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.
One of these pictures that ask the viewer to tell a story about them is “Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes”, which was painted in 1897. Mrs. Stokes is dressed in an unusual costume and it is not clear whether it is of her choosing or that of the artist. Her dress has large black lapels and black padded shoulders to make it look angular rather than soft. The front of the dress is white and of a shirt like material that falls with numerous small creases across Mrs. Stokes’ ample bosoms, as if the dress were not designed to confine the female form within its shape. The dress is decorated with a neckpiece that imitates a man’s tie. Her costume is deliberately remote from the fancy ball gowns that Sargent uses with many of his subjects. It is a takeoff or a reference to the kind of shirtdress that girls working in a factory might wear so as to fit into their workplace by imitating men’s attire even if no one would confuse the illusion with the actuality. It is very much like the tailored suits women wore in the Seventies to male majority offices so that they could fit in without betraying their femininity.
This is where the story lies. Why is Mrs. Phelps Stokes dressed in her costume? She might be just trying to be informal and so go against the prevailing trend in how to dress for a sitting for a portrait, deliberately informal and so she is like her husband, who stands slightly behind her wearing a white suit and a boater hat to convey his own informality. Or else she has selected or been put into this costume to make a fashion statement. She is dressed in a fanciful version of a shop girl’s costume because appropriating the fashions of different and lower classes is a way of elevating them into being a fashion, a bit of bravery, like wearing Nehru jackets or overalls or a Madison Avenue ad agency calling its inhouse coffee shop “The Company Store”. So she is not being informal but rather chic. There are therefore two stories to be interpolated between the picture and the viewer about whether her fashion statement is one of being informal or of her being chic. Will we read her character differently on the basis of one story rather than the other?
A third story to which neither she nor the artist has access is one that will readily enough occur to the current day viewer of the painting. All this will be gone in a quarter century. By the Twenties, and that will be while Sargent is still alive, he not dying until 1925, fashion had undergone a radical change. No more overstuffed shirts or layers and layers of material and, indeed, no more big or accentuated bosoms, but short, sheathlike dresses. How such a revolution in fashion could happen is still a story. Was it World War I? Was it the Suffragette Movement? Was it the Freudianism inherent in Modernism? Indeed, the elaborate dresses that cloth most of Sargent’s women would be more recognizable today at one of those red carpet ceremonies, even if a bit more skin were visible, than would be the belabored working class look. So, in the light of the future, what Mrs. Phelps Stokes wears is not a taste of the future but just a passing fashion and so makes her look a bit silly, strutting too much so as to make an impression.
Then there is “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit”. The first story to be told there is about the art of painting itself. The three young ladies are posed amid some giant urns, one tall and curved, another broad and even larger, the girls themselves differently shaped, one something of a stringbean, another more squat. It is easy enough for the viewer to see the urns as the lumps or basic shapes from which the portraits of the girls will be molded. Michelangelo said as much when he said that the statue of David was already in the granite, waiting to be uncovered by his chisel. So Sargent takes raw shapes and changes them into distinctive human figures and that is the unfolding story we are meant to draw from the painting: the drama of how one becomes the other, how very different are the distinctive people from the generalized shapes. What gives each of them their personality? It might be the rendering of eyes or the posture of the young women or even their dress, many commentators noting that they are dressed in pinafores and thus informal in their pose.
That interpretation seems wrong to me because the relationship of the poses of the four girls is dramatic precisely because the four of them are not posed together. One of the older girls is facing the camera while the other older girl is posed so that she is seen from the side. One of the younger girls is further forward and the youngest of them is playing on the ground, her limbs stretched out and so not at all like a giant vase. What is noteworthy is that none of the four dominate the scene, none the center of dramatic attention, and so the spaces between them becomes of interest to the viewer. Commentators make up stories, however, because Sargent encourages them to do so, about how the daughters closest to the urns will go on to live lives “in the shadows” because they became “disturbed”..
