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Portrait Art: Faces of Scandal

Summer 2019

I have hesitated to write an essay on portrait art, or on any portrait artist, mostly because of my personal experiences with artists who engage in such emotionally-laden work. My observations have been that their work is never easy, more because of the ego of the subject matter than because of the lines, forms, shapes and colors of the portrait.

I once encountered an artist who painted a British royal who looked more like Cary Grant than his true self: any vraisemblance, or likeness, existed largely in the imagination of the royal sitter. The artist got what she wanted, however, through her fawning attention to fantasy in oils: money, accolades, professional advancement, and medallions.

Personally, I could not attempt such artistic farce. The history of portraiture is, most unfortunately, filled with tales fraught with the strife of working for the rich and powerful to stroke their egos while the stroke of the paintbrush lies, cheats, and deludes with each touch on the canvas.

Leonardo da Vinci created splendid portraits of wealthy Renaissance women such as the Mona Lisa and Ginevra de’ Benci, but I sense his real passion went into sketches, anatomical drawings, inventions, and toying around with his concepts of the real world. As a child, I was extremely fortunate to see the Mona Lisa during a class trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I can still recall my sense of disappointment over its small size and dingy appearance. I later observed “Ginevra” in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It is, in my opinion, a vastly superior work, although Mona has been hot for centuries now.

Diligently have I listened to accounts about the requests made of the portrait artist to compose a face, a body, a likeness that appallingly compromises the integrity of the artist. Photoshopping-with-Brush-and-Canvas must be developed as a fine art to assist one too many painters in regaining his or her sense of decency!

“The faces of scandal” are what I call these more-than-tweaked, almost conjured, likenesses that reveal only the egotism, narcissism and inflated sense of importance of the Subject. Those demands downright doom the creative elements of any art. The painter at such times becomes a creator of fiction!

It’s a messy business, dabbling in the details of facial expression. The curmudgeonly James McNeill Whistler had his own way of dealing with portrait art, taking a rebel stance and paying a high price for his “art for art’s sake” credo. Ah, well, such is the price for daring to speak the truth!

Whistler was the quintessential sensitive artist — who was sensitive mainly to himself. The man must have enjoyed being perverse! His mother would have likely agreed! She and his father got sufficiently fed up with the temper tantrums of this insolent child and they supplied little James with drawing tools. The art-work did the trick!

Thank goodness this child, born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1834, did not have to contend with Modern Educrats! His fits of foul mood, and bouts of sickness, followed by sullen laziness, would likely have been diagnosed as a syndrome, the attention-deficit one that is more akin to ants-in-the-pants of a child who is bored to distraction in a classroom and can’t sit still!

Whistler evolved into a painter, though he never really lost the foul moods or sullen attitudes. In 1877, he sued English artist and critic, John Ruskin, for libel after Ruskin dared to condemn the painting, “Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket”.

Prescient, that title! Whistler won the case but lost a ton of money during the year-long trial (Superfast Litigation!) and he went bankrupt. His deteriorating mental state was made clear during his testimony wherein he claimed that he was not born in Lowell, Massachusetts, but in St. Petersburg, Russia.

“I shall be born when and where I want, and I do not choose to be born in Lowell.”

This mad-artist had paved his way to poverty and provocation, managing to irritate even friends. It is always a sorrowful sight, watching an artist insist upon damaging his gifts, along with his life; but, all too sadly, the gifted person, as a very young man, or woman, learned that creating art can be used as an excuse, or even a weapon, to ensure continued bad behavior, bad manners and bad morals. I have quite personally known such individuals and consistently held to my principle that being an artist does not exempt that person from being a decent, caring human being: “Creating art does not compensate at all for the displeasure of your obnoxious behavior.”

In 1861, when Whistler was a less offensive and much younger man, he painted “The White Girl”, his most famous work and the one that sent him professionally on his way to fame and a squandered-fortune.

I observed more than a few times “The White Girl” in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The “portrait” is not truly a portrait but is a figural representation of mood, a symbolic image, a study in tonality, even one of spiritual content that, at that time, was said to have altered the art world in some fundamentally shocking way.

I don’t interpret this work as the earth-shaking line-defining composition advancing the Realism that it supposedly was, or became. The American-born Whistler at this time was shuttling between England and Paris, and he was strongly influenced by the sensually elegant styles but bold colors of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. He took from those English artists the symbolism that he’d already begun to infuse into his work, and he developed his own Americanized version of a full-length portrait-composition.

The subject matter was merely a vehicle for the symphony of shades that James McNeill Whistler composed through his sense of color harmonies and the arrangement of those colors on a canvas. Thus, the woman in the painting becomes “Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl”.

Whistler was blessed, or, in his case, troubled, with synesthesia, a sensory phenomenon wherein a person hears a color or sees a sound. Vladimir Nabokov experienced this sensory gift, and to some extent I also do. This “union of the senses” is often inaccurately and inadequately defined or even explained.

Whistler made a nuisance of this unique ability, whereas Nabokov played with it. I “work with it” although, as Dear Daughter has informed me while we were at a makeup counter or in a large retail clothing store, “You’ve on visual overload.” The programmed playing of “background” music in the grocery store aisles is sometimes more than I can bear! Whenever I need to focus on driving, I turn off the radio.

There is nothing scandalous about this sensibility, or heightened sensitivity, but the way in which an artistic person reacts or responds to it can create trouble, even scandal. I try to be calm about it, but there is always the awareness that I am not experiencing “life” the way other people do. Perhaps therein resided one reason for the peevish, oft-neurotic James McNeill Whistler.

