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Gay Sisters, Bankers’ Consorts Dazzle in Sargent Show: Review

"Madame X" by John Singer Sargent. The work provoked a scandal at the Paris Salon in 1884. Critics objected to her pose, pallor and tight black dress. The painting is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art which has loaned preparatory drawings to the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, NY. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art via Bloomberg

I doubt John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) ever swung anything but a croquet mallet, but here in Cooperstown, New York, his pictures seem quite at home in the very stately Fenimore Art Museum.

The columned mansion in the neo-Georgian style is just a short walk from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, which I suspect attracts a few more visitors.

Certainly Main Street in the summer is a slow-moving miasma of beet-red people in shorts and flip-flops balancing baseball souvenirs and ice cream cones.

“Portraits in Praise of Women” presents paintings and drawings by the most celebrated artist of the Gilded Age. This was, among other things, a more formal time when people wore real clothes even in the summer.

Some of these women did more than spend the fortunes made by rapacious husbands and fathers. They devoted themselves to good causes, like advancing women to a status higher than chattel. The show praises them for their commitment -- and Sargent for his sympathetic depictions.

Born to American parents who preferred Europe, Sargent lived in France and England, shuttling to the U.S. when large commissions beckoned. In 1887, for instance, banker Henry Marquand spent about $60,000 in today’s currency to have his aging wife painted in subdued blacks, her kindly face smiling above a fabulous flutter of frenzied white.

A Goddess

When required, Sargent adopted the grand style of 18th-century masters so that Mrs. Abbott Lawrence Rotch, for example, could look at her portrait thinking that she was a goddess, despite her name. The dapper, bearded Sargent knew how to please and keep the conversation flowing during long sessions with his lady sitters. He himself never married and left few traces of a private life (though I think we can assume he would have chosen, say, Henry James over Edith Wharton, even without a gun pointed at his head).

Which brings me to two substantial portraits in the show: M. Carey Thomas, the pioneering president of Bryn Mawr, the women’s college in Pennsylvania, and Mary Elizabeth Garrett, one of her dear friends. Thomas had many.

At Bryn Mawr, at the end of the 19th century, it seems that you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a fabulously wealthy lesbian who wished to write Miss Thomas large checks and take her on luxurious trips to Europe.

Money largely protected these women from scrutiny and they used their resources well. Garrett, for instance, subsidized the new medical school at Johns Hopkins only on the condition that women were granted equal access.

‘Madame X’

A few sketches for “Madame X” recall the greatest disaster of his career. Sargent spent months trying to capture the lacquered beauty, pallor and unusual profile of this American nitwit who had trouble sitting still. Madame, the very young wife of banker Pierre Gautreau, hoped the portrait would enhance her social standing.

Things turned out differently. Though it would end up being the most famous portrait he ever painted, the picture was heaped with such abuse at the Paris Salon in 1884 that Sargent soon removed himself to London. Madame X wept a lot. She would age badly and die a recluse in a house without mirrors.

Sargent kept the portrait in his studio, repainting a strap to make her look less wanton. Not long before his death, he sold the portrait to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I found her improbably stashed in the open storage depot of the Met’s American Wing opposite a homely grandfather clock because of some renovation or other. She looks terrible in the work lights, even more pallid than I remembered, as if someone had sucked out her last drop of blood. Why didn’t the Met send Madame to enjoy the summer in Cooperstown?

Major Museum

The Fenimore is a worthy setting. The mansion has morphed into a major destination since my last visit some 20 years ago. A splendid new wing houses the spectacular American Indian Art collection assembled by Eugene and Clare Thaw. And the welcoming cafe overlooks Lake Otsego, which long ago inspired the museum’s novelist namesake, James Fenimore Cooper.

“Portraits in Praise of Women” has an attractive catalog with essays by Patricia Hills and Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz. The gift shop also offers Horowitz’s absorbing biography of Thomas, and Deborah Davis’s lively “Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X.”

At the Fenimore Art Museum, 5798 State Highway 80, Cooperstown, New York. Information: +1-607-547-1400;

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, Bloomberg News’s arts and culture section. Any opinions are her own.)

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