Sargent was Asexual
Sargent lived to
work. Leon Edel
writes: his "sexual drive was invested totally in his painting".
he was asexual.
On page 21 in the
we read: "Some writers hint at love affairs with women. Others claim a
"homoerotic" tone for Sargent's drawings of male nudes. It's certain
he never married - and that he never ceased to paint"
This leads to a
footnote which states:
Mount, John Singer
Sargent: A Biography. Mount includes among Sargent's possible lovers
as disparate as Mrs.
Charles Hunter [painted 1898],
the wife of a mining tycoon and La
Carmencita [painted 1890-]"
Olson provides a brief
account of the
Relationship between Sargent and Mrs. Hunter.
The nearest that I
have found regarding
a true Sargent romance was with
Louise Burckhardt [painted 1882]
yet John ended his relationship with Louise abruptly. I quote from
"The degree of
intimacy of John
and Louise's intimacy can only be guessed at. Though they acted like
this does not mean that they were lovers. All the signs of deep
were evident while the pair were at St. Pierre for those few days in
1881 .......The fact that they were unchaperoned was sufficient proof
their engagement was inevitable. It would be stretching evidence to
"...he reverted to
was helpless; she could do nothing to sustain or renew the affection
enjoyed out of Paris. She was also perplexed. She had no control over
waning devotion, because she was not to
blame. His romantic feelings for her had grown, it seemed, out of
detached from his day-to-day working life. The two could NOT coexist.
did not WANT both to coexist. He did not want to forfeit his precious
Those few days at St. Pierre slipped into memory, never to be regained,
never to be equaled. John did not care to be vulnerable, and he never
himself to be."
Was Sargent Gay?
There seems to be
no escaping - even
in the most academic of Sargent books - those hints of homosexuality,
in regards to the oil "Nude
Study of Thomas E. McKeller" and the wonderful charcoal "Nude
Male Standing" - also McKellar. If these were "studies" their
was never realized as neither image is even closely related to any of
figures in Sargent's murals. Certainly Sargent produced many more male
then female "nudes" and created the males with far more confidence and
passion. Why? Is the answer solely in his sexual orientation?
Natasha asks: Can
you be a closet
term. Or is it a matter
of repressing or denying ones sexuality whatever the orientation?
the affect that a lifetime of doing this can have on your work if
on Louise Charlotte
I also ran into an
while reading the complete paintings. In the portrait of Charlotte
Burckhardt's sister (I forgot her name), the author quotes a letter
says Burckhardt family thought Sargent fell in love with her
Anyway, she looks
like a little paranoid
in the portrait and in fact later she demanded Sargent should remove
from the painting Mrs.
Edward Burckhardt and her Daughter Louise [painted 1885],
which Sargent of course declined. She even wiped off Charlotte from the
photo of the painting she enclosed in the letter to Sargent. Sounds
In the book, it
happens that the
portrait of Mrs.
Charles Gifford Dyer [painted 1880]was
next to Ms Burckhardt. She really got insane.
[both of the
letters from Bert
and Wonsug came without the knowlage of the other -- with talkcity
to upload new files, I sent this via e-mail]
You guys are
killing me, <smile>.
This could get very confusing, but I think we all agree that we can't
any direct overt evidence of any long term sexual relationship, though
there is plenty of speculation. And the sibling rivalry of the two
sisters may have been a reason for John's "waning devotion"?
I'm sort of
inclined to think that
Sargent was staunchly independent and with him traveling at the drop of
a hat, his true romance was his work.
Bert raises a good
point. A lifetime
of denying ones sexuality could lead to quite beautiful pieces of art.
also be understood
that he came from -- or his parents both had come from a puritan
(both Ratcliff and Charteris).
So the idea of causal sex, probably was not part of his fiber. And if
is the case, I would think he may have felt the limitations and
of "romance" too restrictive to his nomadic life. There is also his
and sister and the dynamics of his mother who was a very strong
on him. His sister never married either, and he was very devoted to
Edward Burckhardt and her Daughter Louise
I was confused as
to the relationships
and identities of the daughter in Mrs. Edward Burckhardt and her
Louise. And who wanted whom blotted out from the mother-daughter
In order to not
confuse people I
have deleted my original question and this is the correct synthesis as
I understand it (Wonsug explains it in more detail to the right):
Sargent paints Louise
Burckhardt aka Lady with a Rose in 1882. He again
Burckhardt with her mother in 1885. Sargent has also painted
younger sister Valerie (her portrait I don't have). It is rumored by
family that Valerie and Sargent also had a budding romance going.
