Anders Zorn. Part 3

Anders Zorn

Some biographers have maintained that Zorn’s personality was somewhat loud and garish and it is that personal trait which can often be seen in the animated, broad sweeping distinctive brushstrokes of his works. By the beginning of the 1880s Zorn had acquired a self-assured style, and with his popular artwork, he was on an artistic journey. As in so many instances in the early life of aspiring artists, who were being academically trained, Zorn’s view on how art should be taught ended with him having disagreements with the director of the Royal Academy of Fine Art regarding the strict curriculum and in January 1881, after a final divergence of opinion with the Academy’s director regarding the school’s authoritarian and inflexible curriculum, Zorn decided to resign. Zorn, by this time, had built up a strong set of student followers and many followed his lead and also left the Academy.

Une Première (The First Time) by Anders Zorn (1888)

Having had great success with his painting such as his gouache painting, Une Première, which won him a Gold Medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889, his standing as a plein air artist soared. There was nothing new about an artist depicting a nude with a backdrop of nature but Zorn’s depictions were quite different to those academic artists who liked to have a mythological theme in their works, full of nymphs prancing through forests and fields!

The Hinds by Anders Zorn (1908)

The nudes in Zorn’s paintings were depicted differently. There was a realism about his subjects. The naked women were simply depicted as healthy, ordinary Nordic women who were merely part of nature. A good example of this is his 1908 painting entitled The Hinds.

In Wikstrom’s Studio by Anders Zorn (1889)

One of his most beautiful works featuring a female nude is his 1889 painting entitled In Wikströms Studio. At this time Zorn and his wife Emma were living in Montmartre where he had his studio. He and his wife often entertained intellectuals and artists, especially artists from Scandinavia, who,  like him, had decided to ply their trade in the French capital.   One such artist was the Finnish sculptor, Emil Wikström, and he and Zorn became close friends. The two men shared a fascination for the female nude and the search for the perfect body to paint or sculpt and the two men would often use the same models for their work. The painting, as the title suggests, was painted by Zorn at Wikström studio. The young woman, a veritable beauty with luxuriant red hair and an almost golden skin tone, is seen standing next to a yet-to-be-completed image and is in the process of undressing prior to posing for the artist. There is a sense of unhappiness about the scene as if we believe the young woman has been forced into taking her clothes off. There is also a feeling that we are simply voyeurs and in a way, we are simply spying on the woman unbeknown to her, which adds a touch of both censure and hint of eroticism to the work.   Despite her seemingly unaware that she is being watched, we feel that we are standing before the work unable to move, gazing at the woman in total silence in case she detects us.

Zorn was contented with his standard of work and a quote published in Société des Peintres-Graveurs: printmaking, 1889–1897 quoted Zorn:

“…I never spent much time thinking about others’ art. I felt that if I wanted to become something, then I had to go after nature with all my interest and energy, seek what I loved about it, and desire to steal its secret and beauty. I was entitled to become as great as anyone else, and in that branch of art so commanded by me, watercolour painting, I considered myself to have already surpassed all predecessors and contemporaries…”

Self portrait with Model by Anders Zorn (1896)

Anders Zorn in the latter years of the nineteenth century continued with his favoured motifs, portraits including his own self-portraits and nude paintings of women. One such work, entitled Self-portrait with Model, which he completed in 1896, is a juxtaposition of his two favoured motifs. In the work, we see Zorn resting in front of his easel, smoking a cigarette as he takes a short break from his work. His partly dressed model is seen lying slumped in the background. Her eyes are fixed upon him and it is this gaze, which gives us a slight feeling of tension between artist and sitter.   An etching derived from this painting was completed by Zorn in 1899 and can be seen at the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston.

Self-portrait in a wolfskin by Anders Zorn (1915)

In the early 1900s, Anders Zorn continued with his portraiture and one exceptional example was his Self-portrait in Wolfskin in oils, which he completed in 1915.

