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What a Young, Aspiring John Singer Sargent Learned From the Beauty of Florence

Paul Fisher on an American Expatriate Artist’s Early Pursuit of Inspiration

Featured painting: John Signer Sargent, “Group with Parasols (Siesta),” around 1904-5

Florence, Italy, styled itself as an art center—or rather its extensive foreign colony did. Visiting artists tapped into a neo-Renaissance enthusiasm that glorified beautiful human bodies, at least as enshrined in paintings and statues.

When a 17-year-old John Singer Sargent arrived with his family in October 1873, for the umpteenth time, in a city that had so often served as their winter base, they once again unpacked their scuffed, overloaded steamer trunks. But their brand-new lodgings in the city also offered some additional delights—in autumn, stubble; by early spring, blossom and fresh grass.

The Via Magenta ran parallel to the walls of Florence and abutted the open, hill-bounded Tuscan countryside just to the west. For all that, the Sargents’ house stood near enough the center of Florence for Mary to invite the English and American artists, teachers, and scholars who wintered in the red-roofed city to teas and soirées.

Florence came as a relief to everyone. Fitzwilliam’s Dresden winter, two years before, had proved a failure. Ever hopeful, the family had erected their fold-up household at 2 Wiener Strasse, just south of the formal, extensive parklands of the Baroque Grosser Garten. But Fitz had found Dresden a “dusky-looking town,” with the coal-smelling air of London even if it didn’t share its rather yellow atmosphere. Fifteen-year-old Emily had fallen seriously ill—to the point that she’d produced an earnest, handwritten will. And sixteen-year-old John, at loose ends and unable to matriculate right away at the Gymnasium of the Holy Cross, found himself reluctant to study algebra or Latin.

Already [John] was laying claim to a self-defined, exquisite, artistic world, where he would be allowed to fling aside his inveterate shyness.

Through that winter in Saxony, with its harsh and mild spells, John quietly continued his sketchbook self-education. His favorite haunts—tepidly heated by tiled stoves—took him to the Dresden Museum and the Museum of Antiquities in the Grosser Garten. Otherwise, John’s two surviving sketchbooks labeled “Dresden” primarily featured studies of street figures, animal drawings (John loved to sketch goats and cows), and town scenes documenting the family’s junkets, when spring came at last and Emily’s health permitted, across Germany and Bohemia.

These sketchbooks documented John’s broad, attentive, highly eclectic openness to the ordinary sights he encountered every day. Yet it’s possible that two nude figure studies in the lad’s Welsch sketchbook were also done that winter, and from Dresden statuary. Whatever their source, these particular sketches exhibit a fresh and quirky liberation from the literal renditions and named masterworks of drawings “from the antique” that John had earlier pursued. These new nude figures virtually came to life, as though they’d been captured from live models. Taut, physical, and dynamic—delineated in a few bold lines—they didn’t even hint at fig leaves or the lack thereof. John’s own sensibilities were already transforming the “antique” into something immediate, dynamic, and intriguing.

John indeed hankered to strike out on his own, having inherited his mother’s independent streak. At Carlsbad in May 1872, he abstained from drinking the “Saline-Alcaline [sic] waters,” though his father quaffed three, his mother four, and his sister Emily two glasses of this bitter mineral water every day. He also forged through pine-and-beech woods with his newly invigorated mother and the family’s German nurse, while his father led a “little Donkey cart by a circuitous route” that carried the invalid Emily and the exuberant toddler Violet. Though John himself fell ill in Bavaria and Switzerland that summer, he “was not so unwell,” his father reported, “as to be prevented from walking off voluntarily every afternoon to make a sketch of something that pleased him, often at a distance of a couple of hours’ walk.” John’s quiet high spirits simply couldn’t be repressed, and he longed now to roam on his own.

That next summer, too, John continued his liberating highland explorations. In late August 1873, the adolescent struck out into the mountains by himself, intending to meet a friend at an Alpine hut. By 9:30 that night, though, he hadn’t returned. Mary, alarmed, began to “fancy all sorts of horrors.” Fitzwilliam telegraphed the father of the young man whom John was supposed to meet near the summit of the Bernina Pass. “This gentleman replied that his son and my son had left the inn for Pontresina in the evening,” as Dr. Sargent later told the story. “This relieved our uneasiness, for his companion is several years older and a thorough mountaineer.”

