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American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915—A New Look at Sargent's Venice

October 12, 2009–January 24, 2010
Curator Barbara Weinberg introduces artist Eric Fischl, who takes a fresh look at two of the John Singer Sargent paintings—An Interior in Venice and A Street in Venice—that are included in the exhibition American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915.


Barbara Weinberg: Hello. I'm Barbara Weinberg, curator—with my colleague Carrie Rebora Barratt—of the exhibition American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The exhibition includes more than a hundred iconic paintings by many of America's most acclaimed artists, who tell stories about their own times by depicting ordinary people engaged in life's tasks and pleasures. The paintings range in date from the era of the Revolution to the eve of World War I.

John Singer Sargent was the quintessential cosmopolitan American artist of the late nineteenth century. Although he was born in Florence, studied with a leading portraitist in Paris, traveled widely in Europe, and eventually made his headquarters in London, he always considered himself an American. Sargent had a continuing infatuation with the picturesque and evocative city of Venice. There, like many contemporary artists and other visitors, he was able to find isolation from modern developments, an unhurried pace, and invitations to pictorial storytelling.

In An Interior in Venice, painted in 1899, we observe members of a prominent Boston expatriate family in the elegant salone of the Palazzo Barbaro, where they had lived since the mid-1880s. Sunlight from the unseen windows overlooking the Grand Canal flickers over the furnishings and the four figures: the American painter Ralph Wormeley Curtis and his wife, and Curtis's parents.

Painter James McNeill Whistler dismissed the casual composition and vivacious brushwork in this picture as "smudge everywhere." And the writer Henry James recreated the Palazzo Barbaro in his novel The Wings of the Dove in 1902 to tell a candid tale, as Sargent did, of the most refined end of Venice's social spectrum.

We invited artist Eric Fischl to take a fresh look at Sargent's Interior in Venice, almost as one would take a Rorschach test. Here's what he had to say about the painting.

Eric Fischl: I'm looking at a painting that first presents itself as a kind of straightforward genre painting: a portrait of two couples, a kind of interior scene, obviously very privileged people. There's a couple of things that catch my attention right away that begin to speak to me about something that sort of transcends the genre.

There seems to be a lot of coupling going on in the composition. There's two figures in the foreground that are older, two figures in the middle ground on the left that are slightly younger. There's two blank oval mirrors in the upper-left-hand corner and there's two chandeliers. And they seem to begin to affect each other in terms of a narrative.

What I find myself doing is thinking about the couples first. I see in the foreground the elderly couple. The gentleman is absorbed in reading his newspaper and reading some book or large-leafed document. He's completely self-absorbed. His wife—I'm assuming it's his wife—is sitting in a chair beside him and she's isolated, not participating in his activities. And the look on her face—her eyes seem averted. She's kind of looking away and distracted from everything that's going on in the room. She's the only one whose eyes you meet, even though she's looking away from you, which tells me that you're entering the painting through her consciousness. So the scene that you're following is coming through her thoughts or feelings about it.

The younger couple on the left is totally engaged with each other and not paying any attention to the older couple in the room. There seems to be some frivolity going on there. The gentleman has a nice big smile on his face and there's a kind of sweet coquettishness that seems present—a flirtation of some kind, an inside joke. They seem to be getting a lot of pleasure from each other's company.

The difference in age between the two . . . one way to read it would be a husband and wife and one of their children, and the husband or the wife of that child. The other way to read it would be that there's a time sequence here and that the younger couple actually exists as a memory. And there's something about the way the chandeliers work, where the one in the foreground over the couple is illuminated and the one in the middle ground is barely visible, that there's a kind of dimming that takes place. And so, that's another way of thinking about memory, as something that moves you backward, deeper into the space of memory, and deeper into the space of time. It becomes a dimmer kind of recollection or presence.

The thing I find most ominous in the painting are the two mirrors, which are really like blackened portholes. They don't reflect out. They could be almost like eyes gazing back at you into the scene or portals through which you would disappear. In that case, again, it could be a subtle intimation of death.

