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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In “The Artist’s Garden”

“The Artist’s Garden: American Impressionism and the Garden Movement, 1887-1920”, is a terrific exhibition showcasing American painting, drawing, design, and photography during a period when the idea of American home life changed completely. With greater wealth and greater amounts of free time on their hands, middle class Americans began to make their homes into places where the outside was just as cared for as the inside. Your teak patio furniture, trellis hung with wisteria, and stamped concrete garden pavers grew out of this change in attitude toward what gardens, and indeed being outdoors, was all about.

The first observation to be made is that this is a very attractive, easy to like exhibition. One could be forgiven for thinking, at first glance, that this is merely an assemblage of paintings of pretty women and flowers, colorful glass objects, and tiny photographs. Yet as one moves through the rooms, the idea takes hold of what a profound shift in thinking the American psyche underwent during the late 19th and early 20thcenturies.

Until a century ago, most Americans used the land surrounding their homes primarily for growing their own food and keeping livestock – Pauline Wayne, the last cow to graze on the White House lawn, departed for Wisconsin in 1913. By the middle of the 19thcentury however, a significant ground shift was beginning to take place in the relationship of man to the land, which is well-documented in this exhibition. The barn yard gradually became the back yard, a haven from the brave but ugly new world of belching factory smokestacks and clanging streetcars.

This change in attitude toward the use of one’s property went hand-in-glove with the effort to try to beautify American cities. Students of architecture and urban planning will be familiar with the fruits of this greater movement. Temporary installations such as the Philadelphia Bicentennial Exposition of 1876, the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, and the St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1905, had permanent echoes across the American landscape, from Central Park in New York, to the Macmillan Plan and the National Mall here in Washington.

While your average, middle class American could not dream of achieving anything similar with their more modest means and surroundings, writers and artists still wanted to encourage those of more ordinary means to make their home gardens as beautiful as possible, as a way of fostering civic pride and cleanliness. It was all very well to construct grand boulevards and expansive parks in American towns and cities.  If they led to ramshackle houses whose grounds consisted of little more than chicken coops and piles of dirt however, the whole “effect” which these reformers were trying to achieve would be lost.

The strength of this exhibition is not only in some of the individual paintings, sculptures, and decorative art objects, but also in stepping back and taking a look around at the America which this show evokes as a whole. What is particularly telling is that fact that on the whole, the lifestyle evoked by this exhibition is not at all unfamiliar to us, even more than a century later.  True, we do not dress as the people in these images do, and our homes and gardens may be somewhat less fussy than those celebrated in some of these images.

Yet even though generations have passed, we still continue to hold to the ideals of making our home and garden simultaneously a place to relax and to show off – ideals which were fostered by the artists and designers featured in this exposition. Thus the painting of a lady reading a letter at her dining room table, silhouetted by open French doors leading onto a sunny garden patio shaded by a pergola, with some slight alterations could come out of a contemporary magazine spread. The fact that I daresay many of my readers spend their Saturdays mowing lawns, pulling weeds, pruning shrubs, and so on, none of which has anything to do with the production of food and everything to do with what it means to be in the American middle class, originally comes from the era which produced these works of art.

Rather than comment on the individual pieces in the exhibition, if you care to follow me on Instagram, later today I will be posting some photos I took of a number of pieces in the show; just visit this link:

https://instagram.com/wbdnewton/

“The Artist’s Garden” is at The Chrysler until September 6th; it then travels to The Reynolda House in North Carolina, on to The Huntington Library in California, and finally to the Griswold Museum in Connecticut. Whether or not you are particularly interested in American impressionism, this show is a wonderful evocation of a world which, though now long-gone, still has a profound influence on how Americans live and see their homes today.

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Do You Duomo? Crowdfunding a Cathedral

I haven’t yet had the pleasure of visiting the city of Milan, let alone seeing its famous Gothic Cathedral (called a “duomo” in Italian) of Santa Maria Nascente in person.  Yet I was impressed to read that the Archdiocese is taking advantage of social media for something which Europeans, and particularly the Church, often lag behind on when it comes to the digital age, and that is turning to crowdfunding to achieve a fundraising goal.  In this case, a charitable organization called The International Patrons of the Duomo di Milano is mounting an effort to restore the Cathedral, and part of that effort has a special significance for Americans.

The Milanese Duomo has been compared to many things, with its masses of spires pointing up into the sky, but perhaps one of the most apt descriptions is that it looks rather like an ornate wedding cake, full of spun sugar confectionery decorations.  Because the church took over 600 years to complete, the range of saints depicted in its exterior ornamental statuary is quite vast, covering centuries of Church history.  One of the saints featured is St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917), who played an important part in the establishment of the education system of this country, and is the first American citizen to be canonized a saint.

Born in Lombardy, the region of Italy dominated by Milan, Mother Cabrini arrived in New York in 1889 as a missionary.  She spent the rest of her life founding schools, orphanages, and hospitals across the country, and became an American citizen in 1909.  As a result, she is not only popular with many Italian-Americans, whom she and her sisters ministered to when they began arriving in huge waves of immigration at Ellis Island and elsewhere, but also back in her native Italy, where her devotion to her fellow Italians who had to leave for America due to extreme poverty is well-remembered.  It made sense then, that the largest cathedral in her native region of Lombardy would honor her with a statue on its facade.

The gourmet Italian food purveyors Eataly have come on board with the effort to restore the Duomo, and have just opened an exhibit at their New York flagship store featuring actual architectural elements from the Duomo itself, including gargoyles, statues, and other carvings.  Those of my readers in the New York area should take advantage of the opportunity to drop in and see these works, since many of them are placed so high on the Cathedral that normally they are only for the eyes of birds – and God, of course.  The exhibition is free, and will remain open until May 2015.

In the case of the St. Frances Xavier Cabrini spire of the Duomo, the hope is to raise the $188,000 restoration cost by December 22nd, the anniversary of her death.  So many Italian-Americans owe their very lives to the fact that Mother Cabrini and her sisters took care of their ancestors when they arrived in this country a century or more ago, I hope that those among my readers of Italian heritage will consider contributing to this effort, and sharing it with those whom you think might be interested.

Moreover, even if you are neither Italian nor Catholic, but happen to love great art and architecture, the Duomo di Milano is simply one of the finest buildings in the world.  It is not only the symbol of the city of Milan, it is a stunning example of the flowering of Gothic architecture and, I would argue, the most sumptuous, important Gothic building in all of Italy.  The effort to preserve and restore this ornate and glorious building for future generations is something that anyone who appreciates history and Western culture can surely appreciate.

Detail of the Spire of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Duomo, Milan

Detail of the Spire of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini
Duomo, Milan