JOHN SINGER SARGENT American portrait painter, born (d:1924) was the most successful portrait painter of his era, as well as a gifted landscape painter and watercolorist. Sargent was born in Florence, Italy to American parents. He studied in Italy and Germany, and then in Paris under Emile Auguste Carolus-Duran. Among the artists with whom Sargent associated were Dennis Miller Bunker, Carroll Beckwith, Edwin Austin Abbey (who also worked on the Boston Public Library murals), Francis David Millet, Wilfred de Glehn, Jane Emmet de Glehn and Claude Monet, whom Sargent painted. Sargent developed a life-long friendship with fellow painter Paul Cesar Hellu, whom he met in Paris in 1878 when Sargent was twenty-two and Helleu was eighteen. Sargent painted both Helleu and his wife Alice on several occasions, most memorably in the impressionistic Paul Helleu Sketching with his Wife, 1889. His supporters included Henry James, Isabella Stewart Gardner (who commissioned and purchased works from Sargent, and sought his advice on other acquisitions), and Edward VII, whose recommendation for knighthood the artist declined. Hmmmm…? Why would someone decline a knighthood? (and all the associated publicity that would come with it?)
Sargent was, as they say, “extremely private regarding his personal life,” though the painter Jacques-Émile Blanche, who was one of his early sitters, said — after his death — that Sargent’s sex life “was notorious in Paris, and in Venice, positively scandalous. He was a frenzied bugger.” Ah yes…the frenzied bugger. As homophobic scholars put it, “the truth of this may never be established.” Some have gone so far as to boldly suggest that Sargent was homosexual. In a word: whatever. He had personal associations with Prince Edmond de Polignac and Count Robert de Montesquiou (the model for Des Esseintes in Huysman’s A Rebours, and even more famously, the Baron de Charlus in Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, and, in real life, if you will, Prince Polignac’s life-long lover, as well), two of the biggest queens of the age.
Sargent’s male nudes reveal complex and well-considered artistic sensibilities about the male physique and sensuality; particularly evident in his portrait of the black male model, Thomas E. McKeller who appears many times in Sargent works, in different characters of different races, but always that body (by all means Google this picture…”complex and well-considered”…indeed!) and also in Tommies Bathing (ditto), nude sketches for Hell and Judgement, and his portraits of young men, like Bartholomy Maganosco and Head of Olimpio Fusco (perhaps this writer’s personal favorite from the earliest age, male beauty in the most judicious of painterly strokes. Stunning. Exquisite.)
There were friendships with women, as well, and a similar sensualism informs his female portrait and figure studies (notably Egyptian Girl, 1891). The likelihood of an affair with Louise Burkhardt, the model for Lady with the Rose, and the first wife of author J.R. Ackerley’s father (see Ackerley’s “My Father and Myself”), is accepted by Sargent scholars. Sargent’s friends went so far as to wonder if he and Burckhardt had formed a romantic attachment. His enthusiasm while creating the picture of her probably instigated the rumors, but a mutual friend learns from Sargent in 1882 that “he does not care a straw for her.” Despite numerous friendships with women throughout his life, this is the only episode to cause associates to doubt his status as a “committed bachelor.” Really…whatever.
Check out the paintings mentioned here yourself. They’re all easily available on line or in a museum near you. It doesn’t take much to see where Sargent’s heart’s desire lays. His sensuous, unparalleled appreciation of male beauty leaps off the canvas to this day.