John Singer Sargent: Can He Take a Joke?

Quiet and Despairing? Or a Bon Vivant Portrayed in Whimsical Caricatures?

Sometimes John Singer Sargent has been portrayed as very private and about his life as an artist. There are discussions that he may have been in despair about his art.

He did despair at least once: The Infamous "Madame X."

"Madame X" was an oil portrait Sargent created of the distinctive looking Madame Pierre Gautreau. She did not commission him; he asked to do her portrait. Young Sargent, Sargent was only about 26 at the time of the portrait. He picked a provacative, rather contorted pose, to maximize the almost translucent whiteness of her skin, and to emphasize her other striking qualities such as the line of her neck, her facial profile, her decolletage, and her pink ear -- which was perceived as scandalously titillating at the time.

He first exhibited the painting in the Paris Salon in 1884. ​


The virulently negative reaction to his “Madame X” stunned him. He was chastened by how ferociously the response arose from critics and patrons alike describing the painting as vulgar and worse.

Sargent left Paris after the painting was exhibited there. He moved to London, in part to escape the scandal, and have a fresh start.

This was a pivotal event in his life. He continued to consider Madame X “the best thing I have done,” as he sold it to The Met years later. And, indeed, now Madame X is widely considered one of his best works, and is an important piece in The Met's collection.


But did he socialize and have friends?

Recently, due to enormously important gifts to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and to new scholarship in the life and work of Sargent, we have learned details that illuminate a more jovial, sociable side of Sargent.

We now have in museum collections more of his primary source material including his personal and professional correspondence, as well as that of friends. Friends express their fondness for his talents at the piano, his gregariousness, and his immense knowledge of art.

Sargent was extremely social and went out nightly. His social life revolved around art, music, and theater, and he was deeply engaged in the culture of his time, always open to new influences, and able to nurture friendships with those he admired. His diverse friendships link him to the vanguard of contemporary movements in the arts. He befriended many well-known creative types, including writers Henry James, Robert Louis Stevenson, artists Claude Monet,  Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Auguste Rodin, and most likely female Impressionists Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, plus composer Gabriel Fauré, among others.

From the description of the exhibit, "Welcome to Sargent Portraits of Artists and Friends," The Metropolitan Museum, June 30, 2015.


He also spoke several languages (Five, I think, or possibly six: English, French, Spanish, German, and Italian. He also probably spoke Swiss German, which I have recently learned is its own Swiss dialect based on the German language.)

So, as Sargent met with traveling artists, ex-pats, and dignitaries, he spoke to them in their native language. How fun it must be to know idioms, quirks, and stories in many languages. This dexterity in languages also speaks to his conviviality.

The newly available scholarship portrays a more filled-out, three-dimensional Sargent.

His work underscores his happy compulsion to interpret an engaging scene in watercolor, while relishing the play of light and color. As an example of a brilliant, energetic watercolor, he shows us torrents of water as it rushes down this crevice in a mountain.

The Playful Side of John Singer Sargent

Here is a whimsical sketch he created of “three pigs.” Also, note the little cartoon of eyebrows, a nose, and two eyes, toward the upper-center part of the sketch. 


Henry Tonks’ Caricatures of John Singer Sargent

Sargent was known to carry a lot of gear with him when he painted en plein air (outside.) He had a porter, or basically a sherpa, who wrangled his gear for him. This gentleman spent decades with Sargent.

Here is a cartoon of Sargent painting on a mountain with all sorts of props rigged for him. He has an assistant at his side. There is a woman standing to the right of his composition, who is probably one of the women in his family or part of the revolving entourage who often accompanied him.


In this sketch, Sargent is painting in oils. Notice his large canvas and his large palette. (And for the humor, note his very small three-legged stool.) 

More of Henry Tonks’ Cartoons of Sargent

In this sketch, Tonks depicts Sargent as standing on a rock ledge, painting in oils on a large canvas. Sargent is possibly lashed to his assistant who is precariously sitting on top of their tent (?). Another figure has the other end of the rope and is standing on the ground in front of the tent.


An additional gentleman is holding onto the back of both the easel and the painting to keep them from blowing away. I think we can see Sargent’s ubiquitous umbrella blowing away (in the upper left-hand corner). As I look at this wild scene, I wonder if we also see a landslide of rocks tumbling down the mountain at right.

Throughout these sketches, John Singer Sargent remains studiously focused on his paintings.

The original image of this online at the MFA, Boston, is difficult to see due to discoloration. I have lightened the image to allow us to better perceive what is going on.

Tonks and Sargent on the Western Front of WWI 

In this sketch, Sargent is painting in watercolor. Notice his small palette, and a painting smaller than his typical sized oil canvas. The umbrella has returned to his composition.

Sargent is dressed in military attire including boots and a helmet.

Henry Tonks and Sargent lived in Arles, France during part of 1918 and WWI. This sketch by Tonks was given to Lieutenant General Sir Aylmer Haldane who was commanding the 6th Army Corps near Arles during that period.

Henry Tonks was a multi-faceted individual who moved between his career as a British surgeon and a second career as an artist, medical illustrator, and as a distinguished professor of art at University College, London.

During the war he served as an official war artist. His path intersected with Sargent, who was also serving as an official war artist. In 1918 they visited the Western Front. That is when Sargent painted “Gassed,” one of his largest pieces of art at 7.5’ x 20’. (Only Sargent’s murals are larger.)

The subject of the painting is of soldiers blinded by mustard gas, and struggling to breathe, being led by a medical orderly.

Tonks describes the context for this work in a letter to Alfred Yockney on 19 March 1920: "After tea we heard that on the Doullens Road at the Corps dressing station at le Bac-du-sud there were a good many gassed cases, so we went there...Gassed cases kept coming in, lead along in parties of about six just as Sargent has depicted them, by an orderly. They sat or lay down on the grass, there must have been several hundred, evidently suffering a great deal, chiefly I fancy from their eyes which were covered up by a piece of lint... Sargent was very struck by the scene and immediately made a lot of notes."
Imperial War Museum, London. Notes on the painting.

Obviously, John Singer Sargent had the ability to convey the austere misery of a scene, too.

What did Sargent think of Tonks?

As we can see from the above caricatures, even the one at the Arles, Henry Tonks enjoyed capturing the spirit of the famous John Singer Sargent.

Although I am not aware of correspondence between Sargent and Tonks, Sargent was obviously aware of these sketches because he was there and is featured in them.

I like to think he got a big kick out of them. I feel his ebullient countenance when I look at his watercolors. That’s one of the things that make me such a fan.

Yet, even this little essay reminds us how complicated life is not all is glib and amusing and hopefully it is infrequently that we fall into despair.






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