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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

A Dispatch from London

State of the Union: A new exhibition on the American artist John Singer Sargent is a muddled attempt to investigate his subversive genius.

lady agnew
"Lady Agnew," John Singer Sargent

Walking alongside a gaggle of bored school children entering Tate Britain was an experience, consolidating my most reactionary opinion that the entire public education system should be burned down as a travesty. Good intentions often lead to traumatizing policies, and school children shouldn’t be compulsorily herded to museums en masse. Tate was displaying Sargent in Fashion, initiated and exhibited in collaboration with Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in an effort to throw fresh light on the artist.

John Singer Sargent was in some respects a classic Gilded Age New-Englander, an Anglophile in spirit, deferential as well as critical of high culture, radical and reactionary at the same time.  A lifelong bachelor, his repressed identity was channeled towards art; as often happens, his repressed passion resulted in timeless grand-portraiture classics. More social and personal repression perhaps leads to greater civilizational good. 

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Sargent was controlling of his models. Apocryphal story goes that when Gretchen and Rachel Warren came to model in Boston, Sargent was so enraged by the choice of satin that he draped a yard of fabric, perhaps a curtain, on Rachel. The painting turned out to be an instant classic. His Study of an Egyptian Girl was a scandalous sensation, different from the class drenched fabrics of high society England, America and France, a return to academic studies instead of moody vivacity. His Lady Agnew was a return to form; aristocratic disdain can be intensely haunting and attractive.

The exhibition did not quite capture the subversive complexity but instead seemed to be curated by those unaware and unworthy of the time they are choosing to depict. Yes, Sargent was insufferably and neurotically demanding of his subjects and their sartorial choices. His paintings were not just primarily about fashion, but about mood. To put a green dinner robe in a glass box next to a canvas is confounding, to say the least. A painting from the late 19th century, yes, even an American one, is for experiencing; no one needs a plethora of facts, just like no one needs a bunch of loud school children in a museum ruining it for everyone else. 

I wanted to buy a fridge magnet of Lady Agnew, one of my favorites. The store had everything except that one. It was typically depressing as London rain. So, I proceeded to buy a four dollar version of Ena and Betty by a man, who gleefully called me a comrade for some reason. 

Perhaps, in historic irony, Sargent’s grand portraiture was considered out of style, spiritually anachronistic, and even somewhat offensive by the end of the First World War, when left-wing politics were overtaken by labor movements that replaced the radical but restrained second sons of the nobility who led the forces of detached Edwardian liberalism. It is a sign of times that Sargent is back in elite conversation after a century-long full circle. 

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