Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute

Williamstown, Mass.

(413) 458-9545


The Clark Art Institute Explores the Making of Fame, In Uncanny Spectacle: The Public Career of the Young John Singer Sargent


John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, 1887


In the 1870s and 1880s, when the art world first took on the form it has today, a young American expatriate named John Singer Sargent began carefully and deliberately crafting an international reputation. He succeeded so well that he became known in his own lifetime as the greatest painter of his era.

From June 15 through September 7, 1997, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute will present the exhibition Uncanny Spectacle: The Public Career of the Young John Singer Sargent, exploring how the artist, during the first decade of his career, manipulated the market using exhibition practices and patron systems of the time to develop a reputation for himself as a painter. Covering the period from 1877 to 1887--from the debut of Sargent's work in the Paris Salon to the artist's permanent relocation to London and first professional visit to the United States--the exhibition will present 35 paintings by Sargent drawn from public and private collections around the world. These works are considered by critics to be the best of his career and include Madame X (Virginie Avengno Gautreau) (The Metropolitan Museum of Art), the notorious portrait that made viewers think the audacious Sargent had at last gone too far for the sensibilities of his Paris audience, and Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (Tate Gallery, London), a painting of light and mood that is the masterpiece of his early English career. The show will be seen only at the Clark.


John Singer Sargent, Madame X (Virginie Avegno Gautreau), 1884


According to Marc Simpson, curator of the exhibition, "Just as Sargent's skills as a painter were not supernatural gifts but hard-won achievements, the foundations of his fame were laid not simply by chance or good fortune but by determined, focused effort. In Uncanny Spectacle, we see how he launched a multiple-front assault on fame, in Paris, New York, and London, pursuing a high-risk strategy here, hedging his bets there, and eventually gaining a reputation as one of the great figures of his age--in the words of Auguste Rodin, the 'Van Dyck of our times.'"

On view in the exhibition will be Dr. Pozzi at Home (Armand Hammer Collection, UCLA at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, Los Angeles), one of Sargent's most startling paintings; Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron (Des Moines Art Center), notable for the compellingly direct pose of its two young sitters; Fumee d'ambre gris (Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute), a tour-de-force study of creams and whites; and Oyster Gatherers of Cancale (Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), a genre painting which met with much success in the Salon of 1878.

According to Michael Conforti, Director of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, "This show makes an important contribution to our understanding of one of the most natural and gifted painters of the nineteenth century. The public that regularly flocks to our museum each summer from around the world will be given a special treat, probably surprised that this institution, so focused on research and scholarship in the history of art, can apply those goals to the organization of an exhibition of such thematic vigor, visual majesty, and broad public appeal."

John Singer Sargent, Dr. Pozzi at Home, 1881


In conjunction with the exhibition Uncanny Spectacle: The Public Career of the Young John Singer Sargent, Yale University Press will publish a catalogue of the same title. Michael Conforti has contributed the foreword, and Richard Ormond, Director of the National Maritime Museum in London, has written the introduction, giving on overview of the issues to be addressed. The major essays are by H. Barbara Weinberg of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, writing on Sargent's artistic training and his relationship with his teacher, Carolus-Duran, and by Marc Simpson, on Sargent and his critics. The catalogue includes 110 illustrations, 38 in full color, with entries on each work in the exhibition and an appendix on Sargent's exhibition history through 1887. The 240-page catalogue will be available for $40 in hardcover and will be published in June. In autumn 1997, Yale University Press will also issue the first of a multiple volume catalogue raisonne of Sargent's work, by Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray.


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Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 1997 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

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