John Singer Sargent
This week’s LGBT blog post highlights the American expatriate artist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), who is widely celebrated for his portraits of the upper-classes of France, Great Britain, and the United States. His landscape and historical works also brought him great fame. Sargent’s artistic range is reflected in the Newark Museum’s collection, which includes his portrait of Mrs. Charles Thursby and Camping at Lake O’Hara.
Sargent was notorious in his lifetime for keeping his opinions – be they about art or his life – close to the cuff. Some Sargent scholars, nevertheless, have shown the possibility for understanding Sargent ‘the person’ through an analysis of his art. Art historian and curator Trevor Fairbrother has promoted this approach that recognizes Sargent’s attraction to the male body by closely reading the visual evidence in his art. Fairbrother has argued that the sensuality and erotic attitudes found in several of Sargent’s depictions of male subjects (in particular the artist’s studies of nude men) reveal a homoerotic sensibility and stand as evidence of the artist’s own repressed homosexuality
As Fairbrother acknowledges, Sargent did not leave any overt evidence articulating his sexual preference. This is not surprising when one considers the historical climate at the turn of the last century. In legal and medical treatises, the homosexual – or “invert” as he was originally labeled – was cited by those in power as a deviant type of manhood. Having permanently settled in London a year after the Labouchère Amendment – a law that effectively criminalized homosexuality – was passed in England in 1885, the possibility for Sargent to express outwardly his
sexuality was to all intents and purposes outlawed. The reality of this restriction was made all the more apparent by the prosecution of his neighbor Oscar Wilde in 1895 who was prosecuted under the Labouchère Amendment for “gross indecency with another male person.”
Sargent’s silence on his sexuality would have been required for him to function within his society. Although we will likely never conclusively know his sexual orientation, Sargent’s work remains the most compelling evidence.
– Mary-Kate O’Hare, Curator of American Art
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