Annelise K. Madsen, an assistant curator of American art at the Art Institute of Chicago, has always been fascinated by Edwardian portraitist John Singer Sargent. But it wasn't until she started research for her book, John Singer Sargent and Chicago’s Gilded Age, that she realized how strong the artist's connection to her own city was.
“I began to see that there was a new story to tell—Sargent’s Chicago story,” she says.
Now, more than 30 years after the Art Institute's last Sargent exhibition, the museum is mounting 65 of his paintings in John Singer Sargent and Chicago's Gilded Age, which opened Sunday. In addition to the portraitist's own oeuvre, the show features work by members of his extensive creative circle, including William Merritt Chase, Claude Monet, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and Anders Zorn.
Born in Florence in 1856 to expatriate Americans, Sargent went on to become the eminent portraitist of his generation, creating striking likenesses of his sitters. And though he's best known for his oil portraits, Sargent wielded his mastery on both landscapes and public murals as well.
Despite growing up largely in Western Europe, Sargent identified as an American throughout his life, even passing up a knighthood. Though he's most often associated with New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, Sargent also maintained ties with turn-of-the-century Chicago. He visited the city on two known occasions: once in 1876 while he was still a student in Paris, and again in 1916, on his way to the Canadian Rockies for a painting excursion.
Along the way, Sargent's talents drew the eye of Chicago businessman Charles Deering and museum leader Martin A. Ryerson, both of whom became devoted collectors. His paintings and drawings were shown in at least 20 exhibitions in the city between 1888 and 1925, including the Interstate Industrial Exposition and the World’s Columbian Exposition.
In addition to memorializing Sargent's work and legacy, the exhibit also offers a snapshot of Chicago’s Gilded Age. “During this time, Chicagoans were determined to build the city into a center of art and culture," she says. "They made major steps forward in the years after the Great Fire of 1871."
Central to that transformation was Sargent's work “La Carmencita," a full-length portrait of Spanish dancer Carmen Dauset first displayed at the Art Institute in 1890, less than three months after its completion. The composition drew swaths of visitors to the museum, putting Chicago on the map as a center for the arts. Sargent's role three years later in the World's Columbian Exposition, where he showed nine canvases, only drove that point home.
That turn-of-the-century Chicago was an unlikely haven for Sargent—an artist who built his career in Europe, attracted transatlantic patrons, and cultivated professional ties on the East Coast—makes his mark on the city all the more valuable. “What the exhibition opens up is a fresh understanding of how a cosmopolitan painter like Sargent made an impact in the Midwest,” says Madsen. “I find Sargent’s paintings to be invitations to appreciate the gestures, materials, and settings that bring [his] sitters, or views of nature, to life."
John Singer Sargent and Chicago’s Gilded Age runs through September 30 at the Art Institute.