I don't know the history of it at all, obviously, and my reading of it is really just based on looking at how Sargent, the painter, is constructing a scene. And the things that I look for in paintings are, you know: As a viewer, am I being engaged? What is engaging me? What am I seeing first? What am I seeing second? You know: Is there a consciousness in the painting itself that is speaking back to me? It's clear that she's the one that is the focus of everything else that's going on in this room, even though she's the most isolated from it.

Sargent is someone who has such extraordinary bravura, the kind of slapdash quality of the paint combined with his acute observations. It's incredibly reductive in that he can see so accurately the essentials for what describes an ornate, gold Venetian table or what it takes to capture the quality of the material of the dress or something like that. I mean, it's so luscious, so direct, and so perfectly observed. At the same time, it's so fast and facile. It's pretty amazing.

Barbara Weinberg: In an earlier painting, A Street Scene in Venice of 1880 to '82, Sargent captures the city's cool, murky tonalities and the peculiar perspectives of its secluded courtyards and narrow lanes. He records a passing glimpse of a man and woman outside a wine shop in a dim, shabby alleyway. The confining buildings are blurred and the vista terminates merely in a sunlit slice of wall. Artist Eric Fischl responds:

Eric Fischl: The speed at which he describes the materiality of this environment, this street scene in Venice, is breathtaking. I mean, it's so sketchy and yet it's so accurate. And again, I'm not historically astute enough to actually be able to tell you whether the gentleman in this painting is of the same class or stature as the woman in the doorway, whether they are two different classes.

He's wearing a cape that has fur on it. That usually implies a certain degree of wealth or position. His shoes are very shiny. That seems another indication that he's somewhat privileged or . . . I'm not sure of the hat, so I don't know if that indicates his vocation or whether he's even a soldier or something. I don't know, so I can't speculate on that.

Her position in the doorway has a long history of images in which you have to assume that she's like a prostitute. What's interesting about the painting is that, again, she's looking out at you. She's directly, in this case, looking out at you. So there's a confrontation between you and your consciousness versus hers at this moment. And you're implicated in the scene in a very direct way. To some extent, I think you feel like you've interrupted something, and something that's private or intimate. And she's sort of frozen you in place with her stare.

The other thing that sticks out to me is the gesture of her hand, which, when I first saw it I thought she was simply holding her shawl together, but there's something about the way it is that makes me feel like she's almost signaling him—perhaps even asking . . . if he'd asked her what the price was, she would be telling him with her fingers what the price would be. Somehow the hand is very much involved in this scene. And though I can't be sure, it seems like she's signaling to him something that is surreptitious.

The other thing that strikes me in this painting is the way he's painted her dress, which looks like a bonfire. If this painting's about sex, about desire, about lust, whatever, then, you know, she's absolutely the object of that desire and she's on fire. And fire is something that is also being consumed by the huge, vast emptiness of that blackness that it reaches up into.

You rush into that vortex very quickly. He pulls you in and then sort of, at the same time he pulls you into the deep space, he pulls you right back out to the scene of the man and the woman. So there's a kind of, you know, intense and confined space that he's created.

It's not claustrophobic. Had he put her in a dead end or something like that, you would feel so trapped by it that there'd be a level of discomfort. I think it's more like the feeling of you're moving through your life and you come on this scene. You interrupt something. You have the chance to pass by it, but for that brief moment it stops you and you take it in and then you go past, you know, you go into the light.

Barbara Weinberg: John Singer Sargent's An Interior in Venice is on loan to the exhibition from the Royal Academy of Arts in London. A Street Scene in Venice is on loan from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. These, and most of the other paintings in the exhibition, may be viewed online at metmuseum.org in the special feature for American Stories. There—as on the Audio Guide program in the exhibition itself—you can also hear a range of perspectives by the exhibition's curators—Carrie Rebora Barratt and me, Barbara Weinberg—as well as artists, historians, and other experts from a variety of fields.

The exhibition is made possible by Alamo Rent A Car, The Marguerite and Frank A. Cosgrove Jr. Fund, The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation, and the Oceanic Heritage Foundation.

It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

The Audio Guide program is sponsored by Bloomberg.

American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915 is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from October 12, 2009, through January 24, 2010.

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