Thursday, December 8, 2016

Neapolitan Children Bathing: The stories of John Singer Sargent and Robert Sterling Clark

Neapolitan Children Bathing, by John Singer Sargent

Presented to the Club by David T. Noyes on Monday evening, December 5, 2016

Can you remember when the only building housing the Clark Art Institute was the stark, austere, imposing, lonely, marble fortress set back from the street on a knoll in Williamstown? After moving to Pittsfield in 1981, Sue and I made many trips to take in Sterling Clark’s collection. There was no food service at the Museum in those days, so we might grab lunch at the (now defunct) Howard Johnson’s, or have a sandwich at Papa Charlie’s Deli on Spring Street. No visit was complete without admiring this small painting—also titled Innocence Abroad; or Boys on a Beach, Naples, painted in 1879 by John Singer Sargent.

This 11” x 16” canvas shows children enjoying a beautiful sunny day at the beach. Two boys—one with a towel over his face, the other on his stomach with his head propped up on his hand—lie near two other, much younger boys standing. The boy at the center, wearing water wings, looks as though he is trying to get up the courage to wade into the rolling surf. Out in the water, a head bobbing above the rolling waves shows us a swimmer. The only interruption of the blue sky is the sailboat on the horizon. The smallest child, still showing the chubbiness of babyhood, looks outward engaging the viewer, thereby inviting us into their realm. The use of a completely frontal stance became a hallmark of Sargent’s painting as he felt this gave a more powerful image and made a more direct connection with the viewer. The children are all relaxed, and self absorbed—the very epitome of childhood innocence.

During those early years in Pittsfield, we frequently made family trips to Cape Cod to stay and visit with my parents at their cottage with a view of the water. Naturally, the beach was the favorite place to be—accessed via a simple walk across the narrow road passing by the front porch. From the moment I first saw this painting, I imagined that the two younger boys were our sons, Todd and Tyler, as they were exact likenesses. When I dropped off the postcards to Harold to be included with the regular reminder mailing, Audrey immediately said: “Is this a picture of your family?” “Exactly!” I smiled.

In fact, The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize winning art critic, Sebastian Smee, was similarly struck by this painting. In a June, 2015 article he writes: “This small stingingly bright canvas always stops me at the Clark, where it hangs amid great works by 19th-century painters, most of them French. It evokes a world far from the Clark’s undulant campus. The stark light and satisfying spiritual click of standing on your own shadow reminds me of my own childhood in Australia, much of it spent on all-but vacant beaches like this one.”

This painting, by John Singer Sargent, when he was just twenty-two years old, was his third work to appear in America. The owner lent it to the National Academy of Design in New York City for its 1879 exhibition where it was applauded as “delightful, happy, and sparkling” and commended for its subtlety of color. The tremendously positive reaction reflected the important status given to children in post Civil War America; they were signs of purity and innocence, as well as hope for the future.

Although Sargent is considered an American artist, he was born in Florence, Italy in 1856. His father, Fitzwilliam Sargent, was born in Gloucester, Mass. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Medicine 1843. For ten years, from 1844 until 1854, he worked as a surgeon in Philadelphia. Eminent in his profession, he published works on minor surgery. John Sargent’s mother was Mary Newbold the daughter of John Singer, a well to do Philadelphia merchant and successor to a prosperous business he inherited from his father.

As a child, Mary had travelled to Italy. Such was the magic of that country, that after four years of marriage, she persuaded her husband to give up his practice and in 1854 they moved to Florence. Fitzwilliam Sargent had, by virtue of his practice in Philadelphia, made a good living. But Mary was sufficiently well off that he did not have to work to support the family.

Fitzwilliam expected his son would have a naval career, but at age 12, John’s mother recognized his artistic talent and his schooling soon reflected that. The conventional curriculum of Greek/Latin and Mathematics was supplanted with music and foreign Languages, where, he excelled.

In October 1874 at the age of 18 he entered the studio of Carolus Duran, then the foremost portrait painter in Paris. Sargent himself always recognized his debt to the teaching of Duran. At the height of his fame he commented that “Carolus Duran couldn’t actually do it himself---but he could teach it”. When asked, for example, how he avoided false accents in portraiture, Sargent said: “you must classify the values. If you begin with the middle-tones and work up and down from there towards the darks and lights—so that you deal last with your lightest lights and darkest darks—you avoid false accents. That’s what Carolus taught me.”

In 1876 he sailed to America and experienced his first visit with the United States. There is no hint of the impression he received. He was an American by parentage, born and educated in the Old World, steeped in the culture of Europe, and now, at the age of twenty, he was introduced to his native country for the first time. The contrast must have been sharper than it would be today. The great American collectors had not really begun the piecemeal transfer of European collections of art. It was only by visiting Europe that one could obtain any idea of the history of painting.

