Portrait of the Artist as Enigma

A photo portrait of Paul Fisher

Photo by Lisa Abitbol

Photo by Lisa Abitbol

Professor of American Studies Paul Fisher has spent the last decade in the company of artist John Singer Sargent and his circle. In November, Fisher’s new biography, The Grand Affair: John Singer Sargent in His World, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

“I’ve been thinking about Sargent ever since I was an undergraduate,” says Fisher, who recalls lingering over the paintings at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a haven for him when he was an undergraduate at Harvard.

Sargent was an enigma, a deeply private, decorous man who never married and gave no interviews. After his death, his sisters destroyed his letters and papers. He dressed like a businessman and painted members of high society—gorgeous pictures that somehow revealed more than their sitters might ever have wished. He was a member of Paris salons and befriended British intellectuals, yet traveled with a lightweight boxer who became his valet and model. He toured the world with his friend and patron Isabella Stewart Gardner—and painted a portrait of her so intimate that she never displayed it in her lifetime.

“The blurry image of him on the cover is there for a reason, because he’s so hard to pin down,” says Fisher. “What I wanted to do with this biography is figure out what’s going on behind the scenes that makes his paintings so extraordinary and continually fresh, because people always see new things in them.”

Between his death in 1925 and about 1980, Sargent was considered old-fashioned, Fisher says. “We’re talking about the mid-century period when abstract painting was in vogue and he was considered a very Victorian, old-fashioned, stuffy painter. And then in the 1980s, people started to rediscover him.”

Part of the resurgence of interest was due to Sargent’s grandnephew, art historian Richard Ormond, co-author of the nine-volume Sargent catalog of some 2,000 paintings published by Yale, and curator of many Sargent exhibitions. “But part of it was that people started seeing contemporary issues in Sargent, things like feminism, queer history, and social complexity of various kinds, and began to see him as a much more interesting painter,” Fisher says. “Some people might object to the characterization of Sargent as ‘queer,’ but I think more people will find that complexity a source of his contemporary aesthetic and social relevance.”

The exact expression of Sargent’s sexuality, including his relationship with Thomas McKeller, the Black Bostonian who posed for the figure of Atlas in Sargent’s murals at the Boston Public Library, and also for intense, intimate, private sketches, is a question Fisher leaves open. “I’m not claiming that he’s quote-unquote gay,” he says. “That is a crude and simple way of talking about it. I think he was a nuanced person. It’s always very hard with historical work to say what kind of experience someone had or didn’t have. I do think Sargent is embedded in the whole complex history of how people coped with their own personal desires.”

Fisher started out thinking the book would be about the men in Sargent’s life, he says, “but it turns out to be as much about the women, his mother and sisters, and those rule-breaking women that he admired”—women like Isabella Stewart Gardner.

“Sargent would never have had a career had he not painted these really interesting, dynamic women, had he not been influenced by them, and had they not been the very image of freedom that he chased,” he says. “They had freedom that he didn’t, and they had figured it out when he hadn’t. They were breaking out of domesticity. They were breaking through the prejudices against them.”

This fall, Fisher is once again teaching his popular course AMST 240: The Rise of an American Empire: Wealth and Conflict in the Gilded Age. “I send students to Boston, to the wonderful Sargent room at the Museum of Fine Arts,” he says. “I’m talking about contemporary students, born in the 21st century. And they find him pretty compelling—especially when you let them know that there’s a lot about gender and sexuality in these paintings that’s pretty modern. You know, our students don’t always know they’re interested in history, but when you start showing them how relevant it is to their own experiences and conflicts, they get very interested. We’re living in a new Gilded Age, so it all fits.”

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