Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Chase vs Sargent

A wonderful corner of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Recently, I was able to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  If you haven't yet seen the new American wing, you really need to make the trip.  It's well worth the effort.  While there, I took a moment to sit in front of two favorite artists' works that happened to be displayed side by side - William Merritt Chase's Lady in Black and John Singer Sargent's famous Madame Gautreau.  

As they are hung right next to each other it's hard not to make comparisons.  Even the wall placard notes how Chase's composition seems to quote Sargent's, perhaps especially with the placement of the table.  I sat there for quite sometime doing a thumbnail sketch of the beautiful Lady In Black.  As I drew, I found more and more points of comparison.  Now, it is not my intention to upset any Sargent fans. I am indeed quite a fan myself - but I have to say in my humble opinion, the Chase painting is the more interesting portrait.  Madame X has become such an icon for artists in realist art circles, so perhaps my favoring Chase's work has more to do with my propensity to root for the seeming underdog?  I'm not sure, but I will try to remain as objective as possible.

John Singer Sargent, Madame Gautreau (aka Madame X), oil on canvas, 82 1/8 x 43 1/4 in, 1883-84

Sargent's painting of Madame X,  with her pinched waist, evening attire and averted gaze, doesn't allow us to witness her full personality.  We surely understand her status in life, but beyond that not much else is offered.  (I must note that as a figurative artist I totally understand his choice in painting her head turned to the side.  Who wouldn't want to paint that stunning profile?!  This perhaps accounts for the averted gaze).  We instead are shown the pomp and circumstance of an elite's commissioned portrait.  Even Mme X's feet are softly absorbed into shadow, further obscuring personal identity.  Because of this, I find the Chase work a more honest and to my contemporary taste, a more appealing depiction.  In Lady in Black we are presented with a woman (Ms. Marietta Benedict Cotton) who is more humble in her attire and confronting with her gaze.  She stands solidly grounded with one foot in light.  There is little apprehension or coyness to her gaze.  Though her gown is surely not today's casual, it does seem more reserved or down to earth.  Even the polish of her skin is not overly smooth, soft or pasty as Mme. X's seems.  The paint itself has more action, more color, and is overall more interesting.

William Merritt Chase, Lady in Black, oil on canvas, 74 1/4 x 36 5/16 in, 1888

Perhaps, the Chase work resonates because it is more approachable, more easily accessible, depicting a class that I am closer to understanding.  Or perhaps its more that I enjoy seeing a portrait that shows more of the character of an individual, not just the surface characteristics.  My husband argues that because of the averted gaze, the Mme. X painting is more enigmatic, is more open to being read as story.  While the first one reads as an honest depiction of an individual.  His point is well taken here.  I understand neither is wrong or makes for lesser of a painting.

Placed together, these two paintings evoke much thought and emotion. I look forward to returning to visit these two wonderful paintings again soon.  Let me know what you think?  Do you favor one more than another?

Here's the little sketch I did with a few random notes that I jotted down as well:
-note that there are more reds in the flesh of "Lady" 
-note the balance of edges up and down the figure:
left shoulder has soft edge - right shoulder hard
left sleeve hard edge - right sleeve soft
-note that the perspective of the table is off, but less awkward than the table leg meeting up with the corner of the composition in the Mme. X painting. 

Thanks for having a read.

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