A sensitive young man

From my 1/23/22 posting “Sexy Italians”, about a Pinterest offering of a 1900 painting Italian Man with a Rope by John Singer Sargent:

meanwhile, Pinterest also offered me a Sargent portrait of a sensitive young man, the pianist and composer Léon Delafosse

(#1) Léon Delafosse by Sargent (1895); the fingers! the fingers! (on his face, see Ernest Schelling in #2 below)

Notes on “sensitive” masculinity in the arts — variously characterized as delicate, elegant, Romantic, artistic, feminine, and the like — as seen in Sargent’s works. On Delafosse specifically. On Sargent’s relationship to Isabella Stewart Gardner; and about her life and the museum she founded in Boston. And then on appropriations of the sensitivity label in current pop psychology.

Sargent’s portraiture. Earlier on this blog, in my 10/29/21 posting “Seven faces”:

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

(#2) A “delicate” or “sensitive” male face, sketched by Sargent: “Romantic” hair; “feminine” eyes: fairly large, fairly far apart, eyelids lowered (these are my eyes)  —  in a thin, heart-shaped face with thin nose and pointed, un-square jaw

Ernest Schelling was an internationally distinguished American pianist, composer, and conductor.

I remind you that Sargent was a compulsive artist, given to sketching and painting everything that came within his view (I’m a compulsive linguist, given to collecting things I hear and read; and also a compulsive observer of gender and sexual behavior, given to noting my experiences). He was drawn to certain subjects: the upper classes (to which he firmly belonged), domestic life, artists (he also belonged firmly to the art world of his time, and saw visual arts as part of a larger enterprise including composers and performers of music as well as writers and poets), men of substance, women in Society (especially if they exhibit a rebellious spirit), men with sensitive and delicate faces, beautiful young men (especially from the working classes).

(#3) In contrast to #1 and #2, from the Met Museum site: Claude Monet (1887) by Sargent; text from that site: This sober study of Claude Monet (1840–1926) was probably painted at Monet’s home at Giverny, France, where Sargent traveled with their mutual friend, sculptor Auguste Rodin, in 1887. Sargent worked alongside the great Impressionist artist at Giverny on more than one occasion and looked to him for advice on color in his landscape paintings. In 1897, Sargent presented this portrait to the National Academy of Design in New York as his diploma work. It reflects his veneration of the older artist and ensures that their connection would be publicly immortalized.

Obviously a complex person. He was an eminently clubbable man, striking up solid friendships with other men — and he looked the part:

(#4) Sargent photographed by James E. Purdy in 1903 (Wikipedia photo)

Meanwhile, he also enjoyed the company of women as friends (apparently, not a great many (straight) men do). In particular, his patron Isabella Stewart Gardner was also a close friend, and in their later lives they frequently lunched together.

And then there were the delicate and sensitive artists. And the beautiful young working men. Adding notes of homophilia to the mix.

Delafosse. In #1. Thumbnail facts from Wikipedia:

Léon Delafosse (1874  – 1951) was a French composer and pianist. His musical works included études, arabesques, waltzes and nocturnes. It has been claimed that he was the model for the character of Charles Morel, a violinist portrayed in Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time.

[Irrelevant digression on the family name Delafosse. That is, of or from une fosse ‘a pit, ditch’, a ditcher — originally referring to someone who lives by a ditch or dyke, or to a worker who digs or maintains ditches and dykes, or more generally, to a manual laborer. Which is to say, the French counterpart to the Dutch name van Dyck.]

Then from the Met Museum site on #1:

Admired by poet Robert de Montesquiou and author Marcel Proust, Léon Delafosse (1874–1955) was a brilliant French pianist, a sensitive interpreter of Frédéric Chopin and Gabriel Fauré, and a composer. Sargent promoted his career by engaging him to play at concerts at his London studio and encouraging his friends to do the same. Sargent sent this painting to an exhibition in Boston in 1899 in advance of Delafosse’s arrival there. He also sent a letter of introduction to Isabella Stewart Gardner, writing, “I am sure you will have the greatest pleasure in his wonderful talent, both as a composer and a virtuoso.”

Delafosse’s handsome face emerges from the dark background and is set off by his elaborate necktie. His long elegant fingers — spread apart as if prepared to extend across a piano keyboard — suggest his proficiency.

