John Singer Sargent's Study From Life (1891)

or Egyptian Girl

by J. M. Pressley
First published: July 31, 2005

John Singer Sargent's only known female nude portrait, Study in Life, shows a rare departure from an artist frequently dismissed as "too commercial."

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) has, since the latter half of the twentieth century, seen a resurgence in popularity for his technical brilliance as a portrait artist. The critics may have never forgiven Sargent for being one of the premier "commercial" painters of the late nineteenth century; indeed, in the 1890s, Sargent had firmly established his presence as the artist in demand on an international scale. In this period, Sargent painted such luminaries as Henry James, Robert Louis Stevenson, Woodrow Wilson, and Theodore Roosevelt. However, by the turn of the century, Sargent largely turned away from portraiture in order to pursue a less lucrative—and even less critically accepted—turn at Impressionism. This may also have contributed to the idea that Sargent was a "superficial talent" at best. Fortunately, time has begun to show Sargent's genius of sensuality with his portrait subjects.

The painting at left, on display at the Art Institute of Chicago under the title of A Study from Life, is from Sargent's portraiture heyday in the 1890s. Under the original title Egyptian Girl, this tall oil painting displayed at both the New English Art Club exhibition of 1891 and at the World Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. It also holds distinction as the only known oil nude of a female that Sargent ever presented. Surprisingly, there does not seem to be a large amount of scholarship written about this piece (in stark contrast to Sargent's infamous Madame X, which proved so controversial for its time).

I personally find this dearth of study curious. My first exposure to the work was in 1989, as a new resident of Chicago. During a trip to the Museum of the Art Institute, I rounded a corner in the American Art gallery to find myself gazing at this magnificent oil rendering. Such a meager representation as shown on this page cannot do the piece justice. At 6'-1", the sheer size of the portrait makes it almost impossible to escape notice. The size of the composition, however, is only a prelude; while the eyes initially may be drawn in by the boldness of the statement, it is the mysterious, exotic sensuality of the study that rivets them to the piece. This sensuality transcends the underlying beauty of the subject, which is considerable.

I distinctly remember my first impression upon taking in this portrait: What is she thinking? There is a slight upturn in the lips, an ambiguous expression in profile that might be a smile. There is evidence that Sargent wished to draw focus to this feature in the bright vermilion that emphasizes her mouth. Once the eye is captured by the lips, the natural lines in the composition lead the viewer to dwell on the braid of hair, upon which the woman seems to focus her gaze. Again, the tension in the composition emanates from the contrast of the woman's unabashed nudity with her ambivalent innocence about it; the eyes are downcast, almost closed, never confronting the viewer directly. At the same time, the stark, supple pose hints at seduction—more coy, perhaps, than shy—which seems enhanced by using a Middle Eastern subject (for a predominantly Anglo audience). This is no pale, Victorian lady with a high-button collar; this is an exotic beauty of dark hair and olive skin, almost siren-like in her calm.

It strikes me as provocative, in fact. Study from Life seems to me a paragon of Sargent's lavish sensuality. If critics want to suggest that Sargent only created this study as an obligatary nod to the artistic tradition, it seems too brief a dismissal of the artist's work. Whether or not Sargent himself lost interest in such composition, whether or not he felt that he had expressed in this piece all that he could express, the splendor of this piece makes me mourn that he did not attempt another. In this study, he appears to have captured the essence of woman, her beauty and mystery, her natural innocence and inherent sexuality.

Sources

Art Institute of Chicago, Artchive, Artcyclopedia