Universiteit Leiden

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John Singer Sargent and the Material of Paint

  • Susan Sidlauskas
Friday 19 May 2017
Material Agency Forum
University Library
Witte Singel 27
2311 BG Leiden
Vossius zaal
Portrait of lady sassoon 1907

During the second half of the 19th century, poets and philosophers invoked the unseen but mighty forces of the universe to describe emotional states, and scientists used myths and allegories to describe—and to conceptualize—the discoveries they were theorizing.   John Singer Sargent may not have been a physicist or a physician, like his father, but he did become a masterful transformer of the physical world before him.  He was as obsessed as any “natural philosopher” (or later, physicists) with the mutability of matter.  Paint joined Sargent to the world, serving as a kind of connective tissue, an infinitely pliable flesh that linked his figures not only to their ‘grounds’, however unstably, but the artist himself to the ambiguously bounded domains of class national and sexuality that he negotiated, and sometimes evaded, with such dexterity. 

We will consider several of Sargent’s later, most ambitious portraits, in which he invented radical visual structures to represent the precarity of a group of key subjects as they navigated the so-called “restless universe” of fin de siècle Europe.

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