Modern Portraiture

Modern portraiture can be defined as what happens when portraiture as an art form abandons what had preoccupied it ever since it arose out of Christian art, which was  the representation of people to show off how the subjects were powerful, or had something of interest in their faces, or were somehow beautiful. The something else that portraiture came to be about was that it was the occasion for the artist’s musings about human consciousness or the state of the world or anything else that caught his attention, Van Gogh making his portraits just as strange and luminescent as he did his presentations of chairs and beds, and so portraits no different, in that sense, from what landscapes or cityscapes were supposed to accomplish, which was to provide the artist’s point of view, as when Julian Freund provides not just a portrait of how unpleasant can be the sight of a realistically painted human body, warts and all, but his sense of the human condition as grossly biological and filled with sloth and gluttony, a perception that would have appealed to Dante.

This new understanding of portraiture begins with Manet’s “Olympia” because that picture is not just of the opulence of the life of a prostitute but also a statement of class relations that obtain even within the restricted realm of prostitution. Wealth is evident as well as someone, the maid, who serves up that wealth in the form of flowers to a prostitute never at rest even when not seeing a customer because she is aware of herself as an object of contemplation, whether fully clothed or, in this painting, unclothed, as if we were in a Picasso like reverie whereby what is there, the unclothed body, and what is not there, the clothed body, exist simultaneously.


What I want to point out is that John Singer Sargent is also caught up in this very significant transition, he who made kinds of beauty the point of doing portraits, also exploring what could be said, through painterly technique, about subjects that go beyond representation. I am thinking of “Elsie Parker”, a painting he did in 1890, during his most successful period as a hired portrait painter for the rich and who kept up a friendship with his subject throughout the remainder of his life however much, as an artist, he had been unflattering to her.

Elsie Palmer is posed all in white, as if in the costume of a religious. Her straight red hair appears on a background that is also red. She has large eyes, thick brows, thin lips, a lack of expression, and is slightly off-center, as if to indicate she is slightly out of joint. Elsie might well be a member of a coven of witches, or part of some other strange cult, and what she emits is strangeness rather than familiarity or beauty. She is not ingratiating but she is off-putting. Why would Sargent cast her in this way? I suspect it is because he is out to evoke certain emotions which might not be hers but which might be associated with her by the choices he has made in her depiction, the reds, for example, instructive as is color in so many Sargent paintings, suggesting not warmth but eeriness because they are so harsh rather than either bright or warm, as is the case with the reds in his picture of Mrs. Swinton.

Sargent is with Elsie Parker painting a portrait of anxiety, something sensed by critics who say Elsie is caught between childhood and womanhood, an easy dichotomy to fall back on for lack of a better way to say what is disturbing about the picture. I would go farther and say that Elsie is not just anxious. She is a visual representation of angst, which is a suggestion about the nature of the human condition, that captured because her surroundings share the same reddish atmosphere as herself, and so is a property of the world and not just of herself. A comparable painting, though not nearly as unsettling because it is so much more schematic rather than individual, is the overly famous Charles Munch, “The Scream”, painted in Norway just a few years later in 1893, where the artist provides a cartoon like portrait in place of a realistic one, the wavy lines above the bridge on which the screamer stands repeating the shape of the scream, and so generalizing it beyond the person screaming. Munch imitates the grimace of an anxious face rather than present an anxious face so his painting becomes a readily grasped symbol of angst rather than the true character of angst seen in Elsie’s face, real life not required to be as clear as art about what is being conveyed, and so Elsie’s angst is to be inferred from everything about her rather than in it announcing itself, which makes her condition all the more oppressive, haunting, and frightening. It might be mistakenly said that Sargent was bringing to his portrait of Elsie Palmer a perception of the Gothic, but Sargent does not seem to have been otherwise impacted by that movement or by any medieval revivalism, while many of the other painters of his period were. It is therefore fairer to say that he was exploring new emotional territory.


Sargent is also on the track of new emotions in some other of his painting, as is clear in a number of paintings including some in his major period and some in his later period where he develops a more Impressionist style. He paints one or another emotion, and is particularly drawn to one to be thought of as languor, which the dictionary defines as an oppressive stillness of the air or the feeling, often pleasant, of tiredness or inertia. This representation of a sentiment or feeling rather than a person is caught in “Two Women Asleep in a Punt”, painted in 1889, still when he was doing realistic portraits, but already toying with, at least in this painting, with his later style of making paintings that look like overexposed photographs. There is a red boat and cushion, so you have splashes of color, and there is the blue of the lake, so you have an extended spread of color, and there are some realistically rendered dangling green leaves, which provides smaller more delicate objects to contemplate, and so the picture is an exercise in doing a number of different things, Sargent confident, as he had always been, of his artistic abilities. The most important point, however is that the white dresses of the two women in the boat are non-descript and that the faces are not carefully rendered, as if they don’t matter, which is very different from what Sargent does elsewhere. So you sense these two women as experiencing languor, and what is important about that is that Sargent is not being judgmental: he is not seeing the emotion as either good or bad, as an emotion whose experience makes you a candidate for hell, purgatory or heaven. Rather, the viewer is moved to feel what it is like to lie only partly shaded from the sun in the bottom of a boat and so feel warm because the sea breezes are above you and you are fully clothed and so warmed into a languorous state, pleasant, though not permanent, drifting off into sleep.


Why would Sargent be so interested in this emotion, which he comes back to time and again? There is his picture “Group with Parasols” and also “A Siesta”. My suggestion is that he thinks this is a profound emotion because it catches women in just the opposite way in which he usually catches them, which is when they are posing, and so remain alert to how they look and that they are the objects of attention. Instead, they are by themselves, not caught in a (male) eye, and so able to relax-- or, if you prefer, not on duty to be feminine, which means alluring. To be languorous is to be without pretense and that is not to deny that putting on airs is just another condition, not something wrong in itself either. Indeed, “A Siesta” goes farther than that because the women are caught in an indecorous though not immodest position, the leg of one of them exposed almost to the knee above her short boot. She is being informal rather than indecent and so only captured by a universal eye, not the eye of a portrait painter, something that becomes a convention of movie making where women can be seen changing their clothes where only women can see them, and so not violating propriety even if the image is titillating to moviegoers.  Sargent is never titillating; he is merely allowing himself to be observant in a new way, without giving away that there is an observer.


With all this in mind, look at the pictures Sargent made at Simplon Pass, in 1911, inaugurating his later style, most notably in “Simplon Pass- 1911” where he works to get the rocks just right and comes to show them in the midst of the air and water round them and so begins his post-realistic style of emphasizing white. In “Simplon Pass, Reading”, Sargent shows two woman in white with a blue, faded parasol. The women have soft faces but the faces are still well defined, and so he is true to his realism, as he is, startlingly so, on “Reconnoitering”, where his portrait of a man is remarkably realistic. The same is not so for “Simplon Pass: The Green Parasol”, where the faces are undefined to the point of being non-recognizable, that so clearly a reversal of the art that had made his name. The picture becomes a composition in white, blue and green, as if he could not resist the temptation to make his paintings about the reality of color rather than the reality of his subjects. I miss him not having made even more realistic portraits of fascinating women even if he had done that so often that it had come to bore him.