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Fenimore Art Museum exhibit shows skill of portrait master John Singer Sargent
'John Singer Sargent: In Praise of Women' at Fenimore Art Museum, Lake Road in Cooperstown
john singer sergent.jpg  
Stand in front of a portrait by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), and you feel as if you're looking into the soul of his subject.

Sargent, probably the last great portrait painter in the grandest sense of the word, painted large-format portraits of the nouveaux rich of the United States, Great Britain and France and was at his peak in the 1880s and 1890s. A Sargent portrait, however, goes well beyond merely capturing the likeness of his indulged subject.

Sargent tells us something more profound about his models, something revelatory about the person that lingers with you. Some of the clues coalesce in his elegant brushstrokes to evoke a certain mood. They're also there in the ways he depicts his subjects' eyes, their demeanors and how they wear their finely cut clothes.

Through Dec. 31, a very fine exhibition of Sargent's portraits of women painted over a wide expanse of his illustrious career remains on view at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown. This dazzling show, titled 'John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Praise of Women,' is comprised of approximately 25 paintings drawn from public and private collections from around the country.

Paul S. D'Ambrosio, vice president and chief curator at the Fenimore Art Museum, says the exhibition explores three main aspects of Sargent's work; the artist's styles, his media and the types of women he painted.

'The show is also a great synopsis of his (Sargent's) career,' D'Ambrosio tells me during a recent visit to the museum. The works span some 40 years of Sargent's prodigious career, from the 1870s to 1910.

D'Ambrosio says he built the show around three key paintings.
'I wanted to hit a few of the highlights,' he says.

First, is the imposing portrait of 'Mrs. Abbott Lawrence Rotch,' (1903), measuring 56 inches by 36 inches, which D'Ambrosio describes as 'an example of Sargent's high style and fashionable portraiture.' There's also the very refined portrait of 'Lady Eden,' (1906), a late piece with a neo-classical feel and the third, is the Impressionist-influenced painting of Sargent's sister titled 'Two Girls with Parasols at Fladbury,' (1888).

'Of course, 'Madame X' was such an important painting in his career, we had to represent it somehow,' D'Ambrosio says of the controversial portrait Sargent painted of Madame Gautreau, an American-born, Parisian socialite in the early 1880s. The painting caused a scandal when exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1884 because of the suggestive way in which Sargent posed Gautreau and the revealing nature of her dress. It nearly destroyed his career, and is essential to any discussion or exhibition of Sargent.

In this show, two elegant graphite studies, or preparatory drawings represent this seminal painting. They are on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the painting resides.

Sargent also painted women of professional achievement, situating them in somber backgrounds and presenting them in stately poses befitting their positions and responsibilities.

'Mary Elizabeth Garrett,' (1907), a co-founder of the Johns Hopkins Medical School and 'M. Carey Thomas,' (1899) the president of Bryn Mawr College, and also a co-founder of Johns Hopkins Medical School exude a quiet confidence and firm determination as they gaze out at the viewer.

In addition to women of professional and social achievement, Sargent also painted women of exotic beauty. Using favorite models in 'Rosina Ferrara, Head of a Girl,' (1878) and 'Carmella Bertagna,' (1879) Sargent portrays two women, one from Capri, the other Parisian, respectively in decidedly more natural poses.

Throughout all of these paintings, it's impossible not to recognize and admire Sargent's deft skills with a brush and his ability to move lush swathes of paint across the canvas in a flowing shorthand of dabs and daubs. His portraits are not only character studies; they also demonstrate masterful manipulations of light and shadow, color and tone. Sargent was a master who is remembered best for how he remembered others.

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