Critical Issues in American Art: A Book of Readings

By Mary Ann Calo | Go to book overview

12
The "Earnest, Untiring Worker" and the Magician of the Brush

Gender Politics in the Criticism of Cecilia Beaux and John Singer Sargent

SARAH BURNS

Cecilia Beaux and John Singer Sargent both enjoyed distinguished careers as portraitists to the social and intellectual élite of the Gilded Age. Their pronounced similarity of subjects, technical execution, and aesthetic values prompted critics to compare them--a practice that frequently resulted in an estimation of Sargent as the superior artist. But as Sarah Burns explains, the critical discourse that fashioned this hierarchy favoring Sargent was dependent upon the language of gender difference. Drawing on popular fiction as well as art criticism, Burns examines prevailing gender ideology at the turn of the century as it was brought to bear on conceptions of artistic creativity and the analysis of portraiture.

The contrast between Sargent and Beaux was stated in terms of a "natural" distinction between the artistic temperaments of an objective, analytical male and an emotionally sensitive female. Similarly, their respective portraits were admired for the degree to which they manifest penetrating insight into ( Sargent), or sympathetic understanding of ( Beaux), the sitter's character. Burns connects this impulse toward critical evaluation structured in gendered terms to broader cultural patterns, including growing anxiety about the feminization of American culture and the collapse of gender difference forecast by modern feminism. Finally, she identifies a parallel situation in the medical profession, wherein hierarchical distinctions between dynamic male scientist/doctors and self-effacing female caretaker/nurses were preserved through linguistic construction as well as institutional practice.

When Cecilia Beaux exhibited Sita and Sarita ( 1893) in the 1895 Society of American Artists show in New York, one reviewer wrote that despite the risk of seeming 'over-enthusiastic' should one claim that Beaux painted as well as John Singer Sargent, nonetheless, 'I am going to say that I don't see how even Mr Sargent could paint a portrait with more distinction than that of the woman with a black cat by Miss Beaux in the present exhibition.'1 For a critic to establish virtual parity between Beaux and Sargent was uncommon, though visual evidence might prompt us to inquire why. Exact contemporaries, Beaux ( 1855-1942) and Sargent ( 1856-1925) were both French-trained cosmopolitans. Both were

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