A Toast in the Idun Society by Anders Zorn (1892)

Another work of portraiture that is worth a mention is Zorn’s meticulous work entitled A Toast in the Idun Society, which is housed in the National Museum of Stockholm. In this work, we see Harald Wieselgren, an influential intellectual, portrayed as the animated and scholarly speaker. In 1862, Wieselgren was the founder of the Idun Society and throughout his life, he was a leading figure in the Society. The male Idun Society was known for its closed bourgeois atmosphere. Wieselgren was a writer, a librarian at the Royal Library, and for several decades a driving force of the Idun society. This cultural association for men still survives today and since 1885 there has been a female equivalent Society known as Nya Idun.

Skerikulla (Skeri Girl) by Anders Zorn (1912)

Undoubtedly, Zorn was best known for his paintings but his etchings were extremely popular in their own right. It is said that his etchings realised higher prices than Rembrandts during his lifetime. In total, he completed almost 300 etchings, many of which were associated with his oil and watercolour works. One such is his 1912 etching entitled Skerikulla. The word Skerikulla means “Skeri girl” in the local Mora dialect, which was spoken by Zorn.  Zorn’s model for this work was a local girl, Emma Andersson, and Zorn has portrayed her as a happy young woman with a beaming smile. There is a feeling of energy about her demeanour, which we see in the middle of a laugh. It is a tender depiction. Later that year, Zorn also completed an oil painting of Emma.

Girl with a Cigarette II by Anders Zorn (1891)

Another exquisite etching is his 1891 one entitled Girl with a Cigarette II. Such simplicity, such perfection.   There are a number of versions of this etching. One can be found at the Met in New York while another is housed in the Art Institute of Chicago.

We often compare portraiture when we consider the talent of various portrait artists. I wonder if portrait artists ever compare their talent against that of fellow portraitists. I consider this possibility having just read an anecdote on The ARTery website with regards the portraiture of Zorn and that of his contemporary John Singer Sargent.

Mrs Walter Bacon (Virginia Purdy Barker) by John Singer Sargent (1896)

The story goes that in 1897, Edward Rathbone Bacon, a powerful American railway magnate, challenged Anders Zorn to come up with a superior portrait of his sister-in-law, Virginia Purdy, that John Singer Sargent had painted in 1896. The Sargent portrait had Mrs. Walter Rathbone Bacon standing, in a Spanish gown, leaning against a wall.   Sargent’s painting is housed at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina.

Mrs. Walter Rathbone Bacon (Virginia Purdy Barker) by Anders Zorn (1897)

Zorn took up the challenge but chose a more intimate slant. Virginia sat for Zorn in 1897, during one of his visits to America. We see the lady seated indoors wearing a satin gown. It is a masterpiece of fluid brushwork and soft colour harmonies. He depicted his sitter in a moment of unpretentious elegance, as she hugs her collie dog.

So which was the better?   Who won the wager? Well, according to Zorn’s memoirs (!) Sargent, on seeing Zorn’s painting at the Paris Salon in 1897, conceded that Zorn’s work was the winner.   However what should be taken from this story is the glimpse into the competitive rivalry between two of the great portraitists of their time as they both strived for portrait commissions from the same slice of American Gilded Age high society in the 1880s with its lavishness and high spending elites.

Night Effect by Anders Zorn (1895)

A woman features in another work by Zorn. It is his Night Effect work, which he painted in 1895 and depicts a night time scene featuring a life-sized portrait of a young woman. She is wearing a red dress, (which one believes implies she is engaged in prostitution) and can be seen leaning against a tree, possibly suffering from an excess of alcohol. It is a life-sized depiction measuring 160 x 106cms (63 x 42ins).

