When we think of John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), most us picture his exquisite portraits memorializing the rich and powerful--from upper-class families and society matrons to President Theodore Roosevelt.
Known as the leading portrait painter of his time, Sargent created nearly 900 oil paintings, mostly portraits.
But there is a lot more to the artist than these portraits.
The current exhibition, John Singer Sargent and Chicago’s Gilded Age, at the Art Institute of Chicago (now through September 30) provides an intimate picture of the man, his wide range of work( including watercolors, sketches and charcoal drawings) and his life through nearly 100 objects from the AIC collection, private collections, and public institutions.
Although his parents were American, Sargent was born in Florence, Italy, and launched his career abroad making his home base in London. Sargent traveled extensively from Venice to the Tyrol, Corfu, the Middle East and the US.
He made several visits to the US, two of which were to Chicago--one in 1876 when he was 20 and still a student in Paris and another 40 years later in 1916 as an established artist.
Sargent first showed at the Art Institute—at the time located at Michigan Avenue and Van Buren Street—in 1890, the year Chicago officially became the nation’s “second city” in terms of population. Among his paintings on view was La Carmencita, a commanding portrait of a Spanish dancer that is at once old and new—a tribute to Old Master painting that is also an Impressionist exploration of color and brushwork. The composition drew crowds of visitors to the museum, helping to put Chicago on the map as a recognized center for contemporary art and culture.
Between 1888 and 1925, Sargent’s paintings were included in more than 20 public displays in the city, among them the Inter-State Industrial Exposition, the World’s Columbian Exposition, exhibitions at the Arts Club of Chicago, and the Art Institute’s American Annuals.
Prominent to Sargent's large presence in Chicago were area patrons and Art Institute supporters, including Martin A. Ryerson, Annie Swan Coburn, Robert Allerton, and the Friends of American Art, attesting to the city’s enthusiasm for the artist and making possible the museum’s early acquisitions of his work.
Sargent also painted many prominent Chicagoans, most of whom went to London to sit for him.
In 1907 Sargent abruptly stepped away from portrait painting-- expressing ambivalence about the restrictions of formal portrait painting and producing relatively few oils. Instead he focused on murals and plein air painting.
When wealthy patrons wanted a portrait by Sargent, he would render a charcoal portrait that he could execute in one session. Two of these charcoals were of Chicago woman--Mrs. Marshall Field III (Evelyn) and Harriett Pullman Carolan (daughter of railroad tycoon George Pullman.
Sargent painted many other Chicagoans and formed close friendships in Chicago. Most notably Charles Deering (head of company that became International Harvester), who built an important collection of his works over a lifetime of friendship.
Exhibition curator Annelise K. Madsen, Gilda and Henry Buchbinder Assistant Curator of American Art, sums up this study of Chicago through the lens of Sargent this way:
“The Midwest is perhaps an unexpected point of departure for an examination of this thoroughly cosmopolitan painter, who made his career in Europe, attracted a transatlantic set of patrons, and cultivated professional ties primarily on the East Coast.
Yet Sargent was indeed a fascinating player in the cultural history of Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. This exhibition presents the scope of Sargent’s talents while also recounting the integral narratives of local collectors, exhibitions, and institutions that are part of the artworks’ own histories.”
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Filed under: Art Institute of Chicago.