January 12, 1856– John Singer Sargent
The question remains: Was he gay? I have always felt that I could tell from his work and sensitivities that he was gay, but we will probably really never know about the sex life of one of my favorite artists, John Singer Sargent.
It seems almost unbelievable now, but I once owned a Sargent, a small sketch of actor Ethel Barrymore. It was signed: “To EB, from JSS, 1911″. The sketch was presented in a small silver Art Deco frame. Sargent dashed off hundreds of these rapid charcoal portrait sketches, which he called “Mugs” It was a gift to me from actor Fay Wray with whom I was fortunate to have had an acquaintance with in the early 1970s. I eventually gave this piece away to someone that I thought I was in love with. We were soon no longer speaking. A lesson learned? No, I continue to give things that I love to people that I love. Do you have your eye on something?
When I lived for a year in Boston (1972-73), I would spend hours wandering the galleries at the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum, with its lovely collection of Sargents. I would sit and wonder in awe at his paintings and cruise the arty-type guys. Sargent’s work seemed to attract like-minded viewers.
Sargent was born to American parents living in Florence, Italy. He spent most of his life in Europe, but Sargent considered himself to be fully an American.
He showed artistic promise when he was very young, In his early teens, he studied painting at the Accademia delle Belle Arti in Florence. When he was just 17 years old, his parents allowed him to move to Paris so he could learn about painting in the Art Capital of the World.
When Sargent was in his early 20s, he visited the USA for the first time and he discovered that he very much enjoyed traveling. When he returned to Europe, he continued to visit new places and study the great works of art each place offered and try his hand at portraying diverse locations. Travel scenes would always form a major component of his work.
He soon became a popular painter noted especially for his portraits. But, his reputation was tarnished when his now iconic full-length portrait of New Orleans beauty Virginie Gautreau was shown at a Paris exhibit which turned-off many fans against Sargent. Considered positively brazen at the time, the portrait of Gautreau in a strapless black gown with a plunging neckline was savaged by the critics as scandalous and salacious in 1884.
To escape the scandal created by the painting, now titled Portrait Of Madame X, Sargent moved back to Europe, settling in London, where his paintings triumphed at the Royal Academy and where he established a brilliant career doing portraits of members of nobility, high society and assorted celebrities. Sargent was commissioned to do more than 900 portraits in his lifetime.
Usually, Sargent skipped the step of making detailed sketches and instead painted directly on the canvas. His work holds an immediacy and emotional depth that was unusual for the era.
He was friends of, and painted alongside, Claude Monet and Edgar Degas. He was particularly fascinated with light, and became especially skilled at portraying it. But unlike his French friends’ work, Sargent’s paintings are rather literal, with elegant lines and crisp forms that did not dissolve into streaks of color like the Impressionists.
Even as the portraits were still in high demand, Sargent grew tired of painting them, plus they took a lot of time to produce. Sargent moved away from portraits to take on other types of commissions. He produced a large set of murals for the Boston Public Library. He worked on them for 30 years but never completed the final mural. The murals were restored in 2003–2004. He was also commissioned to create murals in Boston’s Museum Of Fine Arts that span the grand staircase and rotunda.
He next turned to using watercolors and then became as popular and successful in that medium too.
The British government commissioned Sargent to do a set of studies of the Western Front during WW I. He gave them Gassed (1918), a dark work depicting soldiers enduring the deplorable conditions. You can see it at London’s Imperial War Museum.
He had many friends who were gay, including writers Henry James, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Oscar Wilde, plus his best friend, famed man-about-town and dandy Robert de Montesquiou. Sargent was known to be distant and very reserved. My research shows that he had no great romantic attachments, only flirtations with women and deep, lasting friendships with a few men.
Painter Albert de Belleroche shared a studio with Sargent in Paris and London, where the men made many sketches and paintings of each other. Some of the works that Sargent made of Belleroche suggest that Belleroche may have been the great love of Sargent’s life. His portraits of Belleroche, in their sensuality and intensity of emotion, push the boundaries of what was considered appropriate interaction between men at this period. Belleroche later sought to be more independent of Sargent, possibly affected by the Labouchere Amendment of 1885 that criminalized sexual relationships between men and was used in 1895 against Oscar Wilde who hung out with both artists. A surviving drawing hints that Sargent might have used Belleroche as a model for Madame X.
The painter Jacques-Émile Blanche said after Sargent’s death that his sex life “was notorious in Paris, and in Venice, positively scandalous. He was a frenzied bugger“. American Betty Wertheimer, who sat for a portrait, wrote that when in Venice Sargent “was only interested in the Venetian gondoliers.”
There were rumors about his special relationship with his handsome longtime model and assistant Nicola d’Inverno. At Sargent’s passing, his family destroyed all his personal papers. If there is any evidence of Sargent being gay it was destroyed. But it is in his work, especially his paintings and sketches of male nudes. But, we will never know for sure; I didn’t sleep with him.
The Husband and I chanced upon an exhibit of pencil sketches by Sargent at a small gallery at NYU in the late 1990s. I turned to The Husband, who knows his Art History, and I asked: “Was Sargent gay? I mean look at the love that went into these male nudes?” I like to think that he was gay. I am going to claim him as one of our own. His work certainly speaks to me in that gay way. He was too handsome not to be gay.
Sargent shrugged off this mortal coil, taken in his sleep, in Spring of 1925. He was 69 years old. He left behind a very large body of work: portraits, travel scenes, watercolors, sketches, and photographs. His works are well hung in major galleries all over our pretty planet. Phenomenally successful in his lifetime, Sargent’s reputation and prestige has only grown in the past century. A decade ago, his painting Group With Parasols (1905) sold at auction for $23.5 million.
Patricia Failing a critic for ARTNews wrote:
“...when Andy Warhol was shown Sargent’s study of male bodies for the mural of Hell, he immediately pronounced it a ‘gang bang’.
I love Sargent so much that I have probably spent more time gazing at his paintings than any other artist. One of his portraits (of William Butler Yeats) is my screensaver.
Andy Warhol, who also did a few portraits on commission, said:
“Sargent made everybody look glamorous. Taller. Thinner. But they all have mood, every one of them has a different mood.”