Statue of Gustav Vasa by Anders Zorn atop a hill in the town of Mora

When Zorn grew up, his interest in art was more to do with his love of sculpture before he concentrated on his painting. Maybe the combination of his love of sculpture and his love for his country resulted in one of his most famous creations, the statue of King Gustav Vasa, which Zorn created and was unveiled in 1903 in Zorn’s birthplace and home in the central Swedish county of Dalarna and the town of Mora. Gustav Eriksson of the Vasa noble family was later known as Gustav Vasa. He travelled to the province of Dalarna to rally the peasantry to fight against King Christian II of Denmark, the ruler of the Kalmar Union, a confederation of three countries, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. In 1523, Gustav Vasa made an impassioned speech to the men of Mora urging them to stand with him against the forces of the Kalmar Union. Gustav lead the rebel movement and his triumphant entry into Stockholm in June 1523 was followed by Sweden’s final secession from the Kalmar Union which was dissolved on June 6th, 1523 and Gustav became King Gustav I of Sweden.

House, garden and fountain – the sculpture “Morgonbad” (Morning bath) – of the Swedish artist Anders Zorn. Mora, Sweden.

Zorn also sculpted a number of portraits and smaller statues, among them is one known as Morning Bath which he completed in 1909.  It is a figure of a girl who holds a sponge in her hands from which a fountain spouts and is situated in front of the home where Zorn used to live.

The King of Sweden, King Oscar II by Anders Zorn (1898)

Anders Zorn used the popularity of his art to fund many charities. One example of this was the holding of a small exhibition featuring thirty-five of his works at the Artists Association in Stockholm in the Spring of 1918. The sale of his works at the end of the exhibition raised 12,642 Swedish Krona, which he donated to the Swedish Red Cross. In May that year, he donated twenty thousand Swedish krona to Västmanlands Dalanation.   Västmanlands-Dala nation, usually referred to simply as V-Dala, is one of the 13 “Student Nations” at Uppsala University, in Sweden. The “nation”, was intended for students from the provinces of Dalarna and Vastmanland, the former being the area of Zorn’s homeland. On June 6th, 1918, Zorn became Knight Commander of the Northern Pole Star order, first class.   The Order of the Polar Star is a Swedish order of chivalry which was created by King Frederick in 1748 and was a reward for Swedish and foreign “civic merits, for devotion to duty, for science, literary, learned and useful works and for new and beneficial institutions”.

Sommarnöje, by Anders Zorn (1886).

Sweden’s most expensive painting ever; sold at 26 million sek on June 3rd, 2010.

During the summer of 1920, Zorn spent much time sailing around the Stockholm archipelago and spending many nights celebrating on the island of Sandheim. However, Zorn was not well and was in constant pain and could not paint during that summer. After the summer sailing was over he returned to Mora, a tired and ailing man.
 Zorn was rushed to hospital in August 1920 for emergency abdominal treatment and was operated on at Mora hospital. Sadly Zorn had contracted blood poisoning in the lower abdomen and died on August 22nd, 1920, aged 60.

The Zorn Collections, or Zornsamlingarna, is a Swedish state museum, located in Mora,

Zorn’s wife Emma lived another twenty-two years, dying on January 4th, 1942. To honour the memory of her husband, she had worked to create a museum, which opened in 1939. She completed the existing collection by re-purchasing a number of paintings that he had sold and at the same time, she continued the philanthropic work that she and her husband had initiated.

Anders Zorn’s atelier at his house, Zorngården in Mora

The popularity of Anders Zorn’s art during his lifetime made him very wealthy and, over a number of years, he bought the art of his contemporaries and amassed a considerable collection. In their joint will, Anders and Emma Zorn donated their entire holdings to the Swedish State, including their home, Zorngården, which still remains today much as it was at the time of Emma Zorn’s death in 1942.

As usual much of the information I gleaned for the three blogs on Anders Zorn came from many internet websites but one of which is well worth looking at if you want a full and concise biography of this great Swedish artist.  The website is:



John Singer Sargent and Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau

In my last blog I featured a painting by Theodore Roussel entitled The Reading Girl which was at the time both controversial and newsworthy, only going to prove the old adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity.  My blog today follows a similar theme, a controversial painting which had major repercussions on the artist and his career.

