Unseen Sargent: The Boredom Of Madame X

I wanted to share a little gem – well, a few gems – that I stumbled across the other day, while watching a lecture on American painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). You’re probably familiar with Sargent’s justly famous “Madame X” (1883-84) now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as it’s become one of the most iconic images in art history; Sargent himself once referred to it as probably “the best thing I have done.” There’s a bit of irony regarding its status as a great American work of art, since Sargent spent the bulk of his time working in Europe, the portrait was painted in Paris, and its subject was a young American social climber who had married a French banker and emigrated to France.

Be that as it may, this image of the statuesque and sultry Madame X, or Madame Pierre Gautreau to give her proper name, has influenced artists, advertisers, and designers for generations. The composition is a deceptively simple one: a young woman in a black evening gown is shown standing next to a small table, whose top she is grasping and slightly leaning upon. It’s become so familiar that we can’t imagine seeing it any other way. What’s interesting to think about however, is that Sargent began with the idea of portraying Madame X sitting down.

By all accounts model and artist at first got on well, since they saw the creation of this painting as a way for both of them as ex-patriate Americans to move up in Parisian high society. Unfortunately for Sargent, his model had rather a short attention span, and it was difficult for him to get to her pose or pay attention to what he wanted for very long. Perhaps this is why he seemed to linger over the idea of portraying her sitting rather than standing, and we have a number of images of her sitting, with or without a book as a prop. Take a look at these sketches, which show some of the ideas that Sargent toyed with when creating this painting (I particularly like this first one):

Seeing these is a bit like seeing a photograph from a movie set during a break in the filming, where Han Solo and Chewbacca are still in costume, but they’re having a chat with George Lucas. We recognize the elements of Sargent’s finished painting – the face with its pointed nose and highly arched brows, the upswept hair, the black mermaid dress with the plunging neckline and the jeweled shoulder straps – but we see them in preparation, not in their final configuration.

I’m reminded a bit in that first sketch of a painting by fellow American ex-pat artist Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), painted a few years before Sargent’s work, which is now in the National Gallery here in Washington. “Little Girl In A Blue Armchair” (1878) displays the kind of languor on the part of the sitter that perhaps Sargent was struggling to capture in his initial design phase. Here, the model has given up all pretense of cooperating. Her puppy has curled up in the next chair, in anticipation of its mistress being told that she now may go out and play. Like Madame X, this little girl has pretty much had it with the whole art thing by this point.

Fortunately for those of us who love his work, Sargent left a wealth of sketches to admire and study, which tell us a great deal about how his technique, and how he came up with the ideas which he later translated into paint. Yet I think these sketches in particular, for arguably his most famous (or infamous) painting are revealing in a different way. They show us not only a great mind at work, but they also show us how, even a century and a half ago, people just could not sit still and pay attention for very long. 

One can only speculate how much time Madame X would have spent on Instagram.

On The Auction Block: A New Velázquez (?)

The potentially big news in the art market this week is the discovery of a previously unknown work by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), the greatest of all Spanish painters. The painting will be auctioned in Madrid today, and while the auction house is being extremely cautious about attribution, at least one expert in Spanish painting of the 17th and 18th centuries has declared it to be by the Old Master. While I’m certainly not a qualified art expert when it comes to deciding whether or not a particular artist created a particular work, there are a number of factors that make me feel comfortable with this attribution, and one in particular which I’m surprised that no one has mentioned in the art press.

The painting in question depicts a young girl in 17th century costume, her hands folded in prayer. X-rays of the picture reveal that she was originally crowned by a halo of stars, which was painted out at some point in the past. This suggests that it is a representation of the Virgin Mary as a child. It is common when making a visual reference to the Immaculate Conception, the Catholic dogma that Mary was conceived without Original Sin, to use the iconography described in Revelation 12:1 of the woman clothed with the sun, with a crown of stars on her head. It is a device that Velázquez himself used, as the news reports have pointed out.