One portrait artist whom I have long admired was neither fractious in his temperament nor fanatical in his approach to art. He was not the typical painter of faces set against pretty places. And he did, quite unintentionally, create a scandal through his art. He dared to speak the truth to Parisians about a subject better left behind closed doors!

John Singer Sargent, born in Florence in 1856 to American parents, has been called the “leading portrait painter of his generation” because of the refined evocative nature of his works. He did not seek scandal in art, but scandal is precisely what came to him due to one of his first submissions to the Paris Salon of 1884.

“Madame X” was the scandal that this painter would always deem his favorite painting as well as “the best thing” he’d ever done. The Madame is, indeed, is a masterpiece of unintended and intended consequences.

The Portrait of Madame X, or Madame Pierre Gautreau, was not commissioned by this woman and, as such, it became a portrait of unusual origin and of unconventional character. Typically, the client seeks out the artist; the subject is thus rarely of the choosing of the painter. With his previous portraits, Sargent employed this commission-arrangement. With this work, however, Sargent pursued (a most apt term) this woman with the hope of painting her as a means of securing his position as a “society painter”. John Singer Sargent got more than he’d bargained for from this portrait during its exhibition in Paris in 1884. The vitriolic public response to this work nearly ended his professional career as a painter.

“Madame X” is a study-in-oppositions depicted through an abundantly realistic portrait of a woman who was stunningly proud of her sensual and beautiful aura. The tableau is magnificent. Displayed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., “Madame X” is a premiere attraction. I must have looked at this painting half a dozen times, in awe of the composition and the color palette, the translucent quality of her impudent pale skin, the sharp contrasts in hues. There is an almost palpable antithesis between the stark reality of the subject and the sublime qualities of its interpretation by the artist.

Madame Gautreau was the notorious and beautiful wife of a French banker; her notoriety arose from her infidelities, although beauty can be, in itself, notorious. The refusal of the French to grant any further commissions to Sargent as a result of this one supremely and precisely accurate portrait was a response that this American painter most likely keenly misjudged. Anticipating his request for this commission, he’d written to an intermediary between himself and his Portrait:

“I have a great desire to paint her portrait and have reason to think she would allow it and is waiting for someone to propose this homage to her beauty. . . . You might tell her that I am a man of prodigious talent.”

Acquiring the consent to paint this woman became a game of conquest! Another portrait artist is said to have stalked Madame Gautreau, like a doe, hoping to seize her commission!

Sargent was indeed an artist of prodigious talent and of sublime gifts. He nonetheless did not comprehend that it was not the image of Madame X that shocked the Parisians as much as this image placed in full view, for all to see. Not many people with a sense of propriety enjoy seeing signs of their indiscretions paraded around in public. The French of that era neither appreciated nor approved having their peccadilloes displayed, in lush form, before their very eyes — and painted by an American, of all things!

Édouard Manet or Gustave Courbet might have gotten away with this type of portrait art, but being an American, even of foreign birth, did not do John Singer Sargent any favors where elite Parisian society was concerned.

During an entire year, Sargent had tossed all cautions to the wind in painting this figure of calm disdain, haughty beauty, and aloof allure. There was a first version of this portrait, with the off-the-shoulder strap of the dress, only on the right side, forming a rather definite statement of seduction. The furor in the Paris Salon then erupted. Sargent, in response, repainted the strap in the expected position, over-the-shoulder.

ALL FOR NAUGHT: The professional damage had been done. I, for one, lament the change that Sargent was willing to make to a portrait that still reigns as original and sublime as ever. No one really knows what Madame thought of her likeness, but her unique beauty was made famous and celebrated, more than ever before.

Nowadays, the captivating, resplendent splendour of Madame X looks absolutely tasteful and elegant! Can anyone currently imagine, in our Bare-it-All world, an artistic uproar over white-powdered shoulders (the powder was reputedly made with lavender) and décolletage? I earnestly long for this frank type of sensual appeal among any woman proud of her female beauty — while she is wearing a black dress that, by present standards, looks demure!

After this professional catastrophe, Sargent considered exiting the world of painting and entering the world of music or business, but the visual artist in him was too dominant, and too highly skilled, to suppress further attempts at painting. He went on to create about 900 oil paintings, over 2,000 watercolours, and the sketches and drawings that form the fertile soil from which grow the finished oeuvres of the painter. He journeyed to Venice, the Middle East, and into the land of his parents, America, in search of new subjects to paint.

It was his adroit ability to draw with a brush that distinguished Sargent from many other portrait artists. His technical capabilities blended with an Impressionistic style that advanced his work beyond portraiture and into landscapes en plein air. The early training of his aesthetic eyes that he undertook as an adolescent never failed this man as he strove to endow each subject with its own individuality. The artist-as-individual was thereby transformed into the art-of-the-individual, both as Subject and as Painter. The creation of Madame X was, after all, the triumph of the individual, reigning supreme on canvas.

Sargent combined his love of languages, literatures and music with his devotion to the art of painting, albeit not with the orneriness of James McNeill Whistler. The correspondences of the arts in John Singer Sargent led to harmony, not cacophony or discords within himself.

The faces of scandal were, for Sargent, faces as they appeared in reality. That the depiction of such a ravishing woman could create scandal was a sign of her time, a time that any true artist in the here-and-now longs to create, once more, anew. Such a portrait just might cause a scandal!