'Art Music 2: Composing Sargent, Sargent Composing', Keynote Lecture for Sargentology: New Perspectives on the Works of John Singer Sargent, King's Manor, University of York, 28 April 2016
John Singer Sargent rose from outré to R.A. in the 1890s, acknowledged as the greatest portraitist of his generation. After his death in 1925 the adulation plummeted. Perceptions of him fell from sensitive artist with a dazzling technique to emotional lightweight cranking out society portraits.
Decades passed before new scholarship, publication of Sargent's complete catalogue, and major exhibitions in Europe and the USA began to shed fresh light on the range and complexity of his work. With the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition of 2015 'Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends', and York University's recent conference 'Sargentology: New Perspectives on the Works of John Singer Sargent', Sargent studies have entered a new phase.
Giving one of two keynotes at York, I argued that music played a more purposeful role in Sargent's wider cultural influence and in his art practice than has been recognized. One point often overlooked is the centrality of London, its wide open market and music offerings more socially and aesthetically valuable to him than commentators have assumed (privileging Paris as centre of the universe!). Another is the crucial role public reception - audiences - played in determining how music was valued in Britain pre-1945. Sargent's active participation in London music makes him an important witness.
Moving beyond personal associations and traditional art/music analogies, I suggested how facets of Sargent's music activity infused his work, drawing on specific pieces he knew or played and their potentially allied paintings. The artist's shadowing of music-structural principles when composing a picture - whether a visibly musical one or not - and his confidence in taking risks may both have had roots in his considerable music technique.
'I was captivated by your paper'
Emily Moore, postgraduate in Art History, University of York
'A wonderful keynote ... we've had a lot of compliments'
Liz Renes, independent researcher
former Classics professor & Dean of Arts, University of Bristol