At 10:30, the pair finally arrived. Thankfully, they hadn’t met the fate of a seventy-one-year-old Englishman who’d been staying in Pontresina, who’d vanished in the mountains, leaving a chest full of money in his rooms. “Whether he fell into a crevasse of the glacier, or into the torrent, or was murdered by some roving Italian herdsman…no one knows,” Fitzwilliam told his brother Tom. Such were the hazards even of the Sargents’ chosen summering spot, idyllic as it was.

Yet, even if cautious by nature, John hadn’t apprehended any danger. He’d been too exhilarated by the glorious mountain hike with his new friend to worry about such trivialities. He longed for such frank, luminous companionship.

*

Other companions provided John with more cerebral adventures that showed the growth of a restless, rather iconoclastic sensibility. A month after his scrape in the Tyrolean Alps, in September 1873, John reencountered his old friend Violet Paget during a short stayover in Bologna.

If the future lesbian aesthete Vernon Lee had grown into a “half-baked polyglot scribbler of sixteen,” as she later remembered it, John at seventeen qualified as “a tall, slack, growing youth with as yet no sign of his later spick-and-span man-of-the-world appearance.” He wore a “grey plaid shawl” to protect his “stooping shoulders” and to preserve himself from drafts. But his physical fastidiousness combined with decided and even rather daring opinions.

When Violet tried to interest her old friend in Mozart, he balked. That cheerful classical composer lacked “the exotic, far-fetched quality which always attracted John Sargent in music, literature, and, for many years, persons,” she later remarked. He already displayed what the future Vernon Lee considered “that imaginative quality of his mind” that strongly differed from her own “priggish historical sensibilities.” She noted that the “words ‘strange, weird, fantastic’ were already on his lips—and that adjective curious, pronounced with a long and somehow aspirated u, accompanied by a particular expression half of wonder and half of self-irony. That word curious was to me, at least, his dominant word for many years.”

That John chose the satyr for his Accademia thesis, as it were, hints at his predilections while enrolled in this largely unsupervised school.

In the view of a budding fellow artist, John was now openly airing predilections his family couldn’t quite appreciate or fathom. Already he was laying claim to a self-defined, exquisite, artistic world, where he would be allowed to fling aside his inveterate shyness. Part of that efflorescence, in Bologna, was spurred by the intellectual equal he’d reclaimed as his friend. And part of that was his family’s plan, flawed as it was, to provide him with a real art school at last.

*

In Florence, though, by April 1874, the Accademia delle Belle Arti wasn’t living up to anyone’s hopes. For one thing, John, now eighteen, was confined on a sofa, one foot propped up. Though he’d now grown more solid than he’d been in his slim early adolescence, when he’d delighted ladies as “a big-eyed, sentimental, charming boy, playing the mandolin very pleasantly,” he was still like his mother, florid, dark-haired, amiable, and lively in his looks and laughs. The “brisk and decided” gait that had launched him on walks with his father and with various male friends, however, had now been hobbled.

It was his own fault, he confessed in a good-humored letter to his cousin Mrs. Elizabeth Austin. He’d inflicted his immobility, his inability “to use [his] right foot,” on himself. Two weeks before, he’d severely sprained his ankle on the stairs of the academy. He’d been “leaping down stairs,” Fitzwilliam added, “contrary to my oft-repeated warning and advice.” Dr. Sargent applied a starched bandage, shaking his head sadly.

Even before this accident, the Sargents had been chafing at the artistic limitations of the city, John especially. The Accademia, John Sargent’s first actual art school, hadn’t proved very educational over the preceding winter of 1873–74. The family, increasingly focused on John’s budding career, had in fact itched to return to Rome, with its familiar if rather rattletrap advantages. “This boy of ours is on our minds,” Fitzwilliam had written a friend, “he has been improving a good deal this winter in his drawing, but we think that if [he] were under better direction than we can get for him here, he would do much better.”

John was less equivocal: he believed his Florentine art school, even before his accident, had held him back, had qualified, in fact, as a complete catastrophe. “This unhappy Accademia… is the most unsatisfactory institution imaginable,” he confided in Mrs. Austin, “human ingenuity has never contrived anything so unsatisfactory.” Shortly after he’d enrolled late in the previous autumn, the Accademia had shut down for months while the professors had wrangled over a curriculum overhaul. Even when the school opened up again in March, the “students of the cast”—John’s level, the group tasked with copying classical nudes—found themselves, as John put it, “without a Master, while the former Professor vacillated and still vacillates between resigning and continuing his instructions.”