A second story that could be told about that painting is that it is a story of acquisitions. Only a rich man could have afforded to buy and import the urns from their original homes, which was in fact the case, those Japanese urns a common import among the wealthy. In that case, the young women can also be thought of as their father’s acquisitions in that he created and nurtured them to be accompaniments to his life in which he could take pride and joy. There is a story that goes along with that. He acquired a wife who could give him children, and then was present enough in their youth so as to develop affection for them and some spirit of benevolence towards them, as would be required by a father, so that they might be thought of as accomplishments and so suitable to be added to his collection of urns. This is not too harsh a story to impose on the children of the rich in that the object of the rich in those times and perhaps at all times has been to survey the holdings they have and proclaim them to be good.
A third story to tell about this picture is about the relationship between the daughters. Is the girl standing off to the side being aloof or suggesting that she is a loner? There is not enough information to construct stories in part because the postures of the girls may simply have been assigned to them to accomplish an artist’s desire for a sense of balance between the parts of the picture and to make it a more visually interesting composition. Those aims, after all, accompany all picture making, even if they are aside from any meaning the picture might be out to convey. You have to get an audience interested in looking at a painting-- or a photograph, or a movie-- first, before you get on with a message. So turn to a different one of Sargent’s painting that seems to provide more room for spinning stories about relationships.
“The Wyndham Sisters” provides such an opportunity. Here are three sisters posed on a couch, each one of which taking a different stance on posing for a portrait and so revealing some of their own stories to the viewer. The sister on the left of the sofa is by far the prettiest of the three and feels comfortable, so it seems in taking the most prominent place in the picture, a if it were befitting to her position as the family beauty. The second women is much more plain. She is less elegant, perhaps because her two sisters have swept up hair and she does not, but she smiles in an ingratiating way so a to indicate that she is approachable and friendly, her character making up for her lack of beauty, and so she is comfortable with herself. The third girl, at the right end of the sofa, reveals less character than the other two and has, it seems to me, less fine features than the sister at the other end of the couch, all this betokening, perhaps, her standing as the most nondescript of the three, someone who takes up least of the family space.
Sargent has done this trick elsewhere, even more overtly. In “Eve and Betty, Daughters of Aslee and Mrs. Wertheimer”, Sargent shows the pretty daughter and the plain and heavy set daughter with their arms around one another. The pretty one is barely smiling while the heavier one is smiling broadly so as to indicate the different ways in which the two engage the world. Perhaps fat people have to be more jolly. It is an observation and a joke that doesn’t go out of style.
Whether these interpretations or stories, really, because we are inferring a biography to each of these three girls in “The Wyndham Sisters”, is correct or not, the point that Sargent is making is that their presences, what are their appearances, are also their beings in the world, their metaphysical essences, whether or not the woman had each contrived these or had them thrust upon them. They are like butterflies pinned to a display board. They cannot avoid being what they appear to be. And so, this being a remarkable conclusion to draw about an artist who spends so much time getting faces right, faces are conditions of their lives rather than clues to or indications of their feelings. Faces are not avenues to the soul but what life has done to these souls.
So Sargent is doing something radically different from what many other portraitists do. Gainsborough supplies emblems and other insignia and a landscape and formal clothes to help you tell whether his subject is an aristocrat or a brewer. Sargent wants you, the viewer, to do the work of imagining a story for any number of his subjects, and some of your inferences may be wrong or ill-informed or simply without sufficient evidence. But that is the way, he is suggesting, that people read people, and so he has something in common with later artists, including even post modernists, who want you to draw inferences about what their startling images signify, as when Jonathan Shipper in the past few years constructed a sense of the slow movement of an automobile into a wall so that the viewer can stare at the spectacle and decide whether the artist is providing a portrait of chaos or the capture of a moment in time or else, perhaps, a symbol of human mortality. What could make Sargent more contemporary than that?