Self portrait by John Singer Sargent (1907)
Self portrait by John Singer Sargent (1907)

My featured artist is John Singer Sargent.   He came from a very wealthy family.   His grandfather was Winthrop Sargent IV, who had descended from one of the oldest colonial families.  Due to a failed merchant-shipping business in Gloucester, Massachusetts, he moved his family to Philadelphia.  It was in that city that John Singer Sargent’s father, Fitzwilliam Sargent became an eye surgeon.  In 1850, Fitzwilliam Sargent married Mary Newbold Singer who was the daughter of a successful local merchant. In 1853 Mary gave birth to their first child, a daughter, who sadly died a year later.   Sargent’s mother suffered a nervous breakdown after the death of her daughter and her husband decided that it would be better for his wife’s health to move away from Philadelphia and the sad memories and take up residency in Europe.  Initially Sargent’s father’s idea was for he and his wife to stay in Europe just a short time until she was better but their life away from America extended and soon they became expatriates.  He and his wife based themselves in Paris but they would often travel and stay in Florence, Rome, or Nice in the winters and in the summers they would journey to the Alps were the climate was much cooler and more pleasant.   Their son John was born in January 1856 whilst they were in Florence.

Because of the nomadic lifestyle of the family and because of his determination not to stay in school, John Singer Sargent did not receive formal schooling and was taught at home by his father and mother.  He proved to be an excellent pupil excelling in languages and the arts.  Art played a great part in his early life as his mother was a talented amateur artist and his father was a talented medical illustrator.  Following more additions to the family and because his wife wanted to remain in Europe, John Singer Sargent’s father eventually resigned his post at the Willis Eye Hospital in Philadelphia and acquiesced to his wife’s wishes for the family to remain in Europe.

John Singer Sargent soon developed a love of art and his father had him enrol at the Accademia di Bella Arti in Florence during the winter of 1873/4.  In 1876, at the age of eighteen, Sargent passed the entrance exam to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  Here he studied anatomy and perspective and spent time in the Paris museums copying the works of art of the masters. In those early days at the art academy Sargent was schooled as a French artist.  It was the era of French Impressionism and he was greatly influenced by the work of the Impressionist movement.  He was also a lover of the works of art by the Spanish painter, Velazquez and the Dutch master Frans Hals.

Portrait of Carolus-Duran by John Singer Sargent (1879)
Portrait of Carolus-Duran by John Singer Sargent (1879)

However nearer to home he was inspired by his art tutor, the French painter, Carolus-Duran, a portrait of whom he completed in 1879.     John Singer Sargent’s reputation as a great artist and portraitist grew rapidly and in Paris he was the toast of artistic circles.  Everything he did was loved by the critics and the public.  The Parisians loved him.  He could do no wrong.  Well actually he could and did and through one painting, a portrait of a lady, his fall from grace was rapid and final and caused him to exile himself from Paris and France and take refuge in England.  So what happened?  The answer to this question is examined in this very blog.

The lady whose portrait caused such a stir was Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau.  Virginie Amélie Avegno was born in New Orleans in January 1859.  She was the daughter of a white Creole family.  Her father was Major Anatole Placide Avengo, a Confederate army soldier and her mother was Marie Virginie de Ternant who came from a wealthy Louisiana plantation owning family.  Her father was killed during the American Civil War at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862.  Five years later in 1867 her widowed mother took her eight year old daughter to live and be educated in Paris and as a teenager was introduced into high French society.

Virginie Amélie Avegno blossomed into a beautiful woman.  She was a pale-skinned brunette.  She was renowned for her great beauty and was accepted into Parisian society circles.  She dazzled all who met her with her exquisite clothing and undeniable beauty.  She mastered the art of make-up to enhance her looks and was known for her heavy use of chalky lavender powder which was dusted on her face and body affording her a very distinctive pallor.  Her beauty was unique.  She had a long nose which was somewhat longer than the accepted norm, her forehead was also too high and yet these physical characteristics never detracted from her hourglass figure and the seductive way she would walk when entering a room of people.

