Picks and Pans Review: John Singer Sargent

updated 01/26/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/26/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Patricia Hills

Much as it annoyed him, John Singer Sargent never managed to shake the label of society painter. "No more paughtraits," he wrote in 1906. "I abhor and abjure them and hope never to do another, especially of the Upper Classes." But today, 62 years after his death, Sargent is still best known for his flattering portraits of society swans. That conflict between the commercial and the aesthetic is an underlying theme of this absorbing, if sometimes disorganized, catalog for the Sargent exhibit mounted by the Whitney Museum in New York. No other fin de si├Ęcle artist caught the silken folds of a ball gown with more skill than he or evoked so effortlessly the perfumed interiors of the very rich. For Sargent, surface was everything. Yet there were exceptions. In a 1913 oil, his friend, writer Henry James, looks like a troubled Boston burgher. And in his scandalous Madame X, he captured the charms of the wife of a Parisian banker. A cool beauty who rouged the tips of her ears, she exudes a palpable sexual arrogance. The works Sargent painted while on holiday are among his most pleasing. They are easy, sunlit poems to the outdoors, painted as he traveled in Europe, the Middle East and the U.S. Freed of the restraints of commissioned art, he painted what pleased him: bulky oxen, Egyptians raising water from the Nile, Albanian olive gatherers. Among the Sargent experts whose contributions were enlisted by Hills, curator of the Whitney show, is art historian Stanley Olson. His absorbing essay, "On the Question of Sargent's Nationality," describes the artist, born in Florence to American parents, growing up at ease in Europe. He was, Olson says, at home everywhere but belonged nowhere. By the time he arrived in Paris to study in 1874, he had in place that emotional detachment that was to profoundly influence his art. (The exhibit will be on display from Feb. 7 to April 19 at the Art Institute of Chicago.) (Abrams, $25 paper, $35 hardcover)

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