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‘This should be an eye-opener for European audiences’

John Singer Sargent’s Elizabeth (Bessie) Winthrop Chanler
The National Museum of American Art.

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s description of its current show about American Impressionism cites John Singer Sargent as one of the Americans. The museum also notes Sargent’s friendship with the Impressionists – especially Monet.

“This should be an eye-opener for European audiences,” the museum director Michael Clarke told the press.

This should be an eye-opener to Monet, too. While he and Sargent were friends, Sargent didn’t paint like him and Monet said as much. Former Seattle Art Museum curator Trevor Fairbrother’s 1994 biography John Singer Sargent quotes Monet saying of Sargent, “He is not an Impressionist in the sense that we use the word.”

And British historian James Laver makes clear just how non-Impressionist Sargent was in his Portraits in Oil and Vinegar 1925:

“So accurately was the telltale bearing and expression of a sitter painted, that a physician diagnoses from it an incurable malady from which this man did not know that he suffered and of which he was afterwards to die.”

Sargent, then, was known for his ability to capture people, not light. And while he used his great academic skill to describe dress and drapery in the Gilded Age, he paid most of his attention to personality.

You can see this in his painting of Elizabeth (Bessie) Winthrop Chanler, the 26-year-old heir to John Jacob Astor’s fortune. Sargent knew better than to portray Bessie as some luxury-loving lioness. Chanler’s mother died when she was 9, forcing her to act as mother to seven younger siblings.

Later, at 13, she developed a disease that forced her to spend two years strapped to a board to prevent curvature of the spine. Sargent captures the tension of her fiercely disciplined emotional life by portraying her with the face of a Madonna, but with locked hands.

If you see Impressionism in Sargent’s work, it could be the result of an astigmatism. Biographer Stanley Olson’s John Singer Sargent, his Portrait, 1986 quotes Sargent saying, “I have an astigmatism that makes me see a red or green line around white objects. Often I paint it in.”

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