Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Was John Singer Sargent in the closet?

Thou Shalt Not Steal, 1918
It's considered poor form to speculate on the sex lives of the dead, I know.

And yet it's always tempting - particularly in such cases as John Singer Sargent's.  (And, yes, P. L. Travers'!)

Like Travers, Sargent never made a public declaration of sexual preference; and if he was a closet case, unlike Travers, he never settled down with a  same-sex companion (unless you count his manservant, Nicola d'Inverno - and maybe you should, for he remained in the artist's employ for two dozen years and posed for several paintings - sometimes as a woman).

But frankly, in the case of Sargent, the lack of any emotional trail whatsoever itself is intriguing - particularly given his lush imagery, and his obvious predilections for indolent young men and self-dramatizing divas (not to mention his easy association with high society's "outsiders," like the wealthy Wertheimer sisters, who were considered "exotic Jewesses" - indeed, some bigoted toffs sniffed at Sargent not because he was probably gay, but because he was "a painter of Jews"!).

What's more, Sargent enjoyed friendships with not only Oscar Wilde but Robert de Montesquiou, the Parisian bon vivant who was the presumed model for Proust's Baron de Charlus. Given these associations, and his painterly eye, the fact that Sargent's family apparently destroyed all his correspondence only heightens the mystery surrounding him.

Man and Trees,  Florida 1917
A few tantalizing scraps regarding his sex life have survived in the writings of others. A fellow artist (and one time sitter), Jacques-Émile Blanche, bitchily called Sargent "a frenzied bugger" - and the Wertheimers themselves laughed in their letters that while in Venice, Sargent was "only interested in the gondoliers."

But in general the artist's circle remained tight-lipped about his private life. As did Sargent himself, who remained buttoned down - and zipped up - in every public forum.

But what I do know is that John Singer Sargent was a sensualist - and that when he painted men, he painted them sensually, in much the way a gay man might (and much as Thomas Eakins did). So if he himself wasn't gay, his paintings were. Consider the watercolor sketch of a Florida laborer at right, who in his forthright stance of sexual ease (and challenge) somehow recalls the pale profile of "Madame X."

A Sargent study of Thomas McKeller
In other images the eroticism is just as powerful, but still an undercurrent.  In "Thou Shalt Not Steal," (above left), for instance, a strapping Adam and his skirted Eve surreptitiously pluck apples from a sun-dappled tree of knowledge.  Adam even licks his lips (with an expression both sneaky and lascivious) - while a sash of sunlight decorates Eve's sturdy rump;  indeed, to those sympathetic to the idea that Sargent was gay, this painting is a strikingly closeted statement; its subject matter is simultaneously straight and gay - just as its forbiddingly biblical title ramifies in at least two directions, depending on its audience.

Or consider Thomas McKeller (at left), the Copley Plaza bellhop who became Sargent's favorite model, and who provided the form of many a figure (again, both male and female) decorating the dome of the MFA. It is more and more openly acknowledged that McKeller counted as a kind of muse for the aging painter.

Or perhaps his physical type did.  For ponder, finally, "The Bathers" (at the Worcester Art Museum, below), in which a nude trio reclines in the shallows of a Florida beach, like so many muscled, masculine nymphs.  They are not only physical ideals, but gaze at the viewer with a cool self-awareness of their own erotic power - much like Manet's Olympia (which Sargent admired).  The artist never publicly displayed this image, or his other nude sketches from Florida (just as he disguised the identity of Thomas McKeller).  But we can see these nudes now - and I think it's time we began to gaze back at them with our eyes open, and a mood as forthright as theirs.

The Bathers, 1917

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