There is also something about the eyes in this picture that strike me as being very Velázquez. Particularly in his representations of children and animals, Velázquez’ eyes tend to be unexpectedly soulful. If you look closely at the eyes of the little princess standing in the center of his masterpiece “Las Meninas” in The Prado, or the eyes of both the little prince and his puppy in the “Portrait of Prince Felipe Prospero” in Vienna, there is a depth and directness in the gaze, slightly tinged with melancholy. This sense of gravitas sets the painter apart from the more smiley, sunshiny images of children that we’re used to seeing.

While both the crown of stars and the expression of the eyes would tend to fit with Velázquez’ style, what has not been mentioned in the reporting I’ve seen so far on this story is this painting’s possible relation to an entirely different picture of his. When I first saw images of this piece, I was immediately struck by its relation to another early work by Velázquez, “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary”, which is now in the National Gallery in London. Not only is there a significant amount of technical similarity, but if the expert in this case is correct, they were created roughly at the same time and in the same place.

In the “House of Martha and Mary”, take a good look at the servant girl in the foreground, being directed by the old woman standing behind her. You can see that the girl seems rather melancholy, as she goes about making garlic paste in the mortar and pestle. More importantly for our purposes however, take a look at her pouting lips, the shading of her slightly cleft chin, and even the shape of her head, and you’ll notice that they are very similar to those of the young girl in the newly-discovered painting – they could even be sisters.

Not only do I find this an important visual clue, but given the dating of these two pictures and their relationship to what was going on at the artist’s life at the time, they make perfect sense. The little girl in the mystery picture is believed to have been painted in 1617, while the servant girl was painted in 1618. The timing of this is significant from the point of view of Velázquez’ artistic development.

Young artists completing their apprenticeships with established masters tend to re-use compositions that they are more comfortable with at the start of their careers, developing their own unique styles later on. It is why, for example, that Raphael’s earlier images of the Madonna and Child draw upon models created by his master, Perugino. It is only after he gained independence, experience, and self-confidence, that Raphael took the lessons that he had learned from emulating his master, combining them with his own native genius and observational skills, and began creating the unique, more individualized images of Mary holding the Christ Child that first made him famous and highly sought after as an artist.

In 1612, Velázquez began his apprenticeship with the painter Francisco Pacheco in Seville, an artist whose treatise on religious iconography and painterly technique made him the most influential expert on these matters within Spain at the time. By copying the style of his teacher, and learning his techniques and attitudes toward art, Velázquez would have absorbed the skills needed to eventually go out and set up his own shop, much as today a cabinetmaker or ironworker would do once they complete their vocational training. Velázquez finished his studies with Pacheco in early 1618, at about the same time that he married Pacheco’s daughter Juana; the couple moved from Seville to Madrid a few years later, where the young master’s style would begin undergoing a significant transformation.

If Velázquez was still learning at the time that the earlier of these two pictures was painted, then it would make sense that he would reuse certain elements of the earlier composition in a later work. Thus the shape of the head, the features, shading, and so on that we see in the picture of the young girl, were available for him to reuse in the features of the serving girl. Again, this is just a theory on my part, and no doubt an actual expert can poke holes in it, but I think the similarities are too obvious and the timing too perfect to ignore.

Time will tell whether this discovery comes to be widely accepted as a work by Velázquez or not, but I suspect that the sale price at the end of the auction will give us an idea of what the general feeling is within Spain. Given the very strict Spanish export restrictions on works of art that are over 100 years old, the likelihood of this painting leaving Spain for a foreign collection is extremely remote. However whether it disappears back into a private collection, or whether it becomes the property of a public museum, it would seem to be an important link between the end of the artist’s apprenticeship, and his emergence as a master painter in his own right.

Battered Beauty: A Strange Picture Goes Under The Hammer

Coming up at the end of this month, Christie’s in New York will be auctioning an unusual painting which has been put up for sale by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The piece began life as a late Medieval altarpiece, was defaced to become a work of propaganda, and in its present state is one of those pictures which probably only a real art nerd could love. Yet the story behind its creator, its alteration, and the way it looks today provide some interesting food for thought.

