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The more intimate sketches of a society painter.
on December 7, 2001
The Amazon page-listing for this volume is somewhat misleading - there ARE two pages of text (Selector Trevor J. Fairbrother's brief, insightful introduction), but there are also 42 pages of (paper) plates.
Often dismissed as a mere society portrait painter, the real poignancy of John Singer Sargent's work lay in the truth that the society he recorded was on the point of vanishing with the Great War. This sense is heightened by the form of the works reproduced here - drawings composed in pencil and charcoal. Their Cheshire-Cat-grin sketchiness, the way faces seem to materialise or dematerialise bodiless or skeletal on the page, gives them an overwhelmingly ghostly feel.
The most moving pictures here are of the now-forgotten heiresses, young wives, fresh-faced soldiers, and indulgent or austere parents, refugees from the fiction of Henry James, Edith Wharton and Proust, denied the immortality conferred on Singer's more famous subjects, such as Nijinsky, Myra Hess, Faure or Kenneth Grahame. Singer may not be as remorselessly analytical as his literary peers, but he has a wit, satiric sense and emotional empathy all of his own, burrowing out the melancholy behind the glittering facades. Singer seems particularly inspired by long, swan-like necks, as if their owners' beauty already sang their death. The notorious hostess Mme. Pierre Gautreau reclines on a sofa, bored and miserable as a beached mermaid; Nellie Huxley stares at us with sad, tired eyes.
Conversely, the portraits of imperious grandes dames, such as the Myrna Loy-like Mme. Eugenia Huici Errazuriz, are surprisingly sexy; while the Duchess of Marlborough flirts with gamine charm. Portraits of friends, such as the eccentric composer Dame Ethel Smyth, are more informal and playful. Androgyny is another favourite theme, while the unsigned portrait of working class Italian youth Olimpio Fusco glows with sympathetic homoeroticism. In fact, Singer's defining temperament, judging from this collection, is one of amused curiosity, as he sketches the garish and the gloomy, the restless and the resigned, the social and the solitary.
The sketches of notables are often great fun - a shadow-darkened W.B. Yeats as self-regarding buffoon; Jascha Heifitz in an intense tondo of fiddle-like scribbles, encircling a still white face rapt in concentration; Viscountess Astor lost in folds of Napoleonic grandeur; and a young Ernest Thesiger, displaying impish hints of his most famous future film role, as Dr. Pretorious in 'Bride of Frankenstein'.