Art Review

Artbeat

The exhibit ReconFIGURED: Persons and Personas of the Permanent Collection, on display at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center (30 West Dale Street, Colorado Springs, 1-719-634-5581), includes an eclectic assortment of pieces that range widely in style and date. One standout among this mixed bag is the institution's famous John Singer Sargent. The painting, "Young Lady in White," from 1889-1890, is a portrait of Elsie Palmer, who was a daughter of Colorado Springs founder General William Palmer.

The painting is a major example of Sargent's signature style: Miss Palmer wears a white gown, which picks up the light, and is seated against a background of gothic wainscoting, which absorbs it. Sargent depicts Palmer as an almost regal figure, with a wistful expression on her face. But Palmer, who suffered from severe mental illness, was anything but wistful.

"Young Lady in White" is unquestionably more significant, and more valuable, than anything in Sargent and Italy, the blockbuster that just opened at the Denver Art Museum (see review, page 55). And the CSFAC has another important -- and intriguing -- Sargent: "Count Albert de Belleroche," an oil on canvas from 1880-1882 (above). It's not on display, however, because it's on its way back from New York, where it was shown in the Metropolitan's Manet/Velázquez exhibit that just closed last month. This painting depicts the handsome young count dressed as a matador. It was done just a few years before Sargent's scandalous "Madame X," a painting of a then-unknown woman (later identified as Madame Gautreau) wearing a gown with a plunging neckline.

But was it really she, or was it someone else? Was it -- gasp! -- Belleroche in drag, as some art historians have recently claimed? If that's true, it makes the scandal easier to understand. Plus there's the fact that Sargent, who was gay, had a romantic relationship with Belleroche. It's a hoot, isn't it? That a painting of one of Sargent's male lovers would wind up in Colorado Springs, and that the matador in that painting just might be the femme fatale of "Madame X"?

ReconFIGURED, including Sargent's "Young Lady in White," closes on August 31.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia