There are seldom exhibits of major art in central New York, and we are happy when we get them. Last year considerable attention was given to the Impressionist exhibit given at the Everson in Syracuse. And now, through December, the Cooperstown’s Fenimore Museum is featuring paintings by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), an American who spent much of his time in Europe.
This exhibit concentrates on Sargent’s portraits of women. And going there I expected to see mainly the aristocratic late-nineteen century world depicted by Henry James and Edith Wharton in their fiction. The exhibit even refers to a Harper’s article by James written in praise of Sargent.
But Sargent also shares with James an acute psychological perceptiveness. He is not interested merely in the process of painting. He’s intensely interested in his subjects. And like the best Roman portrait sculptors, he presents the individual personalities of each of them.
He is particularly good in presenting mature women such as Mrs. Charles Hunter and Madame Escudier. But his portraits of young peasant women and aristocratic socialites are equally perceptive.
Like all true artists, Sargent experimented, in his development, with several styles. While rooted in Victorian realism, he incorporated Impressionism. His 1888 painting Two Girls With Parasols could have been painted by Monet.
In later portraits, he achieves a synthesis between realism and Impressionism. In portraits such as 1889’s M. Carey Thomas, a work making effective use of chiaroscuro, he paints the faces of his subjects with realistic detail.
And these faces, emanating individual personalities, remain the centers of his paintings. But as the eye moves away from the face, Impressionism is incorporated. In paintings such as Mrs. A. Lawrence Rotch and Mrs. Gardiner Greene Hammond, a lightness of touch around the shoulders suggests fineness of fabric in the subjects’ gowns.
The Fenimore is also showing In Our Time, a collection of journalistic twentieth-century photographs. And the exhibit on Native American art and artifacts should also be looked at.