In 1878 his picture “En Route pour la Peche” received honorable mention at the Salon.

In 1882, two of Sargent’s pictures in the Salon, were singled out by the critics for unqualified praise. One critic wrote of the portrait: Mrs. Austin---“one does not know which to admire most, the simplicity of the means which the artist has employed or the brilliance of the result which he has achieved” Another critic wrote that El Jaleo was the most striking picture of the year. And so at the still quite young age of 26, Sargent, an American by virtue of his heritage, was being hailed in Paris as the author of the two most outstanding pictures in the Salon. He was soon receiving as many commissions as he could execute, charging for a full length portrait----8,000 francs, for a half length—five thousand, and for his subject pictures and for landscapes, anything from two to four thousand francs.

No French artist was more admired by Sargent than the French Neoclassical artist, Jean—Auguste--Dominique Ingres who became most famous for his portraits from the early to mid nineteenth century. Yet the two artists were quite dissimilar. Ingres painted with serenity in his delineation of form, and with repose and beauty in his lines, but often shunned the agitation and movement of light. By contrast—Sargent was forcible in his execution, concerned with the play and reflection of light, and on the look-out for the intricate aspect of things; highlighting an art that is alert, vibrant, and vital with color and the spirit of life. But underneath all that, there remains the draftsmanship, the genius for composition and the fluent strength and elegance of the line of the French master—it was these virtues that Sargent never tired of extolling.

And those skills are dramatically apparent even in this early painting. It would appear to be a simple, casual representation of a day at the beach. But the painting was developed from several pencil sketches and four preliminary oil studies on panel, all of which seem to have been painted en plein air. Sargent puts three of the boys off center, and crops the legs of the figure in the foreground. The shining grey-white sand, surf, and translucent water wings contribute reflective surfaces so that soft golden hues can define the children’s bodies, with puddles of grayish purple forming their shadows. The overall effect is one of warm sunshine that charms the viewer.   

While in Paris, he frequently saw Degas, Renoir, Sisley and Pissarro, but was most friendly with Claude Monet whom he believed had a greater influence on art than any other modern painter. When Sargent discussed genius on painting, he said there were four painters who possessed genius in a superlative degree: Rembrandt, Titian, Tintoretto and Raphael. When asked his opinion of Velasquez joining the group. He added that no painter exceeded Velasquez in technical skill, but that he was less gifted in his power to interpret “spiritual qualities”.

Sargent moved to London in 1885—more out of distaste for Paris than preference for London. He leased the studio that had previously belonged to James Abbott McNeill Whistler, another American, but European portrait painter.

“Those who watched Sargent painting in his studio noticed his habit of stepping backwards after almost every stroke of the brush on the canvas. And the track of his paces so worn on the carpet that it simulated the path sheep make through heather. When confronting difficulty, he had a sort of battle cry of “Demons, Demons” with which he would dash to and fro at the canvas”

During the winter of 1887-1888 he sailed to Boston where he exhibited twenty of his pictures. His work was hailed for its sincerity, and its brilliant variation from the stereotypical conventions of the day. Henceforth, his reputation in America was assured.

From this point forward in his career, he no longer chose subjects from the humbler walks of life. Destiny prescribed for him the role of a portrait painter of the social world. He had brought the tradition with him from Paris; he had grown up in an age when, having your portrait painted, was an expected part of the fashionable life. In London he carried on the tradition. He was unaffected by the changes taking place in Paris in the character of subjects which the rising Impressionist artists were painting. The work of Sargent now came from a study of the eminent, the rich and the successful. He painted the world of which Henry James wrote. His migration to England put an end to his interested outlook in the peasant life and folk subjects----fisherwomen by the sea, dancers in Spanish cabarets, Parisians in the Luxembourg Gardens, Venetian water-carriers, or, even, Boys on a Beach!

Conditions in England decided the direction of Sargent’s genius. He was turned away from his experiment in Impressionism, and his leanings towards common subjects. As the chronicler of the fashionable world, like Van Dyck in his day, or like the 18th century English portrait painters Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough in theirs, he established within a few years an undisputed supremacy.

Few artists have been more consistently applauded in their lifetime than Sargent, few have seen their work maintain throughout many years greater popularity with the public. There had never been a moment since 1875 when his pictures had not found a ready market, there had never been a year when he didn’t have more commissions than he could execute. Critics, after the first hesitations, and with few exceptions, consistently eulogized his paintings; dealers had been resolute in their acquisition; fellow artists had acclaimed him; and the public, had made him their favorite. The prices realized by his pictures at auction rose steadily during his lifetime. And in July 1925, 237 of Sargent’s oil paintings and drawings sold at Christie’s for 170,000 pounds—there was no parallel for such a sale at that time.

Robert Sterling Clark purchased this painting from the son of the original owner in 1923 when he was forty-six.

