly upholstered and has numerous cushions, and from the rugs, which have elaborate floral designs. The starkness of the ball makes it something from another world. It is a geometric form not in the abstract, as in a geometry textbook, but actualized as a concrete thing out of keeping with its surroundings, and so is a symbol as well as a representation of what is ultimate and universal in the midst of the everchanging. The girl notices this about the ball the people around her do not. The ball serves as a critique of the pleasures and comforts of the bourgeois world, which will inevitably fade, while what the ball is and represents will not fade, and yet, ironically, the ball is just a plaything on the floor, however much it takes over the picture, that now focussed on its right hand lower quadrant where the ball lies. The ball as an abstract and yet present object, a part of the natural rather than the socially created world because it is a part of geometry which rules, in its way, aside from what people do, is therefore a challenge to the world in which the child is immersed, and the child knows that, and the problem set up by the painting is what the child as well as the viewer will make of that.

The ball constitutes such a challenge because it is so different from the clutter of ostentatious decoration that dominates the Victorian Age and which serves to remove civilization from its underpinnings in reality. In the Victorian era, civilization is understood as an imposition upon nature, and human society a construction that keeps people from being, as an image of the age that endures has it, in a constant evolutionary struggle where the strong defeat the weak. Society is a product of history and takes on its own representations that are not obliged to or reflective of the pre-social or primitive social forces that may underlie them. That is what makes society so comfortable and comforting. To do this, everything from architecture to household furnishings to dress indicate an artificiality that contrasts with the natural and even goes so far as to appropriate what might seem to be the natural to its own purposes, as when flowers are adopted to decorate rugs and so become part of human life rather than natural life.

The ball as an abstract object and yet a real object is an image that could not be used for much longer as an image of the universal inhabiting the historical world. In the  Eighties, Lewis Carroll introduces a wonderland where the laws of logic stand out in high relief. Alice becomes smaller and then bigger contrary to physical law; the Cheshire Cat ceases to take up space, in violation of biological law; and, to top it off, the Queen demands a verdict before a trial, which is a violation of social law. And after that would come Freud’s cluttered office, opulent and busy in the Victorian style, but with the addition of statues and artifacts from primitive societies to add credence to the idea that there are levels of consciousness and experience that go beyond and are coexistent with the normality of bourgeois life. Nor will it be long before geometrical shapes take over painting and architecture and room decoration, however much the rectangles of Sullivan office buildings still use decorative motifs. But Tissot is not yet in that period and so geometry is an intrusion into bourgeois life, which raises the question of why bourgeois life was so committed to plush and over-elaborate decoration.

But this one picture should not lead to neglecting the paintings on which Tissot’s fame was based. Tissot’s portraits are not bad even though they never take a grip on the viewer the way that the portraits of John Singer Sargent do, whether that is because Tissot does not have Sargent’s mastery of color or because Tissot’s faces are too realistic and so do not have the mystery and individuality that Sargent’s do, or because they look too much alike, with pert noses and small lips, his women dressed more often than not in white, or simply because current taste for some reason does not favor him. But a more limited case can be made for them. Tissot sets his portraits in interesting places: outdoors, in parks, in living rooms, on ships, and so they constituted a record of what fashionable (and not so fashionable) women did with their time. In some cases, the clothes of the women he portrays are carefully represented and complex and their faces are distinctive. Moreover, the women are shown to be poised, comfortable in themselves, and so a match for the stagey men who accompany them. That provides evidence that should unsettle the view that the women of the Victorian Age are prim and oppressed. They seem very much in command of their surroundings even if they do not have seats in Parliament.

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Tissot’s “Richmond Bridge”, for example, shows a self-possessed pretty lady, accompanied by an admirer, posed in an interesting place, near a river (the Thames) with an arched bridge, and wearing an elaborate plaid dress. Her face is fuller than it is in many Tissot portraits, and she seems preoccupied, as if her companion cannot keep her interest, something also indicated by his showboat moustache and cane, which make him something of a cliche gallant. So there is a story here, though the high point of the painting is her plaid dress, closely hugging her body, its material seeming thin though elegantly cut and so making a fashion statement even if the painting deliberately underplays that.

