At the Met, John Singer Sargent Does Conceptual Painting

THE DAILY PIC: The great virtuoso pushes his painting's space into ours.


THE DAILY PIC (#1386): John Singer Sargent has long been a favorite of mine, which recently led me to spend some time with “Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends” at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

For some strange reason, the show mostly tamped down my Sargentophilia. Maybe it was the sheer number of pictures on view, but something seemed to end up confirming Sargent’s reputation as a glib virtuoso, as he was considered for much of the 20th century.   The image in today’s Daily Pic, however, is one of a handful of pictures that made him come off as much better, more brainy, than that.

It is from 1880 and is called Ramon Subercasseaux in a Gondola, and I don’t know of many other paintings that activate the space on our side of the picture plane as thoroughly as this one does. Think about it for a minute, and you realize that just as Sargent is depicting his friend (the canvas itself is evidence of that act) so Subercasseaux, shown painting, must be portraying Sargent. Which means that as we look at the constrained scene through Sargent’s eyes, he’s got to be in pretty much the same pose and setting as his sitter. This bills the plane of the picture as something like a mirror, with symmetrical bits of gondola and Venice behind it, where Subercasseaux is perched, and in front – where we and Sargent are.

As I looked at this canvas, I could almost feel my hand slipping down into the cool waters of the canal. (Collection of Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis.)

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