The person whose fortune made all of Sterling Clark’s collecting and high living possible was Edward Cabot Clark. The four grandsons: Sterling and Stephen and their brothers, Edward and Ambrose could not have been who they were without the incredible wealth from Edward’s phenomenal business success. When he died in 1882 his net worth was 50 million dollars. The origin of the family fortune is due to Edward Clark’s alliance with the sewing machine developer—Isaac Merritt Singer.

Singer would become infinitely better known than Clark—in large part because his name was on every one of the machines that entered first American and then international households. These engineering inspirations were a result of Singer’s inventiveness, but turning those qualities into such a vast fortune was the genius of Edward Clark.

Edward Clark was born in 1811 in Athens, New York. His father had a successful pottery business and Edward grew up in comfortable circumstances. At the age of twelve he began four years of education at the Academy in Lenox Massachusetts. He then went on to graduate from Williams College at the age of nineteen in 1831. (He would later become a trustee and be awarded an honorary Doctorate.) Edward apprenticed for three years at the law firm of Ambrose Jordan in Hudson, New York, and was then admitted to practice law--setting up a practice in Poughkeepsie. He married his boss’s daughter and then moved with his father-in-law, in 1836, to New York City. Soon thereafter “Jordan and Clark” gained the reputation as New York City’s most prestigious law firm. (It probably helped that Ambrose Jordan was the state’s attorney general!)

Isaac Merritt Singer was also born in 1811, in Pittstown, New York. He grew up in poverty and left home at the age of twelve. He apprenticed in a machine shop, and began to make a good living because of his mechanical ingenuity. Singer stood six feet four inches tall and had a massive build, cutting quite an imposing figure. He married Catherine Haley and had two children with her.

He fancied himself quite the actor, and especially enjoyed performing Shakespeare. In 1839 while working with his brother in Illinois digging a waterway, he got his first patent: a machine for drilling rock. With the two thousand dollars he received, he formed his own travelling theater company. He was now known as Isaac Merritt and his actress mistress, Mary Ann Sponseler, was known as Mrs. Merritt. He ultimately had eleven children with her. (He also had an additional child from a third woman, Mary Eastwood Walters, during this time) The troupe ran out of money and Singer moved to New York with an idea for a machine that would carve wood-block type. Here he sought the help of the Jordan and Clark law firm.

Ambrose Jordan found Singer “too personally distasteful to represent”. But he must have seen some value in retaining him as a client because he referred him to his son-in-law. Edward Clark helped Singer obtain the patent in 1849 and Singer assigned Edward three-eights of it in lieu of paying legal fees.

Sewing machines had existed since at least 1790 when Thomas Saint had received a patent for one in England. A French tailor, Barthelemy Thimonnier improved the machine in 1829. In 1846 Elias Howe received a patent for his sewing machine. Singer’s improvement was to have the machine make stronger stitches in a perfectly straight line. He received a patent in 1851 and went into a financial partnership to start the Jenny Lind Sewing Machine Company. (Named after Swedish soprano then touring the United States.)

However, Elias Howe felt that Singer’s machine was sufficiently close to his own that he began legal proceedings for patent infringement. Singer once again turned to Edward Clark. Still penniless, Singer ultimately agreed to give Clark half ownership and the right to take control of the new company: I.M. Singer & Company in exchange for legal services.

What is interesting about the patent litigation is that Singer had, indeed, violated the law and infringed on one of Elias Howe’s patents. When Howe pressed for a settlement of twenty-five thousand dollars, he did so because of Singer’s use of the eye-pointed needle in his new machine. Although Howe had not invented that device, he did own the patent. Everything else about Singer’s machine was an advance over Howe’s, but the use of the needle without authorization was illegal. The settlement reached in 1854 awarded Howe a royalty from all Singer Machines. Edward’s genius was in keeping the settlement from being more onerous and in mitigating the effects of Singer’s criminality.  

For the next decade, Clark oversaw every aspect of the business while Singer basked in the role of resident genius. Edward was concerned with appearances and got Singer to decorate the black machines with gold ornament. He had the idea of selling machines to minister’s wives for half price so that they would introduce them to their sewing circles. During the recession in 1856, Edward pioneered the idea of an installment plan whereby for five dollars down and three dollars a month, customers could reach ownership of the machines. He also developed and expanded the European market to a degree previously unprecedented in American Manufacturing.

Clark also became embroiled in the management of Singer’s personal life. He and Mary Ann Sponselor, whom most took to be his wife, lived opulently in a grand house on lower Fifth Avenue. But Singer now had an additional mistress, Mary McGonigal with whom he had five more children! Singer lived with her as Mr. and Mrs. Matthews in a separate house in New York. The sewing machine buying public disdained Isaac Singer for his scandalous ways, and it was in the interest of the company to clean up his reputation. It fell to Edward to negotiate Singer’s divorce from his legal wife, Catherine Haley. Clark assumed that Singer would then marry Sponselor, but he was too loyal to “Mrs. Matthews”. One day when Singer was out with Mrs. Matthews, they accidentally came upon Mary Sponselor who unleashed a public tirade for all to hear.

