Thanks to the “Portrait of Madame X,” the uplit dancer in “El Jaleo” or the affluent hush that emanates from “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,” John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) is one of those artists we think we know.
And with a number of the artist’s luscious and familiar portraits on view, “John Singer Sargent and Chicago’s Gilded Age” — now at the Art Institute — might seem to confirm that supposition. But as orchestrated by curator Annelise K. Madsen, this richly rewarding exhibition reminds us that the European-born American was more than just a society painter.
Born in Italy and trained in France (with periods of study in Spain and the Netherlands), Sargent only saw Chicago twice in his life, first in 1876 and again in 1916. His visits were brief and little is known of what he did or saw. Chicagoans caught their first Sargent — a Venetian street scene — in an exhibition in 1888. Two years later, his portrait of the dancer “La Carmencita” was exhibited at the Art Institute. “It definitely created a sensation,” Madsen says. “While steeped in the lessons of the Old Master, it was also forward-looking. The high-keyed color and broken brushwork of her dress felt new and bold in 1890.”
Sargent’s work was exhibited in a number of shows after that, and wealthy Chicagoans, full of personal and civic pride, began to collect his work. Agricultural tycoon Charles Deering met Sargent in the 1870s and became his greatest local champion, collecting more than a dozen works. Along with the impressionist brushwork in Sargent’s rendition of an orchestra, or the almost abstract look in the canvas “Thistles,” the watercolors Sargent painted while staying at Deering’s half-brother’s winter home in Florida represent the range of subject matter and techniques that occupied the artist at various points throughout his career. It is easy to eye his work as a pretty representation of the good life gone by. But as Madsen suggests, there’s more to these pictures than that. “Sargent’s paintings are incredibly appealing invitations to look closely — and to look slowly. His technical dexterity was impressive. One of his friends, Eliza Wedgwood, said it well: ‘It was such an experience to see him paint, every stroke telling.’ ”
‘John Singer Sargent & Chicago’s Gilded Age’
Through Sept. 30, Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan; For tickets ($7 plus general admission), visit Sargent.artic.edu
Pictured at top: “Street in Venice” was Sargent’s first work displayed in Chicago in 1888