In his 2011 book The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, David McCullough quotes an American art student named Edward Simmons who wrote about seeing Virginie and how the sight of her was unforgettable:

“…She walked as Virgil speaks of a goddess—sliding—and seemed to take no steps. Her head and neck undulated like that of a young doe, and something about her gave you the impression of infinite proportion, infinite grace, and infinite balance. Every artist wanted to make her in marble or paint…”

As always beauty as well as bringing out admirers, brings about jealousy and many of her detractors labelled her an arriviste, one who has attained a high position but has not attained general acceptance or respect.  I suppose we would liken her to one of the nouveau-riche looked down on by the “old establishment rich”

A mother’s most fervent wish is to see her daughters marry successfully which often translates into having their daughters marry a wealthy man.  Virginie’s mother must have been well pleased when her daughter married a wealthy French banker, Pierre Gautreau, and her daughter now had two of the greatest assets of life, beauty and a wealthy husband who held a great status in Parisian society.

John Singer Sargent met Virginie Gautreau at a social gathering around 1881.  He was smitten by her beauty and elegance; some say he soon became obsessed with her.  Having met her he wanted just one thing from life – to paint her portrait and have it exhibited at the Paris Salon so all could admire “his lady”.  Sargent had been inundated with portraiture commissions but on this occasion it was he who approached his desired sitter to ask if she would acquiesce to become the subject of his portrait.  Sargent realised that Gautreau was both part of high class Paris society and a renowned beauty and thus a portrait of her by him at the Salon would bring great kudos and he probably realised that if he portrayed her seductively it would cause a sensation similar to Manet’s Olympia at the 1865 Salon.  Sargent had unfortunately not realised how sensational it would turn out.

Watercolour figure study of Madame Gautreau  by John Singer Sargent (c.1883) Harvard Art Museum
Watercolour figure study of Madame Gautreau
by John Singer Sargent (c.1883)
Harvard Art Museum

After some help from colleagues Sargent persuaded Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau to sit for him.  For months on end he would complete many line drawings of her head in profile.  He would complete studies of her in pencil and watercolour, sometimes simply relaxing on a chaise-longue in a low-cut evening dress or depicted her in oil painting sketches drinking a champagne toast. In the summer of 1883, he stayed at the Gautreaus’ country estate in Brittany but admitted to his friend the writer, Vernon Lee, that he was still struggling to do justice to this un-paintable beauty.  He was also now having doubts as to whether it would be accepted into the 1884 Salon by the Salon jury.

In the winter of 1883, Sargent moved his Paris residence which had been on the Left Bank to a new studio across the Seine in the fashionable Parc Monceau neighbourhood and it was here that he completed his full-length portrait of Gautreau.  It was a nerve-wracking time for Sargent as he had suffered a loss of self-confidence in his artistic ability in respect to the depiction of his beloved beauty.  Despite his worries, the painting was finally completed in 1884 and the Salon jury accepted it into the 1884 Salon. This was the sixth year in a row that the Salon had accepted works by Sargent. Before the Salon opened there was already a frenzied excitement about the portrait.  Gautreau had talked wildly and incessantly to her friends and acquaintances about the painting, even though she had never seen the finished work.