The Accademia especially didn’t suit John because his sensibility was developing in its own directions, as he’d recently demonstrated to Vernon Lee. He yearned for a place where he could find full expression.

Of the sketches John made that year in Florence, under adverse conditions, one especially stood out. The Dancing Faun, After the Antique, a finished, almost photographic piece in black chalk and charcoal, especially showed off the young artist’s virtuosity.

John’s longstanding obsession with fauns, first inspired by Hawthorne’s Marble Faun in his Roman childhood, had now found its full expression. Five years earlier, he’d sketched Hawthorne’s inspiration, the so-called Faun of Praxiteles in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. He’d also captured another Dancing Faun, an exquisite bronze statue and survival of Pompeii, in Naples.

The sculpture that John rendered for the Accademia was more properly a satyr, a Hellenistic marble that had been painstakingly restored by Michelangelo and housed since the sixteenth century in the Tribuna, the great octagonal gallery of the Uffizi. A late nineteenth-century guide to the museum misattributed the statue to Praxiteles due to its perceived “extraordinary artistic value”: it was also seen to be “executed with a remarkable knowledge of anatomy; every part of the body bears the features proper to the satyrs, and a kind of convulsive briskness seems to agitate each muscle.”

That description exactly fits Sargent’s own meticulous, detailed rendering of the satyr’s body in an energetic, impassioned, and contorted pose. The “features proper to satyrs” included a phallus that, in the defiant Florentine style, hadn’t been fig- leafed over and also boldly featured in John’s drawing.

That John chose the satyr for his Accademia thesis, as it were, hints at his predilections while enrolled in this largely unsupervised school. The Uffizi and Florence in general teemed with other sculptures, and John made some sketches of them as well as some painstaking copies of classical paintings. Though still rather haphazard in his tastes, he was increasingly finding his favorites. That spring, he wrote Mrs. Austin that over the course of his family’s many if rather brief visits to Venice he’d learned “to admire Tintoretto immensely and to consider him perhaps second only to Michael Angelo [sic] and Titian, whose beauties it was his aim to unite.”

John’s faun stood out boldly. It broadcast disruptive energy, clanging cymbals, and a defiant grimace.

But John hadn’t chosen to copy Titian’s most famous female nude, the Venus of Urbino, which was also housed at the Uffizi. Italy was in fact well stocked with female nudes (mostly Renaissance paintings as opposed to classical statues), but virtually none of these images had found their way into John’s sketchbooks—one rare exception being John’s quick sketch of Michelangelo’s rather muscular Night in the Medici Chapel at San Lorenzo in Florence. Otherwise, he not infrequently represented women. But mostly he rendered his mother, his sisters, genteel fellow tourists, and peasant women in picturesque regional costumes.

John’s choice of the Uffizi satyr, in fact, counted as a bold one. It channeled an off-center version of masculinity. In contrast to more heroic, classical, and tranquil male nudes, which insisted on the restrained artistic ideals beloved of nineteenth-century art academicians as well as conventional male power, a satyr channeled a wild, quirky version of passion and physicality. In the Uffizi satyr, with his developed physique, this sexuality read as distinctly male in contrast to Hawthorne’s more androgynous or even feminine marble faun. Seemingly both the faun and satyr deeply appealed to John.

Sargent’s rendition—his careful shading giving dimensionality to the faun’s muscular body—came off as illicit not only in its shed clothes and missing fig leaf but also in its defiance of the restrained classical ideals of the Uffizi, not to mention the Florentine Anglo-American colony. John’s faun stood out boldly. It broadcast disruptive energy, clanging cymbals, and a defiant grimace.

*

At home with his sprained ankle, meanwhile, John had “a very handsome Neapolitan model to draw and paint,” he told Mrs. Austin, “who plays on the Zampogna [a double chantered pipe] and tamburino and dances tarantellas for us when he is tired of sitting.” The tarantella was a traditional southern Italian dance that in its solo form most often mimicked the convulsive death throes caused by a tarantula bite.

Still with this dancing in mind, John added that he hoped Mrs. Austin’s artist daughter could “compel… her model to dance when he is tired”—tired of posing, that is. John was no doubt courteous to his model. He understood the model might want to move about after sitting or standing still. But he also knew that he or his cousin could “compel” a model to dance. He already fathomed the power disparity between him and his hireling, which, though commonplace in European studios, would increasingly become a heady dynamic for him.

