Picasso vs. Sargent

I came across this fascinating work by Norman Rockwell last week, and was intrigued by overall subject matter, and the paintings in the painting – shown in this work. Rockwell did this work titled, “Picasso vs. Sargent,” for the January 11, 1966 edition of the LOOK magazine. 

The painting by Rockwell shows two paintings in the same room of a museum. The first painting, on the left wall is an 1897 portrait of Mrs. George Swinton by John Singer Sargent, whereas the second painting is Picasso’s 1931 painting, “The Red Armchair.” Two very differently dressed women – representing different versions of femininity and women’s liberation – are looking at the two very different paintings, and we are not surprised by which lady is looking at which painting.

The era seems to be the threshold of time in between the 1950s and 1960s, when women moved out of the kitchen and into the workforce. They changed the way they dressed – feminine dresses and overcoats gave way to jeans and leather jackets, heels were discarded in favor of leather boots, and curlers were tossed in favor of natural relaxed hairstyles, Perhaps, children too are being traded for portfolios – as more and more women enter the workforce, they delay having children.

The portrait of Mrs. George Swinton can be found in the Art Institute of Chicago’s American Art Gallery. The painting, with its extravagant color and brushwork, epitomizes why Sargent as the leading portraitists of his time. According to the Art Institute, “he accentuated her regal bearing and feminine dress. Sargent harmonized the realism of her face and body with bursts of impressionistic brushstrokes describing the shimmering, translucent fabric descending from her shoulder.”

A woman and her daughter look at Sargent’s painting

In Rockwell’s painting, a woman and her little daughter are looking at the beautifully framed Sargent painting. The woman, daughter, and the doll – all three – strangely, have curlers in their hair. Apart from this anomaly, the mother is exquisitely and formally dressed in an overcoat, and heels, while the daughter is also wearing a young child’s dressy overcoat. 

Picasso’s, “The Red Armchair,” is a portrait of Maris Therese-Walter – by whom a much older and married Picasso was smitten. According to the Art Institute of Chicago, which also owns this painting (in its Modern Art Gallery), “the smitten artist began to furtively reference her blond hair, broad features, and voluptuous body in his work. Perhaps acknowledging the double life they were leading, he devised a new motif; a face that encompasses both frontal and profile views.” 

A young woman, in jeans, a leather jacket, and boots, with a portfolio in her hands studies the Picasso.

Of note here is also how well Rockwell has copied the very different works of Sargent and Picasso.

On the surface, this is such a fun painting of a visit to a museum.  But a detailed look reveals a painting full of subtle messages, and this beautiful, almost poignant, painting captures a moment in American history and records it for posterity. 

Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose

Ye Shepherds tell me
Tell me have you seen,
Have you seen My Flora pass this way?
In shape and feature's beauty queen,
In pastoral, in pastoral array

A wreath around her head
Around her head she wore
Carnation, lily, lily, rose
And in her hand a crook she bore
And sweets her breath compose.

The Wreath, Joseph Mazzinghi (1765 - 1844)

Expatriate American artist, John Singer Sargent, was invited to stay and recuperate from a head injury in the Cotswold village of Broadway by his friend and fellow American expat artist Edwin Austin Abbey.  Here a group of artists would gather around a piano and sing the popular song, and spend glorious evenings together either playing tennis or going on boating expeditions on the Thames.  It was during one such boating expedition, when the natural light of the day was fading, that Sargent saw some Chinese lanterns hanging amidst trees and lilies in a garden. This vision of that exact purple twilight moment in the day when natural light gets replaced by artificial light captured Sargent’s fantasy, and he spent the next few months trying to capture that light, the result of which was the absolutely spellbinding painting which he titled Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose.

He chose two sisters, daughters of a fellow artist for the painting because they had hair of the exact color he was looking for.  Every evening, Sargent would stop his tennis game, and wait in the spot with his models for the light to be exactly like he wanted and paint for a few moments.  He repeated this every evening from September to November 1885, when the light changed completely with the changing season.  He then resumed in the summer of 1886 and completed the painting in October 1886.

Lantern with illuminated ridges. Courtesy Tate Britain.

The painting is simply mesmerizing. In it Sargent has captured the twilight moment when natural light is replaced by artificial light, the innocence of childhood with the intense childlike concentration at the task of lighting the lanterns, the beauty of the late summer foliage in the darkness of the leaves and the maturity of the flowers, and the glow in the white cotton-linen dresses of the girls.  The young girls themselves are surrounded by a garden that forms a protective cocoon around them, the eye goes upward with the growing size of the flowers, and the age old Japanese technique of the increasing size of the flowers as the eye moves upward has the effect of bringing the background forward. At the same time the eye moves along the curve of the lantern string, stopping with the two central figures, where balance is achieved with the two girls facing each other.  The glow of the lanterns, some brighter than others, illuminate their faces and dresses, and the ridges of the lanterns. The painting draws you in – into the world of the fleeting light of dusk, and of fleeting childhood summers.