Seven faces

Seven portraits of men (from 1875 through 1910) by John Singer Sargent, evoking character and state of mind, or celebrating male beauty, or both. Spurred by the appearance on Pinterest of this extraordinary charcoal sketch (from 1900-1910) of the young Italian man Olimpio Fusco (with his address on it!):

(#1) Fusco appears in at least one other drawing of Sargent’s — more explicitly sensuous —  in which he’s lying, naked, on his back in bed; these two drawings have led critics, with great caution, to describe Fusco as perhaps a “romantic interest” of Sargent’s

Put that aside for a moment, while I add that Sargent can fairly be described as having been a compulsive artist — always ready to dash off  a sketch or draft of pretty much anything he saw that caught his eye: colorful flowers, children playing, women’s clothing, faces (all kinds of faces, but especially men’s), street scenes, landscapes and seascapes, whatever. He did this sometimes with an eye to developing the sketches into works that could be exhibited or sold, but often just for his own pleasure. Sometimes for his very private pleasure, as in a large body of male nudes (many quite sensuous) created over the years, a selection of which were published finally in 1999, in this volume of John Esten’s:

(#2) From p. 30, this remarkable note: “Nicola D’Inverno … began posing for Sargent in 1892 at the age of 19. The young Italian stayed in the artist’s employ for nearly 26 years, assuming the various tasks of personal valet and studio assistant; all the while he continued modeling.”

Sargent had his young men (some apparently picked up on the streets of Italy, others with him for many years); many were working-class, some Black, but Sargent also formed intense attachments to men of his own class, especially aesthetes and other artists. And drew or painted most of them. For instance, from the MetMuseum site on an 1883 Sargent painting of Albert de Belleroche:


Albert de Belleroche (1864–1944) was an English painter of portraits and genre scenes and a lithographer. He studied art in Paris with Carolus-Duran and met Sargent [another student of Carolus-Duran’s] at an annual dinner given for the master by his students. According to Belleroche, sittings for the present work took place at Sargent’s studio at 41 boulevard Berthier. The painting was originally conceived as a heroic three-quarter-length portrait, and Belleroche wears a tunic with a square-cut neckline consistent with the style of early sixteenth-century costume. That this work remained in Sargent’s possession throughout his life (even hanging in his dining room for a time) is an affirmation of their enduring friendship.

The evidence is that Sargent chose his companions (of all sorts) well, was prepared to stick with them for the long run, and treated them all — friends, employees, romantic or sexual partners — decently. You don’t see a lot of that.

Meanwhile, he had a very successful career as a society portraitist, an affectionate chronicler of the manners and customs of the upper classes, while imbuing his subjects with vivid life and catching a wide variety of facial expressions. Faces, faces, always the faces.

Previously on this blog. From my 3/12/18 posting “Shirtlessness and more: Bouguereau and Sargent”. with a section on

Sargent’s treatment of male nudes, in a set of drawings and paintings kept secret during the painter’s lifetime — sexually explicit, homoerotic works.

… [his] sensitive and erotic male portraits, including those of Thomas E. McKeller, Bartholomy Maganosco, Olimpio Fusco, and that of the handsome aristocratic artist Albert de Belleroche, which hung in his Chelsea dining room

(#4) A quick but evocative sketch of Maganosco from c. 1875

… Sargent’s male nudes display both foci of gay male desire, the penis and the buttocks, sometimes separately and sometimes together [see the illustrations in the 2018 posting]

But his portraits of friends and his commissioned portraits of men are no less thoughtful and perceptive, if less passionate (but see the young Yeats below).

Four more portraits, in chronological order.

— Carolus-Duran in 1879. From Wikipedia:

(#5) Intense eyes, gazing right at us, expressing (as I read it) friendly concern, rather than smouldering attraction, invitation, or domination

Charles Auguste Émile Durand, known as Carolus-Duran (Lille 4 July 1837 – 17 February 1917 Paris), was a French painter and art instructor. He is noted for his stylish depictions of members of high society in Third Republic France.

— Alberto Falchetti in 1905. From the Apollo magazine site, “The Italian painter who travelled to the Holy Land with John Singer Sargent”:

(#6) Another intense and attentive but otherwise neutral gaze

Alberto Falchetti, known to everyone as ‘Bertino’, was born in Caluso (not far from Turin) in 1878. Unlike Raffele, Stratta and Pollonera, who studied under Antonio Fontanesi in Turin, Falchetti had no formal art training, apart from lessons given to him by his father Giuseppe Falchetti, a landscape and still-life painter.

After a brief trip to Paris in the mid 1890s, Falchetti returned to Italy and became a follower of Giovanni Segantini, from whom he derived his technique of threadlike Divisionist brushstrokes, characterised by the juxtaposition of stripes of pure colour applied on the canvas without being previously mixed on the palette. This created an intense effect which he applied to Alpine landscapes or to views of the Italian coast.

