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I recently posted a piece about the place of the nude in European art. I included an anecdote about John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Amelie Gautreau, whom he called Madame X, with the bejeweled strap of her evening gown fallen from one shoulder. This was not a nude, of course, but it was used to illustrate the vastly different light in which Parisians viewed nudity cast in classical myth, and the risqué portrayal of contemporary women.
To be fair, there was more going on than that conflict between the mythic and the real. Mme. Gautreau’s rumored indiscretions had earned for her a rather racy reputation of her own even before she posed for the portrait. Sargent, knowing this, for the sake of publicity chose a title that hinted at scandal. The ploy was more effective than he could have imagined. And that’s not all.
Sargent and Gautreau were American expatriates at a time when the United States had just passed a series of high tariffs on, among other things, imported French Art. In Paris, Sargent’s portrait career was on its way to becoming a runaway commercial success; he was more in demand that the French masters themselves, his name a household word in high society. Many in the French art scene resented that wealthy Americans, without the centuries of history and culture that the French possessed, could come over and usurp places at the French ateliers, the Ècole des Beaux-Arts, and the Paris Salon, while French artists, inherently superior (so thought the French), were effectively barred from the ever-growing, ever-richer American art market which sought, in the Gilded Age, to buy into a culture it had taken the French centuries to refine. So a number of factors were at work in the scandal that drove Sargent out of Paris, the affair of the strapless gown being just the visible tip of a great iceberg of submerged resentment.
Sargent became rich and famous by painting women, mostly the wives and children of the wealthy. His sitters are almost always safely swathed in yards of silk and satin, taffeta, lace and fur. There is only one Sargent oil painting of a female nude that dates from his portrait painting days, but it is splendid. A dark skinned young woman, her back to the viewer but twisted at the waist so that her face and torso are in profile, toys pensively with her lustrous black braid. The viewers eyes snap at once to only contrasting color: her ruby lips. They take in the exotic beauty of her face, then naturally follow the path laid out for us by the master of composition, sliding down the braid to the busy area by her hands and breast, pausing there for a moment before stepping back to take in the figure as a whole, rounded and sensual. Rather than let us mistake this exotic beauty for a contemporary European woman, which might have been risky, Sargent clearly labelled her Egyptian Girl. She was completed in 1891, and seen at the World Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893.
The only other public Sargent female nudes did not come until near the end of his life, in his reknowned Boston murals in the Widener Library at Harvard, the Public Library, and the Museum of Fine Art.
In much the way David’s Liberty Leading the People did for the French Revolution, Death and Victory (in the Widener Library at Harvard) commemorates the sacrifices and triumph of the Great War. A doughboy embraces a black-clad Death and a semi-nude Victory, muscular and very alive. In the spirit of Waterhouse’s classical world, Atlas and the Hesperides (In Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts) doubles down on Courbet’s Solliel. Not one but three pairs of goddesses lie at the edge of sleep in sensual embraces, while a seventh lolls among them alone, clutching a golden apple. The old master had not lost his touch.
The male nude, for Sargent, is quite another story. His notebooks teem with literally hundreds of male figures in every conceivable pose. These drawings, in pencil, or in charcoal or red chalk with white chalk highlights, have the feel of preliminary studies or practice pieces, and indeed many are echoed in the epic murals he undertook in Boston. The paintings are mostly in the Impressionist style that Sargent adopted after he retired from painting portraits in oil. Like his female nudes, his men are infused with sensuality. Few Sargent’s male nudes were ever exhibited in his lifetime, and none widely.
One male model, Thomas E. McKeller, appears frequently in these pictures. McKeller was a young African American bellhop at the Copley Plaza hotel in Boston, whom Sargent first met on an elevator there in 1916. The artist was impressed at once by the young man’s physique and striking features. McKeller was soon modelling for the master, and continued to do so throughout the last decade of the Sargent’s life. He showed such a talent for modelling that he became Sargent’s muse during the period when the Boston commissions were realized. He appears in Sargent’s murals in dramatic poses, both male and female, as mythical gods, biblical prophets, and sinners. A magnificent full-figure nude oil portrait of McKeller Sargent kept for himself, never exhibiting it during his lifetime. The background of this picture, unlike the earth-toned neutral background typical of Sargent portraits, almost subliminally suggests the spreading of angel’s wings.
Given Sargent’s lifelong bachelorhood and the predominance of sexy men among his figure studies, it is tempting to assume that the artist was gay, and perhaps that he and McKeller were lovers. I have my doubts. It is hard to believe that the man who painted Egyptian Girl did not feel intimately the erotic power of the female figure. I think it likely Sargent was a sensualist, as perhaps were his contemporaries Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, though he was more reserved in his behavior than either of these other men. He was not necessarily either gay or straight. The man himself was famously reticent about his private life, and I see no reason not to honor that wish today.
And now I must admit that the impossible has occurred. Having set out to write a piece of fluff about the evolution of figure painting in the West, I’ve been so surrounded by these images that I’ve become burned out on figure painting. Let me finish with homage to perhaps the greatest rebel in all of modern art, Claude Monet, who managed a stellar 50-year career at the top of the French art world, without painting a single nude.