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Home Culture When painting is haute couture: the work of John Singer Sargent is also a history of fashion | Culture

When painting is haute couture: the work of John Singer Sargent is also a history of fashion | Culture

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He painted aristocrats, industrialists, writers, politicians and even suffragettes, just as Velázquez or Van Dyck portrayed the royalty of their time. Or perhaps he is more like Frans Hals, the Flemish artist who distanced himself from monarchs to portray a bourgeoisie established as a new ruling class during the Baroque. In the work of John Singer Sargent (Florence, 1856-London, 1925), the most European of the American painters, there is a collective portrait of Paris and London between the centuries, the two cities where he became one of the most important painters. influential people of their time, in which there were many exuberant characters, the nouveau riche, unscrupulous careerists and ladies forced to change their outfits four times a day to signal their social superiority.

Sargent was distinguished by his taste for fashion, in which he saw the distinctive sign that allowed him to understand the vicissitudes of each individual. This is demonstrated by a new exhibition, Sargent and Fashion, one of the highlights of the cultural spring in London, which can be visited at the Tate Britain until July 7. The exhibition, which displays around fifty oil paintings by the painter along with some of the royal dresses that inspired them, reflects the extraordinary attention he paid to the wardrobe worn by his models. Among them were the clients of the haute couture that was then flourishing in the French capital. Firms such as Doucet, Paquin or, above all, Worth, which employed 1,200 workers in 1870, supplied silk and velvet sets to young buyers, in many cases Americans looking for husbands in Europe. Those dresses were “their social armor,” as Edith Wharton, perhaps the best chronicler of that social stratum, would later write.

‘Miss Elsie Palmer’ (1889-90) and, behind, two Charles Worth dresses from the same period, in the exhibition dedicated to John Singer Sargent in London.Jai Monaghan (Tate)

When choosing these dresses, their pictorial reflection came into play: when purchasing each model, these women wondered what their reflection would be on the canvas, just as today’s stylists are concerned about the photogenicity of the dresses they choose for their clients. Oil painting was the red carpet of the Belle Époque. Renowned for his impressionistic lines and his attention to attire, Sargent was one of the most sought-after portrait painters of his time. His paintings circulated throughout society and attested to the new power acquired by their protagonists, like the profiles of the Roman emperors on the coins of antiquity.

“I only paint what I see,” said Sargent. Of course, he was lying. The artist, who charged 1,000 guineas per portrait (about 100,000 euros today), was known for ignoring the preferences of his models, no matter how much he was paid. He not only served as a painter, but also as an artistic director: he chose the dresses and accessories, sometimes against the opinion of his clients, imposed the most appropriate decoration and modeled the fabric on their bodies as a dressmaker would do. Lady Sassoon (1907) is a portrait of Aline de Rothschild, heiress to the banking dynasty, dressed in a black taffeta cape lined with pink satin, a garment full of folds and waves that seems to look better in the painting than in the museum room. , where it seems poorly lit and devoid of magic. Ellen Terry como Lady Macbeth (1889) is another example of Sargent’s power of transformation: a portrait of the famous actress in a jeweled robe, in shades of green and maroon, more spectacular on canvas than in reality, always a little more prosaic.

Sargent not only served as a painter, but also as an artistic director: he chose the dresses and accessories, imposed the most appropriate decoration and modeled the fabric on the body as a dressmaker would do.

Each portrait is a small representation, a function on the identity of its protagonist, which Sargent stages with relative simplicity, with an elegant economy of resources. The best example could be Madame X, one of his most famous works, on loan from the Metropolitan of New York. It is the haughty profile portrait of Virginie Gautreau, born in New Orleans and living in Paris, who caused an immense scandal when she was presented at the Salon of 1884. Her tight black bodice is fastened with two straps full of precious stones. In the original version, the one on her right fell from her shoulder, which sparked a controversy that forced Sargent to go into exile in London and repaint the painting with the two straps in place. In 1916, he donated it to the Metropolitan with a message to its director: “I guess it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”

'Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose' (1885-86), another work by Sargent in the exhibition dedicated to him at the Tate Britain in London.
‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose’ (1885-86), another work by Sargent in the exhibition dedicated to him at the Tate Britain in London.Alamy/ Cordon Press

In reality, that woman with whitish skin—a product of makeup, as Sargent demonstrates with all her evil when contrasting her with a red-hot ear—was descended from slave owners of a large plantation, information that eludes a sample that, at times, remains in a sumptuous but superficial and deceitful show. Some of the dresses and accessories are period, but not all: we discover a top hat from 1900 or a French lace collar, devoid of the aura about which Walter Benjamin theorized, they do not match those worn by his models. When a piece of textile does not correspond to the one in the painting, the show falls apart.

A portrait of John Singer Sargent.
A portrait of John Singer Sargent.Library of Congress (Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

The exhibition timidly explores the subversion of gender roles that Sargent practiced, which would have to do “with the deliberate sexual ambiguity and with the homosexual and homosocial circles in which he often moved,” its curators point out in the exhibition catalog. , Erica Hirschler and James Finch. In the rooms of the exhibition, however, this aspect is not mentioned, fundamental to understanding the relationship with the women who posed for him, in which there is more complicity and fascination than eroticism, or his male portraits, in which it does reside. some ambiguity. After all, homoeroticism was one of the signs of that time, as also demonstrated by the work of Henry James, a close friend of Sargent, or later that of EM Forster, a great admirer of the painter.

The Tate exhibits androgynous portraits such as that of the languid Albert de Belleroche, a young English painter, or that of Samuel Pozzi, a French gynecologist who wears a red coat with slippers peeking out from the bottom, an unusual gesture for his time that defied presentation. public of powerful men. But he does not dare to show Sargent’s secret lithographs, discovered after his death, where he painted naked men covered by sheets reduced to a minimum. Elegance, Balenciaga said, always involves elimination.

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