Madam *** by John Singer Sargent as exhibited at 1884 Salon
Madam *** by John Singer Sargent
as exhibited at 1884 Salon

In the painting, Gautreau is seen dressed in a long black satin skirt with its sultry low-cut black velvet bodice.  Against the deep black of the dress and the plain dark background, the deathly blue-white of her powdered skin was even more eccentric and noticeable.   Her shoulders are bare with the exception of two narrow jewelled straps. Gautreau posture is one in which both her shoulders are held back, her body faces us and yet her head is angled to the left, which fully highlights her stunning profile.   Her left arm rests on her hip with her hand gripping the material of her dress.   Her right hangs down in a twisted manner s her fingers grasp the top of the table.  The result of this distorted pose was to create tension in the neck and arm but it also highlighted the subject’s graceful curves.   Her hair is pinned up high on her head atop of which is a tiara.  Sargent must have “designed” this un-natural pose presumably because he believed it brought a haughty sensuality to his sitter, for remember, besides wanting to do justice to his sitter’s beauty he also wanted this work to have a sensational affect when it was exhibited.  It was probably this thought of sensationalism that made him make the cardinal error which was to damn him.   During one of Gautreau’s sittings the thin strap of her dress had slipped from her right shoulder and as she was about to re-adjust it when Sargent told her to leave it down it was and he decided to make the portrait even more sultry by portraying Gautreau’s right shoulder bare.  The die was cast and the painting with the strapless shoulder went on exhibition under the title Portrait of Madame *** although most Parisians were aware that it was the portrait of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau.

Even though the Salon had just opened the picture was condemned for what was termed the sitters’ “flagrant insufficiency” of clothing.  Little was said about the other aspects of the work, it was all about the seductive pose and dress (or undress) of the sitter.  The Paris public could not stop talking about Sargent’s portrait of Gautreau.  It was fast becoming a scandal of epic proportions.  The painting received many critical reviews.  Some objected to the portrait on the grounds that they disliked Madame Gautreau’s décolletage, others criticised what they termed the repulsive colour of her skin.  Few however were less harsh and stated that they liked the modern approach to the portrait and congratulated Sargent on is courageous approach.  It is difficult to understand the furore over the suggestiveness of the black dress when paintings of nudes littered the walls of the Salon but of course they would normally have biblical or mythological connotations to them which made blatant nudity acceptable.  Maybe it was the haughty pose of the arriviste with her heavily powdered features which was too much for the critics and public alike. Gautreau herself was humiliated by the whole affair and her mother, Madame Avegno, who was also horrified with publicity surrounding the portrait, demanded Sargent remove it from the Salon. He defended the portrait, telling the irate mother that it was a truthful likeness of the pose of her daughter and the clothes she wore.

John Singer Sargent in his studio with with his painting Madame X
John Singer Sargent in his studio with with his painting Madame X

Sargent had scandalised Paris society and he was widely criticised in Paris art circles for being improper.  For Sargent the criticism of the work and of him as an artist was almost impossible to bear.  He had been living and working in Paris for ten years and during that period he had received nothing but praise for his work and the commissions had poured in on the back of such praise.  The criticism of the portrait went beyond a simple poor review.  He was being mocked by the Paris public for what he later stated was the best painting he had ever completed.  For him the work was a true masterpiece but it would take a long time before the world acknowledged that fact.  Sargent hung the work first in his Paris studio and later in his studio in London and from 1905 onwards he allowed it to be seen at various international exhibitions.

Madame X by John Singer Sargent (c.1884) with the position of the strap of dress altered
Madame X by John Singer Sargent (c.1884)
with the position of the strap of dress altered

Sargent repainted the fallen strap on Guitreau’s right shoulder, re-titled it Madame X and eventually sold the work to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1916 where it is housed today.  An unfinished second version of the same pose is in the Tate Gallery London.

Sargent found the criticism unjustified and shortly after the 1884 Salon, in the May, at the age of 28, he left Paris disillusioned by the incident and disappointed by the fall off of sales of his paintings and moved to London where he remained for the rest of his life England.  Although his long-term career as a portraitist in France was over, he once again thrived artistically in the English capital and some say that it was here that he reached the pinnacle of his fame.  In those days to have you portrait done by Sargent was looked upon as having it painted by the best portraitist of the time.

John Singer Sargent      (1856 - 1925)
John Singer Sargent
(1856 – 1925)

He died in London in 1925, aged 69.