And in even more detail from the Seattle Art Museum site:

Of course Delafosse is a decadent especially in the matter of neck-ties – but he is a very intelligent little Frenchman, and a composer and excellent pianist, who is probably going over to America in a year’s time, so I sent his portrait over as a forerunner.
— John Singer Sargent, to Isabella Stewart Gardner, on Léon Delafosse, 1899

Sargent, in a letter to Isabella Stewart Gardiner, revealed something of his purpose in painting the young Léon Delafosse. The charming young pianist — he had won first prize at the Paris Conservatory of Music when only thirteen — was known for his delicate beauty. Nicknamed “the Angel,” Delafosse must have been a captivating portrait subject by his physical characteristics alone. But Sargent was equally charmed by Delafosse’s musical ability — particularly his mastery of the modern piano pieces of Sargent’s favorite composer, the Frenchman Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924). At a time when live performance offered the only opportunity for one to hear music, Delafosse was a favorite attraction at the private salons of the most elite patrons of music in both Paris and London. Sargent was eager to introduce Delafosse to his American friends, and he sent this portrait for public exhibition in Boston in advance of the pianist’s planned concert tour to American cities. The painter did so to do his part to garner attention for this young man of extraordinary talent — note the stress that Sargent has placed on his subject’s long pianist’s fingers.

These materials note Delafosse’s delicate beauty and his artistry — and his association with the milieu around Marcel Proust — thus connecting sensitivity of face and taste with diminished masculinity and then with femininity and, I suppose inevitably, homosexuality.

Isabella Stewart Gardner. From Wikipedia:

Isabella Stewart Gardner (April 14, 1840 – July 17, 1924) was a leading American art collector, philanthropist, and patron of the arts. She founded the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

(#5) Sargent, Isabella Stewart Gardner (1888) — a portrait judged to be outrageously daring at the time, at least in Boston society

Gardner possessed an energetic intellectual curiosity and a love of travel. She was a friend of noted artists and writers of the day, including John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, Dennis Miller Bunker, Anders Zorn, Henry James, Okakura Kakuzo and Francis Marion Crawford.

Gardner created much fodder for the gossip columns of the day with her reputation for stylish tastes and unconventional behavior. … Her surprising appearance at a 1912 concert (at what was then a very formal Boston Symphony Orchestra) wearing a white headband emblazoned with “Oh, you Red Sox” was reported at the time to have “almost caused a panic”, and still remains in Boston one of the most talked about of her eccentricities.

… By 1896, Isabella and Jack Gardner recognized that their house on Beacon Street in Boston’s Back Bay, although enlarged once, was not sufficient to house their growing collection of art, including works by Botticelli, Vermeer, and Rembrandt. After Jack’s sudden death in 1898, Isabella realized their shared dream of building a museum for their treasures. She purchased land for the museum in the marshy Fenway area of Boston, and hired architect Willard T. Sears to build a museum modeled on the Renaissance palaces of Venice.

(#6) Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Garden (photo by Irene de la Torre, via Flickr)

Gardner was deeply involved in every aspect of the design, though, leading Sears to quip that he was merely the structural engineer making Gardner’s design possible.

(#7) Sargent, Mrs. Gardner in White (1922) — a much later outrageous portrait

Sensitivity. A lot here. I’ll start with actual usage of the adjective sensitive in English, as reported in the relevant subsections of the entry in OED3 (Dec. 2016) on this adjective. Subentries 4a-c concern qualities of personality or character; 4d concerns (conventional cultural beliefs about) the ways in which such qualities are manifested in physical features of the body, especially of the face (this is where we get sensitive as applied to the faces of the pianists / composers Delafosse in #1 and Schelling in #2);  and 5a concerns physical responses to stimuli (a sense that will soon become relevant in discussion of pop psychology).

4. a. Very susceptible to, or readily affected by, emotional or aesthetic impressions; possessing delicate or tender feelings; having sensibility. Also with to, †of. [1st cite  1735]

b. Easily hurt or offended; touchy. Also with to, †ofabout. [1st cite 1791]

c.  Having or displaying a delicate and profound appreciation of something, esp. other people’s feelings or the emotional, political, or social complexities of a situation. Frequently with to (formerly also †of). [1st cite 1830]

