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Whistler, Sargent, and Tanner: Americans Abroad in the Late 1800s


Most major American artists have studied in Europe, and many choose to remain abroad. Indeed, during the late nineteenth century, several of the world’s most influential painters were American expatriates.

James McNeill Whistler led the aesthetic movement that cultivated color harmonies and simplified shapes as “art for art’s sake.” When a boy, he took drawing lessons in St. Petersburg, Russia, and then learned print techniques while making government maps in Washington, D.C. Later in London, Paris, and Venice, Whistler endlessly refined and adjusted his prints and paintings, often taking years to complete his abstracted stylizations.

John Singer Sargent, hailed on both sides of the Atlantic as a society portraitist, was educated in Florence, Rome, and Nice by his wealthy parents. His avant-garde style, founded on the bravura brushwork of the seventeenth-century old masters Frans Hals and Diego Velázquez, gained popular acclaim. Making a sensational debut in Paris in his early twenties, Sargent became famous for his rapid execution of oils and watercolors.

James McNeill Whistler, American, 1834 - 1903, Gold and Brown: Self-Portrait, c. 1896-1898, oil on canvas, Gift of Edith Stuyvesant Gerry, 1959.3.2

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Henry Ossawa Tanner, son of an African American minister, left the United States partly to escape racial prejudice. After studying under Thomas Eakins in Philadelphia, Tanner departed in 1891 for Paris, where he won fame and awards for his paintings of biblical subjects.

The Seine indicates that Tanner was familiar with the French impressionists' on-the-spot observations of nature. This tiny oil sketch reduces the Paris skyline to a violet band silhouetted between a pink sunset and its reflection in the river Seine. The Trocadéro Palace, an ornate exhibition hall built for the 1878 World’s Fair, dominates the view, while a lone figure on the shadowy dock recalls the mystical aura of Tanner's religious scenes.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, American, 1859 - 1937, The Seine, c. 1902, oil on canvas, Gift of the Avalon Foundation, 1971.57.1

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A thin, narrow-shouldered woman holding a black shawl close to her body walks toward us down an alleyway past a pair of men wearing all black in this horizontal painting. One of the men’s faces is in shadow but all three people seem to have light skin. The woman’s shawl wraps around her shoulders and the bottom hem, edged with fringe, kicks around her shins over a long, cream-white skirt. A stroke of magenta pink at her neck, perhaps her shirt, is echoed in the deep pink of her closed, full lips. Her gaze seems to be downcast, and her features, like much of the rest of the scene, are loosely painted. A touch of coral red on her head could be a flower or decoration in her brown hair, which seems to be pulled back. Behind her and to our right, two men stand, presumably talking, near a building. Both wear black hats and the collars of their black coats seem to be lined with fur. One man leans against the building and looks toward the woman. The other man looks at his companion, his face in shadow. In the distance, a man and woman sit at a small table on the far side of the alley. Buildings rising along the walkway to our left and right fill the composition and extend off the top edge. At least two buildings close off our view across the far end of the alley. A higher structure behind one of them seems to catch sunlight with a touch of bright, cream white, but the scene in the alley is softly lit, in diffused shadow. The faces of all the buildings are ivory or pale peach, and most have forest-green shutters. On the buildings, the paint is applied in rough layers to mimic stucco or plaster. Throughout the work, loose brushstrokes are visible. The artist signed the work in dark paint in the lower right corner: “John S. Sargent.”

Although best known for his fashionable formal portraits, John Singer Sargent was equally adept at landscapes and scenes of daily life. His early fame and astonishing facility with a brush prompted the American expatriate novelist Henry James, his close friend, to comment on “the slightly 'uncanny' spectacle of a talent which on the very threshold of its career has nothing more to learn.”

Another of Sargent’s friends was the French impressionist Claude Monet, with whom he shared a love of painting en plein air, or out-of-doors. Street in Venice, created during the second of Sargent's numerous visits to that city, was done on the spot. Mediterranean sunshine penetrates the narrow confines of the Calle Larga dei Proverbi, a back alley near the Grand Canal.

The emptiness of the silent street implies that Sargent depicted siesta, the time when many Italians rest for three hours at midday. One of two men conversing in the shadows is distracted by a girl strolling alone. Her skirt’s rustling hem and shawl’s flowing fringe are rendered with indistinct strokes that suggest her rapid pace will soon carry her beyond his lingering gaze. This combination of technical skill and emotional intensity goes far toward explaining why Sargent received more honors and medals than any previous artist, European or American.

