John Singer Sargent painting: “Zuleika”. The farce — and artifice — of beauty.

Sargent_John_Singer_Zuleika

Gorgeous, wouldn't you say? It was painted by the 19th Century famous portraitist,  John Singer Sargent. His abstracts were always of friends– usually other artists, such as himself. I wonder if that was because he felt his clients demanded something more meticulous, whereas perhaps these were painted on the fly? His version of toting a camera was to relax with easel, canvas and paints, be it oils or watercolors.

This one is entitled "Zuleika," was completed in 1907, and hangs in the Brooklyn Museum. The name is a genus of moth. It is also Persian in origin, meaning "fair, brilliant, lovely." 

She certainly looks that way, here.

Who was she? The wife of a friend, perhaps? There are a series of poems based on a character by that name. Turns out Sargent was friends with humorist Max Beerbohm, who was working on a contemporary novel by that title, about a woman by that name whose beauty was so great that her merely stepping off a train to visit her grandfather in Oxford caused men to obsess over her — to the point of committing mass suicide.

This Sargent painting and Beerbohm's novel might have been the very first product cross-promotion — multi-platforming in its earliest form. 

More than likely, it was Sargent's way of jibing Beerbohm — payback for the latter's caricutures of the revered painter.

Notice the subject's eyebrows are  just one wave of black paint. Sargent's downward point-of-view is filled with realistic shadowing. The grass is a riot of green, blue and yellow hues which play tricks on the mind: we envision individual blades of grass, and dappled sunlight.

I love that he caught her reading. Is  Proust? Dickens? Baudliere? Possibly The Works of Max Beerbohm.

 Art is fun, and can be funny, too,

— Josie

 


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Unstill Lives: The Wyndham Sisters, by John Singer Sargent

The-Wyndham-Sisters-artist-John-Singer-SargentWhen you look at a painting, do you identify more with the artist, or his subject?

For myself, it's the latter. I'm always wondering what the subject is thinking at any given point in time. I'm sure at first there is some exhilaration at being the subject of such abject scrutiny. Considering the length of time it takes for a painter to finish a work, I'm sure eventually boredom sets in, then eventually impatience for the project to be over and done with. 

The writer in me wants to mine the emotional depths illuminated by the artist: in this case, the incomparable John Singer Sargent.

These women — sisters with the last name Wyndham – came from a wealthy London family. They are (from the left) Madeline Adeane (1869–1941), Pamela Tennant (1871–1928), and Mary Constance, Lady Elcho (1862–1937).

I presume to ease their boredom and to accommodate them in more comfortable surroundings, Sargent chose to paint them in the drawing room of their family home, in posh  Belgrave Square as opposed to his (I presume) much smaller studio.

The painting was complete around 1900.

In it, opulence abounds: in their satin gown, the large flower, the plush sofa where they lounge.

By today's standards, these women aren't beauties per se, but they were considered vivacious social butterflies. No matter. Sargent was known to make his subjects comelier than life afforded them, elongating some features, illuminating  others. The hues and shading are always flattering. When Sargent displayed this painting the Royal Academy's annual exhibition in 1900, the Prince of Wales nicknamed it"The Three Graces." 

In fact, they and their brothers — George, a writer and politician; and Guy, a soldier — were part of politically astute intellectual salon of twenty or so friends, known as the Souls, which gathered to from the 1880 to about the time this picture was painted. They were annointed as such by Lord Charles Beresford, a British admiral and member of Parliament, also affectionately known as Charlie B. His take on the group: ""You all sit and talk about each other's souls — I shall call you 'the 'Souls.'"

What a wonderful starting point for a novel! Considering the times they lived — Irish uprising, Home Rule, the Gilded Age, the Edwardian era — and the smart set  in which they ruled supreme (which included two future prime ministers as well as a writers, artistis, and quite few titled aristocratics)  the sisters' lives must have been quite interesting: and yes, tragic, as some of its members perished in the Great War.

— Josie

An excerpt, not my own: the poetic prose of Proust.

JSS 1
These passage, about the power of fiction, comes from Swann's Way, the first volume of French novelist Marcel Proust's epic masterwork, In Search of Lost Time. It is voiced by his narrator, a young Marcel, while sitting in a garden at his parents country estate, outside the small French town of Combray.


