Painting “The Walk Of Shame”: The Intimate Art Of An American Master

Today is the birthday of one of my favorite artists, the American painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). Regular readers will recall that my very first piece for The Federalist was a review of an exhibition at the MFA in Boston displaying a selection of works from the artist’s archive, which was recently donated to the museum by his family. This gave me the opportunity to reflect on his most famous output, the portraits he painted of family, friends, and the powerful people of his day.

However there is another side to Sargent, which is often overlooked in surveys of his art, and that is his more intimate, informal work, such as that which accompanies this post.

“A Street in Venice” (1882), now in the National Gallery here in Washington, is one of my favorite paintings; it is so different from the glitzy, glamorous portraits that we usually associate with Sargent, as to appear to be the work of another artist. It depicts a young woman wearing a black, fringed shawl over a long white skirt and a red blouse, walking down a side street in Venice. Two men in hats and overcoats standing in a doorway are having a smoke and watching her as she passes by. In the background, a man and woman are sitting in chairs and chatting outside of another doorway, and although most experts think they are at a cafe, I always think that they are peeling vegetables as they talk.

There is nothing about the picture which immediately tells us that this scene is taking place in Venice. There are no canals, no gondolas, no extravagant churches or palazzi. It could just as easily be somewhere in Spain or France. It is probably winter, given the gray, overcast skies and the men’s heavy coats, although the young woman certainly isn’t dressed for the weather. She is either avoiding the gaze of the two men, or so wrapped up in her own thoughts that she doesn’t even notice them.

Given her attire, her downcast eyes, and introspective expression, I like to think that what we are looking at is what we might call a “walk of shame” picture, when you’ve stayed out all night and finally make your way home at dawn. If you remember the scene in “Moonstruck” where Cher walks home in the early hours of the morning, still wearing her party dress and overcoat after a night at the opera, and leisurely kicking a can down the street with her extravagant, beaded red heels, you get the idea. I suspect that this painting is set in the morning, since there are not a lot of people about yet, and the shop on the left side of the picture is closed.

Among the many wonderful things about this picture is the fact that there is hardly any color in it, and yet it is still a lively composition. There are a few slashes of red, in the young woman’s blouse and the flowers or comb that she is wearing in her hair, and in the center of the picture there is the pink skirt of the woman sitting in the background, but there is very little else in the way of bright color. Here and there we see some ochre, teal, olive, and brown, but the majority of the picture is composed of shades of black, white, and gray.

Textures are also beautifully rendered in this painting. Notice also how Sargent is able to suggest the bouncing of the fringe on the shawl as the woman walks, and the swishing of the white skirt around her feet, with a bare minimum of brush strokes. The heavy wooden door on the left is wonderfully observed, with the lower portion already gray from being splashed with rainwater countless times, while the upper portion is still its original color, thanks to its being higher up and slightly protected from the overhang of the building.

John Singer Sargent’s portraits are, understandably, his most famous work. Yet much like Velázquez, whom he admired and emulated throughout his career, Sargent was much more than someone who painted simply to flatter those who could afford his paintings. In quieter, more loosely-painted works such as this, he showed that he was not all flash and glam. Rather, he was someone who could create grand works of art, but could just as easily create an engaging, more personal picture, with a real sense of immediacy about it.

Out Of The Fire: Relic From A Lost Art Collection

A very exciting art find to pass along to you this morning, if like me you love the work of Diego Velázquez (and if you don’t, we’re going to have words.)

Art historian Bendor Grosvenor reports that the American Friends of the Prado Museum has made a long-term donation to the Madrid institution of a newly-discovered preparatory painting by Velázquez, the greatest of all Spanish painters. It depicts Philip III of Spain, and was likely a portrait study for a lost historical work, “The Expulsion of the Moriscos”, which was painted in 1627.

The completed work was part of a series of enormous historical paintings by Velázquez which hung in the Royal Alcázar (“Fortress”) of Madrid. The fortress was originally built by the Moors during their occupation of Spain, and was later added to by successive Spanish monarchs. It was destroyed by a massive fire in 1734, and “The Expulsion” went up in flames along with it.

The fire in the Alcázar spread so rapidly, that the Royal Family had to quickly decide what to save. They managed to save most of the religious items from the chapel, but due to their size and location, many works of art on the upper floors had to be abandoned. Velázquez’ masterpiece, “Las Meninas”, was only just spared from the flames when it was taken out of its original frame and thrown from a window.

The burning of the Alcázar is one of the greatest tragedies in art history, when we look at the inventory of what was lost. Over 500 paintings were destroyed, among them works by Velázquez, Bosch, Da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens, and Van Dyck. If one were to construct a museum containing only the works that had been destroyed in the fire, it would be considered one of the greatest in the world. This also gives us some impression of just how wealthy Spain used to be.

Today when you visit Madrid, the present Royal Palace (known as the “Palacio de Oriente”) stands on the site of the original Alcázar. It is an 18thcentury Baroque behemoth, sumptuously decorated on the inside, and the largest European palace still in use as a royal residence (it is almost twice the size of Buckingham Palace in London.) While there are still some important works of art inside the building, most of the great art which was formerly here is now in the Prado Museum.