It is sometime
after Louise's untimely
death, that Valerie demands that Sargent blot out Louise (her older
then diciest) from the Mother-Daughter portrait.
Note -- by the way, the painting Mrs. Edward Burckhardt and
Daughter Louise is for sale at artnet.com at one of the galleries, I
know what the price is but if you have an extra three-quarters of a
dollars laying around your dresser you could click on over and pick up
this painting before bedtime -- it might look good in your spare
And I think they DO take the American Express card.]
Well, let's start
was the daughter of Edward Burckhardt and his American wife, Mary
Tomes. Valerie and her younger sister Charlotte Louise (1862-92), whom
Sargent painted in 1882 as Lady with the Rose, became part of Sargent's
intimate circle in Paris in the later 1870s. Valerie married Harold
Hadden, a silk importer, in 1880 and subsequently moved to America.
presented the portrait of her father as a wedding gift.
According to the
sitter's daughter (Valerie),
Mrs Kenneth Robertson:
"There was also some
about the unfinished sketch of Valerie Burckhardt which my father
to buy several times and was refused. When finally he (Harold) and my
went to Mr Sargent's studio in London and asked again, Mr Sargent said
he would not sell it but would give it. Although it was face to the
for so many years we suspect he might have been in love with her at the
time it was painted and when Louise was only 13 or 14."
It was dated 1878
but it seems unlikely
that Sargent would have signed and dated a sketch which remained
in his studio for some years and it is possible that the signature and
date were added later, when the Haddens acquired the work from the
and that the date of its execution was misremembered.' p.71
Mrs Kenneth Robertson
thought Her mother's
portrait was painted 1875 or 76 (from her reference to Charlotte
age), and date 1878 is inscribed in the painting and the author thinks
it was painted circa 1880.
Now let's see what
done to the portrait of her mother and sister.
'... Louise's figure
posed, which may be due to the fact that Sargent seems to have planned
the picture originally as a portrait of Mrs Burckhard alone. This was
view of Mrs Burckhardt's granddaughters, Mrs Francis Riggs and Mrs
Robertson, and it is supported by Valerie Burckhard's later attempt to
have her sister's figure removed. She had the picture photographed and
produced a print with the offending figure blotted out, which she sent
to Sargent. He replied in an undated letter (perhaps 1922):
I will return the
you - as I found the composition as a whole is destroyed by taking out
such an important part of it and leaving a gap instead. I cannot
to do that any more than I would wear my hat in a drawing room or eat
with a knife at dinner.
So, it's a long time
after the painting
had been drawn and also Charlotte Louise had died when Valerie demanded
her sister's figure removed from the painting.
I wish you would
send me a photograph
of the picture as it is without the figure of Louise having been taken
out. I would know better if anything can be done about it, and also
is wrong.' p.127
Anyway, I thought
her behavior very
weird and after knowing what she had done to the photograph, her oil
portrait began to look horrible. ^_^
And As I told you,
it happens that
next to Valerie's portrait, Mrs Charles Gifford Dyer's portrait is
who began to suffer from
mental illness soon
painted her and finally became insane.
So even if they are
seeing them together is not that pleasant experience and if they were
my bedroom, I would have a
Charlotte Louise, 'the prospects of a marriage seem to have evaporated
by the summer of 1883, when Vernon Lee described Miss Burckhardt as
"gone off the horizon"'. (p.65)
So it's not strange
her portrait in 1882. Actually Sargent's paintings of Burckhardt
Charlotte Louise, Valerie, her father Edward, and their dog 'Pointy')
all presented to the Family as gifts and the author of complete
thinks the commission of double portrait in 1885 was an act of
to help him over a difficult period since Sargent's career was at a low
ebb following the Madame X furor.
Subject: The Case
for JSS Being
August 22, 1999
Note -- I wanted
to show links to referred paintings so I have copied the article here
retrospective rekindles old
question: Was John Singer Sargent a "lover of women'?