Singer responded by storming into the house on Fifth Avenue and choking Sponselor, and one of their daughters who tried to intervene, into an unconscious state. Before legal action took place Singer fled to England, accompanied by Mary McGonigal’s nineteen year old sister Kate.

Again, Clark was concerned that women would not buy a machine linked to adultery, wife beating, and illegitimate children. He persuaded Singer to give up any active management of the firm and incorporated Singer Manufacturing Company. Together they would still be equal owners with 20% of the stock sold to key employees. Singer agreed as long as Edward could not be president while Singer was still alive. Edward, however, managed to retain considerable influence as Chairman of the Board.

When Edward died in1882, he left an estate worth fifty million dollars! Although he had three sons, only the youngest, Alfred, was married, with four children—Edward Severin (nicknamed Rino), Robert Sterling (whom the family called Robin), Frederick Ambrose, and Stephen Carlton. I’ll skip over Alfred’s life, which may be worthy of Club Paper on its own.

Sterling Clark studied engineering at Yale, and then joined the U.S. army Ninth Infantry Regiment. He fought in the Spanish American War that captured the Philippines, and in China to help stifle the Boxer Rebellion in 1901.

With that international background and no concerns about having to make a living, he moved to Paris in 1910, at the age of thirty-three. There, he bought a three-story house a short walk from the Arc de Triomphe. He frequented the most famous art galleries in Paris, London, and New York City. Sterling collected art the way he drank fine wine (Burgundy being his favorite) and ate good food (he wrote his own cookbook)—with an appreciation for his own sense of quality. He trusted his own artistic judgment—no one else could tell him what was good or bad, what would rise or sink in value, or what might add balance to his collection.

In 1919, now forty-two, he married Francine Clary, an extremely pretty former actress in the Comedie Francaise. She already had an illegitimate child when they met. Sterling regaled in doing the unexpected. This was the sort of thing Isaac Singer might do—not a member of the Clark dynasty. His three brothers, along with their wives, were appalled.

Then, in the early 1920’s tensions began mounting over the children’s inheritance. The various Singer trusts were organized in such a way that the benefits only accrued to the next generation via direct family lineage. Sterling’s brothers Ambrose and Edward had no children while Stephen had four. Thus when Sterling died his “share” would be given to Stephen’s children. At a meeting of the brothers with their trust financial manager in 1923, Sterling and Stephen came to a physical altercation. This was the beginning of a rift that would never heal. This feud became public when the New York Times reported in 1927 that Sterling was suing the family trust, valued at some eighty million dollars! Sterling lost. He never spoke to any of his brothers again. His diary entries over the next twenty-five years persistently confirmed the ongoing contempt he had, especially for Stephen and his wife, Susan.  

Meanwhile, Sterling had been planning for the ultimate disposition of his collection. His initial idea focused on Cooperstown, N.Y.—the site of the Clarks‘ summer family compound. But after World War II, he opted for building a museum to rival the Frick in New York City. In 1945 he bought three buildings on the corner of Park and Seventy-Second Street for that purpose. However, five year later, he changed his mind, following a visit to Williamstown. He bought one hundred acres of woods and field to build the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. He felt the setting reminded him of the paintings of Winslow Homer. He and Francine were convinced that a “crossroads museum” would entice summer tourists who might never get to a big city. They also chose the college town because it was far from an urban center that might be a target for atomic bombs. The construction of the museum included reinforced concrete designed to withstand an atomic explosion one-tenth of a mile away. The three million dollar building was faced with marble—a tribute to ancient Greek monuments. Sterling died from a stroke at age seventy-nine, just one year after opening the museum. He left an estate that was worth eighty-four million dollars (the equivalent of half a billion dollars today) which would allow his collection to be seen free of charge.

Of course, we know that the Clark Art Institute is no longer a single building, and, also, that it’s no longer free! It has become much more than a small rural museum, as witnessed by last year’s Van Gogh exhibition, and this year’s “Nudes from the Prada” presentation. Yet, I never fail to seek out Sargent’s simple, refreshing image of children at the beach whenever I visit the museum. Do any of you have an artwork that has so persistently spoken to you?

Material for this essay is taken from:

John Sargent by Evan Charteris, Charles Scribner’s and Sons, New York 1927

The Clarks of Cooperstown, by Nicholas Fox Weber, Alfred A. Knopf, 2008

American Painting and Sculpture at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, by Margaret Conrads, Hudson Hills Press, Inc., 1990

“John Singer Sargent’s Neapolitan Children Bathing”, Sebastian Smee, The Boston Globe, June 2, 2015

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