Fortunately for me, I’ll be at The Prado in about two weeks, so I can examine this rediscovered Velázquez for myself. In reading about some of the stylistic and technical analysis that went into the attribution of this work, I’m very interested in looking at it up close, so I can see whether I agree. No, I’m not qualified to make that decision on a professional level, but part of the fun when this sort of thing happens in the art world is to go along and see the piece, in order to decide whether you think the experts got it right. Stay tuned for details.

The Monarch At Rest: A Permanent Home For A British Masterpiece?

A major story at present in the international art press concerns the fate of one of the most famous and influential British works of art ever painted. “The Monarch of the Glen”, pictured below, was painted in 1851 by Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-1873) for the House of Lords, but thanks to a bizarre and tangled history, too convoluted to explore in full here, it is currently the property of the international beverage conglomerate Diageo. While there are various possibilities regarding where this Victorian masterpiece will ultimately end up, fortunately it looks as though it will at last become part of a public collection as it was always intended to be – even if not exactly where it was intended to be.

Landseer was an artist who specialized in the representation of animals, and his reputation as an observer of their anatomy and behavior was such that he asked to design the four massive bronze lions which still today surround the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. However prior to his foray into the world of sculpture, it was Landseer’s paintings and drawings which led him to become one of the most popular British artists of the 19th century. Even though he depicted everyone and everything from the British Royal Family to prize-winning dogs and cattle, it was “The Monarch of the Glen”, depicting a majestic stag roaming the Scottish Highlands, which forever sealed his reputation.

When the Palace of Westminster burned down in 1834, the ruins were replaced with the enormous Gothic Revival complex that we commonly refer to today as the Houses of Parliament. The project took decades to complete, in part because of the Palace’s massive size, but also because of the significant cost involved in its decoration. If you have ever been to London and had the opportunity to examine the buildings up close, you realize that they are absolutely covered in statuary, architectural detail, and colorful decoration, something which cannot be fully appreciated in photographs taken at a distance. Inside the Palace, the various rooms, staircases, and halls are even more sumptuously decorated, with elaborate tile and stone work, brass and iron ornament, and vast quantities of painting and sculpture.

In 1850, Landseer was commissioned to paint three large works for the Palace, destined to be hung in the Refreshment Rooms of the House of Lords. You can see some of the restoration work that has been going on in these Rooms, including the revival of the sumptuous wallpaper designed by Augustus Pugin, by following this link. Landseer was asked to provide three canvases for this space illustrating scenes related to hunting, and the most famous of the three turned out to be “The Monarch of the Glen”. Unfortunately, when the time came for the paintings to be delivered, the House of Commons refused to pay Landseer’s bill of £150 for the three paintings.

Today, Parliament’s decision seems incredibly short-sighted, given how famous “The Monarch of the Glen” has become since its creation. It has been copied and reinterpreted by other artists, studied and written about by historians and philosophers, and has become something of an internationally recognized symbol of Scotland. For example, not only was there a long-running BBC television series, about a down-at-heel Scottish aristocratic family, which took its title from the painting, but references to the painting continue to appear in popular advertising campaigns and other media related to Scottish whisky, tourism, and the like.

In the 2006 film “The Queen”, there is a beautifully-shot scene in which Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) becomes stranded in the middle of the Scottish Highlands near Balmoral Castle, when her Range Rover breaks down. She and the Royal Family have retreated there, in the wake of the death of Princess Diana, to regroup and figure out how to proceed, as the monarchy stands perilously close to extinction in the wake of popular resentment of the Queen’s perceived coldness toward the death of her former daughter-in-law. The Queen seems not herself, uncertain of what to do, and confronted by conflicting advice, which has led her into a course of public inaction and private frustration.

In what ends up being the major turning point of the film, as the Queen awaits rescue she is confronted by a magnificent stag, very similar to the idealized animal portrayed by Landseer in “The Monarch of the Glen”. The deer has been the subject of rumor on the estate, and hunters are actively seeking to bring it down. Human queen and cervine king stare at each other in silence for some time, until the Queen seems to recover herself and waves the deer off, saving its life. It is a scene which makes all the more sense to the viewer, if you are familiar with both Landseer’s painting and its title. From this point, just as the animal monarch returns to his throne unharmed, so too the human monarch returns to her throne, unharmed.

While Landseer’s painting may at last be finding a permanent home in a public collection, that collection looks likely to be the National Galleries of Scotland, rather than the Palace of Westminster, where it was originally intended to be displayed. In the wake of Brexit and the Scottish independence movement, you may make whatever political conclusions of this arrangement that you will. Personally, I tend to agree with art historian Bendor Grosvenor, who in this piece comes close to saying that really, the painting should be the subject of a donation rather than a sale.

But be that as it may, this painting is a real treasure, for whatever public institution ends up becoming its proud and permanent custodian.