Florida Man : Notes on John Singer Sargent
Jan. 12 is the birthday of a sophisticated Euro-American painter who could find a beautiful play of light even in a pile of gators.
Few artists can capture light as did John Singer Sargent (1856–1925). You can feel the warmth of the sun in some of his paintings. The one below has rescued me from many a chilly day in Washington, D.C.
I’ve stopped into the Freer Gallery of Art several times with the primary intention of visiting with this painting. How inviting this scene is. How nice it would be to pull up a chair and join these ladies and bask in the warmth of that sunny spot, no?
But “Breakfast in the Loggia” doesn’t give us much of a sense of who these ladies are. While Sargent is most famous for his portraits, he often tells us little about the people in his paintings. In his landscapes, human figures can seem almost like an intrusion or props, as seen in the painting below.
Sargent’s true subject here seems to be what’s reflected in the pools of water. The faces of the figures on the right of the painting are indistinct. On the left, we see more expression on the faces of the little boy and the woman next to him, but they are staring down. They are helping draw our attention to the wet sand with its mirror-like patches.
Art historian Erica Hirshler nailed an essential quality of Sargent’s work in a 2013 lecture.
“Sargent’s main subject isn’t really always the motif in front of him, but the way his subject, whatever it is, catches the light,” Hirshler said.
Hirshler, who is senior curator of American paintings at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, was one of the organizers of a major show of Sargent’s watercolors. (There’s a link at the end of this essay to a bibliography with details on Hirshler’s lecture and other materials used in my research.)
Consider how Sargent’s obsession shows through even in his “portrait” of a pile of alligators, which he painted during a 1917 trip to Florida.
This is a particularly fetching group of gators with lively expressions. But what draws us into this painting is the bright white light at the center, as shown by the blue circle in the copy below.
We can marvel too at how Sargent uses white light to heighten the drama of the dance scene below. The figures, even that of the dancer, are somewhat indistinct, but the white of her skirt is crisply rendered and bold.
Sargent is best known for his dramatic portraits, as seen above and below.
But later in his life Sargent used watercolors as way to escape from the tyranny of his success as a portraitist for the rich. Always a traveler, Sargent wandered and painted watercolors of Bedouins and of gondoliers and of many enviable gardens.
These garden paintings bring us to the title of this essay, which focuses on works inspired by Sargent’s 1917 trip to Florida. Yes, I was trying to be a little spicy.
There’s a stereotype in the United States about “Florida Man.” The idea is that menfolk from the Sunshine State are none too bright and not at all sophisticated, tending toward a white singlet as their preferred shirt. (In the United States, this sleeveless t-shirt is known as a wife beater.)
Florida Man tends to be poor and prone to making bad decisions. A 2019 newspaper roundup of Florida Man stories included of a case of a Florida man accused of giving beer to an alligator. And then there was this gem.
“A Florida man called the sheriff’s office to report stolen marijuana. The deputy’s response: ‘Stop calling’ ”
So the title of this essay was meant as a playful juxtaposition, as Sargent is known for having lived a rather elegant and well-organized life.
Born in 1856 to American parents living in Florence, Sargent spoke Italian, French, and German as well as his parents’ native English. Sargent began his training as a painter in his late teens in Paris. He visited the United States for the first time as a young adult in 1876. He then returned to Europe for further study, visiting Holland, Italy and Spain. He spent long stretches in London.
Sargent managed his career and finances so well that around 1907 he eased up on the lucrative business of portrait commissions. But he didn’t stop. In 1917, Sargent traveled to Ormond, Florida, to paint a portrait of oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller.
While in Florida, Sargent also called on an old friend, Charles Deering (1852–1927) whose fortune came from farm equipment sold through the International Harvester Corp.
I love how Stephanie L. Herdrich of the Metropolitan Museum of Art described her introduction to Sargent’s portrait of Deering. She first saw it in the home of a collector.
“I had been ushered into the dining room, where my eyes went immediately to the dazzling image of the older man, lithe and relaxed, lounging in a wicker chair in a lush, tropical setting,’ wrote Herdrich, the Met’s associate curator of American painting and sculpture, in a post on the museum’s website.
“I recognized Sargent’s work immediately. The artist’s delight in rendering light and shadow across the sitter’s crinkled white suit recalls the splendid textiles of formal portraits such as Ada Rehan,” Herdrich wrote.
Herdrich notes that the “setting — painted in a bright palette and fluid style — echoes Sargent’s watercolor technique.” In seeking to capture the right image of his friend, Sargent “seamlessly blends aspects of portraiture and landscape painting to create a unique and candid masterpiece,” Herdrich writes.
I wonder if any Chicagoans have ever sought a brief refuge from their city’s brutal winters by spending a bit of time with Sargent’s portrait of Deering. In it, Sargent certainly shows off the reasons why Deering loved Florida.
Sargent and Deering first met in 1876 in Newport, Rhode Island. They seem to have kept up a friendship over the years, with both men having a great fondness for Spanish and Italian cultures. Charles Deering and his half-brother, James Deering, sought to bring their love of Mediterranean art and lifestyle to Miami.
To my mind, the Deerings represent a different take on the Florida Man. They represent the people, thrilled by the lush plants of the tropics, who seek to build gardens that will outlast them. During his Florida visit, Sargent spent time at the villa, Vizcaya, that James Deering was building.
During World War I, Sargent wrote in a letter that Vizcaya combined combined glories of Venice and the cities of Frascati, Italy, and Aranjuez, Spain. Separated from his European homeland by World War I, Sargent said Vizcaya reminded him of “all that one is likely never to see again. Hence this linger-longing.”
If any true Sargent devotees have stuck with me this far into this essay, they may be wondering when I will mention Sargent’s other take on Florida man.
Sargent did several watercolors of handsome fit men relaxing in the Florida sunshine. These may well be the most glorious sensual paintings done by Sargent, surpassing even his portraits of Madame X and Dr. Pozzi in his red gown.
Find details on sources used in my research on Sargent in my bibliography for research on European artists . (The same entry also appears my bibliography for research on American artists.) For a comparison of Sargent’s work to that of William Merritt Chase, please read this essay, “Portraits of Women Stepping Out Into the World.”