Gassed by John Singer Sargent

Gassed by John Singer Sargent (1918)

My Daily Art Display painting for today follows the theme of yesterday’s offering.  Once again I am featuring a painting which highlights the savagery of war.  This is another realistic depiction of the horrors of war which are often badly received by people who prefer to just see depictions of glorious victories, heroic acts and the happy return of our fighting men.  Sadly these kinds of pictures give one a false impression of the reality of war and it is sad to think that some of us want to close our eyes to what a war really is about and the terrifying effect it has on those who have to fight for somebody’s cause.   My painting today is entitled Gassed and is by the American artist John Singer Sargent which depicts the horrors of the trench fighting in the First World War.  It is a massive painting measuring 231cms high and 611 cms wide (91 inches x 240 inches) and can be seen in the Imperial War Museum in London.

John Singer Sargent was an American painter.  His parents were Americans but he was actually born in Florence where the family had moved to as an aid to his mother’s health.   The family travelled extensively throughout Europe.   Sargent loved his country yet he spent most of his life in Europe.   He became one of the most celebrated portraitists of his time but at the very height of his fame as a portrait painter he decided to devote full time to landscape painting, water colours and public art.

In the early days he was schooled as a French artist, and was greatly influenced by the Impressionist movement, the Spanish master Velazquez, the Dutch master Frans Hals, and his art tutor, the French painter, Carolus-Duran.   He was the toast of Paris until the scandal of his Madame X painting at the 1884 Salon.    Sargent painted the portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau, entitled Madame X, wearing a very risqué off the shoulder gown. It was also shockingly low-cut. Her mother asked him to withdraw the painting but he refused. Although, now it is acclaimed as his best work of art, it scandalised Paris society and he was widely criticised in Paris art circles for being improper. Sargent found the criticism unjustified and at the age of 28 he left Paris disillusioned by the incident and the fall off of sales of his paintings and moved to London where he remained for the rest of his life.  It was here that he reached the pinnacle of his fame.  It was thought that to have one’s portrait painted by Sargent was to have it painted by the best portraitist of the time.

In some ways it is disappointing to realise that as an artist he has sometimes been dismissed as he was never looked upon as being radical or a trend setter.  He was an artist who worked within known and accepted styles. He was a prolific painter, painting over 2000 watercolours. He was a very successful portraitist but labelled portraiture as “a pimp’s profession” and in 1907 he announced that he would paint “no more mugs” and with a few exceptions kept to his word. His new love was to paint landscape watercolours.

So today’s featured painting was very different to his normal works.  It is a scene Sargent witnessed in August 1918 at Le Bac du Sud on the road between the French towns of Arras and Doullens in the Somme area of Northern France.  We see a line of nine soldiers, blinded by mustard gas, being helped along a boarded path by two orderlies towards a medical station.  The medical post is out of sight to the right of the scene but we can make out the guy ropes which support the tent-like structure.   The line of men who struggle to make their way towards the tent are silhouetted against the golden sunset sky.  In the left background we can just make out some bivouacs and to the right we see another line of wounded men being led towards the medical facility.  The foreground of the painting is littered with the wounded lying at rest, many with their heads bandaged.

The setting of the painting reminds me of the war poem dealing with the horrors of mustard gas in the World War 1 trenches.  It was entitled Dulce et Decorum Est and was composed by the Great War poet Wilfred Owen:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in.
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Dulce et Decorum est, the title of the poem, are the first words of a Latin saying taken from an ode by Horace:

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit inbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidove tergo.

“How sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country:
Death pursues the man who flees,
spares not the hamstrings or cowardly backs
Of battle-shy youths.”

 The full saying ends the poem:

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori

(It is sweet and right to die for your country).