John Singer Sargent, American, 1856 - 1925, Street in Venice, 1882, oil on wood, Gift of the Avalon Foundation, 1962.4.1

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Shown from the shins up, a woman with pale skin, iron-gray hair, and wearing a high-collared, long-sleeved black dress, stands next to a table against a caramel-brown wall in this vertical portrait painting. Her body is angled to our right and she looks out at us from the corners of her dark eyes under arched brows. She has a straight nose and slight jowls along her jaw line. Her thin, coral-red lips are set in a straight line. A round pearl hangs from the earlobe we can see. Her hair is parted down the middle and pulled back under a black cap or cloth. Glints on that hair covering suggest pearls or other ornaments. Three jewels, also perhaps pearls, glisten at her high collar and black beads catch the light at the shoulders and cuffs of the puffy, long sleeves. The bottom edge of the tight-fitting bodice also seems to be beaded, and the full skirt flares out at the hips. The sleeves end with white, ruffled cuffs. She holds a closed black fan with her left hand, on our right, and wears a gold ring on that pinky finger. She stands just behind the corner of a cherry-red table edged with gold, to our left, and grips the corner with the fingertips of her other hand. The portrait is painted with loose but blended brushstrokes, giving it a soft look. The artist signed the painting in the upper left corner, “John S. Sargent” with the date in the upper right, “1888.”

Eleanora Iselin, a banker’s wife, was portrayed in New York City during one of Sargent’s many transatlantic trips. Arriving for her first sitting, the sixty-six-year-old matron was appalled when Sargent insisted that she pose in the street clothes she wore rather than in one of the sumptuous French gowns carried by her maid.

Her severe black dress transforms Mrs. Iselin’s image into a pillar of austerity, glinting with black beads of jet gemstones. Such superb imitations of surface textures once prompted a critic to remark that Sargent’s brushwork could distinguish “paste from diamonds.” Seldom bothering to flatter his sitters, the painter did nothing to disguise Mrs. Iselin’s large ear or to conceal her contempt as she tapped impatiently on the table. Thirty years after painting Mrs. Adrian Iselin, Sargent recalled, “I cannot forget that dominating little finger.”

Sargent’s phenomenal success as a portraitist was due in part to his prominent New England colonial ancestry, which made him the social equal to or better of many of his patrons. Rebelling against his popularity, he continually raised his prices to discourage potential clients, but the higher costs had the opposite effect of placing his portraits in even greater demand.

John Singer Sargent, American, 1856 - 1925, Eleanora O'Donnell Iselin (Mrs. Adrian Iselin), 1888, oil on canvas, Gift of Ernest Iselin, 1964.13.1

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A woman with pale skin and dark brown hair is swathed in silky fabric as she reclines along a gray couch in this horizontal painting. Her head rests along the backrest of the sofa to our left, so her body extends to our right. Her torso is wrapped in a voluminous, ivory-white scarf or wrap. The scarf wraps tightly around her neck, and the bottom edge, near her knees, has a wide, indigo-blue pattern of ovals and vegetal forms. Her shimmering silver gray skirt is painted loosely with baby and sky blue, olive and sage green, and white strokes, and it drapes over the cushions and down the front of the couch. Her hands are clasped so her interwoven fingers rest at her navel. She looks down and off to our right. A table to our left is edged with gold. The wall behind her, above the couch, is painted with long streaks of eggshell white and pale turquoise. The gold frame of a dark painting hanging over the couch spans the width of the composition. Near the upper right corner of the canvas, the artist included a signature and as if he had signed the painting within this painting with loose, dark letters: “John S. Sargent 1911.”

Exasperated by the demands of his sitters, Sargent proclaimed portraiture to be “a pimp’s profession” and by 1907 resolved never to accept another portrait commission. During his later years, the artist devoted himself to creating decorative murals for public buildings and to painting watercolors and small canvases purely for pleasure.

In 1911 Sargent vacationed with his sister’s family in Switzerland, where he painted Nonchaloir (“nonchalance”). A casual character study instead of a formal portrait, it depicts Sargent’s niece Rose-Marie Ormond Michel, whom he nicknamed “Intertwingle” because of her agile, intertwined poses. Influenced by the “art for art’s sake” movement, the painter unified the color scheme with the amber light of a lazy afternoon. The straight lines of the posh furnishings in the Swiss hotel accentuate the swift brushstrokes used to delineate his niece’s fingers, hair, cashmere shawl, and satin skirt.

Late in life, Sargent also returned to landscapes, working almost exclusively outdoors. He spent the autumn of 1908 relaxing on the Spanish island of Majorca. Valdemosa, Majorca: Thistles and Herbage on a Hillside is a tour de force of Sargent’s brushwork. Against the sandy soil, the sunny highlights that gleam from roots and twigs create abstract networks of white paint.

