Sargent’s Silk: The Fabric Connecting Two Beautiful Portraits

One of the fun things about being an art nerd is when you get the chance to make new discoveries regarding old friends. Such is the case with my favorite American artist, John Singer Sargent, whom I have written about for years (such as in my first piece for The Federalist almost three years ago.) One of his best-known portraits and indeed one of my favorites as well has always been his mesmerizing portrait “Lady Agnew of Lochnaw” (1892), now in the National Gallery of Scotland. So it was quite a surprise this past weekend while visiting the excellent Newark Museum in Newark, New Jersey to come across another wonderful Sargent portrait previously unknown to me, but which appears to have a visual connection to this more famous portrait of Lady Agnew.

Lady Agnew

I had gone up to Newark to see the new exhibition, “The Rockies & The Alps”, which I will be reviewing soon, but while at the museum I was astounded by the breadth of the permanent collection. The Newark Museum is the largest museum in New Jersey, with over 200,000 objects, and includes holdings in the areas of the Ancient Mediterranean, Asia, decorative arts, American painting and sculpture, science, Modern and Contemporary Art, and much more. There was no way to see it all in the new hours I spent there, but you can see an extensive sampling of some of the pieces in their holdings over on my Instagram account.

At the far end of a corridor in the American Wing, I spotted a full-length portrait of a seated lady, and I knew immediately that it was a Sargent even though it was some distance away. When you become familiar with the work of a particular artist, after awhile it becomes something akin to being in a sea of people on a metro platform or airport terminal and suddenly spotting an old friend amidst all of the distraction. I had a similar experience on another floor in the American Wing at the Newark Museum a bit later, when I saw a work some distance down a corridor and thought, “That looks like an Edward Hopper,” and it was: another terrific piece in the museum’s permanent collection.

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The portrait of “Mrs. Charles Thursby” (1897) depicts a good friend of the artist, Alice Brisbane Thursby (1859-1953). Her father, Albert Brisbane (1809-1890), was a utopian Christian socialist who led a somewhat peripatetic and occasionally scandalous personal life. Papa Brisbane popularized Fourierism in the United States in the mid-19th century, and his writings were adopted at proto-communes such as Brook Farm near Boston. (If you’re familiar with Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan”, you’re probably saying to yourself right now, “You’re a Fourierist?”)

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As she was growing up, Mrs. Thursby’s family dragged her all over the US and Europe, and it was while she was studying art in Paris that she met Sargent, who was living there at the time; they became lifelong friends. She later married a British Naval Officer and civil engineer, Lt. Charles Radcliffe Thursby, whose work and land holdings took the couple back and forth between England, America, and Argentina. Having spent most of her childhood moving about every few years, it’s not surprising that these two were very well-suited.

There are many wonderful details about the portrait that give us an indication of the personality of the sitter. Mrs. Thursby looks at us with a mixture of determination and intellectual curiosity. She is curious to find out exactly who we are, and to find out why we’ve come to see her. Note how Mrs. Thursby appears to be about to get up out of her chair to greet us, which suggests that she is a somewhat restless, lively figure who does not like to sit still. This a lady who is always on the move, always out and about doing something.

Notice, too, the wonderful detail of her hand, and those fingers. In Sargent’s unforgettable, bolt-upright portrait of “Mrs. Adrian Iselin” (1888), now in the National Gallery here in Washington, we are told everything we need to know about the subject by the way she seems to balance her entire weight on the outstretched pinky finger of her right hand, suggesting that this is not a woman whom you want to cross. In the Newark Museum’s picture we see a similar strength of will in Mrs. Thursby’s fingers, but the splayed, open hand suggests to us that the woman whom we see here is more open to the world around her than was the rather dour and imposing Mrs. Iselin.

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But here, for my money, is the *really* interesting bit.

The portrait of Lady Agnew shows the subject seated in a chair covered in a floral upholstery, while Mrs. Thursby is seated in a chair whose fabric is completely white. Yet if you look closely, you’ll see that the two women share the same backdrop: a piece of pale blue silk embroidered with gold figures. In the portrait of Lady Agnew, these figures are more clearly meant to represent characters, since the fabric in question was a large piece of Chinese drapery.

Lady Agnew

By the time he paints the portrait of Mrs. Thursby several years later however, Sargent has become even more impressionistic. He is still using that wonderfully loose brushwork which is indicative of his love and study of Velázquez’ technique, but the transcription from real life to canvas has become more hazy. Even the color is less of a direct copy of the original, since it now appears to be made up of just as much brown and gray as blue.

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Like many artists, Sargent kept a number of objects in his studio which he used and reused in his paintings. If you’ve seen the live-action Disney film of “Cinderella” for example, you’ll recall that in the scene in which the artist is painting the portrait of Kit on horseback, there is a pre-painted backdrop of putti tumbling out of heaven which is hung behind the prince to help center the composition. This Chinese panel in Sargent’s work was one such object, which is why it appears in both the portraits of Lady Agnew and Thursby. No doubt those of my readers who are more expert in Sargent’s work than I am would be able to identify other pictures where the same silk appears – and by all means, please do so in the comments below.

This is just a recent, personal example of one of the things I love about studying art history. The more art you see and know, the more you come to recognize and appreciate connections between works of art, just as one piece of music or film can immediately recall another that you’re already familiar with. More to the point, should you happen to find yourself in the Newark area – only 9 miles from New York City – go visit Mrs. Thursby for yourself, and see the rest of the collection at her very fascinating permanent residence.

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Thought-Pourri: Shivering Spring Edition

In theory, I’m heading up to Newark, New Jersey on Saturday, to review the new exhibition “The Rockies & The Alps: Bierstadt, Calame, and the Romance of the Mountains”, which just opened at the Newark Museum. I say, “in theory”, because the weather forecast is still a bit iffy at the moment, calling for anywhere from a bit of sleet to up to 6 inches along the NE corridor. Being a creative sort, if I decide to err on the side of caution and stay home, I can still manage to write a piece about the show, even if I can’t get up there in person. Pity the poor cherry trees and spring bulbs here in the capital, as they are going to take a serious beating, whatever happens.

Now, on to some news.

Van Veen’s Venus

ArtNet has a great story about the discovery of a lost painting by the Dutch Old Master painter Otto Van Veen (c.1556-1629), which was found in the closet of a cultural center in Des Moines, Iowa. I’ll leave you to read the story about that picture, but use it as an excuse to explain that Van Veen is perhaps best known as being the teacher of the great Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), although during his lifetime he was a highly successful and talented painter in his own right. One of my favorite Van Veen paintings is his portrait of the wonderfully-named Nicolaas Rockox (1560-1640), a close friend and patron of Rubens who was a lawyer, politician, courtier, art collector, and philanthropist. He spent a significant amount of his personal fortune caring for the poor during his lifetime, as well as leaving an enormous legacy after his death. This particular portrait of Rockox hangs in the Rubenshuis, Rubens’ luxurious home and art studio in downtown Antwerp, which is now a museum.

Van Veen

Fixing The Frick

The Frick Collection is possibly my favorite museum in New York, thanks to its seriously impressive art collection, a beautiful building – the former Gilded Age mansion of industrialist Henry Clay Frick – and the fact that it’s never jammed in the way that The Met usually is on a weekend. Now, after many years of fits and starts in trying to expand the public footprint of the museum, the Frick has announced that it will soon begin construction which will increase the gallery space by 30%, and open the second floor of the mansion to the general public for the first time. The designs for the expansion, by the firm of architect Annabelle Selldorf, look suitably restrained, and preserve the overall look of the Frick rather than trying to overwhelm it with add-ons: I particularly like this aspect. Additional renovations will include a 220-seat underground auditorium, conservation laboratories, and – hopefully – new facilities, since when I was there two weeks ago I was reminded of the boy’s bathroom at my Catholic grade school, which was built in 1926. Construction at the Frick is slated to begin in 2020.

Frick

Pleasures Of Portugal

Finally, regular readers are familiar with my dear friend Diana von Glahn, a filmmaker and presenter specializing in documentary series about religious pilgrimages, several of which have aired on channels such as EWTN, Catholic TV, and Salt & Light. On April 28th, should you find yourself in the Philadelphia area you’ll have the chance to meet her, as well as sample Portuguese wines, and support production of her latest work, “The Faithful Traveler in Portugal”; a trailer for the new series appears below. Diana takes us to Lisbon, Porto, and Coimbra, among many other sites in Portugal, a country with a rich religious and cultural history, and if you’ve ever seen one of her films, you know that Diana not only provides viewers with far more information than you would get on your average Travel Channel show, but she does so with warmth, humor, and enthusiasm.