In other words, it is a wonderful and great honour to fight and die for your country.    Sadly as the young men sang joyfully as they marched towards the trenches in Northern France, little did they know of their impending fate.  Ironically, for many people of the time who supported Britain and France’s war against the Germans the words had specific relevance.  The first line of Owen’s poem is inscribed on the wall of the chapel of the Royal Military Academy of Sandhurst.

Paul Helleu Sketching with his Wife by John Singer Sargent

Paul Helleu Sketching with his Wife by John Singer Sargent (1894)

My Daily Art Display today is a tale of two artists who were very close friends.  One is the great American Impressionist John Singer Sargent, the other is the French painter Paul César Helleu.  Today’s work of art is a picture by the American artist Sargent of the French painter Paul César Helleu and his wife Alice Guérin.

John Singer Sargent was to become a leading portrait painter of his era.  His family were extremely wealthy, his father, Fitz William, being an eye surgeon in Philadelphia.  Sadly Sargent’s mother, Mary (née Singer) suffered a nervous breakdown after the death of her daughter and to aid her recovery her husband decided that his wife and their family should go to Europe to allow Mary to convalesce. 

Whilst in Europe, they travelled extensively.  John Singer Sargent was born in 1856 whilst his parents lived in Florence and his sister Mary was born there a year later.  After much discussion and to please his wife John’s father reluctantly relinquished his post at the Philadelphia hospital and remained in Italy were they led an unassuming lifestyle relying on a small inheritance and what savings they had managed to accrue. 

John Singer Sargent proved to be a rebellious child who would not take to formal schooling and so was taught by his parents.  His mother was a good amateur artist and she soon got John interested in that subject.  His parents must have provided him with a good education as by his late teens he was fluent in French, Italian and German and accomplished in art, music and literature.  No doubt the extensive travelling of European countries by the family improved his education.

In 1876, at the age of eighteen, Sargent passed the entrance exam to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  Here he studied anatomy and perspective and spent time in the Paris museums copying the works of art of the masters.  It was whilst studying at the Art Academy that he met and became close friends with a young French artist, four years his junior, Paul César Helleu.  Whereas Sargent was having success with the sale of his paintings and was having no trouble in securing commissions, Helleu was becoming very despondent and disheartened, finding sales of his works difficult to come by and he was struggling to make needs meet.  Sargent, on hearing that Helleu was at the point of giving up his career as an artist, visited his friend on the pretext of looking at the young Frenchman’s work.  He congratulated his friend on the standard of his work and asked to buy one.  Helleu was delighted but told Sargent he must have the painting of his choice as a gift as it was not right to charge his friend.  Sargent replied to this offer saying:

 “I shall gladly accept, Helleu, but not as a gift. I sell my own pictures, and I know what they cost me by the time they are out of my hand. I should never enjoy this pastel if I hadn’t paid you a fair and honest price for it.”

He gave his friend a thousand-franc note for the painting.  Can you imagine how Helleu felt on receiving such a large sum of money for one of his paintings ?

In 1884 Sargent painted the portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau, entitled Madame X, wearing a very risqué off the shoulder gown.  It was also shockingly low-cut.  Her mother asked him to withdraw the painting but he refused.  Although, now it is acclaimed as his best work of art, it scandalised Paris society and he was widely criticised in Paris art circles for being improper.  Sargent found the criticism unjustified and at the age of 28 he left Paris disillusioned by the incident and the fall off of sales of his paintings and moved to London where he remained for the rest of his life England.  He died there in 1925, aged 71.

My Daily Art Display painting today is entitled Paul Helleu Sketching with his Wife which he completed in 1889 and is in the Brooklyn Museum, New York.  It is difficult to put a name on Sargent’s genre of painting.   He was a prolific painter, painting over 2000 watercolours.  He was a very successful portraitist but labelled portraiture as “a pimp’s profession” and in 1907 he announced that he would paint “no more mugs” and with a few exceptions kept to his word.   He loved to paint landscape watercolours.  Today’s painting of his is very much in the characteristic style of Impressionism.