Quotation, borrowing, reference, allusion: whatever you call it, a lot of paintings seem to include passages, elements or features which have previously appeared in other paintings. Although common, it is a difficult issue. What we might see as an obvious similarity between two paintings might never have occurred to the painter of the later work. Sometimes, this might happen by chance; more often, perhaps, both artists had a third source, which might have been a mental image rather than another painting.
Bruce Redford’s new book John Singer Sargent and the Art of Allusion (Yale UP, ISBN 978 0 300 21930 2) is a fascinating exploration of many likely allusions in Sargent’s portraits, which reference great portraits and other works by masters such as van Dyck, who was a particular favourite of Sargent, as he was to other modern masters including William Merritt Chase.
Professor Redford’s book is not one which you will be able to read straight through, I suspect. Approach it with a healthy scepticism and you will, at first, doubt some of the allusions which he claims. I have needed to go away, think about it, look again at its lovely illustrations a few more times, and re-read his highly accessible text. In the end, though, I think that his proposals not only work, but cast new light on Sargent as an artist, and his many portraits.
There are, thankfully, a few occasions where sufficient evidence exists to convince even the most sceptical. This article looks at one example, described early in the book, and broadens its scope a little.
In 1895, two notable young residents of New York City married. He was Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes (1867-1944), a recent graduate of Harvard who studied architecture for three years at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He went on to co-found the architectural firm of Howells & Stokes, and was a pioneer in social housing. She was Edith Minturn (1867-1937), daughter of the shipping magnate Robert Bowne Minturn, Jr., and destined to become a philanthropist, socialite, and artistic muse.
A close friend decided that a good wedding gift would be a portrait of Mrs Stokes painted by the greatest of the age, John Singer Sargent (1856–1925). For various reasons this was delayed, but in 1897 the artist and the couple got together and Sargent started work. As Sargent kept few written records, we rely on the account given by Mr Stokes in his memoirs, and quoted by Redford.
Sargent’s original intention had been to paint Mrs Stokes wearing formal evening dress, sitting next to an Empire table. However, he changed his mind, and decided to paint her standing in informal walking attire next to a Great Dane. As he was making this reconception in his mind, Sargent turned to a portrait which had been donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Sargent’s patron, Henry Marquand in 1889: that of James Stuart, by van Dyck.
Van Dyck’s portrait puts James Stuart (1612–1655), Duke of Richmond and Lennox (1633–35) at a slight angle, his left shoulder forward, and his left hand on his hip in ‘Renaissance elbow’ position, to show off the silver star worn as a member of the Order of the Garter (itself just visible belowhis left knee). His right hand then strokes the Great Dane’s head.
Unfortunately, Sargent was unable to find a suitable dog. Mr Stokes then “offered to assume the role of the Great Dane in the picture”, as he put it. Sargent therefore painted Mrs Stokes in essentially the same pose as that of van Dyck’s James Stuart, maintaining the line of her right arm to hold a straw boater against her hip. She is the subject of the portrait: bright, boldly lit, and looks directly at the viewer with a smile of confidence and a glint in her eyes.
In contrast, Mr Stokes is tucked back in the shadow of his wife: straight-faced, arms folded, static, and withdrawn. And Mrs Stokes’ right forearm and the boater even conceal his crotch. As Redford puts it: By imitating Titian’s imitator, Van Dyck, Sargent playfully and even provocatively refigures the master/hound relationship in an ambiguous act of homage to a female American democrat, an exemplar of “The New Woman.”
This was not van Dyck’s only portrait in which he posed a man next to a large dog: his Thomas Wentworth, later 1st Earl of Strafford (c 1639) borrows again from the earlier portrait of James Stuart. There are many other portraits of notable men alongside their dogs too. Most involve rather different poses, often with smaller sporting dogs, the man usually holding a hunting gun.
This Flemish School Portrait of Charles-Alexandre de Croÿ, Marquis d’Havré and Duc de Croÿ (c 1610) is rather earlier and slightly different again, but the dog still evokes the common concepts of fidelity, nobility, and status.
The combination of the dog on one side, and the ‘Renaissance elbow’ on the other is quite popular, as seen in this portrait of John George, Count Lamberg (1648), by an unknown artist.
Rembrandt also got into fancy dress, parked a large poodle by his stick, and put his hand on his hip, in his Self-portrait in Oriental Attire with Poodle (1631-33).
Sir Joshua Reynolds seems to have favoured the pose for Richard Peers Symons, MP (later Baronet) (1770-71), here using his hat as an excuse for his ‘Renaissance elbow’.
Neither was this pose confined to men. Admittedly most women – even those in the highest of places – were decorated with small, often belittling, lapdogs, but there were some notable exceptions.
Alonso Sánchez Coello’s portrait of Joanna of Austria, Dona Juana (1535-1573), Princess of Portugal (1557) shows the mother of Sebastian of Portugal who later became regent of Spain for her brother, Philip II of Spain. She may not wear a crown herself, but her dog’s collar appears very regal.
There are also two very similar portraits of Margaret of Austria, that above by Bartolomé González y Serrano in 1609, and that below by Juan Van Der Hamen. Her left hand does not need to be on her hip, as she already has assumed a ‘Renaissance elbow’ by holding that hand so far clear of her voluminous dress.
But for me, the most fascinating of all these paintings is the official portrait of First Lady Grace Coolidge, painted by Howard Chandler Christy in 1924, the year that her younger son Calvin died. When she was First Lady, she was a very popular hostess, but avoided any involvement in politics. I just wonder whether Christy had seen van Dyck’s portrait of James Stuart in the Met, or Sargent’s double portrait of Mr and Mrs Stokes. The latter did not go into the Met until 1938, the year after the death of Mrs Stokes, though.
Redford, B (2016) John Singer Sargent and the Art of Allusion, Yale UP, ISBN 978 0 300 21930 2.