By: David Bonetti,
Art Critic, San
There were no
homosexuals in the
arts before 1969. Indeed, if you read standard histories, there were no
homosexuals at all before the Stonewall riots in New York blasted the
off the often comfy closets both male and female same-sexers had been
to occupy for as long as anyone can remember. But, of course, we know
the reticence that forbade discussion of such topics only cast a veil
denial over the sex lives of the rich, famous, talented and ordinary
It might not have
been talked about,
but people found ways to express their sexuality even if it took
forms. The subject of "what famous person of the past might have been
has become a lively topic of conversation again during the "Sargent
now going on in Boston, the turn-of-the-century homophile capital and
favorite American city for expatriate painter John Singer Sargent.
The issue of
has been talked about for years. In 1957, art historian and old master
dealer Bernard Berenson ended an appraisal of Sargent with the
"Was he a lover of women?" The issue is currently addressed in the
of the touring Sargent retrospective organized by Sargent's
Richard Ormond, that is now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. "But
what was Sargent's sexual orientation, and did he enjoy sexual
with either sex?" Ormond asks forthrightly, if rhetorically:
"The record is not
clear. A homosexual
reading of certain works has been proposed in a recent study of
He did have close male friendships, and groups of portrait studies of
men, for example, parallel those of his female friends. However,
continues to guard his privacy. That he was a physical and sensual kind
of person is clear from the whole tenor of his work. But he did not
intimacy, and he avoided emotional entanglements likely to complicate
life and compromise his independence. If he had sexual relationships,
must have been of a brief and transient nature, and they have left no
The answer is that we simply do not know, and decoding messages from
work is no substitute for evidence."
The recent study
Ormond refers to is
Trevor Fairbrother's 1994 Abrams book "John Singer Sargent."
currently chief curator of the Seattle Art Museum, was formerly an
painting curator at Boston's MFA, where he encouraged the museum to buy
Sargent's erotically charged "Nude
Study of Thomas McKeller." ) "The Sargent literature usually
that he was a shy bachelor with a simple private life," Fairbrother
"This reading is suspect because it serves as a convenient and genteel
foil for admirers to avoid the systems of exhibitionism and voyeurism
operate in his work. Stanley Olson, the most recent Sargent biographer,
suggested that he was sexually unresponsive, and stressed his
Since there is no
evidence one way
or another, the party line has been to deny that Sargent was a sexual
Despite his large appetites and sensuous nature. Despite his
relationship (of undefined nature) with his valet, Nicola d'Inverno.
his documented friendships with other homosexual or similarly closeted
men of the time like Henry
Robert de Montesquiou – the model for Proust's homosexual Baron de
Charlus – and W.
Graham Robertson, a wealthy poet and dandy in Oscar Wilde's circle.
Despite his comfort in the largely gay group that surrounded Boston's Isabella
Stewart Gardner. Ormond dismisses decoding messages from the work,
but without evidence of his intimate life, that is where we have to go
if we want to know Sargent fully – and knowing him fully means
the nature of his desire.
From years of
looking at Sargent,
it appears to me that he was best at painting women with their clothes
on and men with their clothes off. Sargent did tons of drawings of male
nudes – many currently on view at Harvard's Fogg Museum – which
frankly of erotic longing.
Dismissed as an
on permanent vacation in his 1986 Whitney Museum retrospective, Sargent
did travel extensively, and wherever he went he was attracted to
Italian peasants, sexy Spanish
African American laborers taking a swim in Florida caught his
Along with his studio
nudes, they attest to an interest in the male form that was not
in his chaster representations of the opposite
sex. And the fact that the men he depicted with the greatest gusto
were working-class and decidedly non-Nordic suggests a cross-class
connection that was typical of his time and status.
Fairbrother says it
art is the best 'evidence' of his personality, and the homoeroticism of
some portraits and many informal studies has been prudishly avoided by
most scholars. If, indeed, Sargent balanced a public career with a
sexuality, his conflicted social-sexual identity may be a key to the
tensions within his art: for example, his ability to paint a portrait
is ultimately respectable and yet is colored by showiness, grandeur,
"I propose," he
the visual edge and emotional volatility of his work may have been
by his attraction to male beauty: It particularizes the work of Sargent
as it does that of Michelangelo and Caravaggio, Marsden Hartley and
Demuth." We may never know if Sargent ever acted on his erotic
but how he felt comes across so clearly in his male images that only
in profound denial could fail to see it.