d. Esp. of a person’s face, features, etc.: expressive of or conveying sensibility; fine, delicate. [full set of cites:]
-1831 Edinb. Lit. Jrnl. 26 Nov. 315/2 There is something at once grand and tender about the expression of the broad, lofty brow and sensitive mouth, which unavoidably reminds us..of a countenance too sacred to be lightly named.
-1855 Ld. Tennyson Maud ii, in Maud & Other Poems 11 The least little delicate aquiline curve in a sensitive nose.
-1895 London Story Paper 23 Feb. 5/3 Buckingham watched the fair, sensitive face with admiring eyes.
-1947 Partisan Rev. 14 395 Mr. Gielgud’s .. sensitive, melancholy profile.
-a1963 L. MacNeice Astrol. (1964) iii. 101 Astrologers would label his sensitive good looks as typically Aquarian.
-1972 J. Berger G. i. i. 5 Esther’s hands are tapered and sensitive.
-2010 Vanity Fair Aug. 121/2 We can detect that he’s a poetic spirit by his beseeching eyes, cute freckles, and sensitive lower lip.

… f. Of an action, event, work of art, etc.: displaying or characterized by emotional or aesthetic responsiveness of various kinds. [1st cite 1846]

5. a. Of a person, animal, part or organ of the body, etc.: having quick or intense perception or sensation; acutely affected by external stimuli. Also with to.

The development of the senses in the subentries of 4 is pretty clearly related to the rise of Romanticism as a European artistic, literary, musical, and intellectual movement, with its emphasis on the free expression of the feelings or emotions of artists, and more generally of creative people.

So, from OED3 (Nov. 2010) on the adjective romantic:

7. Frequently as Romantic. Designating, relating to, or characteristic of a movement or style during the late 18th and 19th centuries in Europe marked by an emphasis on feeling, individuality, and passion rather than classical form and order, and typically preferring grandeur, picturesqueness, or naturalness to finish and proportion. Generally opposed to classical

Within romanticism in music, there are contrasting emphases on expressiveness and emotion — sensitivity — vs. expansiveness and grandeur — muscularity. A contrast

— in the transitional figures (between the classical and romantic styles) Schubert vs. Beethoven

— in the central figures Chopin and Mendelssohn vs. Schumann and Liszt

— and in the opera composers Verdi vs. Wagner

The sensitivity / muscularity contrast shades inevitably into associations with femininity vs. masculinity, and from there with gay vs. straight — leading modern viewers to see Delafosse  in #1 and Schelling in #2 as having “feminine” faces, and so to judge the two musicians as probably queer.

The Highly Sensitive Person. And now for something almost completely different, but billed as about sensitivity.

About Elaine N. Aron’s The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You (1996; 25th anniversary edition 2020), from her own website:

Do you have a keen imagination and vivid dreams? Is time alone each day as essential to you as food and water? Are you noted for your empathy? Your conscientiousness? Do noise and confusion quickly overwhelm you? If your answers are yes, you may be a highly sensitive person (HSP) and Dr. Elaine Aron’s The Highly Sensitive Person is the life-changing guide you’ll want in your toolbox.

Over twenty percent of people have this amazing trait.  Maybe you are one of them.  A similar percentage is found in over 100 species, because high sensitivity is a survival strategy.  It is also a way of life for HSPs.

In this 25th anniversary edition of the groundbreaking classic, Dr. Elaine Aron, a research and clinical psychologist as well as an HSP herself, helps you grasp the reality of your wonderful trait, understand your past in the light of it, and make the most of it in your future.

Further, on Aron’s The Highly Sensitive Child (2002), where she makes the claim that the trait is inborn (innate, congenital, whether genetic or epigenetic):

A highly sensitive child is one of the fifteen to twenty percent of children born with a nervous system that is highly aware and quick to react to everything. This makes them quick to grasp subtle changes, prefer to reflect deeply before acting, and generally behave conscientiously. They are also easily overwhelmed by high levels of stimulation, sudden changes, and the emotional distress of others. Because children are a blend of a number of temperament traits, some HSCs are fairly difficult – active, emotionally intense, demanding, and persistent – while others are calm, turned inward, and almost too easy to raise except when they are expected to join a group of children they do not know. But outspoken and fussy or reserved and obedient, all HSCs are sensitive to their emotional and physical environment.

And then on Ted Zeff’s The Strong Sensitive Boy (2010), tackling the problem of boys, whose sensitivity could be mistaken for a lack of masculinity:

Does your son tend to be disturbed by loud noises, violence, and crowds, fearful of new situations, easily hurt by criticism, or hesitant about playing aggressive games?

