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A Touch of Blossom: John Singer Sargent and the Queer Flora of Fin-de-Siècle Art

A Touch of Blossom: John Singer Sargent and the Queer Flora of Fin-de-Siècle Art

by Alison Syme
Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park PA, 2010
340 pp., illus. 75 col., 127 b & w, Trade, $74.95
ISBN: 978-0-271-03622-9.

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


How queer was John Singer Sargent?  The painter Jacques Émile Blanché, whose social relations with Sargent were frosty, once sniped that the superior artist’s sex life "was notorious in Paris, and in Venice, positively scandalous. He was a frenzied bugger”. Like the four theories of Aubrey Beardsley’s sexuality—that he died a virgin, that he was gay, that he frequented hygienic heterosexual brothels, that he had an affair with his sister—Sargent may just be interesting enough for his art that we continue to speculate on his private life.  Somehow the dinner company of Robert de Montesquieu or Henry James doesn’t mean Sargent was in bed with them.  Or maybe he was, but must we titter so, as Alison Syme does for 340 pages of A Touch of Blossom?

I’m attentive because I’m a second-generation Sargentista.  As a working-class teenager employed one summer in the 1920s by Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum, my father was responsible for transporting Sargent drawings from curator-collector Paul J. Sachs’ residence to the Museum, and developed a lifelong appreciation for the virtuoso artist.  A defiant teenage PoMo and Dadaist myself, I badmouthed Sargent then, and had to develop and grow into a certain degree of painting knowledge and modest skill to appreciate the artist’s mastery and painterly panache. Sargent’s “The Daughters of Edwin Boit” (1882), where children stand or sit still in the shadows and shifting light of a prosperous house, may be one of the greatest American paintings of the nineteenth century; in this book, Alison Syme does more with the portrait trope of the brother and sister standing so close they almost become one.

Sargent painted the occasional male nude, some eroticized in an orientalism of his time that he also mirrored in female figures.  There was an obvious pleasure, or camaraderie, in his glancing watercolors of Florida workers, Tyrolean hikers or British soldiers bathing nude.  Is painting, especially figurative painting—and nudes—invariably about sex?  A century ago there was also the sense of the male nude as “classical”, the athlete or soldier.  Whatever his personal predilection between the sheets, John Singer Sargent’s skillful, bravura painting style got him commissions from President Theodore Roosevelt, “General Officers of the Great War” and saber-wearing Sir Frank Swettenham, and one imagines the artist holding his own in conversation with these stalwarts.

Syme’s chapters in A Touch of Blossom discuss nineteenth-century French and English representations of artists as insects; men, women or children as flowers or even vegetables; brushes and palettes (or lanterns and matches) as fertilizing stamen and pistils.  Syme catalogs a greenhouse worth of plants and their meanings to cognoscenti and aesthetes.  She compares the Art Nouveau depiction of stems and drooping leaves to gentlemen’s hand gestures in various Sargent portraits.  She notes the way they hold a cigarette, place hands on fellows’ shoulders, and Sargent’s depiction of one sketching friend lying on his stomach, bottoms up, in the grass.  She takes unhealthy pleasure in using terms like  “limp-wristed”.  Taught in grade school not to pick on the classmate who wanted to come over and play piano for my mom and sing Elvis’s “Teddy Bear” to me, this reviewer is especially irritated by Syme’s recurrent, almost sneering, use of “inverts”, however historically accurate.  Black people were called a rude term then too, but one wouldn’t employ it frequently in a biography of Sargent’s contemporary Booker T. Washington.

To illustrate that Sargent’s portrait subject Dr. Pozzi was eminent in gynecology in France, we are delivered a gallery of oft-grisly medical illustrations, especially those of what look to be incredibly painful ovarian growths literally dwarfing the sufferer’s body.  At one point as a teenager I reached a degree of revulsion reading William Burroughs’ sexual violence against ephebes, when I realized I was one; reading Syme at her creepiest brought back that feeling, as when Dr. Pozzi’s plush velvet bathrobe becomes a blood-engorged cervix.  As the Viennese psychoanalyst muttered to an interrogator as imaginatively stimulated as Professor Syme, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar!

This reader is not sure A Touch of Blossom is a “brilliant interpretation of Sargent’s work” as much as erudite fantasies upon it.  More a pillow book, a garden of erotic tale-spinning, where everything alludes to something carnal.  Like late Vladimir Nabokov at his ripest, an exotic crackle of sexuality as a thong panty stretched over all subject matter.  This reviewer is normally a fan of purple prose and grew up on Hunter S. Thompson and Lester Bangs, the effulgent rock critic.  Sometimes the joke’s overextended, a frisson of innuendo as a battering ram, or the reader feels a lack of affection for her subject, only her sniggering.  The text is over-stimulated, abundantly and salaciously bloviating.  As an art history text, it’s a bodice-ripper.  Or let’s call it an Edwardian gay equivalent, a trouser-buttons-ripper.

Despite enumerated reservations, there are ways that I like this grand and ambitious book. There aren’t a whole lot of art history titles that are page-turners, that make you want to read what’s going to happen—or what outrageous Alison’s going to claim—next.  The best, though not most historically precise, biography of bravura rock n’ roll piano player Jerry Lee Lewis is Nick Tosches’ Hellfire, and perhaps its time Sargent got the same poetic treatment in Dr. Syme’s long, peculiar prose poem.  As art history it is as subjective as Gertrude Stein’s Picasso or Guillaume Apollinaire’s The Cubist Painters, however thoroughly, meticulously documented.  Every well-reproduced Sargent painting here is worth a look, and some are majestic.  It’s full of fun Edwardian visual culture, like seed packets with the faces of silk-hat gentlemen, sailors (“Heh heh, Beavis, he almost said ‘seamen’!”) or children sprouting out of the plants, or with their own faces replaced by flowers.  I enjoyed touring the conservatory of psychobotanist Alison Syme, bedecked with fine Sargent paintings and other imagery of the era, as she shows off her swollen, oddly-shapen sprigs of truth grafted to colorful bunkum.  Yet I doubt I am the first or only one to call A Touch of Blossom a striking, weird hothouse flower indeed.

Last Updated 8 May 2011

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