John Singer Sargent is such an excellent portraitist that he not only shows different faces to be different, which is very different from when Rubens painted a number of Rubens faces, he also uses different techniques to paint each of those faces. It is as if each face is an experiment in finding a way to render it. This focus on faces, however much Sargent dresses up his often not very pretty subjects in glamorous and carefully painted colorful gowns, replaces, for the most part, a concern with setting that would place the subject in their social context, as would be the case with Gainsborough. The faces speak for themselves to the extent that faces can speak to us at all and so makes of Sargent, often dismissed as a mere society painter, the greatest portraitist since Vermeer.
What Sargent is up to, what he wants his paintings to accomplish, is clear from the very first picture encountered in the show of his art currently available at Chicago’s Art Institute that is entitled “John Singer Sargent and Chicago’s Gilded Age”.The picture is “Street in Venice” and shows a young woman walking down a street wearing a shawl. It is not a story painting, as might be the case if Sargent had added a child or a shopping basket so one might speculate about comings and goings and think this a painting about an aspect of Venetian life, as is the case with a painting that is nearby, entitled “Venetian Water Carriers”, where you see Venetian women drawing water from a well and so can speculate, as the placard accompanying the painting does, about how hard it is to draw water, because the woman are struggling to balance the weight, and so this painting is about Venetian life. But the only other people in the painting of the shawled woman are two idlers who glance over at the subject, not that they are intruding on her, just noticing her in passing, just as we do, except that our gaze is more extended because we are not sharing a street with her, and so can stare for as long as we care to at the object of our interest, because a woman walking down the street, how she wears her shawl, how she carries her face, is always fascinating even if our gaze has no lascivious intent. Something profound is in our view when we see a woman’s face, and so it is no wonder that people or a society will lose its nerve and be inclined to cover the faces of women because the sight of them is too intimate, too much to bear. And that is what Sargent is looking at: what the face is. In this case, the face is not even all that remarkable, her eyes downcast and her cheeks round even as the face is oval. The hair of the woman is disheveled and she has no expression and is hunched in her shawl. She is within herself even if she is also an object of attention. How that combination is possible even for people posing for portraits is what Sargent finds intriguing.
Sargent paints his various rosy cheeked women quite differently from one another. That is quite different from the practice of Renoir who worked throughout his career at perfecting his ability to do skin tone so that he came to show his young women with various colors of pink on their arms as that was interspersed with the subdural blues of veins, and so making them, in that way, so totally lifelike. Sargent, for his part, adapts the color tone to the person portrayed. Mrs. George Swinton is shown as an attractive matron at the height of her beauty. Her posture is regal, one hand resting on a chair that, characteristically of Sargent, is a version of red carried through in the red of her nails, the pinkish highlights of her white dress, the reddish brown of her hair, and most important, the rose of her cheeks. While the color of her face is natural, it is to be added that the pink of her cheekbone is slightly emphasized, which I take to mean that she has been carefully made up so as to emphasize the redness of her lips in contrast to the blueness of her eyes. If the red in her cheek had been even slightly more emphasized, she would take on a kewpie doll look. The face is made by the ways in which it has been attended to. That does not detract from her beauty; it is what makes her beautiful.
Compare that to the way pink skin tone is used in other Sargent portraits. In a portrait of Mrs. J. William White, pink is used to supply highlights to a face largely painted in white. It conveys the convex surfaces of a face no longer young yet pleasing, the woman’s interiority conveyed by the softness of the eyes and the hint of a smile and eyebrows not as carefully shaped as in other portraits where they are part of the presentation rather than the reality of the self. Different again is “Mrs. Charles Deering” who is wearing a red and white dress as if to complement the face, but where the skin tone is much subdued so that the pink makes her look merely healthy. Or “Alice Vanderbilt Shepard”, who is much younger, and whose white lapelled black dress and white neck piece make her look dressed up like an early nineteenth century naval officer. In her case, redness on the face is quite muted, in its case pointing out the convex qualities of a youthful face that still has some baby fat, while “Mrs. Charles E. Inches” has the pink throughout her maturer face, just a little darker than the white of her upper chest and the deep red of her dress. All experiments in color, every much as Whistler’s pictures of London bridges, but so as to enhance the singularities of the women portrayed, the colors settings for the faces and their very different expressions, here a mouth a little more pursed, there an ear exposed, there a person a bit remote, here a woman willing to show herself to her portraitist.