Then there is Tissot’s “Waiting for the Ferry” or, as it is sometimes called “the Art of Waiting”, where an equally formidable woman is waiting, slouched over in a chair, for the time to move on, and also has a companion who can not stop looking at her but whom she does not acknowledge. The background of buildings leaning over or near the river are interesting for their shapes and the bustle of activity within and near them, their white and grey textures and the life within them made more interesting by the intervention of horizontal and vertical lines between the buildings and the woman who is dressed, this time appropriately, in an unornamented white that becomes glamorous because it is so well cut. The viewer is left wanting to see more rather than less of the background, while the posed young woman challenges the background for the viewer’s interest, the viewer wondering whether she is bored rather than merely self-possessed, and how her personality plays into its physical context. She too has a male companion who is just an ornament.

Then there is Tissot’s “Ball on Board” where, indeed, the whiteness of the gowns seems overdone even as the picture portrays how social occasions such as this shipboard party go. One interest a modern viewer takes is in the social fact that women are coming on board where they are not ordinarily welcome, and the deeper question of how it is women of the period would have felt about having to be so elaborately dressed even if they were just getting on a ship where more comfortable clothes would seem appropriate. The women do not seem diminished by their elaborate “uniforms”, anymore than contemporary women are diminished by dressing in short skirts and long legs when going to the office. So there is something about how dress sets off women whatever the era of social enlightenment in which they live.

It is difficult not to find something of interest in portraits of woman. This fascination with how women look, women looked at and men doing the looking, has been going on at least since Pompeii, and is intensified in Christian art, which is so preoccupied with the Virgin Mary. This preoccupation with portraits of women rather than of men reaches its highpoint, perhaps, at the end of the Nineteenth Century, with the society portraitists, though we would be remiss not to notice that the layouts in Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein ads are as elaborate as they are in a Tissot painting. The way Tissot catches hold of the male interest in staring at women is therefore of significance even though, as I say, his major claim on us is as someone who caught onto something metaphysical about Victorian life.


Interpreting Manet

Edouard Manet as well as Gustave Courbet, who was the subject of a recent post, are subject to conflicting interpretations, T. J. Clark again serving as my foil for pointing out the limitations of a Marxist interpretation of painting. Clark interprets Manet's “Olympia” in the same way he interprets Courbet’s “The Stonecutters”. He sees the stereotypical depiction of its subject as a visually accurate description of a social role, in this case the role of courtesan. The painting was offensive to the bourgeois viewing public, he argued, because it so blatantly identified its subject as a prostitute, while other paintings of the time used prostitutes as the unacknowledged models for nudes. The picture was also scandalous because it was so overt a rejection of the bourgeois convention of referring nudes to the world of myth and other forms of culture. The direct stare of the model out into the world outside the painting showed the alienation and oppression of the prostitute, and thus of womankind in general.

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Interpreting Courbet

To be blunt about it, Marxist art criticism, like Marxist criticism of the other arts, makes interpretations which point out class conflict, while what we might call bourgeois criticism points out issues of individuality. This is certainly true in the case of Gustave Courbet, a leading French artist in the period that preceded the Impressionist deluge. It is worth considering the two opposing camps of criticism if for no other reason than that viewers of the paintings are still liable to turn toward a class interpretation as the most obvious one even though Marxism has passed out of style, which perhaps shows the individualism is still a theme difficult to grasp as an idea even as it is countered by more fractionating movements such as those represented by Modern and Postmodern art.

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The Golden Age of Dutch Art

It is a curiosity that the Netherlands never produced any fiction or drama in the vernacular that took its place alongside that of the other languages of Western Europe, such as German, French, Italian and English. The greatest writers of the Dutch Golden Age were Spinoza and Grotius, both of whom wrote in Latin, as had Erasmus, the great Rotterdam humanist of a previous century. Rather, as everyone acknowledges, the greatness of Dutch culture rests on its paintings, which provide a vivid and even a metaphysical insight into the life of the Netherlands in the Seventeenth Century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is currently showing a rather large overview of these paintings and is avoiding the usual show of greats, including only a few by Rembrandt, one Vermeer, and none by Brueghel. The show provides a deep sense of why Dutch art is so good as well as so informative about the period it captures.

