Friday, November 19, 2010

Male or female?

Jacques Barenton from

I have traveled across the country today and am so tired I can hardly function. But I will manage a short post. There has been some ongoing discussion about this head I posted recently. It is evidently a young boy. In the 19th century young boys were sometime dressed in skirts and costumed similarly to their sisters. Evidently until puberty they weren't thought of as particularly male. I poked around the net and found many references to this painting as Jacques. So, it must be that this little dandy is a boy. I'll bet he got pushed around a lot at the skate board park.

On the other hand, this is Violet Paget, or Vernon Lee, her pen name.

Violet or Vernon is rather ambiguous about her gender too. There is something androgynous about this head . She was a friend of Sargent and also Henry James. A writer and aesthetic theoretician, Violet-Vernon was a lesbian and often dressed as a man. I love this head, it is one of my favorites of Sargent's less formal studies.

There has always been question about Sargent's sexuality. He painted the erotic male nude above, and the fetching Egyptian girl below with equal attention if not lascivious interest. He was linked to at least one woman and it is suggested that he perhaps had male lovers as well. The truth is either concealed or unknown. Perhaps he himself was open to morphological variation. I have no idea where the truth may lie, but it is certain that he never married and was at best ambiguous about his preferences. There was a fashion in those days for men to suppress their sexuality with the intent of funneling that energy into their art. He may only have been intensely private about his affairs.

I don't feel I need to know, in order to enjoy his art, but there does seem to be a pattern of androgynous sitters and male nudes that border on the homoerotic.


Philip Koch said...

You lord Stape, you keep posting one amazing Sargent after another. It's starting to make me feel inadequate.

On another note, if yesterdays post on cat fur was your all time most read piece, perhaps you should shift your focus to writing only about cute little furry animals. Or perhaps a history of the various pets owned by artists from the past (actually I'm afraid I'd follow such a blog).

Bob Carter said...

The Thomas E. McKeller nude portrait is one of my favorites in the MFA. The subject, is of course, arresting, but the treatment is at once frank and beautiful. Ever since I first saw it, I've doubted that Sargent was entirely straight, because this painting (really a preparatory sketch) is so sensitively rendered. Completely straight artists of that era tended to be more perfunctory and coy with the male form. I also pick up on Mary Cassatt's verdict that Sargent was an "old fuddy-duddy", which I take as Victorian code. But in the end, I agree with you entirely -- it doesn't affect my awe of Sargent one way or the other.

Durinda Cheek, Fine Artist said...

Having just returned from a week-long paintout, I am furiously catching up on the Sargent posts since he is one of my top favs. (Thanks Stape!)
I, for one, am pleased that he was neither "one way or the other". How else could he portray the human figure with such sensitivity?

Jesse said...

The portrait of Vernon Lee is one of his best. Interesting to note that Vernon was not at all happy about that portrait. I'm not sure how she really looked.

On the other side of "prettying up" a persons portrait- There is a black & white photo of 'Mrs. Fiske Warren and Her Daughter Rachel', and he made them both look much prettier than they were. And the mother wasn't happy with the likeness.

sdfjskjdfhowiefj209fjlksdfsdf said...

Stape and friends:

I think it's notable that the Egyptian girl was the ONLY nude female Sargent painted out of thousands of paintings!

That always intrigued me.g

billspaintingmn said...

It's a painting! The model could have been a tree stump. Sarents talent and abilities,(and bravera brush handling) is what was paramount,(I hope!)
What went on behind closed doors is no ones buisness, and to speculate on that is fodder.

Say it ain't so Stape!

Brady said...

I've seen paintings of male and female nudes painted with equal sensitivity by people who are obviously heterosexual. And probably some by people who are more "ambiguous", I've never checked since I don't care.

But, to say that your sexual orientation makes you more able to portray one or both sexes better, is a load of tripe in my opinion.

sdfjskjdfhowiefj209fjlksdfsdf said...

I'm just saying, I'd love to see more female nudes painted by Sargent. Just like how I enjoy seeing both his moody interiors and his gorgeous colorful outdoor paintings!

Brady said...

That last comment came out harsher than I meant it, but I have to second Anthony's comment about wishing there were more female nudes by Sargent.

jeff said...

Was Sargent gay or bi? Who knows and does it matter? He could paint like a demon or God, if you want my humble opinion.

As to young boys of the upper classes dressing up like girls? Well that was common in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Boys of the upper classes went to all boy schools modeled after the British schools such as Eton.

Sexuality in this period was pretty interesting and if people want to read up on it I urge them to read the History of Sexuality by Foucault.

On the other hand we in our times have some pretty strange preconceptions about sexuality that are confused by our own moral coeds and conditioning.

I've heard this said about Michelangelo and Raphael, that they were gay. Michelangelo was most likely a celibate, he did live to about 80 something. Raphael was well known for his parting and died at 35. Sexuality was different in the Renaissance as it was more about power than sex.

jeff said...

fuddy duddy has nothing to do with sexuality. "old fuddy-duddy" just means Mary Cassatt was most likely commenting on Sargent's conservative nature.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I have discovered that little animals are very popular indeed. I should use more of them.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I don't know the answer to Sargent's sexuality, but my suspicion is that the was noncommittal.I suppose it doesn't matter, but inquiring minds want to know. Ives Gammell, same deal.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Hew was very sensitive. He only painted one female nude though.

Stapleton Kearns said...

The mother exists only in that portrait now. Too bad, I like the likeness.

Stapleton Kearns said...

But it is not cold, it seems erotic to med, but I do like that sort of thing.

Stapleton Kearns said...

To speculate is human, to know, divine!

Stapleton Kearns said...

I would hope to represent both sexes well.I think that Tom of Sweden was a hack.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I suspect that is all we are going to get. Turn to Zorn.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Ib wrote tonight's post about that.