With some regional museums still closed and planning to reopen, we are continuing to remind readers of their important collections by highlighting visual art works you can visit as soon as social distancing practices change and museum doors open.
This week’s pick is John Singer Sargent’s 1897 painting “Elizabeth Allen Marquand” at the Princeton University Art Museum.
As the museum describes it, the painting commissioned by the sitter’s husband, noted collector Henry G. Marquand, was a turning point in the artist’s career and that in painting Sargent “suppresses the conspicuously virtuosic brushwork that made him the most fashionable portraitist in England and the United States, while retaining vestiges of the immediacy it affords. Mrs. Marquand is shown conservatively attired in a dark antique dress, seated in a chair of similarly aged design, in a composition that reflects the emerging appeal of the Colonial Revival while also implying the subject’s chaste character.”
The painting is also a peek into Sargent’s ability and an artifact of a time in the artist’s career.
While the museum description makes the brief note that the Elizabeth Marquand painting was “reassuringly unlike the artist’s scandalously risque ‘Mme Gautreau (Madame X),’” it doesn’t elaborate on what exactly happened and how the Marquand painting helped Sargent’s career.
Although Sargent is a noted American painter, he was born in Florence, Italy, in 1856, raised in Europe by his American-born parents, and studied painting in Italy and, upon his physician father’s insistence, in Paris, where he was encouraged to explore traditional masters as well as to work with fresh ideas.
Sargent flourished, and in 1877 was accepted into the prestigious Salon. Over the next several years with more works accepted and after winning several Salon awards, he began attracting clients and, according to New Jersey writer Deborah Davis’ book “Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X,” resentment from French-born artists jealous of the American’s accomplishment.
As Metropolitan Museum of Art materials say, “Sargent’s best-known portrait, ‘Madame X,’ which he undertook without a commission, enlisted a palette and brushwork derived from Velazquez; a profile view that recalls Titian; and an unmodulated treatment of the face and figure inspired by the style of Edouard Manet and Japanese prints.”
Sargent selected the subject, the American-born Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautreau, because he wanted to exploit her notorious beauty and reputation as a woman linked to numerous romantic liaisons although she was married to a prominent French banker.
“The picture’s novelty and quality notwithstanding, it was a succès de scandale in the 1884 Salon, provoking criticism for Sargent’s indifference to conventions of pose, modeling, and treatment of space, even 20 years after Manet’s pioneering efforts,” continues the Met.
According to some art historians the criticism was also because the artist had crossed a social line. While adultery was tolerated, it was not something to put on display — especially by showing a known adulteress with a dropped dress strap suggesting she was ready to undress (Sargent later added a strap to stem the ridicule).
The aftermath was devastating for Gautreau, who had remained in Paris. Sargent, however, was able to escape to England, where he labored to rebuild his career as a portrait artist and found noted subjects, including author Henry James.
Then there was the career changing invitation from Henry Marquand to paint his wife.
Marquand was a financier, art collector, and one of the founders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He also was a benefactor to Princeton University, where his son, Allan, studied and later taught archaeology and art.
Sargent, who had visited America when he was in his early 20s, preferred to stay in Europe, but he also did not want to offend a noted wealthy collector. In order to discourage the collector, the artist said he would only come to America if Marquand agreed to an outlandishly high price — one that Sargent believed Marquand would refuse.
When Marquand agreed, the surprised Sargent found himself wealthy, and by painting a conservative painting of a rich collector’s wife found himself an artist in high demand in America’s Gilded Age.
It was also one of the most productive periods of his career — creating the noted murals and artworks for the Boston Public Library and Museum of Fine Arts.
He also gave the region a well-executed painting that connects to Princeton history and plays a part of a fun story.