Examiner, August 22,
P. O. Box 7260,San
Date: revised 11/17/00
The other side of
the question is
a bit more difficult to excerpt. David Bonetti excellent article is
and written under 1,000 words. Likewise, Stanley Olson's biography is
as compelling, though deliberate, and developed slowly over 300 pages
it more complex and difficult to put next to Bonetti's.
The conclusion of
comes in a footnote on page 199, Olson writes:
of his life [his sexuality] has been, hardly surprisingly, the target
much conjecture. Students of his character have often read his
with work [the male nudes and others] to be evidence of some
desire, the consequence of an unidentified frustration; the search for
proof to support this theory has always been unrewarding in the
There is not one indication anywhere in the debris of his life that
might have been a possibility . . .
concealment theory [of
homosexuality] -- also popular in speculation stakes -- must be
for exactly the same reason. And while it is of course possible
he could have covered his tracks in his life, he would never have had
power in death. No one who knew him well or slightly has ever been
to suggest anything whatever about his private life, which presents a
obstacle for any claim which is advanced.
To support his
argument, Olson tries
to explain Sargent's complex personality -- and I will roughly try to
my interpretation of the entire 300 pages in 5 points.
1) The Sargent
family, with the exception
for Violet to a lesser degree, were all staunchly independent. Given
nomadic lifestyle -- changing cities as some change their wardrobe for
a season. Because of this, they couldn’t rely on anyone to be there for
them (They themselves wouldn’t be there in a few months). As a result,
the family unit was the sole source of emotional and psychological
personality was a peculiar
and fortuitous mix of shyness and a strong sense of who he was. This
him the introversion to be a spectator of the world around him (good
his art) and a cockiness of his own worth to keep at it in the face of
objections. For those that didn’t know him he might appear aloof,
3) Because of his
could fluently speak French, Italian, Spanish, English, and German to a
lesser extent. He moved effortlessly between cultures, yet he was an
-- an identity which he so jealously held onto. This made him an
Even to other expatriate Americans he seemed indigenous to Europe since
he really knew so little about America (never having grown up there).
his personality was reserved and shy, to those who were patient they
him charming, funny (a sharp dry wit), amazingly generous, and
almost universally liked (even by those that hated his art), but he
fully belonged anywhere.
4) His mother was a
on him. Like his father he was a strong individual but he liked strong
women, and in his father case, she pretty much controlled the family.
Sargent was very much upset over Violet (John's youngest sister)
off to Ormond and although there might have been “reasons” for doubting
him a good husband, I suspect that Mrs. Sargent would have been upset
anyone. Emily (his other sister) and John never married. Mrs. Sargent,
in Olson’s eyes, was rather selfish and Emily spent her youth as a
maid to her mother’s hypochondria which was the reason for their
existence (certainly the loss of three of her children to sickness and
poor health didn’t help her hypochondria). But the fact of the matter
that after Sargent’s father dies, his mother looked to John as the head
of the household. Was he a mama’s boy? – like his father,
was hardly an emotional weakling, but I don’t think you can dismiss his
mother’s influence. And if figuratively it is their mother that most
want to marry, it would be difficult to find a woman as head-strong as
Mrs. Sargent's that, at the same time, wouldn't conflict with his art.
I've heard it said that art is a selfish endeavor. Unlike his father
had forgone his carrier and his personal passions for the love of his
John could ill afford to succumb if he was to fulfill his destiny
5) After his
mother’s death Emily
is left alone, completely, and with some money - but nothing beyond a
standard. Of course John supports her (buys her a house near himself)
they become the emotional equivalent of a married couple – supporting
other (nothing beyond that). Although they had different houses, they
together when they were in town daily, she taking the responsibilities
of a wife -- acting as a hostess at dinners and parties, becoming his
confident and she often traveled with him.
It’s true that John
hung around homosexuals
and closeted men such as Henry James, but he hung around a lot of
He loved the culture and hung around Spanish Gypsies who had been
for centuries, but he wasn’t a Gypsy. He hung around and painted
groups of people that weren’t “socially accepted” in “polite society”.
He painted many Jews at a time of rising anti Semitism, but he wasn’t
Wertheimers, the Meyers, the Sassoons, the Pulitzers and the
were all Jewish patrons. The Wertheimers being very good friends of
(Some people, in reference to the Wertheimer Exhibition this year, have
even looked for possible Jewish heritage for motivation. And some
have insisted that the artist of El
Jaleo must have been Gypsy). He painted the rich and famous.
