Vernon Lee, 1881, Courtesy Tate
Madeleine Thiele (Aberystwyth University) reviews Tate's recent Queer British Art exhibition, where Sargent makes an appearance.
In reference to Sargent's Vernon Lee:
Mistaking girls for boys and boys for girls, brings us to Sargent’s Vernon Lee (1881, Tate). Vernon Lee was the pseudonym of the writer Violet Paget (1856-1935). She, and her family, were great friends with Sargent and his, having met when they were neighbours in Nice. Lee and Sargent remained friends throughout their lives and this wonderful animated portrait memorialises their friendship with the words ‘to my friend Violet’ written through the very paint on the top right of the painting. The work has an energy and an impressionistic quality to it, perhaps in part due to the influence of French styles and Sargent’s Parisian training but also having been painted in just three hours.
Lee sports a decidedly masculine look, both in clothes and with her close cropped hair and round glasses which is in keeping with reports of her general demeanour and self-conscious masculine presentation. Lee’s cropped hair is similar to the look Dora Carrington sported, and her work was also present within the show. In other images of Lee by Sargent such as the 1889 drawing of her in the Ashmolean, Lee has a decidedly masculine look to her, perhaps even a Wildean or Bosie-seque style to her. In Sargent’s painting though, there remains a softness to Lee’s face and features which feels feminine: she is both masculine and feminine and our critical gaze is disrupted by this playing bridging of gender. Interestingly, despite this wonderful Sargent work being included the exhibition did nothing to examine or unpeel the layers of intrigue and suggestion about Sargent’s own sexuality which it should have done, or at least could have done. A surprising absence which was perhaps a practical one for some of the obvious candidates for the Queer exhibition would have been required for the Sargent Watercolour exhibition currently on at Dulwich which crossed. Queer British Art would have carried greater weight if we had been able to see works like Sargent’s Male Nude (1920, UCL), rather than De Morgan’s Aurora, to enable a conversation about queer context which this work surely has greater likelihood of carrying.
By Madeleine Emerald Thiele