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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, April 15, 2024

‘Fashioned by Sargent’ masterfully invites viewers to step into the artist’s shoes

The new exhibition at the MFA provides a new look at the artist’s iconic use of fashion.

Madame_X_(Madame_Pierre_Gautreau),_John_Singer_Sargent,_1884_(unfree_frame_crop).jpg

John Singer Sargent’s “Madame X” (1883-84) is pictured.

In 1888, famed painter John Singer Sargent (18561925) hosted his first solo exhibition at the St. Botolph Club in Boston, where he displayed some of what would later be deemed his most iconic works. Throughout his life, he would continue to return to Boston, painting portraits of Boston’s wealthiest patrons and his closest friends, including Isabella Stewart Gardner.

Now, 135 years later, Sargent is ceremoniously returning to Boston at the Museum of Fine Arts’ latest exhibition, “Fashioned by Sargent” (2023). Open from Oct. 8 to Jan. 15, the exhibition features the vast range of portraits that defined Sargent’s reputation as one of Western art’s experts in capturing likenesses.

However, as suggested by its title, “Fashioned by Sargent” creatively subverts museum-goers’ traditional expectations by placing a significant, unprecedented level of focus on Sargent’s use of fashion to create visually gripping compositions while communicating ideas about his subjects. Nowhere else is this more evident than in the very first room of the exhibit, where Sargent’s striking painting of Aline Caroline de Rothschild stands alone next to a glass display of the exact black and pink dress she is depicted in. In an instant, Sargent’s sitters no longer feel like abstractions projected onto a canvas, separated by more than a century from their contemporary viewers. Throughout the rest of the exhibition, similar displays feature in each of the subsequent rooms, including the dresses, hats and accessories that Sargent’s patrons wore for each of their works.

Sargent’s paintings alone are capable of captivating viewers with the dynamic, fluid brushstrokes present in each work’s clothing and the resulting movement it creates on canvas. But at the MFA, visitors also have the unique opportunity to interact with these points of reference in a real-world space, analyzing Sargent’s deliberate decisions regarding how to position and dress each of his sitters so as to intentionally manipulate their public image. Displays on each room’s wall further expand upon this idea, providing visitors with information about the history of 19th-century fashion and its role in upper-class lifestyles and likenesses. Thus, by exemplifying the role of fashion in the exhibition, it is likely that viewers will find a new dimension of complexity in each work. For instance, it becomes clear that the choice of a black and white dress in “Madame Ramón Subercaseaux” (188081) serves to complement the subject’s interaction with an identically colored piano.

But in addition to providing a new point of reference, “Fashioned by Sargent” also utilizes its unique approach to touch upon some of the historical nuances present in his works where sitters are dressed less traditionally. For instance, “Dr. Pozzi At Home” (1881) demonstrates how Sargent subverts conventions of how male, professional contemporaries were expected to dress in portraiture. Instead of placing Doctor Pozzi in a formal suit, Sargent features his subject in a domestic setting with a red, sensuous costume, which the MFA interprets as the artist’s deliberate rebuttal against traditional notions of masculinity in portraits. Similarly, a section of the exhibition groups together paintings which indicate the shifting gender roles of the era. “Portrait of Mrs Leopold Hirsch” (1902) exemplifies the rise of the “New Woman” in early 20th-century politics through its use of colors usually reserved for older, traditionally male attire. 

While providing a space for the appreciation of Sargent’s technique and approach to depicting wealthy patrons, the MFA also utilizes its platform to provide a holistic review of some of the artist’s more outdated approaches. A later hall reveals the artist’s appropriation of East Asian culture and fashion in portraits of European sitters as a means to create misleading narratives of societies foreign to the Western point of view, teaching viewers about greater trends in Western art which are now subject to retrospective criticism. Of course, Sargent’s critics will likely find satisfaction in the exhibition’s inclusion of “Madame X” (188384), by far the artist’s most iconic — and most controversial — painting. Much has already been written and debated about this portrait of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, making its inclusion in “Fashioned by Sargent” all the more notable, representing Sargent’s ultimate manipulation of public image with the use of a single dress.

The MFA’s feature exhibition of John Singer Sargent is a must-see for any fans of art history, as well as casual visitors. In addition to its unique inclusion of objects traditionally excluded from the category of “fine art,” such as dresses, the exhibition’s diverse collection of Sargent’s works across different styles, periods, and settings remains a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for museum-goers to experience. Additionally, when making note of some of Sargent’s missteps, the MFA assigns agency to the viewer to form their own opinions of the portraitist from a more holistic point of view.