Thursday, March 20, 2008

Sargent at Biltmore

It would be natural to assume that when John Singer Sargent painted a portrait, he had everything his way. After all, he was the most sought-after portrait artist in the world. You’d think he could set everything up exactly the way he wanted it.

But in fact he often had to overcome huge obstacles. His resourcefulness under trying conditions makes his accomplishments all the more admirable.

On Tuesday we visited the Biltmore estate in Asheville, North Carolina, the sumptuous mansion of American millionaire George Vanderbilt, above.

In 1895, at the height of his powers, Sargent came to Biltmore at the invitation of Mr. Vanderbilt to paint a full-length portrait of Biltmore’s landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

But Olmsted was not in good shape. He had been injured in a carriage accident in Central Park, and was beginning to suffer from dementia. His sons were running his business in New York. His wife was insistent that Sargent paint Olmsted to look healthier than he really appeared. She worried that if he looked weak, it would injure the business.

When Sargent arrived, the estate grounds were a muddy, barren construction site, not the verdant wilderness suggested in the painting. Sargent found some mountain laurel for a very unconventional portrait background, and he depended on one of Olmsted’s sons as a stand-in for the figure.

Sargent also painted Richard Morris Hunt, Biltmore’s architect. Hunt was also in very poor health, and could not stand for long periods. He died later in the same year.

Hunt’s wife also had demands. She insisted that Sargent paint him looking robust and young. It was hard to get Hunt's availability to pose. The trip from New York took a week by train.

The Biltmore itself was still under construction, most of the building covered with scaffolding, so Sargent had to imagine how it would look. Instead of showing the whole building, he used a corner of the structure as a backdrop, just enough to suggest the Gothic revival flavor.

Jeanette and I found the exact spot where Sargent posed Hunt. You can see exactly what Sargent was looking at. He pushed the architecture back a bit to introduce the ornate balustrade at the upper left and the second column at right.

The canvas is almost 8 x 5 feet. It was painted on location, far from the artist’s comfortable studio. Sargent had to travel with his entire setup, and had no photos to fall back on.

Because Hunt couldn’t hold the jaunty pose for long, a surrogate stood in for the body. The head had to be painted in a completely different location. The reason it looks pasted on is because the light on the face is coming from the left, whereas the rest of the picture is lit from the right, as it is in the photo. I don’t know why Sargent set up this contradictory lighting, because it compromises the painting, and keeps it from being as successful as the Olmsted portrait.

Nevertheless, despite the obstacles, Sargent scored two brilliant works, masterpieces of economy of handling and originality of design.

Tomorrow: Rain Work


Roca said...

Interesting backround info on those portraits! I've been to Biltmore a few times and never paid much attention to them. Will you be stopping anywhere in NC for book signing?

James Gurney said...

Meredith: I signed last night at Malaprops Books in Asheville, NC--sorry to miss you.

Roca said...

Oh well...I'm about 7 hours away in eastern NC anyway! Hope you enjoyed the mountains. Did you get to do any Plein Air landscapes?

Anonymous said...

great post!

sargent is one of myfavorite painters. not only for his incomparable skill but also because of stories like these. he overcame obstacle after obstacle and often suffered the whims and requests of subjects who tried his patience and often were looking to be represented as something other than what they really were. many of his portraits have an almost sarcastic feel to them because of it.

“A portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth.”

Anonymous said...

or, "“Every time I paint a portrait I lose a friend.”"


Unknown said...

Amazing insights into these works. I'll never look at them the same. Wonderful quotes Scott!

Shane White said...

Interesting how Olmsted being a landscape architect is surrounded by concrete and no greenscaping.

I remember reading about Frederick Law Olmsted in the book by Erik Larson, Devil in the White City. The man was famous for his NYC work and was hired for the Chicago Worlds Fair around the turn of the 20th century. The stress of that experience aged quite a bit and purportedly added to his declining health as well.

Nice breakdown of that Sargent piece though.


Anonymous said...

Those paintings are one of the reasons I've always loved the Biltmore - it's cool you're in NC! Gonna stop by Charlotte by any chance for a signing?

Sarah Stevenson said...

I've always really enjoyed Sargent's portraits. Thanks for these tidbits--I don't know either of these portraits well.

Tom Scholes said...

Very interesting, thanks!

Gwen Buchanan said...

this was great.. I learned so much Thank you.

emilebklein said...

Thanks for this James, your work is great and it's a real pleasure to be able to receive such a wealth of information, in such a positive manner!