The work in question, “The Virgin and Child with Saints Thomas, John the Baptist, Jerome and Louis”, is attributed to the great Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes (c. 1430-1482), and was probably painted in 1472. It depicts the Madonna and Infant Jesus seated on a throne, surrounded by (L to R) Saints Thomas the Apostle, John the Baptist, Jerome, and Louis IX of France. The figures are placed inside an ornate Gothic gallery (look at that beautiful floor tile) which opens out onto a lush, inviting landscape. It is a large piece, roughly about four feet square, although not as gigantic as some other Flemish altarpieces of this period.

As you can see in the image accompanying this post, the picture was ruined at some point in the past. The result is that we can see some of the underdrawing for the figures that are now missing. When this piece was created, the artist or one of his assistants would have sketched out the design first, in order to have some precise visual guidelines to work by. This unusual detail, which normally is not visible to the naked eye, gives us some great insight into the methods of the man who created it.

Hugo van der Goes worked in what is today modern Belgium, and rarely left it, although his work was commissioned by and sent to collectors across Europe. Like his near contemporaries Jan van Eyck or Rogier van der Weyden, his paintings have a jewel-like quality to them, both in the richness of his colors, and in his attention to the tiniest details. Although little is known about his personal life, we do know that in his 40’s he closed up his shop to become a brother at the Augustinian Abbey of Rouge-Cloître, outside of Brussels.

While van der Goes continued to paint and accept commissions even after joining the Augustinians, he was apparently troubled both by how much he had taken on, and by his perception that he was never going to be able to complete his work – at least, not to the level of excellence which he felt called upon to achieve. It may have been van der Goes’ perfectionism and scrupulosity which precipitated his retreating to the world of religious life, but eventually his psychosis developed into full-blown depression. He became convinced that he was a failure and going to be damned, and tried to kill himself in 1482, about ten years after this picture was painted. Although he survived the attempt, he eventually succumbed to his injuries, and died shortly thereafter.

Later in its history, van der Goes’ altarpiece was vandalized by an unknown individual. Whoever he was, he scraped off the image of the Madonna and Child, as well as the continuation of the background landscape which appeared behind them, and painted an interior scene of a church. He also scraped away the image of St. John the Baptist, and repainted him with an image of Elizabeth of York, the wife of England’s Henry VII and mother of Henry VIII. St. Jerome lost his cardinal’s hat and his lion companion, and was turned into an Anglican bishop, while the figure of a king, originally intended to represent St. Louis IX of France, could now be interpreted as Henry VII.

In effect, the altarpiece became a marriage portrait, celebrating the union of Henry VIII’s parents. The defeat of Richard III, and the union of the Tudors and the Yorks through marriage, had provided Henry VII with the basis which he needed to claim the English throne for himself. Years later, despite the iconoclasm brought about by Henry VIII, when countless works of art were destroyed, someone managed to save this piece from the bonfire.

From a historical standpoint, it would have made contextual sense if this piece had been repurposed at some point during the Tudor period. However, Christie’s maintains that the scraping down and repainting took place much later, in the 18th century. To me this seems rather strange, given that the piece had survived intact through the Reformation; by the Georgian period, English collectors were eagerly snapping up art masterpieces such as this for their collections. Barring some subsequent discovery, we may never know why this painting has suffered as it has.

A few years ago, The Met had the changes removed, and the entire painting cleaned and restored. While van der Goes’ missing paint could not be put back, the picture did regain its compositional and architectural symmetry. Previously hidden details reemerged: St. Jerome’s lion friend returned to his side, for example, and in the foreground two beautiful little still lifes were uncovered. We see a glass vase with colombines on the left, and a silver censor (an incense burner used at Mass) on the right.

While no longer in a pristine state, this beautiful ruin is still expected to fetch a high price. Christie’s estimates that it will sell for between $3-5 million, though I do wonder whether that is a bit high for an individual collector of Old Masters to swallow, merely for the sake of specialized artistic interest. Perhaps when it leaves one institutional collection, i.e. The Met, it will be acquired by another. We shall see what happens.