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John Singer Sargent's An Interior in Venice and Elizabeth Allen Marquand on view in Princeton
John Singer Sargent, An Interior in Venice, 1899. Oil on canvas, 66 x 83.5 cm. Diploma Work given by John Singer Sargent, R.A., accepted 1900 (03/1387). © Royal Academy of Arts, London / Photo: R.A./Prudence Cuming Associates Limited.

PRINCETON, NJ.- Continuing a practice—which dates to the 1930s—of partnering with other leading museums to present single-painting “masterpiece exhibitions,” John Singer Sargent’s An Interior in Venice (1899) is on view at the Princeton University Art Museum. The distinguished painting by Sargent (1856–1925), Europe’s most fashionable portraitist of the age, enters into a conversation with the Museum’s own Elizabeth Allen Marquand (1887), offering a unique opportunity for visitors to gain special insights into the artist’s remarkable career. An Interior in Venice is on loan from the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and on view in Princeton through Sunday, December 11, 2011.

“An Interior in Venice is among the best of the richly evocative paintings Sargent produced in Venice, and forms a fascinating counterpoint to Princeton’s equally renowned Elizabeth Allen Marquand, completed in Newport a decade before,” said the Museum’s Curator of American Art Karl Kusserow. “These singular works represent the broad range of Sargent’s impressive production, each enhancing our appreciation of the other’s distinctive qualities while together embodying this enormously gifted artist’s painterly talents.”

Technically perhaps the most talented of 19th-century American artists, Sargent is best known for his assured, bravura portraits of the expatriate American and European haute bourgeoisie—painted embodiments of Gilded Age elegance and privilege. It is easy to imagine Sargent’s career unfolding as fluidly as his brushstrokes. Yet following the scandal of Sargent’s risqué portrait of socialite Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) (1883–84; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and her striking décolletage, the pace of commissions at his Paris studio slowed dramatically. Sargent retreated to London, where his notoriety and flamboyant style kept critics and patrons alike at bay.

When Henry Marquand invited Sargent to America to paint his wife’s portrait, the artist considered the offer seriously, despite his usual disinterest in this country. Though Sargent named an exorbitant fee, Marquand accepted it, and in September 1887 Sargent duly arrived at the Marquands’ Newport, Rhode Island, “cottage,” inaugurating what he subsequently described as “the turning point in my fortunes.” The portrait that resulted—chaste and restrained, yet winning in its flattering characterization and virtuoso execution—is the antithesis of the louche Madame X and established Sargent’s bona fides in the conservative cultural milieu of the American gentry. His friend Henry James wrote: “Mrs. M. will do him great good with the public—they will want to be painted like that—respectfully, honourably, dignement.”

It was the calculated success of such portraits that gave Sargent the freedom to pursue other works, such as An Interior in Venice, in certain respects more akin to the infamous French portrait than the respectable American one. Here one sees Sargent painting as he wishes, rather than as he feels he should to please his subjects. Artistically masterful, Interior was a failure in terms of its intended purpose as a gift to the Curtis family it depicts, who rejected it for its unbecoming portrayal of the redoubtable matron, Ariana Curtis. Still, Sargent’s deft evocation of the grand sala nobile of the Curtises’ Palazzo Barbaro had its fans among discerning aesthetes-including the artist. He later used it as his Royal Academy diploma picture, eliciting even greater enthusiasm from Henry James: “The Barbaro Saloon ... I absolutely and unreservedly adored.... I’ve seen few things of S’s that I’ve ever craved more to possess!”

Through December 11, An Interior in Venice and Elizabeth Allen Marquand face each other across Princeton’s Mary Ellen Bowen Gallery of American Art, epitomizing two different but equally compelling aspects of Sargent’s prodigious output.

Princeton University Art Museum | John Singer Sargent | Elizabeth Allen Marquand |

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