Sargentology

Thursday 28 April 2016, 9.30AM to 29th April 5pm

In 1910 Walter Sickert penned an article titled ‘Sargentolatry’ that addressed the fervour surrounding John Singer Sargent as an artist and tastemaker.  Using the language of religious devotion, Sickert writes of the ‘prostration before [Sargent] and all his works’ by the British art press, the effect this adulation had on other artists working in this period, and how this sense of complacency was bad for both critics and artists alike.[i] Often, this article has been misidentified with the title ‘Sargentology’ removing the dogmatic tinge of the original, and focusing instead on a study of the work and life of Sargent as a distinct entity within the field of art criticism and the history of art. In the last decades of the twentieth century, however, complicity within this complacency has crept back into Sargent studies. Sargentology has veered back into Sargentolatry, leaving in its infallible wake a dearth of innovation with regard to Sargent scholarship akin to the state of art criticism challenged by Sickert in 1910.

What has been lost to scholarship, however, in this transition from ‘-ology to ‘-olatry’ is primary material that shows an altogether different side of Sargent. Take, for example, 1927 description from Vernon Lee, written to commemorate Sargent after his death in 1925. In this text, she writes thoughtfully regarding the heady days of their youth, recalling with sincerity a more complex and esoteric Sargent than the one that appears in current scholarship.

Mysterious, uncanny, a wizard, serpent, sphinx; strange, weird, curious. Such, at all events, were the adjectives, the comparisons, with which we capped each other, my friend John and I…

Curious. That was the dominant adjective in John’s appreciations, perpetually recurrent during his youth, pronounced with a sort of lingering undefinable aspirate which gave it well, a curious meaning of its own, summing up that instinct for the esoteric, the more-than-meets-the-eye, which plays so subtly through his audaciously realistic work, so that, for instance, in the Spanish Dancers, the Shoeing of the Ox, the Smoke of Ambergris, are turned into incantations, and Carnation Lily into some sweet religious vigil before an unseen altar.[ii]

This was not the first time private friends and public figures had remarked on Sargent’s attraction to the queer, the strange, and the controversial. Lee’s remarks are outside the timeline of his art, occurring after his death, but the critical body also made frequent note of his attractions to the mysterious early in his career. A. Genevay, for example, reviewing Sargent’s Fumée D’Ambre Gris for the 1880 Salon remarked that if Theophile Gautier were still alive, the canvas would have inspired him to word due to its figure who ‘awakens passion’ and is ‘bizarre and original in effect.’[iii]  Two years later, El Jaleo would variously be described as ‘full of strength and energy, bizarre as the manifestation of the latter is,’ designed ‘with astonishing energy and in a weird spirit,’ while The Boston Daily Advertiser would consider it ‘strange and perilous province of art’ and an ‘artistic grotesquerie.’[iv] This is not taking into account much of the public reaction to that ‘pitfall of eccentricity’, the 1884 Madame X, whom Gautier’s daughter Judith famously called a ‘chimera’.[v] That Sargent courted the indistinct, the ephemeral and the sensual is undeniable here early on, but also in perusal of the works produced over the length of his career, as we radiate from rich tonal colours, to prismatic sunlight, from pleasurable parties and creative bodies to the sculptural form of men in war. Regardless of his subject matter and method, Sargent found the obscure spirit in the matter of the world around him, and it was this element of the psychological, of the ‘more than meets the eye’ that gives a lasting quality to his work.

With these two very contradictory bodies of material in mind, we wish to resurrect and redefine a new state of ‘Sargentology’ with innovative interdisciplinary conference, to be held at King’s Manor, University of York in February 2016. Our aim is to shed new light on Sargent studies, and to explore fresh avenues of approach to this great man and his work. In order to really cultivate a sense of what Sargent’s art means for contemporary art historical practice, we welcome any and all submissions that approach Sargent through new and exploratory avenues. This can come through the guise of examination of a new, or little explored aspect of his oeuvre, or a new perspective on a familiar image or collection of works. However, this scholarship does not necessarily need to be image focused. Although Sargent was an artist, he was very well entrenched in the world around him. This included famous (and infamous) friends and social circles, attendance at notable gatherings, as well as his patronage and support of a vast number of collections, exhibitions and galleries. We welcome anything that seeks to shed new light on any aspects of these areas of his life, along with Sargent’s love of music, world travel and literature, with or without its corresponding effect on his paintings.

Topics that we would wish to see, but are not limited to considering, include:

  • Sargent’s Relationships with other Artists and Artistic Movements.
  • Sargent’s Relationships with Women
  • Sargent and Literature, Authors, or Literary Movements
  • Sargent and Music
  • Sargent’s Maritime Paintings
  • Sargent’s Murals or Public Monuments
  • Nationality and Identity, or lack thereof, in exploration of his Cosmopolitanism
  • Sargent’s Landscapes, Watercolours, and Charcoals
  • Sargent in War
  • Sargent as an Art Collector and Connoisseur
  • Sargent’s Orientalist/Exoticist Images
  • Sargent’s images of children and childhood
  • Sargent’s Depictions of Fashion/Costume
  • Sargent and Gender
  • Sargent’s Reception
  • Sargent’s Symbolism and Allusion (or lack thereof)
  • Sargent and the Old Masters
  • Sargent’s Depictions of Hands
  • Sargent in Pop Culture
  • Sargent and the Queer, Homosocial, or Homosexual.
  • Sargent in France
  • Review of any major or minor Sargent books and biographies

We are seeking to create new ground for Sargent studies, while looking to pull together a network of Sargent scholars, old and new, that has never before been assembled. As the aim of this conference is to bring about new scholarship and question prevailing methodologies in Sargent studies, it is important that all submissions are rooted in the principle of novel approach. We intend to break fresh ground for Sargent studies in regards to both the man and his work, to take risks and to bring different perspectives on often trodden roads. In the words of Edwin Blashfield, writing on the cause of Sargent’s death, we consider merely that although there is an end to the man himself, ‘of his influence there is no end that can be perceptible us’. Therefore, it is in the spirit of Sargent, as the man, the myth, and to some, the monstrosity, that we are seeking unique submissions with the objective of viewing Sargentology in new and alternative lights.

Please send us an abstract of up to 300 words to sargentology@gmail.com by midnight on Monday 7 December 2015. Please also include a CV and a brief personal abstract. If you have any questions, please contact Liz Renes or Emily Moore at the above address.



[i] Walter Sickert, ‘Sargentolatry,’ The New Age vol. 7 (19 May 1910), 56.

[ii] Vernon Lee, For Maurice: Five Unlikely Stories (London: Jay Lane, 1927), xxx-xxxi.

[iii] A. Genevay, “Salon de 1880 (Huitième Article),” Le Musée artistique et littéraire 4 (1880): 14-15.

[iv] “The Salon, Paris”, The Athenaeum, no. 2850 (June 10, 1882): 737; “The Fine Arts –

Sargent’s El Jaleo”, 5.

[v] William Sharp, “Contemporary Art in France: The Paris Salon”, Time 12, no. 6 (June 1885): 673; Judith Gautier, “Le Salon: Premier Article,” Le Rappel, May 1, 1884, 1.

Location: Huntingdon and Ante Rooms at King's Manor (K/122 and K/123. King's Manor