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Delacroix, The Romantic

The review in The New Yorker of the Delacroix show currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was curiously and unnecessarily dismissive of the artist, treating him as both banal and overbearing. I think that was because Delacroix is so clearly a Romantic, which is an age so out of favor at the moment, what with its Orientalism, supercharged emotions and flamboyant militarism. It is true that Delacroix is not up there with the true greats, like Picasso, who makes us reimagine the topology of the human shape, or Rembrandt, whose lined and craggy faces testify to their humanity, or Vermeer, who sets people and their identities within the world of extension when he, for example, shows the spaces between the dustmotes in the air. But Delacroix does have his virtues as an artist, if not as a philosopher or as a humanist, and these I wish to catalogue.

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Wadsworth Antheneum

Susan Sontag got it wrong when she said that photography was in part distinguished by the fact that there were so many good photographs to absorb. The same is true of all painting. A little bit of craft combined with a minimal eye for color and a good eye for perspective and composition can create a painting where you are transported into the texture of its life simply by looking at it before ever getting on with the job of seeing how the parts hold together or even noticing some of the more obscure parts, much less whatever meaning or meanings the painting may hold. It is the nature of the form that makes painting so beguiling, allowing itself, for example, to be noisy (like George Bellows’ “Stag at Sharkey”) or quiet (like Henri Rousseau or most Impressionists, even when they are drawing crowds of people), or else to be rich and tasty, sweet, like Matisse, or tart even if bittersweet, like Picasso even at his most romantic. Paintings invoke all the senses, not just the eye, including, not least important, a mind’s eye that turns itself to history and to abstractions. These remarks suggest that it is painting rather than the painter that makes for art. The medium has the resources to express a great number of things and any number of craftspeople working at their trade can provide satisfaction to their viewers, just as any number of novelists can tell stories well enough so that stories can engage our eternal desire to know what happens next.

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Bierstadt's Landscape

Alfred Bierstadt’s 1870 painting, “The Rocky Mountains: Lander’s Peak”, is an iconic representation of the American West whose formal properties tell a lot about the American landscape and also about the art of landscape painting in general.

“The Rocky Mountains: Lander’s Peak” covers a lot of territory. In its center is an ice covered peak, and below that is a lake, and further in the foreground is an Indian settlement, with tepees under the trees or grouped out in the open and Indians congregating or moving their horses, all the bustle of a well organized community. The Indians are dressed so as to show that it is not warm in this part of the Rockies, but they are comfortable and so as civilized as a pre-literate society can be. There is an unimpeded view from the Indian camp across the lake to some waterfalls and then to the giant mountain behind. The unimpeded view is the key to the painting, more than its contrast of colors, the green of the trees and the land on the apron of the lake, the blue of the lake, and then the increasing white of the waterfalls and the mountain behind. The Indian community can consider itself nestled next to the lake, with nothing to fear from nature, because they have so many layers of separation between themselves and the uninhabitable mountain, that just a part of their scenery. The scene is welcoming. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have such a vista from your own front porch! That would not be the case if a viewer saw the area abundant in fog coming from the lake and the mountain, or if the Indian community were hidden behind a ridge that gave it some shelter from the weather. Maybe, at another time of year, the landscape would be more foreboding of what nature might have in store, but here it is not, and I think the unimpeded view accounts for that.

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Museums of Agony

The Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington is an impressive presence. I wondered how those who commissioned it had decided on the final design given that so many very different designs had been rejected in favor of this layered latticework of upturned terraces, and with whether the architecture would seem dated in a generation or so. The actual collection, covering the origins of slavery up through Jim Crow and the Second Reconstruction, begins in the deep basement, reached through an elevator, and then the visitor moves up in space as he or she approaches the present. I was impressed by the ability of the museum to move along its crowds, still quite large now that it is more than a year since the museum opened. I was also impressed by the various guards who were very helpful in assisting visitors, which is very different from the guards at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where they are likely as not to give you incorrect information about how to proceed to a room you want to visit. I was less impressed, however, by the narrative supplied by the placards that accompanied the artifacts, dioramas and other illustrations for the history of black slavery in the United States.

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