“Wines & Shrines of Portugal” will take place at Holy Martyrs Catholic Church in Oreland, PA on Saturday, April 28th from 6:00-9:00 pm, and tickets cost $50 per person. Space is limited, so to reserve your seat or request additional information, you can contact Holy Martyrs at (215) 884-8575, or email them at holymartyrssecretary@gmail.com

Piling It On, Or, Why Do I Read This Stuff…

You don’t often see me write about Contemporary Art on this site, and there are various reasons for that. Among these is the fact that I prefer to read and think and write about art and design created by people who have been dead for awhile. History and a bit of distance usually, although not always (see, e.g., Basquiat) allow us the chance to examine the work of these individuals in a more balanced, dispassionate way.

That being said, in order to keep up with what’s going on in the art world, I read about all kinds of Contemporary Art in the dozen or so art news sites I visit daily. As it’s hard enough for me to slog through the written gobbledygook that usually makes up this sort of news, I don’t feel the need to impose that same level of suffering on my subscribers by writing in an opaque fashion. Nevertheless, I think it’s good to show you, at least occasionally, why it’s important to me to curate what I write to you about, in the hope that you’ll have something edifying to take away with you when you read one of my posts.

Jeff Koons, the American artist known for designing things like the infamous porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson with Bubbles the Chimp, or giant puppies made out of topiary – he doesn’t make them himself, he has minions for that – has a major work coming to market shortly at Christie’s. Described by Art Market Monitor as “one of Jeff Koons [sic] complex and exacting Play-Doh works”, the fourteen-by-fourteen foot “Play-Doh” is expected to fetch at least $20 million at auction next month in New York. Made from painted aluminum, one of his preferred materials for monumental sculpture, the piece “took 20 years to realize in the manner Koons found acceptable.” Personally, I would have found the piece more interesting, albeit not $20 million interesting, if it were made from actual Play-Doh, but there you are.

Koons

Koons has always been something of a whipping boy for conservatives who don’t actually understand very much about art. That being said, even he has come under fire recently from the intelligentsia, thanks to his offer to “donate” a memorial to victims of the 2015 terrorist attack in Paris: but only if Paris pays him roughly $4 million to create it. The sculpture, “Bouquet of Tulips”, is of a giant human hand referencing the Statue of Liberty, holding a bunch of tulips. It would stand nearly 40 feet tall, and be placed outside of the city’s Museum of Modern Art.

Back in January, a group of French intellectuals signed a letter in which they quite reasonably asked why it was that such an important monumental commission, on such a prominent site in Paris, was simply to be given to Mr. Koons, rather than be opened to competition to include French artists [“…si une œuvre d’une importance inédite devait être placée dans ce lieu culturellement et historiquement particulièrement prestigieux, ne faudrait-il pas procéder par appel à projets, comme c’est l’usage, en ouvrant cette opportunité aux acteurs de la scène française ?”] To date, Koons has not responded to this criticism. Meanwhile, since the art world is rather a closed universe, if one group of intellectuals starts attacking a particular artist, then the rest of the art world commentariat will eventually fall into line and do the same.
Tulips

Yet even when criticizing what is ultimately little more than showmanship on a grand scale, and of the sort that says little to nothing about the victims of violence, the art world can’t help but pen excremental missives that attempt to provide deeper meaning to what is ultimately little more than an occasion of flatulence. “Even as Koons reiterated images of kitsch culture,” wrote one critic in Apollo, jumping on the “Non” bandwagon several weeks after the publication of the aforementioned letter, “his vibrantly sensual surfaces seemed to collide the erotic with the deathly, and space-age technology with the infantile, anatomising the fetishism at the heart of the aesthetic lure of the commodity, even as they enacted it.”

Quite.

So the next time you see something I’ve written about art, architecture, etc., gentle reader, keep in mind that the reason you’re seeing it at all is because I sloughed through tons of the forgoing sort of material, in order to bring you news which, hopefully, you will find worthwhile.