Acclaimed and handsomely compensated by the Edwardian upper classes for brilliant portraits that captured their privileged lifestyle, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) lived into the age of Cubism, when his commitment to realism and his worship of Old Masters like Diego Velázquez led critics to dismiss his work as superficial and old-fashioned. Then, in the 1980s, scholars rediscovered an eye-opening array of nudes, drawings of naked men that Sargent kept private and that after his death were scattered among multiple institutions. The artist was now a trendy subject in the burgeoning field of queer studies, an example of “conflicted socio-sexual identity,” as Trevor Fairbrother’s influential 1981 essay put it. Biographers and art historians followed suit with reappraisals that viewed various aspects of Sargent’s life and work through the lenses of “homoeroticism, disguise, and impersonation.”
Paul Fisher, a professor of American studies at Wellesley and author of a collective portrait of the James family (“House of Wits”), aims to build on this reappraisal in “The Grand Affair,” “offering a new application of it, as well as integrating the consideration of Sargent’s sexuality into a larger vision of his life and work.” Fisher lavishes plenty of attention on the intense male relationships glimpsed in Sargent’s nudes and sketches, but he also spotlights the painter’s achievements as a portraitist of “the emboldened, newly liberated women of the Belle Époque.” Fisher hails the painter for “his representation of an ever-more-complex modernity and an ever-more-diverse and multicultural world,” citing examples ranging from portraits of an Italian peasant girl and a Spanish gypsy dancer to private watercolors of nude Black men in Florida and the use of an African American bellhop as the model for the classical gods (and some goddesses) in Sargent’s murals for the Boston Public Library.
The biographical portions of the narrative stress the artist’s peripatetic cosmopolitanism: he was born and raised in Europe by expatriate American parents; had studios at various times in Paris, London, Capri, Venice, New York, Boston, and Cairo; and traveled extensively in search of visual inspiration and personal adventure. “Friendships that pressed acceptable boundaries,” in Fisher’s view, included not just close ties to other men, but “unconventional liaisons with women” (including “gestures of courtship” that never developed into marriage proposals and a putative affair with Isabella Stewart Gardner), and warm relationships with some of his Jewish clients, who like Sargent were never wholly accepted into high society no matter how wealthy or cultivated they were. Fisher commendably refrains from imposing the modern category of “gay” on a Sargent, noting that there is no evidence (“nor would we expect it”) of sexual contact with other men. He does, however, persuasively point to a sketch of Nicola d’Inverno, Sargent’s model and valet for 26 years, as suggesting “bedroom intimacy” and discerns the same intimate affection expressed in other drawings of male friends, while noting that many of them were married and Sargent was often friendly with their wives.
Writing a biography of John Singer Sargent informed by queer studies and 21st century perspectives on globalization and modernization is a worthy project, but Fisher’s handling of current scholarship is sometimes problematic. If the book were only aimed at an academic audience, then his habit of restating present-day criticisms of Sargent, followed by his own more positive appraisal, would be appropriate. But the imprint of a major trade publisher, 16-page color insert, and black-and-white illustrations throughout suggest that Fisher aspires to a mainstream readership. When he concedes art historian Kathleen Adler’s point that “Sargent’s fascination with Jewish women belongs to his obsession with exotic types and ethnic others” and counters with the contention that “Sargent’s very attraction to non-Anglo-Saxon people and cultures set him apart from a finicky, ultra-Europeanized figure like [Henry] James. Sargent had more empathy for outsiders and unconventional people,” the average reader may well wonder why Fisher doesn’t simply state his own assessment of Sargent’s achievements. Similarly, in describing Sargent’s “Nude Study of Thomas E. McKeller,” Fisher aptly comments that this beautiful painting of an African American model “raise[s] agitating questions about race and homoeroticism.” But he prefaces this with the remark that McKeller’s pose suggests bondage “to some observers.” Does Fisher think so? If not, why did he mention it?
This sort of hemming and hawing muffles Fisher’s efforts to synthesize a larger vision of Sargent’s life and work, which is a pity. When he gets out of his own way, he writes perceptive appreciations of such famous paintings as “Portrait of Madame X” (his quintessential rule-breaking modern woman), “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” (one of his tender portraits of friends’ children), and “El Jaleo,” a dramatic study in light and shadow. These passages and many more forcefully remind us of the sheer beauty of Sargent’s work, “his perpetual love affair with the visual world,” and the psychological acuity of his portraits, possibly sharpened by the fact that Sargent had hidden depths of his own.
Fisher is also perceptive in writing about the conflict between Sargent’s happy ease in bohemian circles and his desire for respectability, which grew stronger as he grew older and began to weaken his public work. Probing the divide between that work and the private male nudes that came to light in the 1980s is crucial to understanding Sargent, and Fisher has worked hard to integrate those two halves into a coherent portrait of a complicated man. That portrait could sometimes be better defined, but it’s a valuable first draft.
THE GRAND AFFAIR: John Singer Sargent in His World
By Paul Fisher
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
496 pages, $40