The 'Curious' Nature of John Singer Sargent: An Exploration into Nineteenth Century Masculine Dualities

  • Liz Renes

    Liz Renes

  • November 23, 2016

El Jaleo: Danse de Gitanes, Courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Published in HARTS&Minds 1.1 (Spring 2013)

In her introduction to For Maurice: Five Unlikely Stories, Vernon Lee, recounting her childhood wanderings in Bologna with John Singer Sargent, stated “Curious, that was the dominant adjective in John’s appreciations.” Curious is indeed, a curious term. This word and its associates; bizarre, strange and exotic, appear habitually in the literature surrounding Sargent, including in critical reviews and personal letters. In the wider scope of the late nineteenth-century, the term has undeniable Aesthetic connotations, being used widely by Pater, Wilde and Lee herself, most notably in Pater’s discussion of the Mona Lisa from his Leonardo essay of 1869.

Current scholarship has explored the Aesthetic use of these terms as implying homosexual desire, which for Pater and many other aesthetes signified a duality or androgyny. Therefore, Vernon Lee’s description of Sargent’s fascination with the “curious” and “exotic” becomes contradictory to Sargent’s prototypically masculine persona, as exemplified in social accounts and critical reviews that repeatedly define him as the “penetrative” surgeon of human personality.

The aim of this paper is to explore the public versus private identity of the portraitist John Singer Sargent through an aesthetic cultural exploration of the word “curious” and its synonyms. My work will begin with mid century explorations of the term through the works of Baudelaire, moving forward to its use by Vernon Lee, Pater and Wilde. I intend to ultimately communicate Sargent as a figure who successfully engaged with both the subversive and conventional in Victorian society.

By Liz Renes