He also painted street
children. He moved freely, openly, and comfortably between
between cultures, between peoples. Although American, he acted like a
citizen and was completely indifferent to politics. He seemed to accept
people for who they were and didn’t seem to judge them.
Hey, maybe we could
from Sargent . . . But I’m getting off my point.
quite given a balanced
picture. Sure, the “closeted gay” Henry
James was his friend, so was Paul
Helleu (his closest friend), so was Edwin
Austin Abbey, Francis
Davis Millet, Frederick
de Glehn, and a host of other heterosexual friends. Many of them
long periods of time with him such as Abbey at Morgan
Hall when Sargent lived with him working on the Boston Library
and de Glehn and his wife on his many trips with Sargent. No one saw
that would suggest a homosexual or heterosexual relationship with
And they don’t seem to be politely covering anything up either, because
many privately speculate amongst themselves (with some frustration) on
whom he may or may not eventually marry.
with his valet, Nicola d'Inverno is not really all that “undefined” --
only his job description was a little vague. None of his friends ever
anything unusual in it, and given the sheer weight of equipment they
around, he came in quite handy (As a side note, Sargent dismissed him
d'Inverno got in a fight with another servant at a hotel in America.)
Italian peasants, sexy Spanish
African American laborers swimming, but he also painted sensuous fem
fatales, lushly exotic Capri
women, stunning depictions of delicious
femininity, and always . . . always, strong
women at the peak
of their art, engaged
in life, or in the quiet
force of their certitude.
Basically what we
have is his male
nudes -- and that’s all we have. For every circumstantial evidence
to support a homosexual tendency, there is as much on the other side of
the scale. There is nothing there but the nudes.
nudes are some
powerful evidence, because they are some powerful works of art, and
doesn’t give it proper weight given the sheer number of them.
Is that enough?
Of the nudes, this
is what I think
we know. Certainly since the time he was a student, the male form was a
critical study in academic
art. The bulk of nudes, however, started shortly after he received
his commission from the Boston Public Library (Abbey's
letter to Boston). They were done primarily as studies for the
at the Library and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). It is true
many don't directly relate to a finished mural, but you can see any
of naked greek gods at the Museum
of Fine Arts or library
murals, such as the twisted naked male bodies in his Hell
of the West Wall lunette. I think he painted the bulk of them
1917 and 1920 when they stop or between the ages of 61 and 64 (no
to the older viewers out there, but that’s hardly the peak of his
Did he only come to
terms with himself
in the last part of his life? Did it peak and only last 4 years? Should
we even look at him as an unchanging monolith and is everything always
to be defined in black and white terms? Should we label a person’s
who seems to never have had sex? And just how adequate are labels
So what do we make
of it -- are you
in profound denial if you don’t see it?
This is my take (if
you haven’t figured
it out by now). People see in Sargent what they want to see. It speaks
volumes about his art. The emotional cord resonating deep within can
be that strong and tuned that perfectly. If you are
then you want to believe the emotional reaction you feel when you see
art to be the same reaction that Sargent felt. And if you are
for the very same reasons, the feelings and emotions you experience
must be the shared experience with the artist. Regardless of your
you want to believe Sargent felt what you -- yourself feel. How could
be any different? There is nothing unusual in that. In fact it’s pretty
normal. That there is a controversy over his orientation when there is
no evidence to support anything what-so-ever towards anything
(outside of his art) shows you how powerful is art is.
Strangely (or maybe
not so strangely)
I think it's more revealing of the writers than it is of Sargent (and
even revealing of myself). Olson and Ormond probably want to
see Sargent as heterosexual. Bonetti and Fairbrother probably want
to see him as a homosexual. There isn’t an “agenda” on anyone’s part,
a strong personal desire to believe that the emotional impact from
work is “speaking” to them through their own lens about life’s little
– and maybe that’s how it should be. As freely as Sargent moved across
cultures, maybe he speaks to all of us -- Gypsies, Jews, Gays,
Royalty, Bohemians, Italians, French, English, Americans -- what ever
whom ever -- and maybe that’s the best anyone could ever say about
I didn't answer the
Well, that's the