I had the opportunity to be in Chicagoland for a day and I chose to spend my precious 6 hours in the Second City at the Art Institute of Chicago. I know, it’s cliché and I know it’s one of the most visited attractions in Chicago and yes, I know there are dozens of other Arts I could patronize. Unfortunately for my wallet, the Art Institute is like a siren in the mist. Visiting her is a pilgrimage to those monumental greats that take your breath away when you turn the corner and see one hanging against a velvety blue wall. In every room of the Impressionist wing you’ll recognize a painting. You want Van Gogh’s bedroom? They’ve got it. Fancy a fluorescent dance with Toulouse Lautrec? That painting is there, yes the one you’re thinking of with the lady’s garishly green face looming large in the corner. Monet painted that train chugging into Gare Saint Lazare, haystacks, and waterlilies along with cathedrals and garden bridges. See them all in two rooms tucked between Medieval armor and the grand staircase. Remember that scene in the 80s movie everyone has seen, even if they haven’t, where Ferris Buller stares at the Pointalist masterpiece until it becomes just a field of color? He was at the Art Institute of Chicago.
I visited Chicago the weekend before the exhibition John Singer Sargent and Chicago’s Gilded Age closed. From the time my eyes first lit upon Cleveland’s Sargent, Portrait of Lisa Colt Curtis (1898), I’ve always really enjoyed Sargent’s mesmerizing portraits of women. Known for their dynamism, skill, and originality as much for their ambiguity, works like Madame X (1884) have inspired devotion and discussion since the day the paint dried. My imagination whirs while looking at these women whose eyes sparkle with indisputable veracity whilst occupying space only suggested by sweeping brushstrokes. Sargent painted men too, and landscapes and genre scenes. But there’s nothing quite like the romance, intrigue, and desire that engulfs a portrait of a woman, especially one of Sargent’s.
Sargent painted at the turn of the 19th century, which was what art historians refer to as, A Big Deal in the timeline of art. Impressionism – Monet’s pastel colored lilies, haystacks, and bridges – was coming hot of the heals of a movement in European art devoted to capturing and recording the everyday life of everyday people: Realism. A motley crew of men and women in a garden somewhere in France took this idea further and abandoned not only the Academic subject matter of Greek and Roman gods, Christian allegory, and Napoleonic achievements, but also lost the restraints of representational form and color. It’s thanks to these loose-brushing-experimental Impressionists – valuing emotional tone over reality, focusing on light over all else – that we begin to see the incongruous colors of Matisse and the proto-Cubism of Cezanne. Sargent’s work embodies this transition, effortlessly floating above concrete labels.
Visiting the Sargent exhibition in Chicago is pricey: it’s $25 for a non-Chicago resident just to get inside the museum, plus an extra $7 to see the special exhibition. I visited on a Saturday and bought my tickets the day before online – for an extra $2 fee. If you plan to visit an exhibition like this, especially one on the weekend, definitely buy your tickets ahead of time and arrive as early as possible. When I arrived 10 minutes after the museum opened, the line for tickets was nearly down the block. I zoomed up to the special exhibition and got in without a wait, but after about forty-five minutes, a line of at least 50 people had formed to get into the Sargent show.
Once inside, John Singer Sargent and Chicago’s Gilded Age did not disappoint. It was crowded, but I focused on what I was there to see: the women. Information on the wall described how Sargent was coveted as a portraitist not only for his prodigious skill in accurate-yet-flattering representation, but because his paintings were a “snapshot” of their subject in the truest sense. In a time when photography was rare and sitters had to hold stiller than stone, a painter that was able to paint breath and personality into his subjects was – and is – something to behold.
At first, in paintings like Mrs. Hugh Hammersley (1892), you think they’re completely polished works. Outlined brilliantly by a collar that crackles with gilt chiffon, Mrs. Hammersley’s bright eyes and cheery lips pull you in and keep you there. You almost have to force yourself to look at the rest of the painting. When your eyes do start to wander over her fuchsia dress, delicate ankles, and to her hand resting on the couch, you realize: it’s not a hand at all. Mrs. Hugh Hammersley has something of a fin for a hand and the couch is actually just the impression of cloth and shadows with no visible structure.
Similarly evocative and considerably more enigmatic, one surprise standout of the show was a smaller genre scene from Sargent’s time in Venice. Madame Paul Escudier (Louise Lefevre, 1882) shows a woman in dark room, dramatically illuminated from a window. Again, Sargent expertly combines a loose, Impressionistic rendering of the scene with a poignantly realistic portrait. Of all the portraits of women in this exhibition, however, Daisy Leiter’s stands alone. Painted in 1898, this woman epitomizes the fierce, flirty, ambitious heroine of all our romantic novels. To me, it doesn’t really matter what the facts of Daisy’s personality were in life, the portrait has convinced me I know her. Blowing in on a powerful gust of simmering fabric that encircles her in golden light, Daisy faintly reminds me of Venus rising out of the sea. Hers is a take-no-prisoners smolder: one half of her face made virginal and fair, lit with sunlight, the other half shrouded in smoky shadow. One long anatomically absurd pale arm drapes down to the corner of the frame, creating a classically sturdy pyramidal composition while her almost-limp hand begs to be held. Make no mistakes, Daisy Leiter is sexy. Later, the smoldering, forthright American would become the Countess of Suffolk and Berkshire.
While exploring John Singer Sargent and Chicago’s Gilded Age at the Art Institute of Chicago, I was introduced to Sargent as a genre painter and watercolorist, as well as a portrait painter. The only major disappointment of the show was that more women artists weren’t represented. Nevertheless, the exhibition was expertly curated and I got what a came for: an indulgent and surprisingly multi-faceted morning with inspiring women.