Grand Tourist

The DAM shines a light on John Singer Sargent's love affair with Italy.

For the past ten years or so, the Denver Art Museum has presented one important exhibit after another, focusing on art from the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first ones of the twentieth. As a result, Denver audiences have enjoyed numerous explorations of such relevant topics as impressionism, post-impressionism and early modernism. And major figures such as Matisse, Homer and, most recently, Bonnard, have been seen in solo presentations.

It's been wonderful, hasn't it?

The DAM's director, Lewis Sharp, has been pretty savvy to push this type of sure-to-please programming, because the movements and artists of that time are guaranteed to attract viewers and therefore generate ticket sales. After all, the period from the 1870s to the 1930s was a watershed in the history of art, and its "isms" are beloved by the cognoscenti and the hoi polloi alike. (Acting against type, the recently closed Bonnard show did not do as well as expected -- but it did have a blizzard to contend with and all that free-floating French-bashing in the air during the its run. C'est la vie.)

"The Sulphur Match," by John Singer Sargent, oil on 
canvas.
"The Sulphur Match," by John Singer Sargent, oil on canvas.
"The Libreria," oil on canvas.
"The Libreria," oil on canvas.

The beat goes on, and there's another traveling show with a focus on art of the fin de siècle at the DAM: the thoroughly diverting Sargent and Italy, installed in the large Hamilton galleries off the main lobby. As may be discerned from its title, Sargent and Italy examines the Italian works done by American painter John Singer Sargent.

The elegant exhibit debuted at Ferrara Arte in Italy last fall before going on to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art this past winter and spring and finally winding up its tour in Denver. It was not originally set to come here, but the DAM's head curator, Timothy Standring, snagged it at the last minute. During one of his frequent trips to Italy, Standring ran into Andrea Buzzoni, director of Ferrara Arte. Buzzoni mentioned to Standring that he wanted to borrow one of the DAM's Sisleys, setting the stage for a return favor. So, as they say, one hand washed the other, and Standring found himself in the right place to score the show.

Loans to Sargent and Italy have been made by renowned museums around the world, including the Tate in London, the Metropolitan in New York, and the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna in Rome. There are also loans from many private collections, the majority of which have never before seen the gallery light of day. The British curators of the show, Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, made this a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see these Italian pieces all in one place. And who other than Ormond and Kilmurray, the co-authors of the Sargent catalogue raisonné, would even know where to find them, considering that a good deal were lent anonymously?

Sargent worked mostly in Europe around a century ago and is now, as he was then, best known for his society portraits, in which wealthy subjects were made to appear glamorous and beautiful -- even when neither was a true reflection of the sitter. In this way, he was the Andy Warhol of his time -- and like Warhol, Sargent was a gay dandy reveling in the chic and fashion-conscious world of the rich.

These monumental commissioned portraits earned Sargent not only his keep, but his place in the history of art, as well. Sargent and Italy begins with one of these portraits, "Mrs. Ralph Curtis," an oil on canvas from 1898, but it's the only one of this type in the exhibit, because while he was in Italy, Sargent painted for his own amusement and not according to the demands of commissions. The show, therefore, looks at the work done during the artist's version of an annual busman's holiday.

Like many nineteenth-century American artists, Sargent loved Italy. But unlike others of his generation, he was actually born there. Sargent's parents, Dr. Fitzwilliam Sargent, a descendant of a notable Boston family, and Mary Newbold Singer, a Philadelphia socialite, expatriated to Italy and chose to raise their son in Florence. Sargent first revealed his artistic talent as a child, and in 1874, at age eighteen, he went to Paris to study with the academician Carolus-Duran. Two years later, he made his first trip to the United States, attending the 1876 centennial exposition in Philadelphia. After that, he returned to Italy on a regular basis, and it is the paintings done on these many trips that fill the DAM show.

By the 1880s, Sargent had come into his own as a portrait artist both in the United States and Europe and maintained a studio and residence in Paris. But success did not come without scandal. In the Paris Salon of 1884, Sargent exhibited one of his best-remembered pieces, "Madame X," which showed an unidentified woman in a black evening gown with a plunging neckline. The informal pose of the woman and her revealing dress caused an uproar, and Sargent felt compelled to leave Paris for good. ("Madame X" might be even more scandalous than previously thought: See this week's Artbeat, page 57.) The artist moved to London, where he spent the rest of his life -- when he wasn't traveling to Italy, that is. In 1925, the day before he was to leave for the States to oversee an installation of a retrospective of his work at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Sargent died.

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