Two Museum Visits

On a missing Rembrandt and the genius of John Singer Sargent.

The Artist in His Studio, Rembrandt, ca. 1826–1828

We drove to Boston last April to look at two paintings. One of them — Rembrandt’s The Artist in His Studio — was missing, and no one at the Museum of Fine Arts could tell us exactly where it was. The display case meant to house the work was empty except for the two hooks on which it usually hung and a printed caption describing everything about the absent panel except the reason why it wasn’t there.

One thing I could tell from the dimensions of the case, however, was that the painted panel was much smaller than I had anticipated it being. My expectation of a larger composition had been set by the imaginative capacity Simon Schama endows it with at the outset of his mammoth book, Rembrandt’s Eyes, in which he reflects upon this self-portrait before an easel as a key to his subject’s art. Schama writes: “So this is not a picture of a painter catching himself in the act. It is, in fact, quite free of the narcissism of his armored dandy self-portraits. This time, Rembrandt is not lost in self-admiration; he is lost in thought. And the image he delivers is not one he has seen in a glass, but in his mind’s eye. Insofar as one could ever be made, this is a picture of in-sight.”

On that Saturday morning in the MFA, however, the “in-sight” was all in the eye of the beholder, as The Artist in His Studio had no presence at all, except the one I carried with me inside my own head. Inquiry as to its whereabouts got us nowhere, although everyone we consulted offered assurances that it had not gone far: it had been “there yesterday,” was “always on display,” would surely “be back soon.” But, alas, not today, not now.

So off we went in search of the other destination painting we pursued, John Singer Sargent’s very large canvas The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit. Sargent’s group portrait of his friend and fellow painter Boit’s four daughters — ages 8, 14, 12, and 4 (moving across the painting from left to right) — places them in a visual chamber of secrets that summons some of the compositional spirit of Velázquez’s Las Meninas (which, in its own way, is something of a grand opera version of the artistic self-consciousness exhibited, on an intimate scale, in Rembrandt’s The Artist in His Studio­).

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, John Singer Sargent, 1882

I’ve always loved Sargent’s depiction of the Boit children, each of whom is given a separate presence, a kind of emergent psychology, within the shadowed space. No doubt a large part of my affection for it stems from an afternoon some two decades ago, when our younger daughter, Iris, at the time halfway in age between to the two youngest of Sargent’s subjects, had her impatience with hours of museum-going arrested, and her frustration consoled, by the sight of the four sisters nearly as large as life; without a word, she sat on the settee in front of the work and stared at it until we dragged her away some fifteen minutes later. She has no memory of this now, but I’ve never forgotten the way her anxious being was held rapt for a while on a long-ago afternoon.

In fact, the memory of my now adult daughter as a fidgeting child stopped in her tracks by unexpected art — my own in-sightful picture, you might say — was one of the reasons I wanted to revisit The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that what struck me when I stood in front of it again is the way Sargent conjures the fraught adventure of growing up so completely, as if he were creating not a portrait of the Boit daughters, but of childhood itself. And yet, posed amid shadows and empty space, the girls are given discrete identities; the eldest daughter is almost entirely withdrawn, retreating quietly into a larger if more uncertain existence. As the viewer’s eye moves from foreground to background, from the youngest child sitting in front to the figures of her three elder siblings, who retreat as their ages increase from clear light into encroaching shadows, from the here-and-now of childhood into the unknown evenings of their lives to come, it’s difficult not to dwell on the past — on childhood gone and children grown — and, as Richard Wilbur lovingly put it, “To recollect that, while it lived, the past / Was a rushed present, fretful and unsure.” There all of that was, captured in oils by John Singer Sargent, which more than made up for an elusive Rembrandt.

Portraits by Sargent: William Butler Yeats, Eleonora Randolph Sears, Robert Henry Benson, Ethel Barrymore

I was in the Cleveland airport a couple of months ago when I got a call from one of my oldest friends. Being old enough now that most of my old friends are in fact old, picking up an unexpected call is always shadowed with a little trepidation, so I was relieved, and happily surprised, to hear that he was calling from the Morgan Library in Manhattan to encourage me to see the exhibition of charcoal portraits by John Singer Sargent that had just delighted him. His recommendation came with a specific instruction: look at the drawings from twelve inches away.

In the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day I finally got to the Morgan. The show, as promised, was revelatory. The gallery that held it gathered maybe three score of the likenesses of friends, social celebrities, and artistic luminaries that the artist, having wearied of his phenomenally successful career as a portraitist in oils, had taken to drawing in single sittings lasting three hours or so. Even at a glance, Sargent’s preternatural skill was apparent, bestowing upon each figure a reserve of personality almost as striking as the draughtsman’s facility. The human nature on display was stunning in its variety and exactitude.

I took a quick tour around the exhibition before following my friend’s advice, admiring from a few feet away the portraits’ beauty and declarative eloquence. The young William Butler Yeats, for example, seemed to emanate from the shadows of poetry itself, finding his vocation within the frame. Further along the same wall, the socialite athlete Eleonora Randolph Sears locked the viewer’s attention with a magnetism strong, alluring, confident. Around a partition, tucked in a corner, Robert Henry Benson banker, Trustee of the National Gallery, and patron of the artist, exuded an alertness that suggested he’d be a fit protagonist for a dramatic as well as a commercial enterprise; I had a suspicion that, from across the room, another Sargent subject, Henry James, had his novelist’s eye on Benson.

Then, my friend’s insight in my ear, I began a more intimate inspection. Generally speaking, pictures can lose definition the closer one gets to them, thereby gaining a different kind of visual interest, one that is enhanced once one steps away again, allowing the imagery or larger architecture of the composition to come into broader focus, sometimes magically. Which is to say that normally we like to step back to get the full scope. Not with these portraits: their imaginative dimensions, their compositional fluency, increased as one approached, so that one witnessed an intensifying not only of focus but also of character, as if who the person was had been conjured by concentration and transmuted into an image both more supple and more permanent than flesh. All portraits are supposed to do something like this, of course; in these by Sargent, from twelve inches away, you could watch it happen: face after face captured by his gaze, fixed in time but just as uncanny in its possession of its subject as the picture of Dorian Gray.

Now: Author, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die. Then: publisher and chief bookseller, A Common Reader.

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