This long passage comes in the form of a single paragraph. The punctuation is all Proust's work. He was given to paragraphs that could run up to five pages and sentences,
at times, of up to a thousand words. My husband, Martin, put reading Proust on his must-do list.

"At sixty-one,  I've already outlived Proust by ten years so I thought it was time to get started," he explained to me.

Already Martin has move on to his second volume, Within a Budding Grove.

He recommends that you read this passage more than once. "I've read it a half dozen times, and I think I've absorbed Proust's meaning…mostly."

See if you feel the same way.

Enjoy,

–Josie

 "Next to this central
belief which, while I was reading, would be constantly reaching out from my
inner self to the outer world, towards the discovery of truth, came the
emotions aroused in me by the action in which I was taking part, for these
afternoons were crammed with more dramatic events than occur, often, in a whole
lifetime. These were the events taking place in the book I was reading. It is
true that the people concerned in them were not what Françoise would have
called 'real people.' But none
JSS2of the feelings which the joys or misfortunes of
a real person arouse in us can be awakened except through a mental picture of
those joys or misfortunes; and the ingenuity of the first novelist lay in his
understanding that, as the image was the one essential element in the
complicated structure of our emotions, so that simplification of it which
consisted in the suppression, pure and simple, of real people would be a
decided improvement. A real person, profoundly as we may sympathize with him,
is in a great measure perceptible only through our senses, that is to say,
remains opaque, presents a dead weight which our sensibilities have not the
strength to lift. If some misfortune comes to him, it is only in one small
section of the complete idea we have of him that we are capable of feeling any
emotion; indeed it is only in one small section of the complete idea he has of
himself that he is capable of feeling any emotion either. The novelist's happy
discovery was to think of substituting for those opaque sections, impenetrable
to the human soul, their equivalent in immaterial sections, things, that is,
which one's soul can assimilate. After which it matters not that the actions,
the feeling of this new order of creatures appear to us in the guise of truth,
since we have made them our own, since it is in ourselves that they are
happening, that they are holding in thrall, as we feverishly turn over the
pages of the book, our quickened breath and staring eyes. And once the novelist
has brought us to this state, in which, as in all purely mental states, every
emotion is multiplied ten fold, into which his book comes to disturb us as
might a dream, but a dream more lucid and more abiding than those which come to
us in sleep, why then, for the space of an hour he sets free within us all the
joys and sorrows in the world, a few of which only we should have to spend
years of our actual life in getting to know, and the most intense of which
would never be revealed to us because the slow course of their development
prevents us from perceiving them. It is the same in life; the heart changes,
and it is our worst sorrow; but we know it only through reading, through our
imagination: in reality its alteration, like that of certain natural phenomena,
is so gradual that, even if we are able to distinguish, successively, each of
its different states, we are still spared the actual sensation of change."

 

Both of these paintings were created by John Singer Sargent. The first is called Rose-Marie Ormond Reading in a Cashmere Shawl, and the second is, simply, Man Reading.

One of my favorite John Singer Sargent paintings is entitled “Repose”.

John-singer-sargent-nonchaloir
While in Washington, DC for my tour for The Baby Planner, my husband Martin and I had the opportunity to stop into The National Gallery, where I was enthralled by this painting from my favorite artist, John Singer Sargent. He entitled it "Repose."

It was a comeback of sorts for Sargent. For over a quarter century he'd made his fame and fortune doing portraits of the world's nouveau riche, but by 1907 he had grown tired of his clients whims, going so far as to renounce his livelihood as “a pimp’s profession.” He then took the time to paint public murals, as well as small watercolors — mostly landscapes — for his own pleasure.

However in 1911, while vacationing with his sister Violet’s family in Switzerland, his found his portraiture muse again: in his niece Rose-Marie Ormond Michel. Note that this is a casual character study as opposed to a formal portrait. He beautifully depicts a young woman at ease in hazy amber afternoon light.

If only we all could have been painted by Sargent in such a sublime state of bliss, at the height of our own attractiveness.

–Josie

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