… Falchetti was staying in a mountain [hermitage], … and it was there that Sargent painted the powerful and brooding portrait of the Italian artist that caught the attention of the writer Edmondo De Amicis, who saw it in the Hôtel du Mont Cervin that same summer. Writing about Sargent’s portrait in an article published in an Argentine newspaper called La Prensa, De Amicis commented on Falchetti’s looks, describing his head ‘like that of Giorgione’, as well as his perfect physiognomy, and his ‘thick hair, the big beard, and his two bright eyes’.

The two artists then go on to tour Palestine together, drawing and painting together, influencing one another’s styles, and enormously enjoying each other’s company. A lovely story.

— William Butler Years in 1908. From the MetMuseum site:

(#7) Romantic hair, eyes focused on the middle distance

Arguably the greatest English-speaking poet of his generation, William Butler Yeats (1865–1939) was Irish born and deeply involved in native causes, including the Irish literary renaissance and Irish politics. He established his reputation with his early lyric poems and his Celtic plays. He was one of the founders of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and the Irish Academy of Letters.

This drawing of Yeats was commissioned as the frontispiece to the first volume of his Collected Poems (1908). Yeats cultivated his appearance as a poet and an aesthete by wearing velvet jackets and bow ties. Sargent accentuates his angular good looks and youthful air. The poet found the portrait “charming” and “very flattering” and wrote, “Sargent is good company.”

—  Ernest Schelling in 1910. From the Pierpont Morgan Library site:

(#8) More Romantic hair; “feminine” eyes: fairly large, fairly far apart, eyelids lowered (these are my eyes)  — somehow looking sad here

Ernest Schelling was an internationally distinguished American pianist, composer, and conductor. He sat twice to Sargent in the midst of a taxing performance schedule in 1910. Sargent noted that during the sitting, the pianist was “in a condition of total collapse… [but] fortunately his looks held their own.” The portrait exemplifies Sargent’s deft handling of charcoal, as in the swift, firm strokes that animate Schelling’s hair. To create the bright white collar, Sargent left the paper in reserve. Highlights, like those on Schelling’s nose and forehead, were often made by using pellets of bread as an eraser to remove excess charcoal.

Notes. I’m stopping at seven portraits, but it’s hard to put this little project down; Sargent was mind-boggingly prolific, and pretty much all of his output is worth looking at.

Sargent’s more than merely artistic interest in male bodies took a long time to become public; people were extremely reluctant to suppose than an artist of his stature, so focused on genteel subjects, could possibly be tainted, even slightly, with the immoral stink of queerness, with works of sheer unapologetic, unshrinking carnality (not to mention the presumable consorting with Black men and gondoliers). But there it is, along with Sargent’s genuine deep affection for family life, his devout Catholicism (which he shared with his touring companion Falchetti), his friendships with women, his conviviality (note Yeats above), and so on. People are complicated.

But I read some of the critics as still trying to hang on to the idea that Sargent’s romantic attachments were just intense male friendships, because the alternative is too disgusting to bear. The thing is, Sargent did have intense male friendships, lots of them, especially with fellow artists — relationships in which same-sex desire played no role whatsoever. Of course he did. The evidence is that he was secretly gay (opening up in safe circumstances with those who shared his desires and sensibilities), not that he was a lurking sex maniac (a shameful idea that does a decent man discredit).

Meanwhile, some gay commentators appear to be willing to interpret all of his works with male subjects, and all of his relationships with  men, as soaked to the core with same-sex desire. That strikes me as an equally shameful idea — lurking sex mania, but that’s a good thing — that does a decent man discredit.

4 Responses to “Seven faces”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    On Facebook:

    Rod Williams: I draw your attention to an exhibition held in 2020, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, of some remarkable nude drawings Sargent made of Thomas McKeller, studies for the murals he installed in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The exhibition catalog is fascinating and gorgeous…

  2. Bill Stewart Says:

    I love the wistful tone of this post, as well as the evenly tempered discussion of what the subjects may have shared with the artist. Irreverently: I thought at first this might be “The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao”.

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    On Facebook:

    from Jeff Shaumeyer: I’m not a good one for choosing “bests” or “favorites”, but I’m usually inclined to say that Sargent is my favorite painter. I am usually overwhelmed by his technical virtuosity, never less than with his watercolor “sketches” which pretty much convince me he sold his soul to the devil.

    I was delighted to discover the book of nudes some years ago in a remainder bin, and confirm my sense of what I thought was rather obvious anyway.

    Well, not to mention that his self-portrait when he was 50 — I think that’s right — always feels to me like the absolute epitome of my “type”. Gosh! What a hunk!

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Facebook:

    from Rod Williams: I long ago figured out that only a gay man could have painted Dr. Pozzi…

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