What Today Brings
“No thief, however skillful can rob one of knowledge, and that is why knowledge is the best and safest treasure to acquire.” – L. Frank Baum, The Lost Princess of Oz
The hunger for knowledge came to me later in life. I can’t remember exactly when I became ravenous for everything I could learn about art, history and culture. It certainly was not in my twenties. When I went to England to study at Kings College in London with the University of Kentucky’s theatre program I was interested in what Oscar Wilde had to say, what playwrights Harold Pinter and Bertolt Brecht had to say and what rebels like Friedrich Nietzsche had to say about existentialism and nothingness… slightly pretentious was my young mind but it seemed in tune with my interests. As for the wealth of history surrounding me in Europe, my father used to say, “Erin didn’t see Big Ben or St. Paul’s Cathedral but she saw the pub across the street.” I am not sure what was going on in my twenty-something brain besides how to have fun every way under the sun and moon. It certainly was not studying history.
Maybe it is the realization that our time here on earth is limited, maybe it is the realization that there seems an infinite supply of fascinating people and ideas to learn about. I think my thirst for knowledge also has something to do with the fact that during our brief lives we have very little control of what life deals us and the acquiring of knowledge is something we can control. We can get as much as we want, anytime we want for free. There are countless jaw dropping events that have happened over the centuries on the very paths we walk today. Learning is frankly a great form of entertainment.
My mother lives in North Carolina and we talk every day. She shares with me a craving for knowledge about art, about music, about history and geography. The other day we decided on a new weekly game. Each week we will study a new influential artist and then report back to each other our findings. John Singer Sargent is our first weeks “lesson” and I will share a bit of what I learned with you today.
You will have to look up Sargent yourself to see his breathtaking portraits or visit the Met or another museum to see his paintings in person. Suffice it to say, John Singer Sargent is an American who could better be described as a citizen of the world. He was born in Florence, Italy in 1856, a place I have yet to visit but my Aunt Mimi calls the most beautiful place in the world. Sargent’s parents were from Philadelphia but were what they called at the time “nomadic expatriates.” Raising their children abroad and educating them by taking them to museums and churches, they created a well-rounded, sophisticated, culturally-minded young man fluent in English, French, Italian and German.
John Singer Sargent traveled from Paris to London to Switzerland to Venice and Corfu, from Montana, Maine, Massachusetts and Florida to the Middle East and Spain. By 1900, he was the most sought-after portraitist of the Western World showing the Edwardian Era of exquisite taste and capturing the essence of the Gilded Age, the time of Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and George Bernard Shaw.
In Paris, he was known as the wild American expatriate and in London he was often considered a mad French painter. He never belonged anywhere completely which served him well. One of his most famous portraits The Lady with the Rose was introduced at the Salon in Paris in 1882. His famous Portrait of Madame X in 1884 prompted a scandal regarding the risqué nature of his representation of Madame Pierre Gautreau. Sargent had the audacity to present the sensuality of his subject by famously painting the strap of her dress loosely off her shoulder. After the uproar, he re-painted so the strap was properly situated back on her shoulder but the damage was done.
The painter soon moved to London where he became friends with novelist Henry James who described the artist as “civilized to his fingertips.” Sargent was gay but that was not a point of contention for the intellectual circles he traveled. In London, he enjoyed his own gallery and a new lease on his ever-expanding endeavors. Americans traveled to London to get their portraits painted for $5,000 which would be around $130,000 today. Other famous friends included Monet whom he visited in the English countryside and painted, Claud Monet Painting at the Edge of a Wood with which he tried his brilliantly talented hand at impressionism. A stunning painting of author Robert Stephenson is incredibly profound in its simplicity. Portrait of Robert Stephenson and his Wife was thought by Stephenson to be “excellent but too eccentric to be exhibited.”
Like so many, John Singer Sargent was ahead of his time but in the bigger picture of art history, we can look back in deep appreciation for his life and his work. As a gentleman, he was kind to his friends and painted them as they would be proud to be seen. His portraits of Isabella Stuart Gardner, a leader of Boston society, as a beautiful young woman and then many years later at the end of her life, show his sensitivity. He painted his aging friend in watercolor while she was bedridden and receiving few visitors. Sargent chose to glorify his longtime friend and painted her in a sort of Moroccan shroud instead of the bed sheets she was actually wrapped in. That is the kind of warmth of spirit we can all learn from.
So, while I may watch Celebrity Big Brother this evening, I am proud to know a little bit more about this cultural figure, this American icon, than I did yesterday.
P.S. My mom says to tell you not to miss his watercolors of Morocco.