In the Sargents’ rented Florentine house, though, power was proving a complicated matter. On one hand, Sargent’s rustic Italian model successfully tapped into a lively if specialized market, and he profited from it. Such unemployed migrants brought to aspiring artists the advantage of picturesqueness and increasingly, as French realism in the 1870s created a vogue for peasant and rural life, of earthy “authenticity,” and that provided jobs and livelihoods for some. On the other hand, such occasional and casual aspirants abounded in cities like Florence and Rome, and they got little enough for their trouble. They were cheap enough for the just-solvent Sargents to sponsor command performances for their son.

Here the young artist tasted a spectacle performed just for his benefit, a private enactment staged for him to watch and capture. He’d restage this command performance in any number of future drawings and paintings.

*

John’s Neapolitan model was only a stopgap, of course, and visitors to the house brought ample suggestions for John’s next step. He himself was ready for something more and, when his mentors made suggestions, he eagerly lapped them up

One of the most august artists in the Sargents’ circle, the sixty-five-year-old Anglo-Scottish landscape painter Charles Heath Wilson, arrived at the Sargents’ doorstep weighed down with art-school credentials. He’d taught at King’s College London and at the Glasgow School of Design for decades. He’d worked as a watercolorist and an illustrator, but he’d moved to Florence chiefly to finish a biographical and critical monograph, to be published in 1876, entitled Life and Works of Michelangelo Buonarroti. And his fascination proved a good match for his protégé.

Though it’s unclear how much instruction Heath Wilson gave the young Sargent, the two shared a deep-seated admiration for Michelangelo as well as an appreciation of the vital role male nudes had played in that artist’s career. In his book, Wilson praised Michelangelo’s early figures for their resemblance to “Greek statues of Athletes,” with “the full fullness of muscular development show[ing] how completely whilst yet so young, he had escaped from the meagerness in representing the nude hitherto so common.” Michelangelo’s early nudes, Wilson insisted, were “full of energy and movement; and show a power of representing the human form, which might well excite the hopes of his friends for his future.”

In his boldness and unconventionality, John more resembled Michelangelo than he himself understood.

Perhaps Wilson felt that John’s satyr demonstrated similar promise. He may even have helped John choose or develop this subject, as this statue was a favorite of Michelangelo’s and in fact had been restored by him. At any rate, Heath Wilson was interested enough in the lad’s artistic future to recommend London the next place for John to study art. London immediately appealed to John. But Wilson’s suggestion, partly thanks to the prohibitive expense of the world’s metropolis, was soon overruled by others.

The fifty-seven-year-old Massachusetts painter Edwin White, who’d studied in Paris, Düsseldorf, and Rome, aired more Continental prejudices. These dovetailed with the Sargents’ own. White’s patches of success, though, had occurred mostly in the United States, at the National Academy of Design in New York. Once having sported curly, enfant terrible hair, White, longfaced and graying, now soberly devoted himself to teaching. He’d recently sent his promising students Frank Fowler and Walter Launt Palmer to Paris, in spite of his own disappointments in that city.

White now recommended Paris for John, who probably spoke on his advisor’s authority when he described to his cousin the “unique artistic training” available there: “We hear that the French artists[,] undoubtedly the best now-a-days, are willing to take pupils in their studios.” Still, John fretted that he wasn’t “sufficiently advanced to enter a studio” and needed another year in a preparatory academy.

John Sargent’s seemingly erratic preparation, though, along with his native ability, lent him a crucial edge. In his boldness and unconventionality, John more resembled Michelangelo than he himself understood.

What would happen next would transform the young Sargent from an inspired prospective into a world-class contender. As soon as John’s ankle was better, the Sargents filled and fastened their steamer trunks. They said goodbye to their friends and boarded a train for Paris.

__________________________________

Excerpted from The Grand Affair: John Singer Sargent in His World by Paul Fisher. Copyright © 2022. Available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a division of Macmillan.

Paul Fisher
Paul Fisher
Paul Fisher is a professor of American studies at Wellesley College and the author of House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family and Artful Itineraries: European Art and American Careers in High Culture, 1865–1920. He helped organize the Gardner Museum’s pathbreaking 2020 exhibit Boston’s Apollo: Thomas McKeller and John Singer Sargent, and contributed to the exhibition catalog, which won the George Wittenborn Memorial Book Award for the best art history publication in 2020.





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