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"Sargent's Women" at Adelson Galleries

ART TIMES Jan/Feb, 2004
(Photos Courtesy Adelson Galleries, Inc.)

"Rosina" 1878 (Oil on Panel)

THOUGH I AM writing this well after the fact, this was one of those exhibits that hang in the mind long after the gallery walls have been cleared to make way for a new show. I had heard about "Sargent’s Women"* by word of mouth, and only after it was in its final week – thus, I got to see it on the day before it came down and can only apologize for not bringing it to the attention of my readers in a timely fashion. And though writing about an art exhibit can never take the place of viewing it, I yet feel obliged to share some of my impressions. John Singer Sargent hardly needs my words as introduction. He has long been acknowledged as an American master by those discerning enough to see past what has (in some circles) become to be known dismissively as "mere society portraiture," to the supreme draftsmanship and brushwork of a man who knew more than anything else the quirky qualities of his mediums – whether pencil, pen, wash, watercolor, pastel, or oil. Though ostensibly about his flair for painting women – the exhibit features some fifty or so watercolors, oil sketches, pencil and pen drawings and washes that served as studies for some of his better-known masterworks (e.g. "Fumée d'ambre gris," "The Spanish Dance," "Street in Venice," and "Madame X," among others) as well as for several of his lesser-known paintings – "Sargent’s Women" was really about an inside look into the meticulous preparations of a professional. In this sense, the exhibit was less about subject – although how anyone might not be captivated by his "Rosina" (1878, Oil on Panel, 13 7/8 x 6 3/4 inches) would be beyond my comprehension – than it was an in-depth series of insights into Sargent’s uncanny abilities to capture the essence of a pose in the sparest uses of line and/or color. Though less "finished" than, say, his "Rosina" or "Fumée d’ambre gris, Study," or "Mrs. Wilton Phipps," his pencil sketches of "Madame X" (there are several of these) or his painting, "A Gust of Wind," reveal his spontaneity – one might say his absolute aplomb – in putting down in line or broad stroke the essential quality of what "grace," or "elegance," or "femininity" meant to a man who knew how to use his eyes and to allow his sensibilities to guide his hand. And let there be no doubt about the fact that John Singer Sargent knew his subjects as quintessential women – knew them in all their subtlety, their mystery, their coyness, their ultimately inexpressible (at least in words) sexual and physical attraction. So good was he, in fact, in capturing the eternal female that it has led to that cavalier (and sadly mistaken) dismissal of him by many moderns as "merely" a painter of portraits and it is only when the viewer turns from his dazzling women to his treatment of landscape that one can begin to assess and appreciate him as a painter. We got a hint of this in the exhibit when another of my favorites in the show, "Dans les Oliviers, à Capri" (1878, Oil on Canvas), was carefully studied.

"Dans les Oliviers, Capri" 1878 (Oil on Canvas)

Here we again find Rosina (Rosina Ferrara, a favorite model of Sargent’s who figured in several of his major works) leaning against the gnarled trunk of an olive tree, standing in an overgrown field of high grass and wild thistle with a stone wall and tree-hedge as back-drop. Few modern-day landscape painters could equal his deft handling of sky, foliage, stone or plant – and it is only the graceful form of Rosina that takes our eyes away from his expert handling of nature. So captivating is that graceful form, that we might overlook the exquisitely insouciant brushwork and tonal coloration that he so casually tosses off in painting her setting. Again, I apologize to my readers for bringing your attention to this marvelous show too late. Unfortunately, it was a once-in-a-lifetime exhibit, brought together from a variety of public and private collections for this single showing. Alas, it shall not travel and its collective (and informative) showing no longer available for public viewing. More the pity! Belated kudos, at any rate, to Warren Adelson, president of Adelson Galleries, for mounting this very special exhibition and for producing the catalogue which accompanies the show – the only consolation, perhaps, for those who had not the opportunity of seeing the actual work since the book is still available at the gallery.

*"Sargent’s Women" (Nov 12 – Dec 13): Adelson Galleries, Inc., The Mark Hotel, 25 East 77th St., 3rd Floor, NYC (212) 439-6800. A fully-illustrated catalogue of the same name published by Adelson Galleries, Inc. with essays by Warren Adelson, Deborah Davis, Elaine Kilmurray and Richard Ormond is available: 152 pp.; 9 5/8 x 11; 57 Color Illus.; List of Plates; Index. $38.00 Softcover.

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