Pulitzer surprise
15 April 2010
Event cancelled — Wednesday, April 21
20 April 2010

Living out of a suitcase: Sargent’s expatriate experience


Peter Gibian of McGill University will present his talk “John Singer Sargent’s Traveling Culture: Portraits of Expatriate Experience” at the Library on Wednesday, April 21 at 19h30.

Bons baisers de Montréal!

I’m really looking forward to discussing my favorite John Singer Sargent images, next Wednesday, in Paris—where Sargent got his major training, made his astonishing rise to prominence at the Salons, and did some of his best, most experimental work . . . until the great “scandale” of his 1884 “Madame X” painting sent him off to England where he settled for a long, more safe career centered on glittering society portraits. Those portraits open an evocative window into the now-bygone life of Gilded Age aristocrats, but I think Sargent is most intriguing and relevant today for his work in a very different vein: his prescient expression of the felt experience of the expatriate international traveler—not embedded in a closed, static world but always on the move between worlds—anticipating the new possibilities and also the problems of our own increasingly global, interdependent, inter-national, perhaps even post-national, lives.

For me, Sargent is a fascinating example of a seemingly paradoxical type: the Cosmopolitan American. (Is that an oxymoron? I will argue that it is not.) Born in Italy to American parents who had become nomadic international wanderers, schooled in a number of cities throughout Europe, and speaking multiple languages with native fluency, Sargent struck many who met him as “an accidental American,” or, even, as un-American—in fact dangerously lacking the solid ground of attachment to any nation, culture, language, or people. His family moved so often that they never bought furniture; and Sargent himself lived out of his suitcase in cramped hotel rooms for many days of his life as he traveled to an endless series of exotic locales in search of new subjects. The result? A strangely hybrid cultural identity that could make him seem a new sort of “cosmopolitan” figure—not at home everywhere but in fact homeless.

To begin to flesh out a sense of Sargent’s personal experience as a lifelong expatriate traveler, I want to look closely at a few of his most compelling early portraits of expatriate Americans and then turn to a series of resonant non-portrait works that Sargent produced in Brittany, Venice, Spain, Capri, and North Africa, exploring his response to the local workers and artisans he encountered in his international wanderings. And I’m looking forward to hearing your responses, over “refreshments,” at the ALP next Wednesday!

–Peter Gibian

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