Your son may be one of the 20 percent of all boys with a finely tuned nervous system. Our sensitive boys tend to be creative, kind, and gentle, appreciating beauty and feeling love deeply. Therefore, it’s particularly challenging for sensitive boys to grow up in a culture where boys are taught to act tough, aggressive, and unemotional.

In this groundbreaking book, psychologist Ted Zeff explores the unique challenges of sensitive boys, showing parents, educators, and mentors how to help sensitive boys grow into strong, happy, and confident men. Dr. Zeff offers practical advice on how to help your son increase his self-esteem and thrive in the family, at school, with friends, and in sports.

(Heteronormativity über alles: it doesn’t seem to occur to Zeff that a significant portion of his “sensitive boys” might be, as we say in soc.motss, proto-fags, requiring their own  brand of support.)

The component traits of Aron’s highly sensitive personality type seem to be four, of which the first is the crucial one:

— sensitivity to stimuli (hence, a need for solitude, wariness of novelty, and a preference for structure and predictability)

— empathy (hence, an inclination to affiliation rather than competition)

— imagination

— conscientiousness, orderliness

A significant portion of her HSPs — Aron elsewhere says 40% — also exhibit the trait of introversion, but Aron doesn’t treat that as part of the HSP package.

But it is supposed to be a package. And if you have the package, you are blessed in some ways, but do not fit easily into our culture, and you need the understanding of your own nature, the reassurance about yourself, and the practical advice that Dr. Aron’s (or Dr. Zeff’s) materials can provide for you.

This is prime pop psychology. Its magic is that it could genuinely be helpful to people independently of whether it has any scientific validity at all; all it has to do is comfort people about their personal characteristics and give them useful strategies for coping with their lives, and how that gets dressed up in psych-talk (or astrological signs or spirit guides or whatever) is pretty much beside the point.

But some words about about classification and (ideal) types. HSP is one category in some system of classification of the personality types of human beings — here, just one type plucked out of a system that Aron presents no more of. The crucial feature of the type is sensitivity in the sense of OED3’s sense 5a of sensitive — “having quick or intense perception or sensation; acutely affected by external stimuli” — a characteristic that is, in principle, empirically testable, though in practice it seems to be detected by self-reporting and informal observation (I admit to not having read Aron’s books).

The other three criterial characteristics — empathy (close to OED3’s sense 4c), imagination (close to OED3’s sense 4a), and conscientiousness (along with extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, and openness, one of the “big five” traits studied in the personality literature) — are, apparently, open to some variation as signs of HSP, so they are in this context ideal traits, and also harder to verify empirically.

Now some words about systems of ideal types, from my 2005 Stanford Semantics Festival paper “Ideal types: peacocks, chameleons, and centaurs”, whose handout is available here. A paper about Wayne Brekhus’s 2003 book Peacocks, Chameleons, Centaurs: Gay Suburbia and the Grammar of Social Identity, in which these three (metaphorically named) ideal types of gay men are analyzed as combinations of three characteristics.

I note there that a satisfactory classificatory system should (Bowker & Starr) be complete (roughly, there’s a category for everything); and have mutually exclusive categories; and  it should also (Rosch) be predictive, with a number of properties clustering together in the category, tending to mutually implicate one another. The Brekhus types score low on all three dimensions. (References: Geoffrey Bowker & Susan Leigh Star’s 1999 Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences; Eleanor Rosch’s 1977 “Classification of real-world objects: Origins and representations in cognition”, in Johnson-Laird & Wason’s Thinking: Readings in Cognitive Science.)

Aron’s HSP is presented in isolation from other ideal personality types, so completeness and exclusivity are beside the point, but predictivity certainly is relevant, and it seems to be low; certainly, empathy, imagination, and conscientiousness occur independently of one another and in various combinations; and even together they don’t predict sensitivity (I have all three of those traits markedly but lack sensitivity in Aron’s sense, and was not at all a sensitive child (in this sense), and I’m sure I’m far from alone in this).

Still, as I conclude in that SemFest paper:

What, then, is the value of the ideal types? Their value is practical: “… even though identity grammars are more complicated and variable in actual practice than in theory, these types do resemble reality enough that people can recognize and find uses for them in understanding their own lives.” (Brekhus p. 224). After all, people adore classifications, because they (seem to) simplify life.

So it is with the HSP ideal type.





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