John Singer Sargent, American, 1856 - 1925, Nonchaloir (Repose), 1911, oil on canvas, Gift of Curt H. Reisinger, 1948.16.1

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We look slightly down at a woman with pale skin and two men with ruddy complexions sitting at a table near a railing overlooking a boat-clogged waterway in this horizontal painting. Only the corner of the table is visible in the lower right corner of the canvas. The woman sits next to one man on the far side of the table, and the third person leans onto the table from our right, along the edge of the composition. The table is covered with a dark, ruby-red, floral cloth. The red-haired woman wears a dark green dress and leans back, extending her right arm along the railing. Her back is to the river below, and she gazes directly ahead, to our right. The dark-haired, bearded man sitting to her left, our right, leans toward the cleanshaven, dark-haired man sitting across from him. That second man wears a cap, and he has a prominent nose and square jaw. Sailboats, rowboats, a steamship, and vessels of every size occupy much of the waterway. Rows of buildings extend along the river to our left and right, and trees line the distant horizon at the center of the painting. The river is a tan color and the pale blue sky is hazy.

Whistler inscribed "1861" at the lower right of this early canvas, but he reworked the picture extensively nearly four years later. He sketched the original composition in a letter to an associate and described the girl as "saying to her sailor: 'That's all very well my friend, but don't think you're the first.' You know, she winks and pokes fun at him." In this final revision, however, Whistler eliminated any risqué narrative and instead sought a mood of pensive isolation.

The background remains intact from the artist's first sessions at Wapping, a dockyard on the river Thames, east of London. Painting on site from an inn called The Angel, Whistler created the whole scene en plein air. Against the bright turquoise water and sky, the ships' masts and rigging are quickly sketched in orange and brown strokes.

For this work, Whistler hired Joanna Hiffernan, an artist's model known for her coppery red hair. She soon became his mistress and posed for The White Girl, also in the National Gallery. After finishing that composition in 1862, Whistler returned to Wapping. He repainted its foreground figure group into a harmony of russet browns and blue grays, which are darker shades of the pure oranges and blues in the setting. By its concentration on a consistent color scheme, this important canvas marks Whistler's major advancement toward "art for art's sake."

James McNeill Whistler, American, 1834 - 1903, Wapping, 1860-1864, oil on canvas, John Hay Whitney Collection, 1982.76.8

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After reworking the National Gallery's Wapping in 1864, Whistler decided to abandon painting outdoors. Thereafter, he boated on the river Thames to observe quietly London's mists, twilights, and starry evenings. Upon returning to his studio, Whistler created his later landscapes from memory or sketches. In Grey and Silver: Chelsea Wharf, the tenements and factories on the distant Battersea shoreline are transformed into a fantasy of spires and domes. A few diagonal spars enliven the quiet geometry of masts and hulls, docks and passersby.

The subtle tonal scheme is composed entirely of muted variations on the complementary colors of blue and orange. Whistler stated, "As music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight." In other words, various musical notes relate to a dominant key, just as various colors relate to a unifying hue in painting.

In writing a review about another nocturnal landscape, the British art critic John Ruskin accused Whistler of "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler sued Ruskin for libel in 1878. When a lawyer asked whether two days' work justified that picture's high price, Whistler curtly replied, "No. I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime." This famous retort established a legal precedent for artists' acquired experiences. Whistler won the case, but the proceedings left him bankrupt.

James McNeill Whistler, American, 1834 - 1903, Grey and Silver: Chelsea Wharf, c. 1864/1868, oil on canvas, Widener Collection, 1942.9.99

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Whistler claimed to excel Diego Velazquez, the seventeenth-century master from Andalusia, Spain. What creates the somber, Spanish mood in Whistler's Andalusian are the haughty beauty's backward swerve as well as the cool grays and warm tans that shimmer through her gown's black net fabric. The outfit, however, is no more Spanish than the model. Her layered sleeves and chignon, fashionable internationally during the 1890s, are worn here by Whistler's English sister-in-law.

Ethel Birnie Philip, daughter of a sculptor, married in 1895. The next year saw the death of her sister, who was Whistler's wife. This elegant depiction of light gleaming in the dark, though, represents neither a bride nor a mourner. Whistler firmly stated, "Art should be independent of clap-trap—should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism and the like."

In Brown and Gold: Self-Portrait, the dapper artist shows himself in his mid-sixties with a monocle and a streak of white hair. The only strong color is Whistler's proudest possession, the red lapel rosette that he had received in 1889 as a knight of the French Legion of Honor. Hovering at the right is an abstracted motif that served as Whistler's signature after the 1860s. It is a butterfly armed with a stinger.

James McNeill Whistler, American, 1834 - 1903, Mother of Pearl and Silver: The Andalusian, 1888(?)-1900, oil on canvas, Harris Whittemore Collection, 1943.6.1

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