The mythological John Singer Sargent

A very brief note set off by Pinterest postings of artwork (some paintings, some sketches) on mythological themes by John Singer Sargent (who appears every so often on this blog). In particular, two remarkable paintings from a hundred years ago (both in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston):

(#1) The Judgement of Paris (1920)

(#2) Perseus on Pegasus Slaying Medusa (1921)

Remarkable formal compositions, with subtle use of color. With muscular bodies — male, female, equine — as a focus.

I haven’t been able to find anything on-line about the history of these two paintings. The great age of painting on themes from classical mythology was from the 14th through the 19th centuries, so Sargent’s 20th-century gods-and-heroes works are something of a surprise, even in such a stylistically conservative artist; surely they were commissioned, but by whom, for what purpose?

2 Responses to “The mythological John Singer Sargent”

  1. Max Vasilatos Says:

    My very fast first thought on seeing these was that they looked unfinished, in a patchy way. Finally, I conclude that they may have been exercises Sargent did to practice his technique on various aspects of painting — musculature you note, and maybe certain postures, and the horse of course, women in general, women unclothed, women in armor (the woman in armor got a lot of attention and it did not go well), etc. I do this myself, I do it all the time. There will be a thing I haven’t understood about perspective or pugs’ mouths or certain human body types, or could be anything… but I will get very focused and sometimes end up with an entire piece that has value for its own sake even though it’s not a thing I’d consider part of my general focus. Using myths was a good idea, Mr Sargent, I’ve thought of using fables and fairy tales to snag creatures I need to understand.

    It seems to me unlikely that someone would commission myth illustrations from Sargent, though I do get a lot of pressure to do things outside my usual choices. It’s possible someone who had sway with him decided that because he could “paint pictures” he could paint anything and so threw him these myths that they liked. Maybe the faces in the pictures are known people, I’ve had those sorts of requests as well.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      It turns out that JSS did a (later) series of myth-themed paintings for the Boston Public Library (I think they’re still there), and that he did several different versions of the Judgement of Paris (the one above seems to be at the Huntington, not at the MFA). It seems that if you wanted a gods and heroes painting done by a master craftsman in the early 20th century, JSS was your guy.

      About the models. The guy in both paintings above is one of JSS’s regular male models. I don’t know where he got his female models, or whether he used any at all.

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