From Indifferent to Engaged: Confessions of a Museum Bench-Sitter

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Museum benches aren’t just for the weary. They’re for the bored and unreceptive, for the artistically indifferent and overwhelmed — for people like me.  All my life I visited museums, but I rarely saw anything. I never got into fine art, and it never got into me. Never, that is until a few weeks ago when I visited the John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Praise of Women exhibition at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York.

What forces converged that allowed me to have, at long last, what artist Stephanie Bernheim told me is “a visual experience?” She believes that “it’s the viewer’s responsibility to engage with the art,” but I had never lived up to my part of the bargain. What changed with this exhibition? Why did everything come together for me at the Fenimore?  After weeks of reflection and discussions with people in the art world, here’s what I discovered…

Most museums are intimidating. Sprawling behemoths like the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Louvre with so many world-famous paintings by world-famous artists are overwhelming; I give up before I even step inside. The Fenimore is different. It’s located in a town most famous for the Baseball Hall of Fame — nothing intimidating about that — in a gorgeous family home of Stephen Carlton Clark built in the 1930s on the shore of Otsego Lake, James Fenimore Cooper’s “Glimmerglass.” The museum is generous in size but probably smaller than some of today’s McMansions. And it feels like a home: just three floors, with one wide staircase going up to the top and one double staircase going down the lower level. The people who work at the Fenimore welcome you like a guest; they’re proud but not pretentious.

The Sargent exhibition itself is small, easy to digest. Just fifteen paintings housed in a cozy gallery. At 10 in the morning, right after the museum opened, there were just three of us plus a helpful docent who popped in and out, who smiled but didn’t hover. “This I can do; it’s just my size,” I thought when I first saw the gallery, and it was at this instant that I became “open to responding to the art”  —  a necessity for all art viewers, according to portrait artist Claudia Shuster.

The wall notes are unusually accessible as wall notes go. Written by the exhibition’s curator, Dr. Paul D’Ambrosio, they are lyrical and affectionate, a friendly invitation into each painting and the exhibition itself. “Sargent captured a new America — a country emerging from the ravages of civil war and eager to take its place on a global stage … [the portraits] reveal each woman’s allure, intelligence, and complex humanity. The height of Sargent’s career coincided with an historical era in which women claimed new personal freedoms.” Too often wall notes seem to be written by historians determined to impress their colleagues rather than enlighten the average viewer.

The subjects of the portraits are women I could relate to. Even though they were painted 125 years or so earlier, they are me with a tad more money and status. And they don’t just sit and stare out of their frames as do the subjects of so many portraits. These women have fully realized personalities in a time and place …

Which brings me to the most important reason why I had a personal art awakening:  the artist himself. Through the eyes and extraordinary technique of John Singer Sargent (American, 1856-1925), his women reached out and invited me into their world. They seemed to say — with all the gentility befitting upper class women of the late 19th and early 20th centuries — “Please, won’t you join me for tea today?” (Oh how I wish I could!)

The exhibition is the first to feature only Sargent’s portraits of post-Civil War women  —   wealthy women mostly, because others could not afford to commission their portraits. The fifteen portraits (two others were returned to their owners a few months after the exhibition opened) are divided into three sections: Women of Fashion, Women of Substance and Women of Mystery. While the latter group, mainly peasant women from Italy, are magnificent, it is the accomplished and fashionable women who so captured my imagination.

John Singer Sargent, Madame Paul Escudier, oil on canvas, 1882.
John Singer Sargent, Madame Paul Escudier, oil on canvas, 1882.

Woman of Fashion Madame Paul Escudier, Louise to her dear friends, was painted by Sargent in 1882. With curly, flaming red hair framing her mischievous eyes and wearing a jovial black hat topped with copious light pink ribbons, she clearly knows some gossip she can’t wait to tell me. Her black coat and diamond pin convey that she’s dressed for a festive occasion, perhaps one of the arts performances her husband patronized. Other than Madame Escudier’s face,  ribbons and pin, the painting is all shades of black. Her head, tilted slightly to her left, added to the intimacy I felt with her. But it was her warm eyes that invited me into her world and made me unafraid to reciprocate.

Mme, Paul Escudier, detail.
Mme, Paul Escudier, detail.

The Madame Escudier portrait is part of the permanent collection of the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. However, in the Fenimore exhibition, surrounded by her peers, her saucy personality becomes singular. No other woman in the exhibition appears as outgoing. I suspect she was very popular in her day.

John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Charles Hunter, 1902.
John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Charles Hunter, 1904.

Mrs. Charles Hunter, born Mary Smyth in 1857, was famous for her salons at her London home where she was surely the life of the party. Obviously a Woman of Fashion, her warmth, energy and joie de vivre projecting out from under an oversized, decorated hat made me feel that she had taken me under her wing. She became a good friend of Sargent’s. He captured her in a 1904 charcoal on paper drawing which he executed in his London studio. Most of his portraits were completed in London or on the continent; he spent most of his life in Europe and England. Wealthy American women usually traveled to him rather than the other way around, although he did make a few trips to his American home country.

John Singer Sargent, Mary Elizabeth Garrett
John Singer Sargent, Mary Elizabeth Garrett

According to the catalogue notes, Sargent said that when he was with Mary Elizabeth Garrett, a Woman of Substance, he felt “like a rabbit in the presence of a boa constrictor.” But she doesn’t look that fierce in her portrait. She has a round face, rosy cheeks and blond hair placed in a bun at the top of her head; she appears composed and relaxed. Wearing a white, ruffled shawl of chiffon-like material tied atop a black dress, Garrett looks confident and young in her wire-rim glasses. She could have been a doctor’s office manager or a kindly librarian – there are two leather-bound books on a table next to her – instead of a very wealthy woman. To me she appears strong but approachable. She was, in fact, a powerhouse, a woman who, along with three others, raised $500,000  for a new medical school at Johns Hopkins and only offered it, according to  D’Ambrosio, “with the stipulation that women should be admitted to the medical school on an equal basis with men.” The school opened in 1893 and was the first to offer medical degrees to women.

Sargent clearly adored women  —  as friends rather than lovers. (Scholars intimate that he was gay.) In capturing their essence, Sargent enables his viewers to make their acquaintance.  I must leave it to others to demonstrate the techniques he used to accomplish this. But he communicated to me, pulled me off the bench and turned me into an active observer. For that I am enlightened, grateful and eager to have my next “visual experience.”

The Sargent Exhibition is at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, NY until December 31, 2010.

Text © 2010, Nancy Salz.

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