Quite a different way of rendering a face is presented in “Portrait of Mrs. Edward L. Davis and Her Son, Livingston Davis”. The placards in Chicago point out that Sargent borrowed the black gown, whose shades are so difficult to capture, from Velasquez, but the real point of the painting is the face. Mrs. Davis is clearly what we would now call middle aged, an older version of the face she shares with her son, who is given such a prominent position in the joint portrait-- he is more in the light and slightly forward of his mother-- and so the viewer is permitted to think about what it is to have an older woman’s face. Her cheeks are full rather than fat and her pursed lips fit under slightly enlarged lower cheeks. Her arched brows seem attended to and her hair is swept back, which is not true in the portraits where Sargent wants to show the models as having a certain allure. Now as to her coloring: it is rendered in a shade of white that does not make her look dead but merely neutral, the face and its features outlined in hard lines rather than in a rhapsody of color or even an attempt to capture skin tone, her face set against the blackness of the background, even as her dress also has to be set off against the same black background, which is no easy feat.
So this matron is beyond allure, or at least that may be as it was at the time, the time of sexual interests ever getting older, D. H. Lawrence having put the end of all of that at sixty, in “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and physicians nowadays recommending Viagra to people in their seventies. Yes, the picture is a portrait in black and white, Mrs. Davis’ neck piece supplying white on black just as her son’s neckpiece supplies black on white, but the heart of the picture is what it is to present yourself as presentable without being alluring, understated in her clothes as if she were a widow, yet young enough so that she might pass for alluring if she tried. It is the presentation that makes her face more middle aged than it has to be.
Then there are the portraits which more overtly use color in experimental ways. “Miss Pringle” was the subject of approbation at the time because it adopted the Impressionist device of using unexpected colors. The lady, with a severe hairdo and expression, has the shadows on her face represented in a greenish hue and the rest of her face is a not quite ghostly white. And “La Carmencita”, which is a portrait of a known stage performer of the time, has her detailed orange dress accompanied by a face that is made very flat, of a single color tone, which emphasizes that she is made up and so it is a false face even if it is the public face for which she is well known. Her eyebrows are well defined, as are her lips and nostrils, while the decorations on the dress are rendered more softly so they blend into a single impression.
To speak more generally, what Sargent is up to is that he wants to show how women are placed in the world in a quite literal sense rather than in terms of their roles as mothers or lovers or wives. The point about them is that they are always on display, their faces looking out at the world from the context of their dresses and their makeup, real selves encased, though nevertheless quite visible in that the distinctiveness of his subjects comes through. This is quite different from the men whose portraits he paints, which are also well represented in the Chicago show. Their dress, although detailed, is not an important context for whom they are, and so their faces just hang out there, also distinctive, whether cragged or flat, to be looked at for what they are rather than, as is the case with the women, of the degree to which they have a certain allure. Women are made mysterious by their dress, their makeup, the shape of their faces, while men come across as either important or aged or within some other category of reference. Or maybe I say this because I am a male observer and so my gaze is charged with the question of allure. A woman once remarked that she didn’t know how charged it was to paint a nude until she had male rather than female nude models. Maybe the same thing is true when viewers of the opposite sex see a painting. Now, Sargent didn’t paint nudes except for a woman labelled as an Egyptian and some sketches of male nudes with the genitals covered, but the response to his paintings of woman is that you have come to know these women very intimately, their clothing filling out that intimacy rather than distracting from it, perhaps because their faces stick out at you. Maybe they should be veiled.